In Search of Innovators: Bold Entrepreneurs, Better Education Critical to Keep U.S. Economy from Sinking, Says Walter Isaacson

By Tom Walsh

Page 36

Detroit was a major example of the decimation of industrial jobs in America and unless the country reverses a scary decline in its education system, the economy is destined to sink, says best-selling author and renowned journalist Walter Isaacson.

Isaacson, former chairman and CEO of CNN and former editor of Time magazine, and biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger, is not so much a prophet of doom and gloom as he is a crusader for innovation to succeed in a fast-changing world.

In an interview with the Detroiter, Isaacson, a keynote speaker at the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference, discussed the economic rise and fall of Detroit, the recent signs of revival, and the importance of education to the future success of the United States overall and Michigan in particular.

“We used to have the best education system in the world, so we had the best economy,” Isaacson said of America. “Now our education system ranks about 20th in the world.”

Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM), the state’s group of corporate CEOs and university presidents, has sounded that same alarm in recent years. At its 2015 CEO Summit, BLM reported that Michigan ranked 31st among the 50 states in educational attainment. As a result, despite an uptick in the state’s economy since the 2009 economic recession, Michigan ranks 36th in per capita income — $11,000 below the national average.

“The auto industry went into decline, and the cost of building cars in Detroit was higher than shifting those jobs elsewhere,” said Isaacson, reflecting on the industrial heartland’s ups and downs. “These trends gutted the city’s middle class. At the same time, the growth of the suburbs and of crime caused people to move out of the city. Detroit is now one of the cities reversing this trend. It has begun luring people back to town, and it is revitalizing and restoring its urban core.”

Isaacson cited a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem as a critical force in the city’s reversal.

“I think we all have been deeply impressed by the efforts, led by (Quicken Loans founder and chairman) Dan Gilbert and others, to restore the downtown area,” he said. “I think the key is attracting entrepreneurs and small business owners. In addition, the center of Detroit has refurbished many of its historic buildings, and it can build on being a cultural destination.

“Entrepreneurs have always taken risks and challenged conventional wisdom, said Isaacson, whose most recent best-seller, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” profiles tech giants who disrupted their industry. Profiles include Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited for inventing the internet.

“It is useful to be tolerant of diverse ideas and approaches,” Isaacson said. “That is what cities like Detroit have to offer.”

And what role should government play in economic renewal?

“The important thing that America needs — and Detroit in particular needs — is a major effort to rebuild infrastructure. That is the most important role that the public sector can play,” Isaacson said.

A key component is a bold overhaul of the nation’s approach to education.

“When we moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, we in America made high school free and universal,” Isaacson said. “Now we are moving into an age that is more dependent on information and entrepreneurship, so we need to do something equally bold. We need to create an educational system that is pre-K to 14. By that, I mean that every kid deserves quality pre-K education, so that he or she can get a decent opportunity to succeed. And education should be free and universal through at least two years of college, trade school, or career and technical education.”

“Education used to be an equalizer of opportunity. Now it perpetuates disparities of opportunities,” Isaacson added. “That must change as well.”

Tom Walsh is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press

Former TIME Magazine Editor and Past CEO of CNN, Walter Isaacson, to Take Michigan’s Center Stage

isaacson_walter_promo-picWalter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, will take Michigan’s Center Stage on Thursday, June 1 at the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference.

Isaacson will share how the accumulation of small advances and larger imaginative leaps by entrepreneurs and inventors have all played a role in today’s disruptive and innovative society. He will also discuss the importance of collaboration in regards to two of the Conference pillars, winning the race in connected technology and increasing economic opportunity in Michigan.

An accomplished author and journalist, Isaacson has written best-selling biographies on historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs. His 2011 biography of Steve Jobs was also the inspiration for the 2015 blockbuster film. In past roles, he was the chairman and CEO of CNN and also the editor of TIME magazine.

Spotlighting Race in America

Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien fights for race conversation at media table 

By Daniel A. Washington 

Chances are you’ve heard the name Soledad O’Brien — maybe on television, providing commentary or narrating documentaries on race relations in the United States.

