In sixth grade I thought it was hilarious, as eleven year-olds do, that Ohio was part of the “Northwest Territory,” so I wrote a report about it. I remember not a word of the report. But, I made a colorful picture of the tract, for my cover: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota, all gained when we signed peace with the British to end our Revolution. It doubled the size of our country. The Big Ten Conference would be a tiny thing, and there’d be no Michigan-Michigan State game, if none of this had happened. It’s hard to visualize.

But fortunately, we own Ohio! In 1783 these states were mostly timberland and rivers. Today they’re still beautiful; Ohio is farmland, rolling hills, small towns, and medium-sized cities. Columbus is smack in the middle of all this, and the most interesting city I’ve hardly heard of. In early September we glided in for the annual conference of state Speakers of the House: 28 Speakers, a dozen former Speakers, spouses and chiefs of staff, for two-days-and-change of talking about challenges in our legislatures. And don’t tell: some really neat field trips.

First event, Wednesday 5:00pm: we take shuttle buses to The Horseshoe, famous football stadium of The Ohio State Buckeyes. This thing seats 100,000 people, with seats left over! The president of the NFL Hall of Fame spoke to us about the value of football, and he was pretty convincing. Our 18 year-olds in World War II were more effective than they otherwise would have been, thanks to the things they had learned playing football. Things like: what it means to huddle up; how to keep going when you’re entirely spent; how to make an extra effort when it’s essential; the importance of protecting your teammates.

The way a successful team functions is how our country can function, should function. Ethnicity doesn’t matter. Size and build don’t matter so much. The language you speak doesn’t matter much. All that really matters is whether you can contribute to gaining an extra yard, or denying that yard when the other team is moving.

People have studied football excellence, and figure it is a product of almost 100 player traits. Those can be boiled down to about five: commitment; integrity; discipline; respect; and excellence. Sports are of course not the only place one can learn these values and behaviors. But they are one place. Our country uses a lot of sports metaphors because they are often apt. Can our legislatures incorporate the good lessons of sports, while remembering that our team is really the country?

Thursday morning we took on the subject everyone was interested in: attracting and retaining business activity.

Ohio has been taking several approaches, and each has its strengths. And the state has found astoundingly experienced and capable people to pursue these approaches. Wendy Lee of Cintrifuse focuses on facilitating high-tech startups. She works in an area near Cincinatti that experienced high crime rates. The state invested $750 million to create new office space and the sorts of services that entrepreneurs need, and Wendy raised another $60 million from local large corporations, ones that fear they’ll wither unless they keep track of the flood of creativity shown by young entrepreneurs.

So far, Cintrifuse has helped 470 startups. It figures that at 1000 startups they’ll have a “critical mass” of young companies, that will attract enough services and attention so that Cintrifuse itself can back away.

One thing Wendy has to focus on is creating the “civic infrastructure” that these young entrepreneurs want where they live and work. In the 1 square-mile neighborhood that she concentrates on (called “Over the Rhine”) the average age is 26. People don’t own a home or a car, nor want to, so great public transportation is vital. People want to sit at restaurants or coffee shops with food and their computer, so good wireless service is essential, too.

First, people have “meet-ups,” coming together to discuss some topic in technology (these attendees have no money, but lots of ideas). Promising ideas that come out of this step then need incubator space — inexpensive office space with the basic business services that any company needs. Cintrifuse has six facilities providing space like this. If the idea continues to progress, it will then need risk capital, much of which is provided by the local large companies that are afraid to miss out on disruptive ideas. In a short time the money those companies have provided has achieved a three-fold return, in equity in successful hi-tech startups.

Wendy’s job has been to prime the pump until a business-creating ecosystem exists on its own in southwest Ohio. In truth, she has also helped to build the pump. And the machine she has been building, is close to toddling on its own.

Ken McDonald of Columbus 2020 has focused on a different approach: taking great care of the companies that are already in his area, and helping other existing companies to move there. Success at this requires thinking of all the things that current companies need to succeed, and will need even more of as they grow, and putting those things in place as quickly as he can arrange.

Collectively of course, those things are called civic infrastructure, as noted above. In the case of Columbus, it includes things like reasonable access to political decision-making, certainly a draw for the state capital. Even more so, access to the intellectual and labor resources of the third-largest university campus in the country, graduating about sixteen thousand young people every year. Good transportation links (road, rail and air) are essential; reasonably-priced energy; and high-speed internet service. Good executives and employees also want recreational and cultural opportunities, good schools, and good housing.

Part of Ken’s time even goes to creating good locations for businesses to occupy, sometimes by taking fallow “brownfield” properties, and rehabbing them to usefulness. The world has thousands of vacant retail malls too, waiting for new uses, but which need various permits beforehand.

There is more or less no end to these activities, since standards are constantly rising, and the other states or localities that a business could move to are usually improving themselves.

