Why keeping graduates and attracting entrepreneurs is important to the city of Syracuse

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Entrepreneurs have said that while Syracuse can be a solid starting location for a business, in some industries it might be better to expand elsewhere.

During the summer before his sophomore year at Syracuse University, Scott Friedberg wandered into J Michael Shoes after eating at Bleu Monkey Cafe with friends. The Marshall Street staple had TV screens, and Friedberg started chatting up his business idea — engaging customers with digital signage. Friedberg sold the store on it, and they asked him to come install his idea the next day.

One small problem: Friedberg and his business partner hadn’t finished building the product.

After a trip to Wal-Mart and a late night filled with frantic phone calls, the duo installed the product. Word spread about Friedberg’s business, expanding from Marshall Street to the rest of Syracuse. Now his company, Gilded Social, has more than 300 screens across the country.

Friedberg is one of few SU alumni who have started and kept their businesses in Syracuse. Martin J. Whitman School of Management alumni have launched more than 130 businesses in the last 10 years, but few have stuck around the local area.

Entrepreneurs have said that while Syracuse can be a solid starting location for a business, in some industries it might be better to expand elsewhere. Syracuse ranked 95 out of 100 in economic growth across the biggest metro areas in the U.S. from 2009-2014, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

Despite multiple issues the city is facing, including high poverty rate in the city and the possible consolidation between the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County governments, experts said Syracuse still offers many opportunities to entrepreneurs. Some organizations are continuing to try and bring more entrepreneurs in as they see graduates moving out of the area.

“A lot of university students are used to being on campus,” said El-Java Abdul-Qadir, director of the South Side Innovation Center. “So they don’t actually recognize the potential outside of the university. … If they are able to see that in the immediate surrounding area — there are potential customers for whatever product or service they provide — then they’ll imagine this being a place where their business can be successful.”

Syracuse has more than 17,000 graduates living in the area, according to LinkedIn. But, a 2015 report from the American Institute for Economic Research ranked Syracuse 17 out of 20 for its year-over-year ratio of people residing within the city with college degrees.

Friedberg stayed in the city most summers during his undergraduate years at SU. His experience of interacting with people and local businesses convinced him Syracuse would be a great location to maintain his business, he said.

Syracuse has a strong “entrepreneurship ecosystem,” Abdul-Qadir said. Whitman’s undergraduate Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises program ranked 12th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report in 2016. Hubs like the SSIC and WISE Women’s Business Center have provided hundreds of individuals with resources.

The issues facing Syracuse are issues affecting all cities, Abdul-Qadir said. Residents have other options for schools besides the public system, and should use their votes to be active in the community, he said.

“Anywhere you go, you’re going to find challenges, with the high-performing schools, or subpar kind of schools,” he said.

The university has tried to keep graduates in the city, with initiatives such as Engagement Fellows in 2009, which gave six students $10,000 to pursue work and graduate education in Syracuse. Once the money for that grant ran out, though, the program was discontinued, said Lindsay Wickham, events and communication manager at the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship in Whitman.

Jesse Krim, a senior information management and technology major, said he would have applied for the grant if it had been available. Krim said he has been working on his venture Influis, a platform where influential people can share their knowledge and philosophies, since last fall. He wants to move to Las Vegas, New York City or somewhere in California after graduation. One of his relatives lives in Las Vegas, and California and New York City have well-known reputations for connections in the tech industry, he said.

GENIUS NY, meanwhile, is a business competition accelerator offering prizes, including one up to $1 million dollars. Six companies are incubating in Syracuse for 2017, and they relocated teams to Syracuse last month.

AutoModality, one of the teams, is focused on autonomous drone flight. Jimmy Halliday, the chief pilot and Federal Aviation Administration liaison and project manager, said AutoModality plans on building a permanent office in Syracuse, although headquarters will remain in California.

Halliday said AutoModality was attracted to central New York because the area is quickly growing into a drone industry leader. For example, a drone corridor is being built from Syracuse to Rome, New York.

“A lot of times, when we go out and talk to people about our business, the first thing we’ve got to do is educate people, (like tell them) what drones are capable of, why it’s a good idea to invest in the future of drones,” Halliday said. “Central New York has already picked up on that. They are already there.”

But central New York might not be the best location for all industries. Brandon Eng started ExPrep, an Excel-training software, while at SU. Eng, who graduated in 2015, said starting the business in Syracuse had advantages because of its size.

“At Syracuse, the area, everybody knows everybody,” Eng said. “So what’s really nice is that when you make a connection, a lot of people are able to kind of make other introductions.”

But after ExPrep was established, it moved closer to New York City, where there are more opportunities for growth, Eng said.

Keeping students in Syracuse has been a concern of the community for 20 years, said Terry Brown, executive director of the Falcone Center. Brown said that to retain students, the city needs to attract businesses — like those in the drone and nanotechnology industries — who need the skilled labor SU graduates have.

“The city has its issues, (and) it’s really unfortunate. That’s a huge problem we really need to address,” Brown said. “You can’t lift people from poverty if you don’t have jobs. Entrepreneurship is a great way to give people jobs.”


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