An Opportunity to Reimagine
By Matt Haggman
January 25, 2021
Nine years ago this month, I walked into Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen’s office with an idea: invest Knight Foundation funds to help build an ecosystem connecting and supporting high-growth entrepreneurs across Miami. To “make Miami more of a place where ideas are built,” as Ben Wirz, my co-worker and partner in our Knight Foundation work, framed the goal ahead of the meeting.
A few months earlier, in late 2011, I had moved from The Miami Herald to Knight Foundation. Upon my arrival Ibargüen said, “Go talk to people and tell me what we should do next in Miami.” It was a unique opportunity to reimagine our city.
At the time, it wasn’t something many foundations were doing. Miami seemed an unlikely place. Still, it felt right. The program was announced that summer and what followed was more than five years making the case for and establishing the pillars to build Miami’s nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem. (Later, after I stepped away to pursue a new opportunity, the program was continued by my former associate Chris Caines and is led today by Raul Moas.)
We worked from the ground up. The effort included launching Endeavor Miami (Endeavor Global’s first U.S. affiliate and later the subject of a Harvard Business School case study); establishing a 500 Startups presence; cold calling Andrew Yang — then CEO of Venture for America — to bring the non-profit to Miami; starting Babson’s Women Innovating Now Lab Miami. Homegrown efforts were hatched and seeded: eMerge Americas, The Idea Center at Miami Dade College, Miami Angels, Black Tech Week (now Center for Black Innovation), The Lab Miami (there was virtually no co-working here then), among them.
All told, more than 200 grants — or bets, as we thought of them — were made during this time. Some worked well, others didn’t. These early days were fun; every step felt like a victory. Many jumped in and others redoubled efforts underway. It was an intentionally decentralized approach, seeking to empower many leaders. By 2019, Steve Case came to South Florida as part of his Rise of the Rest Tour and declared that Miami was “poised for takeoff.”
I share this story for two reasons.
One, today we are at a moment where we can take a big leap forward in this roughly decade-long effort. The pandemic, and ease of working remotely, has triggered a broad rethinking of where people live and work. It’s resulted in a migration away from established tech centers like San Francisco, and many are choosing Miami.
We learn of new arrivals almost daily, often by Tweet. The sense of possibility is higher than ever: Silicon Valley-turned-Miami venture capitalist Keith Rabois started the year with a resolution to attract 1,000 top flight engineers and five VC competitors to South Florida. Since December Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has gained wide acclaim, and generated a huge following, making the case on Twitter to move to Miami. National news outlets have picked up the story. This month TechCrunch declared that Miami “has suddenly become a tech hot spot.”
But this window — which includes larger, established businesses opening offices in Miami too — won’t last forever. While we must always take the long view, how we make this moment one of real, lasting change is a key question in front of each of us right now. It’s not a time for small ideas or leaning back.
Two, after stepping away from Knight Foundation and going on a different journey for a little while, I started a new role recently. I accepted a job at The Beacon Council with the task of reimagining One Community One Goal, the community-wide initiative focused on shaping Miami’s economic future by identifying key goals and rallying a cross-section of stakeholders to achieve them.
It’s an opportunity that comes at a pivotal moment: an economy hit hard by the pandemic and, amid the upheaval and great opportunity of this moment, the chance to help forge a new, post-COVID economic path that’s more innovative, inclusive and sustainable.
For it to be effective, the effort must build on existing trends and emanate from the community. It must be bottom up, not top down. And it must add to — not duplicate — the many efforts now underway across Miami. This will only be accomplished by reaching out widely and listening closely. Which is why I’m writing to you today.
But, first, some background on The Beacon Council. It’s a public-private partnership that is the official economic development organization serving all of Miami-Dade County, including each of its cities. The organization does three things. One, it recruits and helps companies expand in Miami. Recent examples include Blackstone launching a downtown Miami tech hub, Starwood Capital moving its headquarters to Miami Beach, tech unicorn REEF expanding in Brickell, and Atlantic Sapphire building a sustainable salmon farm in South Dade. Two, it markets Miami as a global business destination to companies, investors, and talent. And, three, it seeks to shape Miami’s economic future through the One Community One Goal initiative.
