“We know that you can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education,” San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro at the Democratic National Convention.
To innovate and prosper, San Antonio needs an educated workforce.
That sentiment permeated Discovery SA: The City of Innovation panel Wednesday morning at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Yet despite the focus on innovation, the panelists acknowledged that city, educational and business leaders face huge hurdles in preparing San Antonio’s workforce for the innovation jobs that now drive the economy. They spoke at the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s economic outlook conference.
San Antonio’s high school dropout rate is around 27 percent and higher in some schools districts such as San Antonio Independent School District.
Only 24 percent of San Antonio adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, lagging far behind Austin, which reports 44 percent of adults with a college degree, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Just last week, General Motors cited Austin’s workforce of information technology professionals as the main driver in its decision to open an innovation center there and hire up to 500 workers.
So what can San Antonio do to compete?
Nick Longo, director of Geekdom, a collaborative coworking space that nurtures high-tech startups and an education center downtown, thinks the focus should be on seventh and eighth grade students. And not the self motivated kids but the ones who are at the greatest risk of dropping out.
To help them succeed, Geekdom has launched SparkEd, a program aimed at middle school kids at 30 of the worst performing city schools. During the SparkEd program, those kids will join a team, build a robot and create a website and sell it.
“We want to make geeks into rock stars,” Longo said.
But first he needs to make the kids into geeks. SparkEd seeks to do that through a series of weekend workshops with the kids and mentors from local high-tech companies.
Longo envisions teaching kids skills they need to become the “blacksmiths” of the Internet. He says San Antonio, with Rackspace Hosting, has a stronghold in the cloud computing industry, which provides the plumbing of the Internet. Kids don’t need a college degree to become the electricians and plumbers of the Internet, Longo said. But they do need exposure to the right tools, the right training and the right mentors to learn the high-tech trade, he said. That’s the void Geekdom seeks to fill. Fast Company just published an article detailing the goals of Geekdom, founded by Longo and Rackspace Chairman Graham Weston.
Another panelist, Mir Imran, founder of InCube Labs, a biotech incubator, also wants to tackle San Antonio’s dropout problem by targeting 6th to 12th graders in the San Antonio ISD. He’s forming a nonprofit organization to teach innovation to the students through a set of courses.
Imran, who has five children, thinks innovation can be taught to the city’s most at-risk of dropping out children and can motivate them to stay in school.
It’s important not to beat up on the city’s teachers, but to support them and give them the help they need to help the kids succeed, said Jim Brazell, founder of Ventureramp.
San Antonio has a history of innovation in the aerospace, computer and biotechnology industries, Brazell said. He details that history in the San Antonio Heart of Innovation website.
Central Texas could be one of the nation’s next big technology hubs if Austin and San Antonio tech leaders worked together, Brazell said. But the region’s leaders act provincially and that’s a major roadblock to innovation in the face of global competition, he said.
The lack of venture capital in San Antonio also poses a problem in igniting the city’s startup economy, said Imran with InCube Labs. Silicon Valley has more than 500 venture capital firms and countless angel investors. San Antonio has no venture capital firms. The city has tremendous wealth but potential investors are risk averse when it comes to technology and biotechnology, Imran said.
“Instead of 10 startups a year in San Antonio, there should be hundreds of startups,” he said.