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Review: Smart People Should Build Things by Andrew Yang

smart peopleThis review first ran in the April 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs and Create New Jobs in America

By Andrew Yang

Harper Business


Kudos to you on graduating top of your class.

So what’s your next move?

Off to law school? Business school? Medical school?

How about choosing none of the above and opting instead for a Steeltown start-up?

Your parents may not approve but author Andrew Yang would congratulate you on a smart career move. And the rest of us here in Hamilton might just throw you a parade.

Yang is founder and CEO of Venture for America (there’s also a Venture for Canada for top grads north of the border). He’s out to create an army of company builders with a sense of purpose.  His non-profit enlists freshly minted grads south of the border to join start-ups and help revitalize cities and communities through entrepreneurship.

Right now, the best and brightest aren’t flocking to start-ups. They’re taking the lucrative and well-traveled path to work as bankers, lawyers, consultants and doctors in a handful of major cities.

“Achievers want to achieve and that’s what achievement now looks like,” laments Yang. “These structured paths are clearly laid out, and are pursued collectively by many – or most – of the students who have been screened and sorted as the academic and cognitive elite. These prestige pathways have become the default options.”

We’re witnessing a hyper-allocation of top talent flooding professional service industries. While it’s easy to see the upside, Yang cautions there’s a downside that too many grads ignore.

“If you work in professional services, you will be paid handsomely and have a brand-name firm on your resume. You’ll gain skills, confidence and exposure.

“But you may also become heavily socialized and specialized, more risk averse and accustomed to operating in resource-rich environments with a narrow set of deliverables. You’ll be likely to adopt an arm’s length relationship with your work. You won’t build anything; instead, you will compartmentalize and put the armor on each day as deals, clients and colleagues come and go.”

And should you find yourself bored, burned out or out of a job, Yang says it’s often toughen than anticipated to change careers.

At a start-up, you’re working on something you own, believe in and care about. “You’ll be 100 per cent engaged and motivated. You can lead an integrated life, as opposed to a compartmentalized one in which you play a role in an office and then try to forget about it when you get home. You can define an organization, not the other way around.”

The work will be gritty and unglamorous. Yet you’ll learn how to get things done. You’ll be comfortable making decisions working off limited knowledge. You’ll create and improve products.  You’ll know how to win and keep customers. And you’ll discover what it takes to hire, manage and lead a team.

All of that experience is great for a long and successful career. And it’s great for our community, given that start-ups and growing companies create the bulk of all new jobs.  “If you want to spur long-term job growth, you want as much talent as possible heading to new firms so that more of those firms can succeed, expand and hire even more people,” says Yang. “Having the right people early on can make the difference.”

Yang says it’s unrealistic to expect freshly minted grads to go forth and successfully launch companies on their own. “Building things is very, very hard. The best way to become an entrepreneur is to learn from a more experienced leader as he or she builds a company.”

Along with creating those hands-on learning opportunities, Venture for America provides training, networks and support for top grads who are working with start-ups in cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland.

So if you’re headed to a spring convocation cermeony, skip the obligatory copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and give this book instead to your freshly minted grad. And be sure to highlight one of Yang’s favourite quotes from an unknown source on page 68.

“Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of life like most people can’t.”

7th annual media relations summer camp for Hamilton community builders June 24 & 26

Volunteers, staff and board members with Hamilton nonprofits, community groups and associations are invited to the 7th annual media relations camp June 24 and 26 at The Hamilton Spectator.

With help from local PR pros, campers will polish, practice and then pitch story ideas to a panel of Spectator editors and reporters. Some of the best pitches from past camps have wound up in the print and online versions of The Spectator.

Campers will also get hands-on crash courses in how to give on-camera interviews, pen letters to the editor and op-eds and use social media to spread the news.

The camp is free as a thank you to community builders who make Hamilton an even better place to call home. Register online by Friday, May 23.

Highlights from the 2013 camp and evaluations from the 22 organizations that took part are posted here.

