Think Global, Act Global
How can Madison, a midsize city in the heartland, embrace a global mindset? The real question is: How can we not?
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TIM BURTON
The Clarion Call for every city in America that seeks to grow and thrive in the twenty-first century is “live globally or die.” Even a casual perusal of the health, or lack thereof, of U.S. cities over the last forty years suggests that claim is well short of hyperbole. Cities that have welcomed the opportunities of the global marketplace, embraced diversity and the talent it attracts, and invested in foreign connectivity and relationships see a bright future. Those that have stubbornly clung to an industrial past, even one that was once a shining glory, are at best withering and at worst disappearing completely.
Even as recently as five years ago the notion of living globally came with daunting hurdles: language, customs, actually meeting people and building relationships. The simple fact is today’s technology has made globalism almost inescapable. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman introduced the idea of the “flat” world. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye sees networks of connections. For many of us the best example is simply the Internet.
Very little in life is not somehow related to someplace else and that someplace can be anywhere in the world. We’ve gotten used to the notion of Chinese manufacturers, Indian call centers and doctors many time zones away interpreting our X-ray results at any hour day or night. One has to choose not to live globally, rather than the other way around.
That does not, however, mean an approach to globalism need not be well thought out, appropriate in its scope and well executed. You can’t just proclaim yourself a global city. It’s important to have a global strategy, modest as it may be. Sister City relationships, such as Madison’s ties to Freiburg, Germany, or Mantova, Italy, can bring a modicum of globalism to a city. So can universities with foreign students. But truly global cities have more. Much more. Which raises the question we ask here: How global is Madison? Are we, even relative to our size, a player in the global game?
THE GLOBAL CHAMBER
“An industrial city makes things. A global city does things.”
So says Chicago Council on Global Affairs fellow Richard Longworth in his book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. “We are what we do—people and cities both,” says Longworth. “A global city makes its living in a brand new way, and the result, in many respects, is a new city.”
It’s not what you make, it’s what you do. Right in Madison’s wheelhouse, says Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon. “I think we are one of the cities that can say that with credibility. And in order to make the argument for what we do, we have to be able to show that we do it.”
At his very first news conference as president of GMCC in late 2012, Brandon said Madison has the potential to be a global hub of innovation. The first step is having a product that people want. “They want knowledge, service, high-quality products, and they want it in very specific categories, things they don’t know how to do themselves, or can’t make themselves, or don’t have the infrastructure to make. And I think we’re uniquely positioned to be in one of those prime spots.”
PHOTO BY ERIC BAILLIES
Zach Brandon sees the Madison area as a place ripe for international business.
Brandon says one way of looking at what people around the world want, indeed, what they need, is the three words he’s heard used to describe the biotechnology sector: heal, feed and fuel. “In order to be internationally relevant … this is what the world needs. And I think Madison has those three components.”
Brandon points to great health care in the greater Madison region, a growing health care information technology sector and, of course, Epic, on the heal side of things. Agriculture, green energy and organic growing and the attendant bioscience that spills over into the intersection of food manufacturing is the feed.
Brandon admits it might seem like fuel would be a bit more of a challenge given “not just Madison, but Wisconsin in general doesn’t have a drop of oil, natural gas or coal.” But that just creates opportunities in alternative energy sources. “When you think of Forest Products Labs [the national reserach laboratory of the United States Forest Service], or you think about Virent turning sugar into petroleum, the ethanol refineries already here and the transition to biomass, I think there’s the potential there for fuel,” says Brandon.
And then there’s water, a growing subject of research and technology in Wisconsin, Milwaukee in particular, and, as Brandon points out, “a big part of feeding people. So I do think there’s infrastructure there in order to start thinking about what the world needs. Wisconsin, in particular, is good at making high-value products and then exporting them to the world.”
And it’s remarkable how many companies, many of them GMCC members, are doing just that. Brandon can rattle off a litany of firms doing global business, from the obvious biggies, CUNA, Promega, Electronic Theatre Controls, Fiskars and ABS Global, to an even more surprising number of smaller firms like RenewAire, an energy recovery ventilator manufacturer that Brandon says just joined with a Spanish company in a strategic partnership that they’re leveraging to expand into markets in Central and South America.
Brandon is quick to credit the oft-criticized Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for its work on promoting Wisconsin around the world. International, he says, is where WEDC “does really well,” recently expanding the number of international offices from five to more than thirty. Lora Klenke is vice president of international business development for WEDC. “There is a strong demand overseas for industrial and electrical machinery, medical and scientific instruments, agricultural products and transportation equipment, but we’re [also] seeing Wisconsin companies that are successfully exporting a wide range of products and services,” she says. “We’re eager to assist any company—regardless of the size or product—that wants to start exporting or expand its exporting efforts.”
