Steven Wray: From Philly to Hogtown

August 23rd, 2012

Cities of Migration spoke to Steven T. Wray, Executive Director, Economy League of Greater Philadelphia as he visited Toronto as part of the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange in July 2012. This project takes city leaders out of their everyday work to introduce them to new ideas and leaders in other cities. Past exchanges have included Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

What is the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange and why was it created?

The GPLE is a project of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. The Economy League is a business lead civil organization in Philadelphia we’ve been around for a 103 years. We focus on sound public policy and good economic practice to make a more globally competitive region. The Leadership Exchange grew out of a good business practice called benchmarking. To advance in your own practice, it’s good to see what your competitors and friends are doing and identify what you can take back to Philadelphia and apply.

We take 100 leaders from Philadelphia and bring them to another city and invite that city to tell its story and then we try to channel that knowledge into action in Philadelphia when we go home. The value of the leadership exchange? First, you steal some good ideas; second, you look back at your region through the lens of another; and third, you get 100 Philadelphians out of town talking to each other and good things actually happen.

The Leadership Exchange takes city leaders from various sectors to another city– what kind of people attend and what happens when they participate?

It’s a real diverse mix of Philadelphia and that’s intentional. We have business leaders, non-profit leaders, foundation leaders, people from economic development and tourism promotion, and museum executives. What they all have in common is a passion for making our region great. Their diversity is actually what makes it special. I don’t know how many people come to me and say “I’ve learned a lot about Toronto but what I’ve really learned about is Philadelphia.” That’s important. You get that chance to step out of your own element.

You’ve been to Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and now Toronto. What’s an example of a Good Idea from Toronto that you are bringing back to Philadelphia?

One example is this region’s approach to newcomers. That was a very important. Just the term ‘newcomer’ versus immigrant. Everybody is a newcomer. I was a newcomer to Philadelphia coming from Pittsburgh seventeen years ago – I didn’t know anyone and no one knew who I was. I could speak the language and I knew some of the culture but I didn’t have a social network or a business network the way others did. Understanding that newcomer mentality exemplifies the Toronto approach, which is to create a welcoming open environment, and it provides opportunity for people to advance more quickly.

Philadelphia isn’t an immigrant city like Toronto, we have 10% foreign born but we are seeing that number creep up. We do have diversity challenges – we have a large African American and Hispanic population. Toronto’s approach offers us lessons about how immigrants or newcomers in the region are isolated from power structures or networks. I think we can take some of those lessons and apply them for young African American leaders or someone who came to study at one of our 101 colleges and decided to stay or someone who was transferred by their company. I think the lessons about inclusion and leadership development seen in the Mentoring Program that TRIEC (Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council), Maytree and CivicAction are all working on is something that I expect to be replicated in some version in Philadelphia.

You describe Toronto as a city that is working to make diversity and immigration an asset. What are the lessons for Philadelphia?

We see the wave coming. The US will be majority-minority by 2040. Our fastest growing population in the US is people of colour mainly by birth rates. We think immigration and our diversity can be a key strategic advantage for Philadelphia. It’s something we have to consider as we look at our position on federal immigration policy. Philadelphia has 101 colleges and universities, many internationally known. A lot of foreign students study in Philadelphia. Right now it’s very hard for them to stay. If we had more skills-based immigration opportunities, Philadelphia could become a hot bed of population growth, like we haven’t had in decades. We could see entrepreneurs and others coming to Philadelphia and creating new opportunities.

Philadelphia is a great landing spot for foreign company. We are halfway between New York and Washington – the global financial capital and the federal capital ninety minutes away. If you’re starting a new business, we are cheaper then either of those cities but you still have access to them as well as to a good work force and good schools and other things. There is great potential for Philadelphia to be really unique and a business asset. Learning the lessons early will help us get there and something to pay attention to as we are developing.

What is the World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative?

“World Class” is a 15-year strategic planning effort that the Economy League is leading in Greater Philadelphia.. We develop global scenarios that will impact Philadelphia over the next 15 years. We’re working through massive civic engagement – over 1000 leaders participating in roundtable are working with one of our country’s leading scenario planning firms. A smaller team of leaders is developing four scenarios that we call “future stories of Philadelphia.” Stories of what could happen and what might happen.

The two pivot points are globalization and the impact of energy prices and availability. On globalization, we have scenarios that pivot on the rise of China and India, and the US being a secondary power. We have one where US is the primary power. We have one where the entire global economy collapses. And a fourth, where everyone muddles along but people start working together in different ways. Each of those has different implications for Philadelphia. The goal of scenario planning isn’t to predict, but it’s to develop strategies that are robust enough to succeed across all the scenarios or to help you succeed better across all the scenarios.

