MACKINAC ISLAND — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder says Michigan needs a culture change to revitalize the state’s economy.
Speaking at the 2012 Mackinac Policy Conference, Snyder called Michigan “the comeback state” and said the state’s research universities act as catalysts for invigorating the economy.
Innovation was the focus of the conference Tuesday as Snyder opened the three-day event. Snyder said Michigan has often been reluctant to take risks, instead relying on sectors such as the auto industry, as the world has passed the state by economically.
“It’s not about avoiding risk when we innovate, it’s about how to manage risk,” Snyder said. “Too often we get too conservative and try to avoid risk.”
Snyder added that any type of innovation must be sustainable and not just a conglomeration of one-time successes. The two sessions that followed Snyder — a panel discussion on entrepreneurship and remarks by Fareed Zakaria, CNN foreign affairs host and Time magazine editor-at-large — emphasized the importance of higher education in creating sustainable economic opportunity.
Angel Gambino, senior vice president of digital innovations at Westfield Shoppingtowns and an angel investor in Detroit, said leaders need to work to keep college graduates in Michigan.
Gambino pointed to Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google who is also a University alum and grew up in Michigan, as someone who left the state and took his business elsewhere.
“We need to find ways to keep the students that are already here and talented, or the people who would like to get an education, to keep them here and make it affordable,” Gambino said.
Dave Zilko, president and vice chairman of Ferndale-based Garden Fresh Gourmet, said in order to fuel that change start-up companies and entrepreneurs need to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them, despite the risks.
“The only security I want is whether or not my ideas are any good,” Zilko said. “If we launch a product and it fails, I really don’t care, but what drives me nuts is if you never try.”
Though the panelists all said the state’s reliance on existing industries has long hindered its development, Josh Linkner — CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in technology companies based in Detroit — said he’s already begun to see changes in the state’s image.
“Instead of our phones being silenced, they’re ringing off the hooks … from kids graduating college and saying, ‘I want to build my business here. I want to be part of what’s happening because it’s so darn cool,’” he said. “We’re getting calls from people who started their careers away from Michigan, but now want to come back and be part of the tech community.”
While Linkner and the panelists focused on the state of Michigan and Detroit, Zakaria said higher education will help Michigan and the United States compete globally.
“If there’s a field where we truly dominate in the world, it’s higher education,” Zakaria said.
He added that as the populations of other industrialized countries continue to age, the United States will have an advantage in future years due to the influx of young immigrants who are being educated at universities around the country.
“We are the only demographically vibrant, rich country in the world,” Zakaria said.
While all of the speakers spoke optimistically about the future of entrepreneurship in Detroit and the state, Snyder made a point of saying that the discussions on the island need to be more than just talk.
“Do not make this a nice event,” Snyder said. “Make this an event that makes a difference. We control the fate of Michigan.”
Editor in Chief Joseph Lichterman is covering the Mackinac Policy Conference for the Daily. Follow him on Twitter @ylichterman for updates throughout the week.