Arguably most known for her work in producing the multi-part documentary series “Black in America,” O’Brien has earned numerous awards for shedding light on often overlooked injustices endured by mi-norities in America. A former anchor for CNN, and current CEO of Starfish Media Group, she spoke with the Detroiter prior to the Mackinac Policy Conference, where she helped lead a discussion on national politics and the importance of race, economics and inclusion.

What is one of the most relevant issues facing American politics today?

How do you make sure that people feel represented? I see it all the time while interviewing people. This election is a real wake-up call and a lot of people are unhappy with the current state of affairs with the political system.

You have done a lot to shine a light on race relations in “Black in America.” What do you think the state of race relations are today in this country?

I think it is a very interesting time we live in. I think people think it’s a horrible time, but I’m not one of them. I think this time presents a number of highs and lows of living people trying to grapple with the issue and conversation of race in America. I think the idea that we would all get together and fix it is a little naive. I believe we are at a time where people are pushing back in a way. These are historic narratives that people are rallying and fighting against. I really thought that this presidential race was going to give way to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but we have instead seen an uprising in staunch white America push back. I don’t think we’re at the worst ever (time for race relations), but instead are experiencing the ebb and flow just like during other times in our history.

What are some of the key takeaways people need to understand about race in America?

I think the biggest takeaway is people don’t understand the history of how and what this country was built on. I think it makes people very uncomfortable to discuss the realities of race and class. I was talking to someone on Twitter and had to explain that indeed slavery has an effect on today’s issues and, more importantly, a race of people gravely affected. I think when you don’t understand your history you get angry, and being really misinformed causes racial tension and issues that only deepen the resentment. Demographics have shifted in this country. I think people really need to go back and understand the roots of our history, especially in regard to slavery. If you don’t do that, then you won’t understand why people are angry and feeling as if their life or the lives of those most affected has yet to be restored.

With the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots approaching, what do you think Detroit needs to focus on moving forward in terms of race?

I am a big believer that when faced with a challenge, you deal with it upfront. In Detroit, there’s a lot of opportunity and you can’t stay stuck in the past. You have to respect it and look forward to telling a new
narrative. Detroit needs to look to its future and see what it can do to make tomorrow better.

What is your take on the federal government’s role (EPA, congressional hearings) and response in the Flint water crisis?

The federal government’s role is to protect the people and, in this case, their water. There is no doubt that there has been and is an injustice that has occurred against the people of Flint. No apology or discussion can undo what has been done. This issue has opened the door and shed light on others across America in regard to the quality of water and its consumption. Going back to Flint, the biggest tragedy is the long list of officials that didn’t care, which in turn caused so many lives to suffer.

What is one issue that didn’t necessarily exist 25 years ago?

I would say eight to nine years ago when I look back, we were not allowed to acknowledge, let alone say, white supremacy on air. I recall having a conversation with my boss at the time about the idea that black people are treated differently by police. He would not hear any of it. He said all parents both black and white taught their children the same things in regard to respect and fear of police officers. This notion that different interactions existed was unheard of.

We now do understand that when it comes to policing there are completely different reactions for the white and black civilian. That is a big shift. We now care and are aware that blacks have been forced to live differently and approach police interaction different. I‘ve seen huge strides in this understanding, but there’s still a lot of work to be done considering the recent tragedies of unarmed black men losing their lives to police brutality.

What is your take on the presidential primary race so far?

It is very interesting from a reporter’s perspective. From a voter’s perspective, it’s a hot mess. I think there are a lot of voters on the GOP side who feel their leaders are really ignoring them. On the Democratic side, you look at the most recent debate and see some glaring problems. I think it’s very challenging for voters thus far; you get the sense that it isn’t really about the issues and more about the name-calling and accusations that dominate the headlines and conversation.

What do you think of the media’s role in the presidential election thus far?

I think the media is a combination of institutions, not just one entity. Some have done a great job reporting the facts, and others have been really disappointing and not doing what they should as journalists. Some have decided to encourage and even push the name-calling and madness to drive ratings. I think some media outlets are doing a great job and upholding the responsibility of journalism.

Daniel A. Washington is a marketing and communications coordinator at the Detroit Regional Chamber.