One Community One Goal, in its current form, dates back to 2012 when it issued a strategic plan with dozens of ideas aimed at moving Miami away from boom and bust economic cycles to create a more diversified economy with better wages and “greater long-term job opportunities.”
The report recommended focusing Miami’s economic future on seven sectors — aviation, creative design and media, information technology, banking and finance, healthcare, trade and logistics, and hospitality and tourism. It established private sector committees to meet and generate ideas. Citing education as the foundation for growth, it created an Academic Leaders Council comprising Miami’s university presidents and the superintendent of schools. Community engagement events were proposed and a report to the community was to be presented annually.
The initial report carried warnings. For instance, citing talent retention issues and cautioning that Miami “seems to be educating workers for other communities,” as college graduates moved away. But it also identified opportunities. It noted Miami’s tradition of small business success and said an effort focused on building a startup community producing high-growth companies “is an opportunity for the future.” As it happened, it was.
Now it’s time to think anew. To rethink this platform at the nexus of business, education and also government. It can’t rest on past approaches. None of us will be the same after COVID, including cities. How we will be different, what opportunities we pursue and how we seek to realize them is an open question.
Which is where you come in. The best ideas are always in the community — with the entrepreneurs, investors, educators, writers, activists, business and non-profit leaders. And that’s where we will be in thinking about the way forward for One Community One Goal.
This week we will start ongoing community conversations. We’ll keep the group sizes small; lots of give and take will be encouraged. You can sign up here for our first gathering Thursday morning. So too, DM’s are open on Twitter at @matthaggman. And you can always find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In thinking about our way forward, I have started with three questions: regarding our economic future, what’s the key issue that we must solve for? How do we solve for it? And what assets are we building upon?
Possibilities range. Early conversations have urged an effort focused on talent recruitment and development. Others on expanding opportunity and inclusion in a community long suffering from wide economic and social divides. Still, others have emphasized transitioning to a more sustainable, greener economy. Greater small business support has been suggested. And, of course, the work of continuing to build Miami’s startup and innovation ecosystem. I have even had a few people suggest jettisoning the name “One Community One Goal” and reimagining that too. To me, nothing is off the table.
We’re exploring not only what One Community One Goal should focus on, but how best to do the work. I am eager to hear your thoughts.
There is perhaps no city today carrying out the American experiment quite like Miami. We are uniquely diverse and cosmopolitan, more than half of our population was born outside the United States and three quarters of our population comes from some place else (including me). Young in years and institutions, we are a city where each of us can play a direct role in shaping its trajectory. There is no waiting for your turn in Miami. And Miami is uniquely dynamic; a metropolitan area in constant motion.
On this last point, consider three examples: arts, Downtown Miami and universities.
Miami was once a sprawled out, no “there” there city. After a concerted push to redevelop the once sleepy urban core, the downtown population has nearly tripled in the past 20 years. A community once viewed as culturally vapid has seen four institutions build new homes in the last 15 years alone — the Adrienne Arts Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2006, New World Symphony in 2011, Perez Art Museum Miami in 2013 and Frost Science in 2017. Once one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country without a public research university, it today boasts one of the largest and most diverse public research universities in the U.S., Florida International University. Miami Dade College, once a small junior college, is now the largest and most diverse campus-based college in the US. The University of Miami, a smaller, private research institution, ranks in the top 50 of all US universities.
The point is this: Miami can change in big ways, sometimes very quickly.
This moment is an opportunity to change again. Amid a public health and economic crisis, along with Miami being rediscovered by many and renewed thinking about what we can be, it’s a chance to reimagine. To try and write a few more chapters, together, in the ever evolving Miami story. Hope to talk with you soon.
Matt Haggman is Executive Vice President, One Community One Goal at The Beacon Council. He previously was Miami Program Director at Knight Foundation and was an award-winning journalist at The Miami Herald.