Madison at Five Percent

QUICK! Which is the most important ingredient in transforming Madison into a world-class city brimming with innovation and prosperity?

A. University Research Park 2
B. More venture capital funding (much more)
C. Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery
D. All of the above
E. None of the above

The correct answer is “E,” none of the above. While answers A, B and C provide a much-needed goose, the most important ingredient is innovative and entrepreneurial people.

Chile knows this. So does Spain. Both are rolling out the red carpet for entrepreneurs from around the world. Daniel Isenberg writes
in The Economist blog: “far-sighted individuals in Barcelona, Spain, and Santiago, Chile, are looking to corner the market on a more renewable resource: entrepreneurship, or emprendimiento. Despite what policymakers will tell you, it is the root cause of national competitiveness, clusters, the knowledge economy and innovation systems. Not the other way around.”

Start-up Chile has already snagged two of Madison’s entrepreneurs. Nathan Lustig and Jesse Davis, co-founders of Entrustet, are in Santiago until May, having won one of Start-up Chile’s coveted spots. Their spoils? $40,000 in cash, six months of support, and being treated like rock stars.

Lustig estimates that about ten percent of the world’s population is entrepreneurial. In Chile, entrepreneurs are far more rare because the culture is extremely risk-averse. Recognizing this, the Chilean government launched Start-Up Chile to import an entrepreneurial culture ... and hope it spreads.

In his blog, Lustig reflects on Madison’s entrepreneurial culture: “I think Madison went from a 1% to a 3% city in the last five years. We still have a long way to go, but by unlocking the pent up entrepreneurial talent, we’ve seen an explosion in entrepreneurship. Just wait until we see what Madison looks like at 5%!”

Madison at Five Percent

It’s fun to think about Madison at five percent. We may not need a program like Start-Up Chile to get us there, but we do need to remember the ingredients that make a strong entrepreneurial culture.

A couple years back, I was working on a project in Lexington, Kentucky. People kept asking me, “Where’d you go to school?” I thought this was an odd question, but I’d obligingly respond, “Drake University.”

Finally, a local pal pulled me aside and explained. In Lexington, when folks ask you where you went to school, they’re asking about your high school. In status-conscious Kentucky, your high school is shorthand for how well off your parents are.

In Lexington, in Madison, the important question is not, “Where’d you go to school?” or “Who’s your daddy?” The critical question is “What’s your idea?”

For Madison to hit five percent, we have to be open to anyone in the world with great ideas.

Thinking Bigger

In Madison Magazine’s January cover story, Neil Heinen revisited John Nolen’s vision for Madison. Heinen writes, “‘World class’ is the dream, as it has been for a hundred years.”

So why is it so hard for Madison to think about “world class,” to grow “world class” and to recognize “world class?”

Maybe it’s because we believe that we already are world class? Or maybe we’re stalled by our heritage as hardy Midwesterners—not too fast to change, but steady nonetheless.

I remember when Jerry Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland built Overture Center—a world-class monument for all of us to enjoy. Many responded, “It’s too big/expensive/grandiose for us.” I get it. I was raised in Wisconsin … by a German-Lutheran tribe where you’re taught to keep your mouth shut and not get too big for your britches. But that childhood was also a time of a growing middle class, shift work and fruit cocktail.

Those days have passed.

What if Madison thought a little bigger? What if we had a shared vision for what our world-class city could be? What if we became a city of five percent ... or more?

Rebecca Ryan is the founder of Madison-based Next Generation Consulting. She helps companies and cities keep and grow their high potential talent. Find her blog at

Read more NEXT columns here.



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