Obama in the White House

Generating an Innovation Nation

The Obama administration’s policies toward small business and entrepreneurship have received mixed reactions. While Obama elevated the administrator of the Small Business Administration to a cabinet position and the SBA increased its lending to small businesses, some small business owners felt that the government bailed out big businesses at their expense after the 2008 financial crisis. Many small business owners are concerned about the effects of the Affordable Care Act.

Over the course of his presidency, Obama has played a part in connecting innovation with government. During his first term, he created the positions of Chief Technology Officer, Chief Data Scientist and Chief Performance Officer. In 2012, he began selecting entrepreneurs to work as Presidential Innovation Fellows within the federal government to make government more efficient, impactful and user-friendly.

Inspired by startups and music

Austin’s South by Southwest music and media festival inspired President Obama’s latest innovation project South by South Lawn (SXSL). Last month, the Obama administration invited community change-makers nominated by the public to attend SXSL. Innovators gathered at the White House to discuss how they use technology to advance areas like technology, food, art and collaboration.

On the technology panel “Fixing Real Problems,” innovators like Chris Redlitz (founding partner of Transmedia Capital and founder of The Last Mile), Jukay Hsu (founder of Coalition for Queens) and Nina Tandon (founder of EpiBone) addressed societal issues, including criminal justice reform, health care costs, access to higher education and job opportunities. Panelists emphasized the importance of understanding the impact of company growth on surrounding communities when planning for future endeavors. They emphasized the importance of creating inclusive access to the new opportunities brought about by societal transformation and technological change.

Focus on social entrepreneurship

With the Access Code program at Coalition for Queens, Jukay Hsu aims to increase economic opportunities in Queens. The program allows populations usually underrepresented in the technology field, like women and minorities, to gain the skills needed to enter the field. There are no upfront costs, but graduates of the program are expected to “pay it forward” by committing a percentage of their first two year’s salary toward funding future Access Code cohorts.

Chris Redlitz created The Last Mile in 2008 in an effort to reduce recidivism rates. For successful criminal justice reform, inmates need the skills to readjust to the outside world. To meet this need, the Last Mile started a six-month program for inmates to develop companies and pitch their ideas to the business community. In 2014, Redlitz created the first computer coding program in a United States prison, teaching HTML, JavaScript, CSS and Python.

Nod to for-profit entrepreneurship

At EpiBone, Nina Tandon provides patient-specific, customized bone grafts created from the patient’s own stem cells. Through this personalization of treatment, she aims to simplify procedures, provide more exact care and reduce the costs of post-surgery treatments. Each year, over 100,000 patients have bone-related surgeries in the United States alone. EpiBone could potentially increase access to these necessary operations through reducing costs and rehabilitation times.

Bringing innovation within government

Obama invited technology executives to join him in Washington to spearhead innovation in government. Former Google executive Megan Smith now serves as the United States Chief Technology Officer. Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene took a leave of absence in 2013 to help fix the problems with HealthCare.gov.

At SXSL, Presidential Innovation Fellows shared their projects to improve government efficiency at the “Startup in the White House” exhibit. Jacqueline Kazil’s GeoQ crowdsources geo-tagged photos to quicken disaster response. With the Green Button Initiative, John Teeter aims to help Americans understand and improve their energy use. The innovation company 18F has been developing NotAlone.Gov to provide students and schools with access to resources against sexual assault. Visitors saw how design and technology could potentially modernize the immigration system, improve veterans’ access to benefits and increase cancer patients’ access to clinical trials.

The first SXSL – and the last?

Although technology will not cure all of society’s ills, it has the potential to improve lives more quickly than any government institution could. Continuing initiatives that focus on creative solutions leads to a more widespread awareness of this potential. The federal government should focus on technology and innovation as integral contributors of growth.

Obama used SXSL to show innovation’s potential in policy solutions. Unfortunately, he made no mention of policy toward small businesses, particularly for-profit enterprises. Events like SXSL must also focus on policy that accelerates for-profit entrepreneurship that aid U.S. economy growth. There was no mention of how the federal government would incentivize entrepreneurship to strengthen the U.S. economy and maintain competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Whether through another South by South Lawn or the inclusion of innovators in policy solutions, the Trump administration should seek to make government more inclusive, transparent and effective. However, simply embracing startup culture and bringing entrepreneurs into government is far from enough. For entrepreneurship to play its full role, the U.S. needs policies that will actually help small businesses, not hinder. Only then will small enterprises and startups be able to take their place as drivers of economic growth.

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