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Q and A with Winn Maddrey

by Mark Peres

January 4,2005

How do you define business innovation?

Innovation means new ideas, new implementation and new execution in the marketplace as opposed to theory in the classroom.

Who are the innovative companies in Charlotte?

There are countless innovative companies in Charlotte. Innovation exits everywhere, from local companies such as LendingTree, Harris Teeter, Family Dollar, Harper’s, Goodrich, Allen Tate, Goodmortgage, Reid’s and countless others. But it is hard to quantify, because counting the number of patents is not a way that we can measure our companies in Charlotte.

Does Charlotte have the talent pool to support innovation?

Charlotte has a growing talent pool to meet the needs of small, medium and large businesses. Our universities are critical to generating talent. The better and more innovative our universities, the better and more innovative our companies will be. The good news is that the number and quality of graduates is growing – and Charlotte is becoming a place where these graduate want to live. The best assets we have for our future is UNC-Charlotte, Queens, Johnson & Wales, Wake Forest and other premier higher education institutions.

How does Charlotte compare and contrast with other markets known for innovation?

A frequent comparison is made between the Triangle and Charlotte. The Triangle, which offers world-class education and approximately 18 colleges and universities, is known for innovation. If you asked someone nationally whether Charlotte is an innovation corridor, the answer would be no. Charlotte is perceived as a big company town. But if you look at the recruiting numbers, it tells a different story. In the past ten years, the Charlotte Chamber has recruited more than 8,800 companies to this market with 75,926 jobs – an average of 8.6 employees per company. So growth in our marketplace, in terms of jobs, occurs at the smaller companies. And I believe innovation drives this dynamic.

What does Charlotte have to do to support innovation?

In addition to elevating and embracing research and entrepreneurship at our universities, we need to do two things. We need to actively mentor those who want to start or grow a business. If someone is successful in their career, that individual should mentor others who might follow in their footsteps. That is part of being an innovator. Connecting people to others who have similar interests…and recognizing similar talents. It helps people who are successful build other successful companies.

We also need to become more risk tolerant of new ideas as it pertains to business start-ups, diverse points of view and emerging technologies. For example, if you meet two people at a cocktail party and one person says “I work at a bank” and the other says, “I work at a software company,” the Charlotte marketplace sees banking as a smarter career choice.

Charlotte is used to slow, steady growing corporations, such as banks, retailers and utilities. There is nothing wrong with that, but Charlotte needs economic diversification. Charlotte is not yet a place for start-ups. If you look at the Triangle, embarking on an innovative career is viewed differently than in Charlotte. Our city needs to celebrate venturing as much as getting a job at a big company.

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