What I Did in the Obama Administration: Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Today we use terms like innovation, entrepreneurship, accelerators, tech transfer and proof of concept without batting an eye.

These approaches, strategies and tactics are for the most part commonplace.

But that was not the case a decade ago and their application was not the norm for federal, state, local governments during the first term of the Obama Administration when I was a Presidential Appointee.

President Barack Obama tours SpaceX launch pad with CEO Elon Musk, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, April 15, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama inherited an economic crisis, which meant that creating jobs was his top priority. That is why I continue to be proud of the accomplishments of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA).

As Director of Public Affairs for an agency with a narrow focus on economic growth, it was my role to promote innovation and entrepreneurship to stakeholders and partners that saw brick and mortar as king and advocated for traditional funding streams for public works, planning, and trade assistance.

So there was resistance to innovation and entrepreneurship, but it was largely centered around whether funding would be pulled from existing buckets and how to adopt these new pillars to an arena anchored in long standing economic structures, policies, and standards.

Luckily, I was in good company.

Looking back, it was a tremendous asset to be part of the lean political team at EDA. Former Governor Gary Locke was Secretary of DOC and empowered us to take bold action. Former Mayor John Fernandez understood the challenges of creating jobs at the local level and insisted on a ground up approach and sought to break down the silos that were barriers to accessing federal resources.

I also worked closely with other powerhouses at EDA, including Virginia’s current Secretary of Commerce and Trade Esther Lee, seasoned strategic planner Angela Martinez, and Brian P. McGowan, President and CEO of the Atlanta BeltLine, a sustainable redevelopment project to transform the city.

It was a very exciting time. We were a small group but were always at the table at the White House, and because of EDA’s track record, we often led initiatives for other agencies with significantly larger budgets.

The focus was on positioning America’s regions and local municipalities to compete for the industries and jobs of the future.

We launched X-prize style competitions to fund accelerators, incubators, and proof of concept centers in counties and cities.

We created the National Advisory Council on Innovation & Entrepreneurship to engage private sector CEOs and top industry executives.

We cast a wide net, collaborating with universities to jumpstart technology transfer, engaging venture capitalists to identify best practices, and partnering with entrepreneurship organizations to develop mentoring programs.

When the Administration’s successes to foster viable regional innovation clusters were challenged, I was among the Presidential Appointees interviewed to make the case. PolitiFact determined it was indeed a promise kept by President Obama.

Our commitment to job creation was unwavering, even when it came to the nation’s space program.

President George W. Bush’s Administration decided to retire the shuttle program by 2010 so President Obama invested in Florida’s Space Coast and other impacted communities. A major component of this inititative was the Presidential Task Force on Space Industry Workforce and Economic Development, which my agency worked on.

I was able to collaborate with leaders at NASA and manage a resource to engage stakeholders.

I am proud to have served in an agency that measured success in the number of jobs created, regions transformed, and communities revitalized.

It was a rewarding professional experience. We planted the seeds.

There are numerous programs for incubators, accelerators, entrepreneurship and innovation today led by states and cities across the country.

I’m humbled that I played a part in this evolution.