I’ve been in Pittsburgh long enough – 30 years this month, in fact – to remember when a term like “Pittsburgh Entrepreneur” was thought to be something of an oxymoron. It was a reflection of how strongly our region had become attached to the industrial, corporate economy that Pittsburgh exemplified for a century. There was a sense we’d become great managers but we’d lost some of our capacity to create. And there was concern that we’d never be able to recapture the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that had built Pittsburgh in the first place, when a bunch of young entrepreneurs with names like Heinz, Hunt and Westinghouse were reinventing the way the world worked, and Andrew Carnegie was combing the world for innovative technologies like the Bessemer Convertor to revolutionize the steel industry.
Over the past generation we have come a long way, and there was no better example than the recent Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. Twenty-three finalists from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia were competing. (A couple of the judges told me after a preliminary round that they were cutting entrepreneurs that should be winners, not just finalists.)
E&Y brought the award to our region 26 years ago and I’ve had the honor of serving as master of ceremonies for many of those events. This year, E&Y honored Rich Lunak, president of Innovation Works (IW), as Supporter of Entrepreneurship. Rich made a really good point along the lines of Sir Isaac Newton’s famous quote, “If I have seen farther than most it is because I stand on the shoulder of giants.” Rich talked about the visionaries of the 1980s (some were thought of as crazies) who said we should put the infrastructure in place to create a knowledge-driven, entrepreneurial economy. They included people like former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, who as a state lawmaker helped to create the Ben Franklin Partnerships that became IW here in our region and the late Ron Morris, founder of The American Entrepreneur. Rich mentioned Tom Canfield and Frank Demmler of the old Enterprise Corporation, now folded into IW as well. Civic leaders such as Bill Newlin, Bob Kampmeinert, Marlee Meyers and Tim Parks created the Pittsburgh Technology Council, celebrating its 30th anniversary next year. A few years later, Dennis Yablonsky brought to life the Life Sciences and Digital Greenhouses. And, of course, you can’t say enough about the contributions of the leadership of Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and the West Penn Allegheny Health System all along the way.
Today there are hundreds of companies in health care, life sciences, and information & communications technology employing hundreds of thousands of people in the region, many of them companies that didn’t exist three decades ago. You can add to that the impact innovation and technology commercialization have had on our foundational industries in advanced manufacturing, financial and business services and energy. The seeds that were planted then have borne fruit – and it’s a big reason our region’s economy has been outperforming the national average for several years running.
Now, if we could only find the financial resources we need to capitalize on all the good ideas and would-be entrepreneurs teaching and studying at our colleges and universities and working inside companies throughout the region. Oh, well, we’ve got to have something for the next generation to work on…
Meantime, congratulations to this year’s crop of Entrepreneurs of the Year. They’ll be representing our region at E&Y’s national Strategic Growth Conference in California in November.
Check out Rich Lunak’s interview here.
And see all the interviews here.