But, says Brandon, we still need to adjust our collective mindset to a global setting. “You have to view yourself as global,” says Brandon. “You have to view yourself as a city that is receptive and open to international. I think of midsize Midwestern cities, but I would argue midsize cities across the country, if there’s anywhere capable of being able to execute it should be us.”
He then offers a great example of the potential payoff. Epic needed something translated to Portuguese, so they sent out an all-staff email. “And within, like, five minutes, they had a dozen people write back, ‘I can fully translate it,’” says Brandon. “So the international recruitment is growing. They have a stat about how many countries are represented at Epic and it’s mind-boggling. They’re also recruiting a lot of undergrad and grad students here.”
Students. Ah yes, the university. If there is a recurring theme to any conversation about global Madison, it is the University of Wisconsin. It came up no fewer than a half dozen times during the interview with Brandon. It is an integral part of foreign business relationships on state and regional levels. It has its own global footprint and an ever-growing number of international alumni. Ultimately its influence on how we will actually function in the world is impossible to overstate. It’s the influence of a global institution to be sure. But it’s also the contributions of global people.
THE GLOBAL EDUCATOR
Maj Fischer was born in Fontana, Wisconsin, on the west end of Lake Geneva. But her mother was an immigrant from Finland and her father’s parents were Danish. She’s traveled extensively, studying, serving and seeking.
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
Maj Fischer says UW’s much-broadened focus on international studies is as much an academic feather in its cap as it is an economic asset. The challenege is bringing it all together under one umbrella.
“I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland from 1992–94,” Fisher says.” So that’s sort of the service, if you will. I had also done an international internship during my master’s program in Brussels and I’ve been a rotary exchange student in Finland and then again returned in my college career to Sweden. In the field, that’s what we call a heritage seeker in terms of going back and exploring your roots.”
She’s currently the director of the International Internship Program in the Division of International Studies at the UW–Madison. “I first started working at the university in international academic programs back in ’96 … left and then came back. In that time we’ve gone from an office of international studies to a division of international studies.”
That’s a significant change in how the university views things, although Fischer says now “almost everybody on campus is trying to do something international.” She says evidence that it’s doing “a pretty good job” is the growing number of students in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields in addition to the liberal arts students who have more traditionally had an international focus.
“I think science students and pre-health students are understanding the value of connecting internationally, going abroad themselves or working with a team of international students here so that they have a better perspective on different ways of doing things, abilities to work on cross-cultural teams, some things like that.”
That certainly is an example of taking advantage of one’s strengths. But we can always learn from others. Fischer points to the numbers of businesses that rely on foreign language speakers that have located to the state of Utah. The Mormon Church provides a steady supply of young people who, during their two years spent as missionaries, learned a language. “They come back and have these language skills and businesses find it attractive,” says Fischer. “So in terms of the city [of Madison], perhaps using the university as a resource in the sense that we teach over eighty languages on campus and we have a very strong language tradition here … maybe that’s something the businesses and the chamber and the mayor could use as a way of saying, ‘Look, we have this talent, we have these languages, we have these students who have studied abroad in greater numbers than most schools across the country.’”
PHOTO BY LARRY CHUA
Mark Schmitz, founder of Madison business Zebradog, says something as simple as having a website makes a business present on a global level.
Indeed, Fischer says UW ranked number six in the number of students studying abroad. “We have students doing international internships actually understanding what the workplace is in these other places, so I think that’s what the partnership might be or what the city could use.”
Fischer points to a recent international careers night on campus that featured a panel including foreign ambassador, Ian Kelly, Andy Best who works for Saris, the Madison bicycle group that does business around the world, Barbara Nichols, a pioneering African American nurse doing nursing consulting all around the world, and Lora Klinke from WEDC. “And Lora was saying she hears from employers all the time how they need employees with these skills,” says Fischer. “And so we’re going to be working together to match up, because I need employers who want those students. It’s really a matter of trying to find those linkages, and hopefully find more places where the university can help the business community find the talent as the business community recognizes and reaches out to the university to help train the students they want.”
Fischer takes advantage of existing relationships with Madison’s Sister Cities whenever possible, especially Freiburg, Germany, where Madison sustainable energy consultant Ted Petith is from. Petith’s wife, Elizabeth Tryon, shares the Freiburg connection through her work at the UW Morgridge Center for Public Service, where she co-chairs the Wisconsin Without Borders Initiative. Tryon is also one of the founders of the Global Alliance for Community-Engaged Research. She and Petith were in the group that accompanied Mayor Paul Soglin on a trip to Freiburg last year, then hosted a reciprocal visit with a delegation from Freiburg. Fischer’s view of how global the greater Madison community at large really is is admittedly skewed by the fact that she is in contact with people around the world “on an hourly basis.” That’s the world in which she lives.
