MILWAUKEE – Karen Mills, a former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, told an audience of local business leaders that they can work together for a stronger economic future.
“How is Milwaukee going to be more competitive and what can the people in this room do to move this city towards more growth and more prosperity?” Mills asked at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Economic Forum 2017. She spoke in a ballroom at the The Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, to a sold-out crowd of about 650 people.
“One of the answers,” she said, is that “the key players need to work together.”
Mills is a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, focusing on U.S. competitiveness, entrepreneurship and innovation. She was a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, serving as the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 2009 to 2013.
Mills said she’s worried by a poll that shows half of Americans don’t expect the next generation to be better off.
In introducing Mills, Federation President and CEO Hannah Rosenthal said a strong local Jewish community requires a strong Milwaukee community. Much of Mills’ presentation was devoted to how to encourage that strength.
Mills said there are signs of nationwide economic improvement, including a stock market that’s recovered from the Great Recession, but gross domestic product growth is still sluggish. “We’re still not back to growing our economy because it’s GDP that grows living standards,” Mills said. “People are just not confident in the economy.”
Mills said it’s important to look for ways to encourage entrepreneurship nationwide.
“Entrepreneurship drives innovation. Innovation drives productivity. And productivity drives competitiveness and prosperity,” she said. Citing some data, she added, “One of the compelling issues is that we’re not as entrepreneurial and innovative as we once were.”
She encouraged the audience to think about the role of the supply chain and Milwaukee businesses’ place in it. She said Milwaukee’s place in the supply chain is currently more manufacturing-oriented than some other cities.
“Do you want to do some things to transition from being a supply-chain manufacturing economy to being a supply-chain service economy?” she said.
“The one thing that suppliers really need are skilled workers,” she added. “That requires partnerships.”
Mills said education is key. In a post-speech Q&A, panelists Greg Marcus, president and CEO of The Marcus Corporation and Justin L. Mortara, president of Mortara Instrument, agreed.
Due to political polarization, “we can’t rely on Washington to do it for us,” Mills said. “Right now it’s important to step up and work together.”