Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Opportunity Challenge Unearths Problems, Seeks Solutions for Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 3:15 PM

Your average video gamer spends about 80 percent of his time failing to reach the all-important next level.

But no matter how many aliens annihilate him, how many racecars run him off the road, or how many enemy soldiers spray his avatar with bullets, that gamer keeps coming back for more.

Katherine von Jan, co-founder and chief creative of Derring-do Design, says tapping in to this deeply ingrained desire to triumph over adversity could help Memphis improve its economic outlook.

von Jan’s presentation was part of an Opportunity Challenge conference today at the Memphis Bioworks foundation that’s being spearheaded by the nonprofit CEOs for Cities and Mayor A C Wharton’s office. The three-day think-a-thon aspires to help Memphis enable and retain young talent instead of losing it to other cities. The conference continues through Friday.

The key to improving Memphis’ economic destiny — where only 24 percent of people have a college education — is to create a system, akin to a game, that encourages even the most disenfranchised citizens to advance through the levels of success, von Jan said. “In gaming, you start from zero and build up.”

Beneath the day’s rhetoric, education surfaced again and again.

Economist Joe Cortwright, president of Impresa Inc. and a senior policy adviser for CEOs for Cities, said college-educated people have higher incomes and spend less time being unemployed during their lifetimes than those with a lower educational level, period. And “what is true for individuals is also true for places,” he said.

While Memphis has lots of things going for it, the city also has disparate pockets of hope and hopelessness that don’t tend to mix. Not only has it been stigmatized in the media, but the city’s own citizenry tends to cast it in an unflattering light, said Andre Fowlkes of the business incubator LaunchMemphis.

“We present Memphis on a garbage can lid,” he said.

Another pressing issue underlying the Opportunity Challenge is the shift to a talent-based economy, or an economy built on new and changing markets or ideas. He who produces the most widgets isn’t necessarily the most successful nowadays. A tanking economy has borne that out.

“That was the sledgehammer to really bring it home,” Fowlkes said.

Since about 20 percent of Memphis’ population lives below the poverty line, with 30 percent younger than 18, and with unemployment in Shelby County at almost 10 percent, it’s time to re-evaluate, or at least understand some things about how poverty affects education.

Laurel Dukehart, president of Gateway to College National Network, said working with poor people who want to succeed has taught her a lot. Most kids drop out of high school or college not because they’re shiftless or stupid, but because of things beyond their control. Try carrying a full course load when you’re broke and your car engine fries or you have to help a bedridden relative who has no access to health care.

“It’s about poverty,” she said. “It’s about a lack of role models.”

While things like access to technology are talent accelerators, things like persistent poverty are talent killers. And the surest way out of poverty is education.

Possible solutions to overcoming local poverty and education issues will be offered Friday morning at Bioworks.

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