Erie connects with ideas, inspiration at Homecoming: Jim Rutkowski Jr.
The Erie expatriates invited to take part in the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership’s first ever Homecoming event were, without exception, enthusiastic to be back in the region.
“Folks in Erie don’t realize how great it is until you leave it,” said Joe Bione, president of the Michigan-based consulting firm Whitehall Group, which has an office in Erie. “This event was about connecting the dots — we need folks to get reconnected to Erie and, conversely, Erie needs to get outside itself and engage with those who can help provide insights that will help it succeed.”
That’s exactly what happened, with outstanding community support. In all, 93 local companies stepped up as sponsors and 25 featured speakers took part in the event. Many of the speakers, successful elsewhere in the United States, returned to share lessons and insights that they believe are important to Erie’s success moving forward. Other featured speakers continue to live in our region, and find new and innovative ways to succeed right here at home.
I found a lot of value and insight in each of the discussions that happened throughout the day.
Some of my favorite takeaways from the event:
• Tina Donikowski, a retired GE Transportation vice president, and John Manison, the general manager of GE Transportation’s Mining Solutions, talked about encouraging entrepreneurship inside an already successful business. Doing so is important not just to product innovation, but also in attracting the millennial generation, which values innovation, making an impact, and inclusion in their workplace, they said.
• Sean Hagerty, who has just been named head of the European division for Vanguard — the second-largest asset manager in the world — jumped at the chance provided by Erie Homecoming. “To reconnect to a place I grew up and reconnect with the people and share my experiences since I left, that was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. One aspect of Erie that strikes me every time I come home is how livable Erie is … and that is not the case in many larger places around the country. One recommendation I would have for Erie is invest heavily in education — and do so early with the kids — so they are ready to contribute right away. That is your future.”
• Laurie MacPherson, an associate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation from the University of San Francisco, encouraged us, as a region, to carve a path for the city’s future through an approach to organizational change she called “appreciative inquiry.” The concept of appreciative inquiry encourages people to identify and value the best of what is, envision what might be, and talk about what should be.
“If I were going to lead peer groups assigned to tackle various aspects of Erie’s comeback, I’d post Dr. MacPherson’s advice at every meeting. It will not only keep everyone laser focused on the task at hand, but also inspire a culture that’s hard-wired to leverage the region’s greatest strengths and position it for long-term prosperity,” wrote Leo Bottary, on his website. Bottary also spoke at the event about the concept of peer advantage, which he explores in his book, “The Power of Peers.”
• Kevin Hughes, who leads Occupier Services in the Americas for the global real estate services behemoth Cushman & Wakefield, said that for companies looking to relocate to Erie — and that haven’t actually been here — the demographic numbers make it “feel like an old mid- to mid-lower-class town, not real attractive.” Hughes still has great love for his hometown, but noted that — from his professional perspective — the assets of Erie are plentiful but they are disconnected. That is one aspect that Erie needs to work on right away.
He, too, made note of the importance of millennials. “By 2025 millennials will account for 75 percent of the workforce, which means companies are ‘obsessed’ with capturing and retaining that generation of workers.” One of Hughes' ideas for attracting younger people to live in Erie: connecting the central business district to the waterfront. Doing so will create a mixed-use urban area that millennials find so attractive, he said.
• John Rice, in his keynote speech at the Regional Chamber’s Celebration of Excellence Dinner, talked of how inspirational leaders start with the question of “why” rather than “what” or “how.” When you do that, he said, you find customers and workers who want to work at your business (or live in your town) who are committed and passionate. Having a leader — whether corporate or political — who can inspire is so important to millennials, who value making a difference over earning a large paycheck.
Any great success is the result of a lot of people working together. Erie Homecoming was no different. It was a great demonstration of how much we can accomplish as a community when we ask people to help, to invest, to share, and, most importantly, to come together.
Planning for next year’s Erie Homecoming is already underway, and we cannot wait for who will be joining us, what we can collectively share with one another, and the opportunities that will create.
Jim Rutkowski Jr. is an Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership board member and the general manager of Industrial Sales & Manufacturing Inc.