Joe Roman of the Greater Cleveland Partnership pursues a third but related approach. He is always on the lookout for, and thinking about, companies that might want to move to his area. (Although this isn’t an exclusive focus; he also thinks about ensuring that local companies want to remain, and about helping existing companies to grow larger.) Regarding new companies, Joe thinks about industries or companies that could piggyback on existing activity. He agrees that civic infrastructure is always a factor. Excellent public transportation is essential, or many employees can’t get to their workplaces. And you can’t do business in the urban core without being comfortable with ethnic and gender diversity, even committed to those things.

In general: you can talk about three different approaches to increasing business activity in an area — ensuring that existing companies remain, or even grow larger; looking for companies that might want to move to your area; and incubating startups. But there is a good deal of overlap between these activities, since most companies need similar kinds of “civic infrastructure,” and that infrastructure takes a lot of work and commitment to create.

Discussing all of that was exciting. But everyone has to eat, so Thursday evening we headed to Ohio’s remarkable capitol building. Their capitol was completed just as we fell into Civil War, and in a now-unusual style. Most statehouses have domes, which are a pretty Roman thing, if you follow architecture, and Americans were thinking about Rome as our country got started. But by the time Lincoln came around we were thinking a good deal about Greece, and Ohio’s statehouse reflects that. Instead of a dome, the building features a rotunda like Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat. Google it; you’ll see what I mean. And I hope you like these little walks into architectural lore.

After dinner, we arrayed ourselves in Ohio’s House chamber, and historian David McCullough took the podium. Mr. McCullough’s voice, deeply resonant and grandfatherly at the same time, might be our country’s favorite voice of history, after his many narrations of American Experience telecasts. Mr. McCullough is 84 now. He started by thanking the assembled Speakers and chiefs of staff for all that they do to create a good country. And then of the importance of character in history; the importance of education; and the importance of living with purpose.

He talked of George Washington, who gave us eight years of his life as President, and nearly another nine as our wartime leader. A person of absolute integrity, who got us started right. We mightn’t have been so lucky.

And then of the Wright Brothers, and Samuel Pierpont Morgan. Morgan was trying to solve the problem of manned flight, one of the most challenging technical problems ever. He had all the education one could hope for; elite credentials; fame; and deep financial backing. The Wright Brothers had none of those things: high school educations, no credentials, no backing. We know who solved the problem, and changed the world.

How did Wilbur and Orville do it? They grew up in a house full of books, with parents who stressed the importance of reading, and of mastering English. Everything in their world reinforced the value of education. Libraries and their home allowed them to teach themselves a very great deal, and then they worked very hard, and cleverly.

Mr. McCullough talked then of President Truman, told he shouldn’t make George Marshall his Secretary of State because people would say Marshall should be President. Truman replied, “he would be a better President! But I’m President, and I need the best person as Secretary of State.”

Time and again in our history, character has been decisive. And character, like the rest of education, is often influenced by teachers. An old saying goes, “character isn’t taught, it’s caught” (from teachers.)

And what is a worthwhile, satisfying life? To Mr. McCullough it is one of thought, and worthwhile accomplishments. To achieve that, Mr. McCullough recommends that we celebrate and support education in every way that we can. That certainly includes supporting it at home, where we would hope children would be encouraged to read; to discuss things carefully at dinner; and be exposed to history.

All of this was even more moving, for hearing it in the wonderful Ohio House chamber.

On Friday, J.D. Vance spoke of being raised by his blue-collar grandparents, and how the economic floor has collapsed for millions of rural Americans (see his book, Hillbilly Elegy.) He’s moved back to Ohio to implement his own ideas about helping. He says we often need to think on smaller scales, and to think of “little” factors affecting people’s employability. Without transportation, a person’s job radius is very small. Without internet access and familiarity, one may not know of a job opening very nearby. We need much more vocational education, and we need trades work to bear higher status and dignity.

Joe Plumeri spoke in an impossibly compelling way about addiction (see his Powerpoint presentation on our website.) Addiction is killing more Americans every day than Hurricane Harvey did in Houston, but where is our response? It affects as many Americans as any two of the following — heart disease; diabetes; cancer — but where are the charity fundraisers? As a CEO Joe used to judge candidates for their technical skills, but now he wants to know about someone’s heart. Employees and citizens will follow people who care about something, so care about getting this fixed. We do eliminate problems when we care enough about doing so.

Attendees stood to applaud Joe’s moving remarks, for the second time in his two SLLF presentations.

Jim Tressel was head football coach at Ohio State for ten years. He says the first two steps in reaching a big goal are to picture it clearly, and then to identify what it’ll take to get there. The key contributions a leader can make, are to communicate what you care about, and to help people understand what it’ll take to get there.

To predict who will reach their goals, he rates “work ethic” as the fifth-most important thing. Native ability is the fourth-most important. Curiousity is the third-most important thing. Grit, the second-most important thing. And the most important thing? Being selfless.

Jim coached the first major college football team to achieve a 14-0 record, in almost a hundred years. He says, 

“Leadership is not a position that you hold. Leadership is the actions you take to serve others.”  

Those were some of the last words spoken at the 2017 National Speakers Conference. I took them with me to the airport. Then through TSA, down the ramp, past welcoming crew members, and onto the long flight east.


Eric Allen

SLLF Curriculum Development and Research