For Madison to become even more global, Fischer says more international flights would certainly help, as would more networking between existing international organizations like the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Global Wisconsin, the Dane County chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States of America and perhaps groups of international professionals.
“I don’t think we have a common umbrella where everybody has a good list or understanding of what the different groups are and what each of their specific missions are or how each is different, so that when people move here to town and are interested in finding that type of group there’s no central resource or listing or collaboration between them, which I think would be really interesting,” says Fischer. “It’s just a matter of communicating what’s happening, people collaborating on those things and really having the impact feel much bigger than the parts of what people are doing. I think that big splash is really what we are missing.”
THE GLOBAL BUSINESS OWNER
There are so many opportunities for Madison businesses to build international connections or export their work that it can seem overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why so many still do not. But those that do, a number that is growing all the time from what is arguably already a critical mass, are finding a global strategy an indispensable part of their company’s mission. It doesn’t hurt if that strategy is a niche that is unique and difficult to replicate.
Mark Schmitz is the founder of Zebradog, but his business card, which in shape would double nicely as a drink coaster, reads Principal/Creative Director and Visual Therapist. Zebradog has precisely that unique, difficult-to-replicate niche. And it has won them global recognition, and business. “We are not a design firm, we’re not an ad agency, we’re not an architectural firm or interior design firm, we’re sort of all of that,” Schmitz tells me in a conference room in the stunning one-hundred-year-old headquarters building on Williamson Street that originally housed the Sixth Ward Carnegie Library. It’s the last of the original Madison library buildings in existence and the way Schmitz has designed and remodeled the space, and the way the staff and business fit that space, is a good place to start understanding what Zebradog does.
“I started years ago establishing an organization that would have multiple layers of service underneath the headline or category of design,” says Schmitz. What that means, he says, is “we can provide a thread of brand visioning throughout an entire organization’s space that they occupy. So that right away diversified our offering.”
Zebradog has had plenty of local success stories, big contracts with prestigious clients like UW, Neenah-based Miron Construction and Aurora Health Care. But Schmitz recognized earlier than most—in other words, before the 2008–09 onset of the recession—the business had to expand its footprint.
“You must leave Madison, which we did, in 1995. You must leave the Midwest, which we did in 1998. And then ultimately you need to be able to work in a community that has not suffered the similar economic ups and downs that we might have suffered here. And I can tell you that the world at large, other than some European cities, our technology and the way we use technology is uniquely forward or ahead of the rest of the world in many ways.”
In many ways, then, Zebradog is the perfect example of the new marketability of “what you do,” versus ‘what you make.”
“This isn’t a commodity,” says Schmitz. “There is a unique style of thinking and a way to approach a facility project, whether it’s new construction or the reimagination of a current space; it’s not interior design. And we sort of invented the category. I don’t know of anybody else. There are people that do museum design. There are people who do media development. There are people who do interior design. This place brings that all together.”
Zebradog also has a website, zebradog.com, of course. And says Schmitz, in a “fly-over” world as this one now is, having a web presence “makes you an international firm, period. If you’re a design firm on Willy Street or a design firm on Michigan Avenue, you have the same imprint. You have the same opportunity to grab anybody that’s looking for you.”
That’s what’s fun when a Saudi Arabian company finds you through a Google search. As a Saudi Arabian company recently did.
First your idea of a work schedule changes. “It’s definitely becoming more frequent that we are jumping on a conference call at midnight or one in the morning. Or we’re jumping on a conference call at six in the morning because it’s the end of their day.”
But then Schmitz says your idea of a global business changes as well. “The interesting thing is that there are American companies we are working with that have a global imprint. So we have helped them to develop their national headquarters and regional headquarters in this country and now we’re sort of going around the world with them as they go around the world.”
And that’s in addition to the destination first-time clients who are overseas. It can be heady stuff. “When you go over to Dubai,” says Schmitz, “and you’re sitting on a plane looking around, there are all these businessmen from the U.S. going to do three days’ worth of work and then come back; it’s amazing.”
Schmitz says there is a respect abroad for U.S. companies that can “get stuff done.” And that, he says, is “where Madison’s brand and Madison’s stamp on the world is very critical.” That and “the ability to have absolutely no fear.”
“Because you could stop this immediately,” says Schmitz, “when you find out what the tax [issues are] and how are we going to be paid in dollars, are we going to be paid in Krugerrands and where’s the transfer going to take place, and how is that all going to work, and what about all the contracts? You can’t let those barriers stop you. Because you get through some of those and then it’s a much easier process afterward.”
