From Company Town to a Town of Companies
How Rochester, NY, is using entrepreneurism to build a more inclusive economy
The following blog post is part of the City Accelerator initiative, a collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities that aims to speed the adoption of innovative local government projects within and across cities that will have a significant impact on the lives of their residents, especially those with low incomes.
There are few cities that so perfectly fit the label of a company town as Rochester, N.Y., in the mid-20th century. Throughout the history of our city, we played host to some of the most innovative companies in the world -- household names like Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb created jobs and prosperity. At their peak, the “Big Three,” as they were known, accounted for nearly 70 percent of jobs in the Rochester area. Today, they are a shadow of their former selves, and Rochester is no longer a company town.
Instead, we strive to become a town of companies.
A long history of racism, segregation, and disinvestment has resulted in deep inequities in business ownership in our community. As we work to build a more inclusive economy that allows every resident the opportunity to thrive, we believe that entrepreneurship is a tool that can empower many in our community to build a stronger and brighter future for themselves and their families. Through our engagement with the City Accelerator initiative, Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration is pursuing several key strategies to better support entrepreneurs and business owners.
Building a Stronger Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
There are many organizations throughout the Rochester community that offer training and technical assistance for aspiring entrepreneurs. However, what we lack is a cohesive ecosystem of supporting organizations that work collaboratively to assist aspiring business owners throughout their entrepreneurial journey.
Through the City Accelerator program, supported by Citi Foundation, the City of Rochester has partnered with Living Cities to convene a citywide network of small business support providers that are working together to drive better outcomes for entrepreneurs of color in the Rochester community. This network is also partnering with the Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and JP Morgan Chase to develop and implement a new technology solution that will include a closed-loop referral system, so that entrepreneurs of color no longer fall through the cracks and will have access to the supports they need for their businesses to succeed.
In addition, the Mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building recently opened the Business and Community Services Center – a multipurpose training space in which community organizations can host courses, training sessions, and workshops for entrepreneurs. The Center, strategically located near City Hall in Downtown Rochester, represents a unique community asset that is already being leveraged to build stronger, more viable businesses in our neighborhoods.
Finally, the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives has partnered with the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development to examine internal policies and processes that affect business owners on a daily basis. This team will make recommendations designed to ease the burden of doing business in the city of Rochester, and ensure government is creating a favorable environment for our job creators to grow and succeed.
Integrating Racial Equity in Entrepreneurship Development
Along with the engagement with City Accelerator, the City is also leading a partnership with the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and the National League of Cities called Let’s Get REAL (Race, Equity, and Leadership).The project seeks to embed a racial equity lens in codes, policies, and procedures; engage the community; and inculcate a racial equity mindset across all levels of government and partner organizations.
We believe that a racial equity mindset is key to ensuring our entrepreneurial growth is inclusive. Our inequities are largely drawn along racial lines – so, as we work to build a stronger and more prosperous economy, it is imperative that we put explicit focus on communities of color that have been left behind in the past. To do so, we will require that partner organizations utilizing the new, shared technology solutions are trained in racial equity, and begin to examine their internal policies and procedures to make the necessary changes to better serve entrepreneurs and business owners of color in our community.
Fighting for True Economic Equality
The Rochester community is changing for the better. We are rising from the ashes of our former self, and setting an example for other Rust Belt cities. Our city has always been innovative and entrepreneurial – but, as we reinvent ourselves once again, we are committed to ensuring that this time, everyone is included.
Mayor Lovely Warren said it best in her 2019 State of the City Address:
“Economic and social equality are the foundations of genuine equality. Genuine equality is the foundation of hope. And every man, woman and child in Rochester deserves to have hope. They deserve to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. I understand that it is a difficult task. And that the mission of equality seems insurmountable when we have to overcome entrenched poverty, institutional racism, misogyny, bigotry and hate. But it can be accomplished. I know it can be done. I know we can change”
As we become a town of companies, we will work every day to make sure that our growth is inclusive and equitable, and that those communities that have faced discrimination and oppression throughout our history are finally empowered to thrive and prosper.