We take those scenarios back out to our roundtables and ask our region – what would you prioritize for Philadelphia to succeed in each of those areas? So, we identified three big priority areas. First was business growth. How do you get your economy to grow – more entrepreneurship, more innovation into existing businesses, more trade globally. The second was talent development. How you make sure you have access to a developing workforce that is able to adapt to changes in both a global and regional environment. And third was infrastructure? We now have strategy teams working in each of these three areas in partnership with other major civic organizations.

The Economy League is not a program running organization; we’re a convening and catalytic organization. We try to galvanize action by working with partners, and finding folks who are ready to take action, who are ready to lead and to fill a gap if there is one. And there seems to be a movement. It’s interesting how many cities are trying variations of this – Civic Action in Toronto and Global Detroit. We’re in a global economy so, we don’t have much choice. Like other cities, we’d like to be globally competitive and we need to be authentically Philadelphia as well.

There is a lot of discussion these days on welcoming communities.

We have a model for that – the Welcoming Center of New Pennsylvanians. It’s a place that helps newcomers navigate the system. They also help employers understand the benefits, the values, and the special needs for newcomers. How we support our newcomer communities to our region is very important.

The thing I found interesting about Toronto is – America always had this goal of the melting pot – Toronto appears to be more of mosaic. You want everyone to be Canadian, but you also want them to cherish value and honour their own traditions and backgrounds. It sounds altruistic, but there’s also economic and practical benefit. When a company or individual comes here from overseas, there will be a community they can be comfortable in very quickly, and that helps that welcoming part. That’s something our folks are trying to develop in our system.

What about the idea of receiving communities so that locals don’t feel so threatened by newcomers?

Thinking about the receiving community is important because that’s where tension can arise. Perhaps more so in Philadelphia than Toronto because we don’t have much economic growth happening right now.

The Welcoming Center plays that role. They work with the individual or the family of the folks who are coming into the community, and also bridge the gap to employers or government services who are working with newcomers. For example, the local leader of our labour union movement is on the board and an honouree of the Welcoming Centre.

We recently profiled a Good Idea on microfinance from the city of Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce. What else can Philadelphia teach other cities?

Our current mayor has a very strong and positive attitude towards immigration. The mayor wants to understand how we can do better. Annually, on the 4th of July, he presides over the swearing in ceremonies of new Americans at Independence Hall –linking these events is important. Another example is the small community in the suburbs called Upper Darby that is home to 68 different nationalities. It’s an incredibly diverse area. They worked with the Welcoming Center to reprint their business services brochure in at least seven languages. It was also a unique kind of public-non-profit partnership – and they gave the Welcoming Center office space out in the community

Given this is Republican county, that’s not what you might have expected in Upper Darby. But they recognize, particularly the business services folk that these newcomers wanted to start businesses that could fill empty space among vacant commercial quarters – ethnic food stores, small businesses – and that they needed to create a more welcoming attitude to make it work.

So the Upper Darby police chief has taken a whole different approach to how he does things. The mayor has learned to play cricket, learned things that he never thought. It’s more than just come out and kick off the opening ball or throw out the opening pitch. You have to get to know the community, learn who the true leaders are in the community. That is a shift. That is not party-based. It is understanding where the different power levels are within a community. Sometimes it’s nationality, sometimes religion, it could be wealth or it could be family. So how you navigate that and understand that is unique each time and you need some guides to help you along with that.

I think we will see a lot more happening after being in Toronto. There were a lot of eyes opened and new thinking. I mean when you have 50% of your folks foreign-born, you’re going to have that.

What is the next big idea for Philadelphia? What is top of your wish list?

First is a regional talent partnership, focused on the whole continuum of talent development from birth to pre-kindergarten all the way to adult education, recognizing the inter-connectedness between all levels. If you don’t start early and provide a good foundation, it’s difficult for the public school system to succeed. If the public system doesn’t succeed and isn’t producing good graduates then the workforce isn’t going to succeed. We tend to work in silos around those things so we are working with our United Way to develop a business plan for how that partnership would be created, how it would be supported, how it would be sustained, and who would be involved.

I view talent as the real differentiator into the future. If your region is able to adjust and adapt to the changes in the economy, you’re going to be in a better position. And if your people are ready to do that, you’re going to have more success. And they are going to have more success. That’s the big one.

What is your favourite city and why?

I think Philadelphia is just starting to realize its potential for great things. My home town is Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is one of those places that plays bigger than it is. It has transformed its economy in a way that no one would have imagined. It’s an incredibly liveable, affordable place with all of the amenities of a big city. The working ethos of Pittsburgh is in its attitude, “I’m not going to let this city die. We’re going to move it forward.” They have made a smoother transition than a lot of other industrial cities to a talent-based economy. It’s a great mid-sized city.

Steven T. Wray is the Executive Director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia in 2006. He works with a board of more than 70 senior private sector leaders from the region’s leading companies and institutions and a staff of 10. Wray also is Managing Director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., the corporate home of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

 This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

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