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Written by Laurie Bailey
In 1989, when Bill Generett, Jr. left his Point Breeze home for Morehouse College in Atlanta, he vowed he would never return to Pittsburgh. But after earning a bachelor’s degree and subsequently a Juris Doctorate from Emory University, practicing law in Atlanta for 14 years and then in D.C. and even a stint in Shimabara, Japan teaching English, he returned in 2004 and hit the ground running.
Generett, 43, actively serves on several nonprofit boards and advisory committees, including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, Pittsburgh Economic and Industrial Development Corporation, Phipps Conservatory, Innovation Works and more.
As the new president and CEO of Urban Innovation21, Generett manages the organization’s public private partnership, connecting the region’s successful innovation economy to underserved communities. Taking an entrepreneurial approach to developing programs among local, regional and national stakeholders, he and his team have been recognized nationally for their work. Just last week he spoke at ImaginePittsburgh and NEXTpittsburgh’s The NEXT event: 5 Innovators Shaping Community.
As the inaugural president of Urban Innovation21, what is your biggest challenge in connecting the successful innovation sector with underserved communities?
The region has done very well in terms of transforming its economy. I’m excited because we played a role in that through the Keystone Innovation Zone (an incentive program that provides tax credits to for-profit companies less than eight years old within specific industries and boundaries). Part of our mission is to always make sure that communities that aren’t connected are included. Stakeholders are focusing on that issue, but we all have a lot more work to do.
There is an education component that we really have to figure out–how we can make sure that we are teaching our kids and getting the right education for jobs in the new economy, making sure we’re giving our kids a good STEM education, especially in our public schools. We also have to work to make sure students attending our colleges and universities are getting exposure to internships and job opportunities in the new sectors.
We have a very large internship program. We pay students from Duquesne, Point Park, Carlow and CCAC to work in tech and innovation companies and also advanced manufacturing companies. We do about 100 internships per year. I wish we could do 1,000 or 2,000. That’s what the need is.
We need to figure out how stakeholders across the region can provide more opportunities like that for our students because the reality is if you don’t have an internship these days, if you’re not exposed to industry, your chances of getting a job are pretty slim.
If you take UPMC and PNC (who have their own internship programs) out of the mix, we have the largest innovation economy internship program in the region. Sixty percent of the participants are women, which you generally don’t see, and 40 percent are African American; we are really proud and excited about that. A lot of our students are first-year Community College, Pittsburgh Promise recipients.
What is your vision for Urban Innovation21?
We have some good programs that are going well. We are actually going across the county talking about inclusive innovation and the best practices that cities and innovation sectors can use to include more (people) so that’s good. At this point we want to figure out how we can help others who are starting to do the work that we do so that they can have an impact and collectively, we can really create an impact.
What does success look like?
Success looks like having a city where we are not talking about any kind of inequality – there will always be differences, but (a city) where the differences aren’t so stark. One of the things that it’s hard for me to accept is that for as great we are doing, African Americans here are the poorest group of African Americans in the top 50 metropolitan areas in the country. We have these statistics that are polar opposites in many ways. Success is seeing that gap closed.
As a newly appointed member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (advising U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker), what knowledge will you take with you from Pittsburgh when working with those from other regions of the country?
Our innovation started in 2007, and we are really one of the first organizations in the country to work in high growth clusters to disconnected communities. What we’re seeing nationally, whether it’s urban or rural areas, is that the innovation sector is trying to figure out how to do that. I think we’ve done some things exceptionally well. I have a wonderful board that has allowed me and our team to really take an entrepreneurial approach to this issue because there is no road map. We are taking that to the National Advisory Council.
I’m the head of the subcommittee, the Democratization of Innovation. The goal is to figure out how innovation can impact more people, looking at the types of things that can be implemented without legislative approval relatively quick. What you see across the country is that nobody has been able to do inclusive innovation well. But because of our foundation community and corporate community we’ve been able to start working on the issue before many others started to concentrate on it.
