Keys for US Job Creation

Last week I was honored to be asked to advise the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness about what we are doing here in Houston that has led to so much job creation while the rest of the country has been so economically stagnant. The meeting was held at Rice and was an informal roundtable discussion rather than a formal, public affair - a format which I found to be much more productive for meaningful discourse. Following is a summary of my recommendations in three key areas (the three "E"s) - what do you think of them?

ENERGY - One of the Council's existing foci is to go "all in" on energy. Awesome. I can envision scenarios in the not-too-distant future when energy will be more strategic for national competitiveness than will be the strength of the military. As Rice's own Nobel laureate Dick Smalley was fond of touting, if you take the top 10 challenges facing the world today and solve energy, most of the rest of them kind of take care of themselves. Rather than make big bets on individual initiatives like Solyndra, though, I think the government's most effective role would be to create a stable energy policy that captures the *true* cost (including the cost to our environment) of energy production, transmission, storage, and use. Create a level playing field, ensure that it will be in place for a long time to encourage long-term investment, and watch innovation happen.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP - I just delivered a keynote Friday in which I showed how entrepreneurship not only creates jobs, but even more specifically it creates the right kinds of jobs. A timely article in The Economist illustrated how the US's entrepreneur-oriented culture helped it evolve from the industrial age to the information age while Europe has largely been left lagging. In short, entrepreneurship is the engine of economic Darwinism. We can't sit on our laurels, though, as Asia and even Africa are developing their own brands of entrepreneurial culture.

The difference between a job "taker" and a job "maker" is often psychological. Someone who is laid off or whose company fails might file for unemployment benefits and complain about the lack of opportunities while someone else in the exact same situation with the exact same means might start a new business, launch a consulting practice, or use the transition as a time for a major career change. What can we do to "empower" the former to feel more like the latter?

One of the greatest barriers to would-be entrepreneurs taking the plunge is not having a "secure base." As children we gain confidence to learn to walk, for example, because we have the secure base of our parents to pick us back up when we fall and this mentality stays with us for life. Secure bases for entrepreneurs can be personal finances, friends and loved-ones, or even missions/values. I proposed that the POTUS could be a secure base for potential and existent entrepreneurs alike, inciting them to take the plunge as part of a US "strategic imperative." In much the same way as JFK inspired engineers in the 60s for the Space Race, the POTUS could inspire entrepreneurs today. I have to imagine that such visible support of entrepreneurship would be embraced by both sides of the aisle.

Thomas Friedman recently posted a piece on how the US should be THE destination for people of any country who want to launch a new venture. In fact, it was after reading Friedman's book, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," that I left a lucrative job in Switzerland to return to the US and launch my current startup. I don't believe I'm the only one with whom a message of "entrepreneurship as patriotic duty" would resonate.

EDUCATION - I also saw your recommendation to improve education to better prepare today's and tomorrow's workers for jobs. IF you believe me that entrepreneurship is critical to the future of America's economy / competitiveness, then our system of education must be updated, especially K-12. I mentioned in our meeting the difference between convergent thinking ("What are the walls of this building made of?") and divergent thinking ("How many different uses can you think of for a brick?"). The former is the focus of most education but the latter is significantly more useful in entrepreneurship (albeit perhaps harder to test with standardized exams). 

Add to that our changing world of ubiquitous information access (shifting the value from memorizing facts to efficient searching for answers and critical thinking/judgment) and the growing importance of cross-disciplinary . . . everything! Our world is too complex for people to learn in "silo'ed" environments. Reading, writing, and 'rithmetic as separate areas of learning makes no sense in the business, academic, or public sectors anymore. The rate of change is so fast that employees must be able to perform in highly uncertain environments rather than closed, predictable, just-one-right-answer fantasies. In order to develop the new heuristics, mindsets, and skillsets to compete in this new world, we need much more integrated, experiential development rather than silo'ed, academic teaching.


More Sibling Bonding in Austin

Last weekend Katie and I headed to Austin to spend the weekend with my brother, Nick, and his family. As we were the chauffeurs, there wasn't room for Max in the car, so we left him with friends.

We drove up to Austin Friday evening and crashed with a friend (a friend with a dog to help treat our Max withdrawal!). After a long drive we were pooped so we just went for a late dinner at 24 Diner then called it a night.

Saturday we picked up our three guests and spent the day at Austin's Greenbelt. I'm a little embarrassed that this was my first time at the Greenbelt because it . . . is . . . awesome! Less than 10 minutes from downtown Austin (more like 5, depending on where you enter), it's a huge park (800+ acres - roughly the same size as New York's Central Park), full of woods, trails, eight miles of Barton Creek, swimming spots, and all sorts of flora and fauna. Oh, and it's all off-leash for dogs so we'll have to bring Max the next time we're in town!

