Terry Gill, secretary of Kentucky’s Economic Development cabinet, said Kentucky’s ranking at 39th in the nation for new business creation is what his team is working to change.
Gill and Brian Mefford, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship within the cabinet, spoke at Venture Connectors’ October luncheon on Wednesday about the challenges the cabinet faces and their approach to improving Kentucky’s overall entrepreneurship health.
“As a Louisville guy, I was always deeply suspicious of anything east of Shelbyville,” Gill joked. He said he had only been to Frankfort twice before taking the job two years ago, once in the fourth grade. “When I was running a business in Louisville, I really didn’t want anything from Frankfort other than to be left alone,” he said. So, he finds it ironic that he even has the position now.
Gill said he, Gov. Matt Bevin and Vivek Sarin, executive officer of the cabinet, work together in Washington, D.C., as well as around the world, to boost Kentucky’s reputation.
“As we all know, there is a better story to tell about our state,” Gill said. “But we have let others define us, often through some caricature of who they think we are. And so part of what we’re doing in terms of outreach is spending more and more time traveling nationally but also internationally talking about the successes that we’ve had and it’s been a remarkable story to tell.”
One of those successes, Gill said, is that since Bevin has been in office, there have been 47,000 new jobs created and $17 billion in capital investment. The state’s most capital investment ever, Gill said, was in 2015 at $5.1 billion. In 2017, Kentucky saw $9.2 billion, though this year, the number is right at $4 billion so far.
“The real problem I have is how do we address the two other issues, which are critical to other companies coming in, and that’s our workforce — and literally everybody has (this problem),” he said.
“They have the question of, ‘Where am I going to find the engineer, the developer, the project manager or even the entry level person?’ One of GE’s concerns is, ‘Can I find 400 people in Louisville?’ I don’t know what the starting salary is, let’s say it’s $25 an hour (it’s actually $14). We had to think how do we address that? Can we bring the secondary and postsecondary schools closer to the private sector and find out what they need? Are the high schools and colleges crafting curriculum relevant to technology that’s in place today? And so we’ve been really working very hard on that.”
Mefford talked about the changes taking place in the Office of Entrepreneurship that will help small businesses have better access to resources. He said for the 20 years that the office has been in place, there hasn’t really been any innovation. There are 12 local offices around the state that get equal funding, despite their regions’ needs. The office reached out to those areas and asked them what their specific strengths and needs are.
“We are in the process of creating a true network effect for how we support these entrepreneurs,” Mefford said. “So you may start a health care company in Murray, and you need access to the kind of resources that are available here in Louisville. That’s the kind of network effect we’re talking about creating. You may be in stage one or two, but you need to go to Lexington or Louisville because there’s a different fit for your company, you may go there but you may come to Louisville to scale up for funding.”
He also said the office is working to better get university-based innovation and technology to entrepreneurs. “Were looking at our flagships at University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, looking at the resources and intellectual know-how and capacity that they have to support business creation and to support taking an idea from the earliest stage to matching that with an entrepreneur with a proven track record to creating and growing a business.”
The office is creating an entity to help provide shared services for universities, Mefford said. So the innovation and research can be shared across all universities in the state.
Mefford also mentioned that Kentucky was the first U.S. region to be selected for MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, or REAP, in which the state will work with countries around the world to foster economic and social progress. The state will be in a two-year cohort with cities in Ecuador, Mexico, China, Italy, Norway, England and Sweden.
“Our goal is to lock on with some of the best and brightest minds in the world coming through MIT to help us as we execute this strategy to help us identify what’s working and what’s not, and help us cultivate those pivots and tweaks,” Mefford said.