The Midwest is home to more 100-plus-year-old companies than you can shake a stick at. It’s also home to some of the friendliest, most humble folks you’ll ever meet. This slow and steady DNA has built manufacturing giants, but hasn’t lent itself well to the technology infiltration seen in Silicon Valley, Austin or Denver. So how can the Midwest take action now to capitalize on future opportunities as tech rapidly disrupts every industry? 

This question was top of mind at the inaugural Summerfest Tech event held on July 6 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, launched the event to support Milwaukee’s growing reputation as a tech hub and to gather leaders and influencers. Host to more than 800,000 attendees over the 11-day event, Summerfest President and CEO Don Smiley feels it's the perfect venue to capitalize on tech companies in the area and expose the public to technology and jobs of the future. The event included a panel discussion featuring some of Summerfest's largest partners: American Family Insurance, Johnson Controls, Northwestern Mutual and AEM member Briggs & Stratton.

Here are six things the panel agreed were vital to creating an ecosystem for tech in the Midwest:

  1. Bringing the talent to your metropolitan area organically is vital. Business leaders and government alike must prioritize making the city a welcoming place for startups and tech industry workers. Nortwestern Mutual recently collaborated with Marquette University and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to create a data science institute. This linkage between universities and business is a great way to attract and retain talent.
  2. Don’t pit human resources and business leaders against one another. The median salary at Facebook is $250,000. Be willing to take a risk on people with these new sets of capabilities and recognize the return on investment they can bring to your organization. But, don’t forget to educate them how much further their dollar will go in America’s heartland compared to the Bay Area.
  3. Re-evaluate and modernize your company. If you can’t attract and retain talent, you shouldn’t be in business. Young employees want to know three things: what am I working on, who am I working with, and how much will I get paid? Once your young talent is in place, offer fast tracked product development for and agile business models to help keep them engaged and motivated.
  4. Project the truths about your company.  The investment world and prospective employees alike want to know what you’re doing. This needs to be a strategic imperative from the boardroom down in order to attract talent. 
  5. Embrace startups. Innovation doesn’t have to happen from within your walls. You don’t have to control the ecosystem, you just have to engage in it. How can you not act like a big corporation when engaging in new business models? Wake up and open your doors. Letting a startup beta test in your company is a much cheaper alternative to creating an internal department.
  6. Collaborate within your community. Don’t take more from the community than you put back in. Get together with other business leaders to talk about future investment patterns. Find out how you can share resources or co-invest in technology such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

At the end of the day, the Midwest cannot be an imitator of other regional tech hubs. Trying to impose the culture and values of Silicon Valley on the Midwest simply won't work, nor should the Midwest try to be something it's not. The region needs to lean into its culture to find its own collision point between business, tech and entrepreneurship. Collaboration of government and all businesses -- not a consortium of few -- is necessary to drive this into the future.

Most importantly, the Midwest need to be aggressively positive about projecting what it's good at and has to offer. And what it's good at, statistically speaking, is manufacturing, agriculture and healthcare. Success drives more success, and manufacturers of agriculture and construction equipment should seize this opportunity to grow, collaborate and embrace their Midwestern humility, hard work ethic and common sense approach. Work with your strengths, and have a little fun while you're at it. To get outsiders excited about the Midwest, you have to get excited about it first. It's time to make some noise.

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