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Chamber vows to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."

These words were spoken by Daniel Burnham, one of Chicago's most famous architects and urban planners at the turn of the 20th century. It was that attitude that inspired generations to invest time, talent and treasure into a city and region that has emerged as of the world's largest local economies.

Recently, the Gwinnett Chamber led a delegation of more than 70 regional leaders on its annual Strategic Leadership Visit to Chicago and its suburbs. The goal was to meet with top counterparts and exchange best practices that will help us build on our own success in the areas of job creation, transportation, education, revitalization, and more.

The individual lessons were too numerous to mention here, but three major themes emerged that have implications for our businesses and community today.

First, inspire the entrepreneurial spirit. This was evident in all parts of the region. In Naperville Public Schools, there is an emphasis on encouraging and educating K-12 students to take risks and create the small businesses of tomorrow through daylong forums and real-world projects led by local entrepreneurs. The Chicagoland Chamber's Entrepreneurial Center has also been very successful in efforts to identify early stage companies and help them become high growth firms by creating an ecosystem that nurtures their success. The result has been the success of start-ups like Groupon that launched in 2008 with only three young men and a great idea and has evolved into a company employing more than 900 employees with a value of $1 billion.

Second, use innovation to move education and business models beyond the status quo. In Naperville Public Schools they took Harvard Brain Researcher Dr. John Ratey's thesis to heart that "exercise is like fertilizer for the brain." Understanding that new brain cells are rebuilt with improved cardiovascular activity, they launched "Learning Readiness PE" classes immediately before literacy classes and saw improvement on test scores in those classes more than double.

Through the Chicagoland Chamber's Innovate Now program, they are helping CEOs understand the value of innovation in their companies, creating collaborative networks and growing, recruiting and retaining innovation talent. Through these efforts they are building a strong foundation and competitive edge in a new economy that is driven more and more by ideas and creativity.

Finally, invest in infrastructure to drive economic growth. Without the railroads leading into Chicago from all over the Midwest, there would be no Chicago. Fast forward to today. Without a sound, well-structured multimodal transportation network including its Chicago Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) coordinating its various transit systems, mobility in this region of 9 million people would be impossible and the economy would grind to a halt. And while not perfect, their RTA serves as a common sense approach and model for metro Atlanta as the State studies what our region's transit network and governance should look like.

This same commitment to infrastructure was also evident through the innovative (there's that word again) use of TIFs (similar to our Tax Allocation Districts or TADs) that have allowed downtown Chicago to revitalize the historical financial district that was suffering from disrepair and high vacancy rates. Today, they have resurrected the area, including the theater community with an economic impact of more than $750 million in only one TIF alone.

Inspire the entrepreneurial spirit. Use innovation to move education and our business models beyond the status quo. Invest in infrastructure to drive economic growth. Imagine where Gwinnett and Metro Atlanta could be 100 years from now if we -- like Chicago -- resolved today to "make no little plans" and excel in these three areas. The sky's the limit.

Jim Maran is president and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.