We hiked up past one swimming hole and hopped in the water at another: Sculpture Falls. It might have been  a bit generous to call them "falls" - after all, this was a creek, not a raging river. Still, there was lots of room for swimming, from waist deep water to way over your head. In the deepest part there was a rope swing that we could use to launch ourselves out into the creek. Some people were chilling in the shallows, some were actively swimming around, and some were just playing with their dogs. What a blast - we could have stayed forever!

Eventually we left, though, and, after a workout on rings that we hung from one of the trees, we had a great dinner together. After watching the bats come out from underneath Congress Ave Bridge, we crashed and prepared for another busy day.

Sunday I woke up early and ran around Town Lake. The 10-mile trail is quite pretty, very barefoot/minimalist friendly, and packed with other runners - even around sunrise (maybe especially around sunrise, given how hot the day was likely to become!). After an epic breakfast at Kerbey Lane, we went and visited Inner Space Caverns. There we found even more bats, but this time clinging to stalactites instead of the underside of a bridge.

After two fun-filled days, we finally had to drop Nick et al back off at the airport. Once again it was too short but we'll take what we can get when it comes to spending time with those we love!


Sibling Bonding in Chicago

Katie and I have traveled each of the last two weekends to spend time with her sister in Chicago and my brother in Austin respectively.

It was only my second time in Chicago but the city struck me with some of its similarities to and differences from Houston. The two cities are around the same size in terms of population but have very different profiles. Chicago feels like a much "older" city than Houston, which is both good and bad. Some of the "old" feels dingy/grimy, but some of it is charming - e.g. many of the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago are much more interesting architecturally than are those of similar size in Houston. Chicago's wide availability of public transportation is also a significant differentiator; we traveled all over the metro area and never had need of a car. Chicago and Houston both have huge medical centers, significant academic institutions (both private and public), and major international airports - but very different economies. Perhaps most important for our trip, we were pleased to discover that Chicago, like Houston, has a vibrant, thriving restaurant scene!

The trip was short but we packed in a lot of fun (and a little business too, of course!). We stayed at a hotel downtown - where it turned out that Dan Akroyd was staying as well! Much of Friday was spent dodging torrential downpours as we walked around the Navy Pier or entertained ourselves indoors. Friday night we met up with some of Katie's sister's friends at India House, which provided not only dinner but enough leftovers for breakfast for the rest of the trip!

Saturday we made our way out to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game and, wow, I was really impressed by the team spirit on show! Everyone for miles around was in Cubs gear and the stadium was rocking as everyone cheered or boo'ed for even the smallest events. Fan spirit is clearly another area of differentiation from Houston!

Before the game we brunched at Uncommon Ground, which featured delicious, natural food and inventive drinks. Afterward we bar hopped a little in Wrigleyville, returned downtown, and readied ourselves for another night out. Instead of Indian we opted for Italian at Quartino, which was unfortunately unremarkable. We made up for it afterward, though, at Eno, a wine bar that offered flights of wine, cheese, and chocolate! One of my buddies from Rice football and his wife joined us too, which only enhanced the experience.

Sunday morning we returned to Houston but soon we would be on the road again to Austin!


IMD: a Global Brand - a Global Bond

With four years now to reflect on the IMD network, I recently had two travel experiences that really cemented its value for me: Buenos Aires and Switzerland. When Katie and I went to Buenos Aires in May we were really helped along by my two IMD classmates there. They and their families met up with us, advised us on how best to experience the local scene, and even helped me make very valuable business connections while I was in town. Last month in Switzerland - where we need no advice on where to stay / what to do - it was the same: classmates came out of the woodwork to spend time with us and some were even incredibly helpful in business networking as well.

Before I discovered IMD I looked down my nose at MBAs, believing them to be people who were essentially paying for a new network of peers/colleagues. As I already had a nice network, this seemed of very little value to me. In my very first blog post ever I laid out my reasons for attending IMD, which happened also to be an MBA program. I joked often during that year that the IMD network would indeed be very valuable: with students from 45 countries we would surely be invited to weddings in fun destinations all over the world!

Indeed it has proven itself in that regard but I've been really impressed by how much more it is as well. In Buenos Aires, in Switzerland, and everywhere else I have encountered my IMD classmates there is a sense of joy at our reunion that is really hard to describe. There were so few of us and we underwent such a very intense experience together that an incredible bond was forged between us. Now, four years and thousands of miles removed from most of these classmates, the bond has only grown stronger.

Whenever we get together we all immediately fall into patterns of catch up about ourselves / our families, updates about our classmates (For such an ambitious, globally mobile group of people, it's almost like a competition to see who knows the the most recent update about each of us!), and earnest offers to help each other succeed in our professional and personal lives.

Having this extended team/family virtually anywhere we might hope to travel in the world is an incredibly comforting feeling. This is a very underanticipated, undermarketed aspect of the IMD MBA program: it's not just a global brand; it's a global bond!