On a recent trip to Dallas, I asked myself the above question, is Oklahoma City the Next Dallas? Will OKC or Oklahoma in total, ever measure up to the Metroplex? Why in the world would you want to?
In The Beginning
As a student at the University of Oklahoma, I dreamed of working in Dallas, or some other large metro area. Dallas, and other cities like it, had the charm and glamour that a young man seeks. Thankfully, I came to my senses and decided to stay in Oklahoma, first in Tulsa, then Oklahoma City. I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 20 years or so, but my oh my how times have changed.
I trace the change back to what most would see as an unremarkable event, the decision by Renzi Stone to locate his public relations firm in Oklahoma City. I don’t remember, the exact reasons he gave to locate here, but it was something along the line of “wanting to make good by Oklahoma”. Honestly, at the time, the only thought on the matter was, good luck Renzi. OKC is a little backwater for your international brand of PR. Fortunately for both of us, I was wrong.
Since that time, there has been a convergence of items that have propelled Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma in general forward: Strong political leadership, good oil and gas prices, strong large business leadership (i.e. Larry Nichols), and the emergence of the nascent entrepreneurial class. The last item is the one I want to focus on.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and so I am biased towards the subject, but strictly speaking, all business starts with entrepreneurs, so their presence is critical to the health of an economy. According to Merriam Webster, the word has its origins in the Old French related to enterprise, or to undertake. Great definition, but it’s lacking. Renzi called it the creative class, referencing Richard Florida’s book on economic development. Whatever your definition, a vibrant economy needs people that are willing to create something where there once was nothing. For many years, Oklahoma was missing a stable of these folks.
I’ve listened for twenty years about the “brain drain” in Oklahoma, specifically as it relates to college graduates. Not once, did I ever hear about the drain of entrepreneurial talent leaving the state, but that it did. I can name dozens of men and women with whom I went to school that moved South to follow their business building dreams. The truth of the matter is, if you don’t keep the entrepreneurial talent here to build businesses, there is nobody to hire the engineers, the financiers, and the marketers. It appears that in Oklahoma we’ve spent the majority of our resources on trying to deal with college attendance, and hiring of college graduates, but that is a story for another day.
Times They are a Changin’
Thankfully, the creative spirit is hard to kill. I see now in Oklahoma, and specifically in Oklahoma City, a renaissance of entrepreneurial activity. How big or active is it? Don’t know, but I can tell you that it is growing, and fast. The result is not certain, but I see signs that it is reaching a critical mass. On the aforementioned trip to Dallas, I was with a group of Oklahoma entrepreneurs that were interested in starting a private accelerator group for technology (for more information visit www.techstars.org) in Oklahoma. We were visiting the Pitch Day for Tech Wildcatters (www.techwildcatters.com) which is a Techstar affiliated group in its second year. Already, this group was ready to take this project on in OKC, with no motive other than to altruistically promote new technology companies in Oklahoma. Even better, at last check, fancy Austin didn’t even have one of these.
At the social hour after the event, I was talking to a young entrepreneur who hadn’t participated in the Wildcatters program, but routinely came to the functions to be around like minded individuals. Something he said struck me right between the eyes. He said that he really enjoyed this group, and that in it was a way to show up the Dallas Old Guard (my word, not his). And I began to see what I had only read about. Technology has changed the world in a myriad of ways, but in business, it has crushed the gatekeepers. No longer in Oklahoma do Eddie Gaylord and Gene Stipe exclusively decide what is kosher. We have a group of Oklahomans that are going to use technology to grow there business in ways their parents never dreamed, and there is very little the Old Guard or the government can do about it.
To answer the question, will Oklahoma City ever be Dallas? Doubt it. Probably more like the next Indianapolis, but even more likely it will be a unique creation, sprouting from our unique background as Oklahomans. Rather than spend time trying to woo large corporations with tax incentives and credits, let’s spend our resources doing what we do best, growing business from scratch. It’s going to happen, so why not encourage it rather than pushing these job creators out. The next Devon, or Sonic, or American Fidelity is out there, the question is whether they’re going to be in OKC or Dallas. So how do we do that? That will be the topic of my next post.