Last week I had the opportunity to attend a Fulbright Enrichment seminar in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. These enrichment seminars are 4-day professional development and networking events, hosted across the United States. It was titled “A City Reinvented: Building an Innovation Ecosystem in Oklahoma City.” The goal of the seminars is to provide participants with the opportunity to meet and network with each other, and with the American citizens in each city.
Across the United States, cities are re-inventing themselves; aligning themselves to the modern vision of entrepreneurship and innovation. Nestled in the midwest’s “Silicion Prairie,” Oklahoma is one such city. Once entirely dependant on the Oil & Gas sector, Oklahoma has become the home to numerous biomedical, life science, aerospace and engineering firms. This seminar provided a unique opportunity to examine why it is important for the city to foster tech-friendly environments, and how it leverages its best assets to attract and retain new tech companies.
Early on in our seminar, we received a talk from the mayor, in which he outlined how the city had managed to grow so successfully, and the unique strategy adopted in attempting to attract people. The core of this strategy is to “Make it a nice place to live,” rather than trying to just attract “jobs”. This is something that is missed by a lot of cities, who eschew improvements to the intrinsic factors which make living somewhere enjoyable and fulfilling, instead using tax-payer money to incentivise job-creation and treating the city and its newfound employees as an afterthought. Coming from a country where our primary job creation strategy has been offering low corporation tax rates and sweetheart deals for large multinationals, this approach was a massive breath of fresh air. It seems to work too, as population numbers in OKC have risen rapidly, and standard of living and development of public works projects have increased considerably.
Later, we heard from a number of OKC based entrepreneurs; including a commercializer of early stage pharmaceutical therapeutics, and the CEO of StitchCrew, a consulting project management firm, about what make Oklahoma a unique place to do business, and what the draws are that would lead someone to choose it over Silicon Valley or Boston. The key qualities of the city touted were the low cost of living, the amount of available space, the sense of community, and the somewhat unique situation whereby politicians now had such a track record of doing the right thing, that they had become afraid to be the one to break this trend. All of these are clearly contributing to a shared effort in driving the city forward.
During our trip, a group of us visited the OU Innovation Hub, a newly renovated centre for innovation attached to the university, but open to all members of the public. With what essentially amounts to an “open door” policy, the innovation hub provides a space for students and members of the public alike to bring to life ideas of fancy, or truly ground-breaking innovations, that can be modelled in the code lab, visualised in Virtual Reality in the vis-lab, and cast to physical form using any one of the 15 3D printers. This was alongside an extensive woodwork shop which houses almost every conceivable tool to bring an idea to life.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the trip was getting to give something back to this new community we found ourselves in. We were divided into a number of groups, and each group visited one of 4 charities to volunteer on Saturday morning. These comprised three food banks and Habitat for Humanity. The group I was in visited The Oklahoma Regional Foodbank, a charity which serves 53 counties within Oklahoma, feeding over 136,000 people each week! We Fulbrighters worked on the packing line, adding food items to boxes that would go to Oklahoma residents in need. Overall, we packaged over 20,000lbs of food, the equivalent of 17,000 meals, and gained a perspective on some of the challenges in this society.
A highlight of the trip was a visit to the homes of one of 40 Oklahoman host-families, who shared a dinner and their unique perspective with visiting Fulbrighters. It was particularly enlightening to get a view of how long-term residents felt about the city and how it had evolved over time, and to be able to ask questions about day-to-day life in Oklahoma.
Some resounding memories of the trip were visiting Michael Murphy’s in Bricktown to see the Duelling Pianos – afterall, nothing says midwestern Americana like a moustachioed eastern-european wearing a do-rag and vintage rock t-shirt, belting out classic rock hits on piano to drunken onlookers! – and visiting a hookah (SIC) bar with new friends. The final night saw us cap the trip off with a meal on the 50th floor of the Devon Energy building (the largest in OKC) for a truly unique view of the city we had been getting to know.
This was a fantastic couple of days, and I’m thankful to Fulbright for making it such a unique and beneficial experience. Despite it being a place I may never have found cause to visit otherwise, it was a really impressive city; and the experience of being there with so many talented and like-minded new friends was nothing short of fantastic. Meeting with over 100 people from over 55 countries isn’t something you get to do every day, and I’m positive that many enduring friendships have been made during our visit!
Disclaimer: These views are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission or the IIE.