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EDITORIAL: Best innovation may be investment in people

June 3, 2017

Innovation, as we learned in last week’s Innovation Issue, comes in many forms. It can be technically complex or artistically creative. It can be bold in concept or relatively simple. Indeed, one idea that kept coming up last week was so simple that it seemed more like common sense than innovation: Invest in people.

Investing in people is a hard concept to argue against. The challenge, of course, is what form that investment should take. Three ideas, in particular, caught our eye for their potential to transform lives beyond those who would receive the direct investment.

The broadest of the three, offered by co-founder and former CEO of Angie’s List Bill Oesterle, could benefit the entire state. Oesterle proposed boosting the state’s anemic population growth and fueling its economy by pulling out all the stops to attract talent, starting with luring Hoosier ex-pats back home.

Indiana needs people to fill high-skill jobs but does a poor job of attracting people from out of state. Among those who live elsewhere, perhaps the easiest to attract are former Hoosiers who have friends and family here. Oesterle urges a state-supported, data-driven effort to identify and then recruit those most likely to return.

If, as Oesterle suggests, Indiana could launch a large, effective recruitment effort and become the state that “recruits better than anyone in the country,” the ripple effect of drawing that talent home could go on for generations. Ideas for everything from new businesses to improved schools to better government come from people, after all.

Closer to home, Indianapolis could attack some of its most vexing problems with a local equivalent of the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan. The program, started in 2005, offers free tuition at public and private Michigan colleges and universities to any child who attends Kalamazoo Public Schools from kindergarten through high school.

The privately funded initiative has so far invested $85 million in more than 4,500 students. The prospect of a free college education for their children would surely be a lure for some families who otherwise head to the suburbs when their kids hit school age. Retaining families in the oldest parts of the city would bolster the local tax base, not to mention what it could do for Indianapolis Public Schools, a district with innovative schools but a shrinking student population.

Perhaps the most surprising idea for investing in people is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program operating in Houston and Dallas. The rigorous nine-month program, started in 2004, has 1,300 graduates, all former inmates and all still employed. Approximately 200 of them own a business. Recidivism is a nagging problem. Texans have figured out how to attack it and then some.

Attracting talent, boosting schools and neighborhoods in old Indianapolis, and returning inmates to productive roles in society are all worthy goals, and all possible with smart investments in people.

These common-sense innovations deserve a closer look.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.
 

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