You’ve been an entrepreneur, executive, corporate attorney and teacher. What’s next?
I tell students that everybody has to think like an entrepreneur. I love the work that I’m doing as long as I feel like I’m having impact. I’m going to do this; where I do it, how I do it, in what capacity I do it, I’m not sure, but I love this work. I feel this utilizes all my skills. It’s interesting, when I started I thought, “oh, I’ll probably do this for a year or two.” I’ve gotten other offers to do other things, but I really love the work.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
You know, there are several. We were one of the last Keystone Innovation Zones formed. People didn’t really understand there was value in the work connect. Fast forward, now we are one of the most successful Keystone Innovation Zones in the state and I’m really excited about that.
Through its Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone (PCKIZ) program Urban Innovation21 has supported 98 high-growth companies since 2007. These companies include The Resumator, NoWait, AllPoint Systems, Bit-x-Bit, Special Pathogens laboratory, ShowClix, Ebenefits, Pikimal and dbMotion.
Thirty-two high-growth companies have started up, relocated and are growing in the Hill District/Uptown community. The neighborhood’s image has changed and a wide array of economic development projects is taking place.
I’m also excited about the fact that we’ve really brought to the U.S. “inclusive innovation.” That’s a term that‘s a philosophy that was pioneered in Europe, China and India. It basically says that when we look at innovation policy we have to look at the policy that supports as many people as possible, and that’s a philosophy that we’ve utilized. We’re seeing the inclusion movement really catch fire throughout the country.
I’m also excited about tech companies and community-based business with internships and that we’ve been able to help folks who didn’t think they could get that job and that there wasn’t a place for them in this new economy. When those connections are made and those people are getting a job and are going to school and getting their PhD’s in engineering—those stories keep me going.
Ever feel discouraged?
There are times because you know I can be our biggest cheerleader, but I’m also the most critical of what we do. When I get too discouraged something good happens in terms of how (people) were impacted by the work. What’s cool is that Pittsburgh is doing great, and you now have a lot of people that are saying “let’s work and seriously work so that all communities are connected.”
What brought you back to Pittsburgh?
Well, it was really my wife (Gretchen Generett, from Richmond,VA who is a professor at Duquesne) who said “did you think about Pittsburgh?” when we were thinking about moving (from the Washington, D.C. area). I went back and kind of looked at it through new eyes. We just decided we wanted to raise our kids in a smaller city.
Did you have a strong mentor, someone who truly inspired you to achieve success? If so, do you think of that person when you’re working to improve underserved communities?
I’ve had a lot of mentors. It really started with my parents, my father (William Generett, who passed away in 1996) was a prominent doctor in town. My mother (Mona Generett) is really where I get my passion for working for community. She’s had many positions; the last was the vice president of community development at Dollar Bank. She is really my mentor when it comes to this work.
Have you ever failed? How did it make you stronger?
It’s interesting, I don’t look at it as failure. I look at it as learning. I have an incredible board. I have an incredible board chair (Scott Lammie of UPMC Health Plan, Inc.). He has been a mentor for me. We’ve had some successes and some things that didn’t go like I wanted them to go, but I learned from it. You learn more often from things that don’t go well. I had a business (Comforcare Senior Services), and that business didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to turn out. I ended up selling it for a loss. The woman I sold it to was able to take it and turn it into a very successful business. Although I liked the business, I wasn’t really happy and I’m happy doing this work.
What’s the one thing you wish you could change in Pittsburgh?
That we appreciate cultural differences. We are one of the least diverse cities. There really isn’t the appreciation of cultural differences.
How do you relax?
I love to read and play with my kids (William III, 13 and Gabrielle, 7). They are both very active, and I just like to get engaged with what they are doing. I like quality time with my wife and spending time with family and friends.
Best book you’ve read all year?
David and Goliath by Malcom Gladwell. I like motivational and history books.
Favorite restaurant in Pittsburgh?
The Savoy and Pho Van (in the Strip District).