Review: Reimagining Greenville – Building the Best Downtown in America by John Boyanoski with Knox White

greenvilleThis review first ran in the April 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Reimagining Greenville: Building the Best Downtown in America

By John Boyanoski with Knox White

The History Press


Believe the hype.

The reopening of the Royal Connaught will kick downtown renewal into overdrive.

For a preview of what’s in store, look 1,300 kilometres south to Greenville, South Carolina.

Like Hamilton, Greenville had a landmark hotel that had fallen on hard times. Boarded up for a decade, the Poinsett Hotel was a downtown eyesore that cast a long shadow over the renewal that was happening around it.

The hotel was a bricks and mortar symbol of what wasn’t working, says John Boyanoski, a local journalist and author of Reimagining Greenville: Building the Best Downtown in America. “The Poinsett was a visual reminder of the hurdles downtown Greenville faced as its revitalization gained momentum.”

In 1989, Greenville residents were asked to name a great downtown. Less than five per cent chose their hometown.

Mayor Knox White saw the Poinsett as the key to winning back longtime residents who weren’t interested in condos, street festivals and bars for millennials. “Nothing said downtown Greenville was back than the reopening of the Poinsett. It spoke to the older people in Greenville who were the most skeptical about downtown redevelopment.”

The hotel reopened in the Fall of 2000 and $65 million worth of commercial and residential investment in the two blocks surrounding the hotel soon followed. The Westin Poinsett joined a new performing arts centre and stadium as downtown anchors. The ballpark, home to a Boston Red Sox farm team, was built with no taxpayer money and drew 330,078 fans downtown in its first year. Connecting the hotel, arts centre and stadium are more than 90 restaurants and pubs plus high end retail.

To give the downtown a personality and a reason for pedestrians to keep walking the next block, Greenville doubled down on public art. Donor-funded bronze sculptures of local heroes and nine mice hidden throughout downtown are a crowd favourite.

The business-first city council has held firm on its commitment to historical preservation, private-public partnerships and mixed use development in the core.  Since 1999, Greenville has added 1,000 housing units downtown. Underused parking lots have been sold to developers who commit to putting up buildings that offer a mix of office space, restaurants, retail, condos and apartments.

“A typical day in Greenville is something truly to behold,” says Boyanoski. “It is a small southern downtown that is alive 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Pick a point at any time of the day and something is going on.”

Renewal has been 30 years in the making and didn’t always come easy. “Every success met with battles and very public opposition,” says Boyanoski. There was pushback on everything from narrowing Main Street from four to two lanes of traffic, widening sidewalks and knocking down a four lane concrete bridge built over a downtown waterfall. The unobstructed falls, with a 23-acre park and pedestrian suspension bridge in the heart of the city, is now Greenville’s main attraction.

The city also took on a night club developer who planned to fill a prime piece of real estate with billiard tables and video poker machines. “Greenville’s road to getting and retaining retail started with a lawsuit, one of the nastiest in city history,” says Boyanoski. Today, the building is home to Mast General Store and jammed with customers.

Above all else, Greenville has been blessed with strong mayors, a committed council and city staff at the top of their game. They’ve followed through on a consultant’s bold blueprint to make downtown Greenville everyone’s neighbourhood.

“The secret to Greenville’s success wasn’t really a secret,” says Knox. “It was planning. It was implementing. It was bringing people together who believed. It was listening to those who didn’t believe. It was changing people’s minds. It was creating a vision and making it happen.”

Three things will happen after reading this book. You’ll want to take a 13 hour summer roadtrip to Greenville, stay at the Westin Poinsett and catch a ballgame. You’ll gain a new appreciation for what downtown renewal means for all Hamiltonians and what’s required to make the core everyone’s neighborhood. And when you step into the voting booth Oct. 27, you’ll cast your vote for strong and visionary local leaders who have the courage to stay the course and not lose sight of the big picture.