But Schmitz says ultimately doing business on a global stage is more than just twenty-first-century technology, opportunities and fearlessness. “I also think, ‘Why else do you wake up?’ We’re here to share what we know. And what we know goes well beyond the borders of Madison, or Wisconsin, or the U.S.”
THE GLOBAL ECOSYSTEM
While a global Madison can perhaps best be viewed through the work of the institutions like UW and Chamber of Commerce, or individuals like an advocate for international studies or a small business owner, there is also a growing network of civic players on the global scene and many examples of world-wide connectedness. Those players range from the mega-international event that puts Madison on the world map every October, the World Dairy Expo, to the K–12 school system where global-ness is being taught earlier and earlier. Kids at the Verona Area International School at Stoner Prairie Elementary are studying Mandarin. Think of it as the new Spanish. In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is moving strategically to increase global education in the state’s K–12 system.
Kerry Hill is the director of public affairs for UW–Madison’s Division of International Studies, president of Global Wisconsin, Inc., and a member of the State Superintendent’s International Education Council. He’s been working on efforts to create a Wisconsin Global Education Certificate that would enable high school seniors to earn recognition for successfully completing an international curriculum.
“We need to focus on the development of a global citizenship, and by that I mean by developing in students the knowledge skills, attitudes for living and working/interacting across cultures.”
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
From K through college, UW’s Kerry Hill says global citizenship should be a core competency throughout a student’s academic career.
Hill, a former national editor for the Wisconsin State Journal, says that focus is deeper than the trappings of international, of just going somewhere. The new certificate, says Hill, would “provide a pathway for students to internationalize their education and to recognize them for that.” Hill says both businesspeople and administrators see the need for students who have global competence, “the knowledge and the skills to live work, with, and across, cultures,” including knowing more than one language.
“It’s a skill level to go in, if you’re sent to another country, even if you don’t know the language, to be able to land on your feet, learn how to pick up customs, learn how to acquire that knowledge,” says Hill. “Being able to understand and see the world from different perspectives and to recognize these differences.”
Not a week goes by anymore without another story making the connection between Madison and the rest of the world. The University Research Park is recognized for being a business incubator “that is changing the world.”
The Madison Region Economic Development Partnership, or MadREP, which has made global relationship growing a foundation of the region’s economic development strategy, is a presence at the International Conference on Foreign Direct Investment. Sonic Foundry announces it is acquiring companies in the Netherlands and Japan. GMCC partners with the Madison International Trade Association, then the National Business Coalition on Skilled Worker Immigration Reform. (By the way, every person we talked to for this article mentioned immigration reform as a critical need.) Analysts and thinkers like Wisconsin Technology Council president Tom Still pen important columns like his “Hurdles to global trade would be worth clearing.”
The list goes on. All of it makes the case for Madison as a global city on the move. A little recognition never hurts, of course. Having the British Broadcasting Company rate Madison, Wisconsin, among the Top Five College Towns (along with Cambridge, England; Valparaiso, Chile; Uppsalsa, Sweden; and Kingston, Ontario) is yet another feather in our cap, and a delightfully global feather at that.
We have a nationally recognized plethora of international cuisines represented in our restaurants. There’s a market for the diverse international cultural performances offered at Overture Center and the university. All of this and more contribute to the global ecosystem that is flourishing in Madison. Chicago author Longworth says it straight out, right there on page 233: “Madison ranks as a global city in its own right.”
So, why is this so important, in addition to the aforementioned role of ensuring a future?
Because our nation is also changing, along with the rest of the world. Our politics are changing. The relationship between cities and states or even nations is changing. Modern global cities, in the words of Canadian-America architect, professor and writer Witold Rybczynski, exist within nations, but their global network “appears to be supra-national, unaccountable to national control and strikingly autonomous.”
He’s talking about more obvious models of city-states, like Chicago, Toronto and Frankfurt. But remember what Longworth said about Madison. And if we are not an autonomous city-state now, we have enough ingredients to aspire to such status, and certainly to recognize that by not having such aspirations today we perhaps lose our opportunity to minimize the risks to cities posed within our state and national capitals.
But ultimately the importance is beyond politics, beyond business and beyond growth. It’s about who we are, and it’s about what the place in which we live says about who we are. What Mark Schmitz says about Zebradog is precisely why Madison must, and will, be a successful global city.
“It’s really about humans. We deal in emotional outcomes. We can measure a project’s successful completion through an emotional measurement, through an emotional outcome. The fact is, companies don’t make decisions; people do. If you’re in the people business, you’re supposed to be in the world. We’re supposed to do this in the world.”
After all it’s not what you make, it’s what you do. And where you do it.
Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.