“What’s good for the entrepreneurial community is good for the larger technology community,” declared Scott McGlaun. “And that’s good for the community as a whole.”
McGlaun is the chief information officer for Birmingham-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama. He spoke just before helping to lead a workshop on building strong relationships between large corporations and locally based suppliers, contractors and service providers.
The workshop was part of the inaugural e.Builders Forum, a conference held Thursday and Friday at Birmingham’s Innovation Depot. The forum was hosted by the International Business Innovation Association (InBIA), an Orlando-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting entrepreneurial-related companies and organizations around the world. E.Builders will be an annual event, held in emerging cities that don’t typically get the kind of spotlight that goes to established tech hubs like Boston and Silicon Valley.
Changing the narrative
The e.Builders Forum was launched in Birmingham thanks largely to the efforts of Devon Laney, president and CEO of Innovation Depot. Laney is on the InBIA board of directors, and persuaded the group that Birmingham would be an ideal location for a conference centered on both the challenges and opportunities facing technology entrepreneurs in second- and third-tier cities and rural areas.
“This conference brings leaders of ecosystem-building organizations from around the country to Birmingham, and exposes them to what we’re doing here, the traction that we’re getting,” Laney said. “It also gives us the chance to learn from others about what’s working in their communities.
“It says something that Birmingham is able to host this event. It says that what we’re doing here is being recognized nationally. That’s something to be proud of.”
InBIA’s director of marketing, Jessica Korthuis, noted that in 2015 Birmingham was rated the top city in America for millennial entrepreneurs by Thumbtack, an online marketplace that matches service providers with consumers. That got InBIA’s attention, she said. It sent what Korthuis called “a powerful message” about a community that has been known primarily for its history as a battleground of the civil rights era.
“Birmingham has done a really great job of changing the narrative, taking it away from the stereotypes that have been associated with Birmingham and Alabama,” Korthuis said. “They’ve done that by leveraging millennial talent and the local workforce to create something that is sustainable and innovative.”
The two days of workshops, roundtable discussions and networking opportunities drew more than 100 attendees, representing 20 states and 50 cities across the country. Topics ranged from brand development, to hiring and keeping high-performance staff members, to overcoming the obstacles that continue to challenge the growth of women- and minority-owned businesses.
“Women- and minority-owned businesses have to be very intentional in building relationships with influencers, and in using those relationships to leverage resources,” said Angela Crane-Jones, executive director of the Nashville Business Incubation Center, after attending the session on women entrepreneurship programs.
“At one time,” Crane-Jones added, “it was taboo to even speak openly about the issues women and minorities face in the entrepreneurial world. But we’ve learned to be open and honest in our conversations about those issues, and I think we’re making progress in addressing them.”
The e.Builders Forum also included a focus on building robust technology ecosystems in small communities, drawing on the “Technology Villages” concept pioneered by Clemson University.
“It’s critically important,” said Karl Kelly, a key developer of that concept as director of commercialization and technology incubation at Clemson. “This is a model that helps us identify new and emerging companies and support their growth in small towns. That’s an important element of a diversified economic plan.”
Alabama Power was a sponsor of the e.Builders Forum, as well as a participant in the program. Todd Rath, the company’s director of Marketing Strategy, Intelligence and Programs, was part of a panel focused on providing information and insight to help entrepreneurs and innovators navigate the process of interacting and building relationships with large companies.
“Entrepreneurship and innovation are the foundation of economic vitality,” Rath said. “Alabama Power recognizes that and is committed to helping create that foundation, and building on it, by encouraging and supporting the growth of the innovation economy in Birmingham and throughout Alabama.”
Aligning intentions and strategy
Midway through the second day of the forum, Laney marveled at the “overwhelmingly positive” reaction of attendees to what they were seeing in Birmingham. Laney said he had “been hearing a lot of ‘I love your city,’” which he views as an indicator of the growing alignment of local business, government and educational institutions behind a full-fledged strategy for encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs.
“The future of our community really hinges a lot on our ability to capitalize on the assets we have,” said Laney. “If we’re going to have consistent and long-term success, we have to be intentional and strategic in our thinking about how we develop all of this capacity for generating true innovation. Right now is the most aligned I’ve ever seen the community behind that idea.”