Jobs Council meeting proves beneficial, execs say

Nearly 40 Triangle area executives huddle with a committee of the White House Jobs Council focused on entrepreneurship. After more than an hour of discussion, several execs praised the discussion was helpful.

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DURHAM, N.C. — Several business executives left a meeting with the White House Jobs Council on Monday convinced that they had participated in a worthwhile discussion about entrepreneurship and job creation, not a political stunt.

In a series of interviews with a number of the nearly 40 leaders who huddled with a team of private sector execs and Austan Goolsbee, President Obama’s top economic advisor, the execs said they felt their concerns were heard and that the Council is seeking to find answers for the country’s lingering economic problems.

“This was good,” said Scot Wingo, founder and chief executive officer of fast-growing e-commerce services provider ChannelAdvisor. “It was good to hear from this group, and they were listening for ideas.

“Some interesting stuff came up. This was really great.”

Council member and AOL founder Steve Case called entrepreneurs the "secret sauce" of the American economy. "The best best is on entrepreneurs," he said.

Executives talked with Goolsbee and four private sector representatives of the Council about the need for better education, emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, immigration changes for highly educated foreign students and workers, and technology transfer from universities and government labs to the private sector. The group was scheduled to meet later with President Obama who was nearby, touring Durham-based Cree’s headquarters.

Several points discussed in the Council meeting were also addressed in a plan to be presented to Obama by the Council.

“I wish this could have gone on for another hour,” said John Austin, a veteran videogame industry executive who now runs the game startup incubator Joystick Labs. “The group talked about how we’ll find sectors for growth, we’ll find ideas. I liked that.”

Christy Shaffer, the former CEO of Inspire Pharmaceuticals who now is a venture capitalist and investor, praised the Council for picking the Triangle as the host of the meeting she attended and four others. Several high-profile corporate leaders, including GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immlet, who is chair of the council, came to the region.

Working with UNC-CH on technology transfer issues, Shaffer said “we have identified the barriers” and ‘we are finding ways to help (professors) find management teams to help commercialize their ideas.”

UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp and ping Fu, CEO of Triangle-based Geomagic software, are part of the Startup America initiative, which is a public-private initiative focusing on new companies and job growth. Steve Case, the founder of AOL, chairs the Startup effort. He and Fu attended Monday’s meeting.

“The President is very committed to entrepreneurship and job creation,” Fu said. “Probably no president has been as accessible to entrepreneurs. He listens.

“I’ve already seen him follow through,” she added, “including two funds through the Small Business Association to help fund startups.”

Shaffer said she found the discussion useful in two ways – for the practical discussion about job growth and the exposure the Triangle received.

“There are a lot of regions who would love to have what we have, including universities and research, big companies (such as GSK, IBM), and our infrastructure.

“We are not on the same level as Silicon Valley or Boston, but we’re in the second tier. And we’re ready to evolve to something better.”

Fu made a similar comment and noted: “We’re already ahead of New York!”

Touring the American Underground

Before meeting in the headquarters of ad agency McKinney in the American Tobacco Historic District, Goolsbee, Case and the three other Council members gathered for the meeting toured The American Underground. The up-fitted space is home to a growing number of new companies, a venture capital firm and the Council for Entrepreneurial Development. It’s the Triangle equivalent to such Silicon Valley incubators at Ycombinator.

Jason Massey, a former VC in Silicon Valley who attended NC State, recently moved his four-month-old firm Sustainable industrial Solutions into The Underground. He met case and Goolsbee, who wondered jokingly if Massey was concerned about exposing his company’s secrets with formulas drawn on the firm’s glass front wall.

“It was awesome,” Massey said of the tour and the chance to show off the Underground. He noted that the availability of the Underground helped encourage him to move back to North Carolina since he sees it as a growing entrepreneurial area.

Goolsbee said the Triangle was a “natural place to come” for the Council’s meeting and the Obama tour of Cree given the region’s high-tech focused economy. He found the Underground interesting. "This is exactly the kind of environment where it's collaborative," he said.

Joystick Labs' Austin said his incubator helps get businesses from plan to process. 'If you are working in your garage, all alone, you haven't faced some of the problems of starting a company. It's really hard to get a company started," Austin said.

Rion Holland, a graduate of Wake Tech, wanted to start a company designing video games and worked with Joystick Labs for help in turning his idea into reality. "There's paperwork and there's business things that you don't take into account," he said.

Aaron Houghton, co-founder of e-mail market firm iContact and web software firm Preation, welcomed the chance to meet the Council members. “This is great exposure for the Triangle,” said Houghton who recently moved Preation to the Underground.

Triangle technology companies and entrepreneurs were well represented at the meeting. In addition to Shaffer, Austin, Fu, Houghton and Wingo, other tech executives included: Kep Frey, Zenph Studios; Katrina McCallum, Red Hat; Ben Weinberger, DigitalSmiths; Stephen Wiehe, SciQuest; Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting; and Goodmon’s sons, Jimmy who runs CBC’s New Media group, and Michael, who directs American Tobacco. 


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