Report from Techonomy Detroit: Can Technology Rebuild the Middle Class?
Though members of the so-called middle class weren’t necessarily in the room at yesterday’s Techonomy Detroit conference, they seemed to be on a lot of attendees’ minds. One recurring theme to the day’s programming was the idea of utilizing technology as a democratizing agent to give people better access to education, jobs, government services, and investment capital.
Techonomy Detroit, an “annual gathering to celebrate how technology can drive economic growth in the United States and speed development and rebirth in Detroit,” converged for its second year yesterday. Held on the campus of Wayne State University, thought leaders from around the city, state, and world were on hand for panel discussions about a range of topics.
Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, Michigan governor Rick Snyder, Detroit Venture Partners’ CEO Josh Linkner, Venture for America CEO Andrew Yang, Rethink Robotics chief technology officer Rodney Brooks, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and executives from Ford, GM, Dow Chemical, Apigee, Shapeways, the Case Foundation, and more were on hand as panelists.
A panel discussion titled “Connecting Detroit: 8 Mile to Downtown” tackled the issue of Detroit’s digital divide and how the city’s rising entrepreneurial class needs to make an effort to spread opportunities to all corners of Detroit.
Participating in the panel discussion were Matt Clayson, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center; Catherine Kelly, publisher of the Michigan Citizen; Brandon Jessup, CEO of the Michigan Forward Urban Affairs Group; and Brian Mulloy, vice president of Apigee.
Mulloy said city government needs to treat the construction of a digital infrastructure the same way it would our physical infrastructure, like our highways or electrical grid. “We have to place the same value on data and get the message out there that it’s just as important as concrete,” he said.
But even with an infrastructure in place, Jessup pointed out, it won’t matter unless all Detroiters truly feel like technology is an important tool that they, too, can use. “It’s not just getting people to engage with technology, but to become creators,” she noted. “It shouldn’t just be a passive experience.”
In the local urban community, Jessup said, there aren’t too many trusted sources of information: a handful of politicians, perhaps, and church leaders. “Our leadership hasn’t grasped technology, and since they haven’t, it’s harder to get others to,” he added.
Part of the problem, Kelly agreed, is that city government is run by a lot of “old heads” who are themselves stuck in outmoded technologies. “People still want to fax me things,” she said. “We need to get the momentum going and the conversation going. It is possible.”
Felix Ortiz, who spoke on a separate panel about jobs, is one person working hard to get the masses to embrace technology as a tool. Ortiz, a New Yorker, is the founder, chairman, and chief product officer of Viridis Learning, an education tech startup launching nationwide next week that aims to connect the “middle-skill workforce” with jobs.
Ortiz hopes Viridis will challenge the conventional wisdom that says one must have an expensive college degree to have any hope of a good-paying job. “My mission in life is to rebuild the middle class,” Ortiz said, “and I believe we can do that through technology.”
Viridis works like this: Its users take a free assessment test to create a “custom career pathway,” which takes into account their skills, ZIP code, and the jobs available in real time to guide them to a job training program administered by a local community college or workforce training organization—welding, for instance. Users pay $250 for the course and, at the end, they’re given a credential that is recognized by Viridis’ partner employers. (Ortiz said he wants to wait until the official launch to disclose all of Viridis’ corporate partners, but he did mention Comcast and Ted’s Montana Grill by name. Viridis is backed by a host of investors, including Comcast Ventures and the Fisher family.)
From there, Viridis creates an algorithm matching the job availability data entered by the partner employers’ human resources offices to the skill sets of its current students. Ortiz says Viridis students can “stack credentials” by taking multiple training courses.
Ortiz says he started Viridis with the idea of using technology to help solve joblessness. “Where are the jobs, and what are the actual skill mismatches?” he said. “Is the curriculum being taught in college applicable to workforce needs? How can technology disrupt and have a greater value for the student or the job seeker?”
Ortiz grew up in Brooklyn in what he describes as an ordinary, middle-class family until his father, also named Felix Ortiz, embarked on a successful career in politics. Through his father’s connections, Ortiz had access to a series of mentors, including the founder of a television network geared toward Hispanic viewers. Ortiz said those mentors helped him realize how many opportunities he truly had in the world and helped foster a sense that he could be anything he wanted to be.
In addition to rebuilding the middle class, Ortiz said his calling is to bridge the digital divide and bring more urban kids into the tech startup scene. Eventually, he wants to establish incubators to seed urban innovators with the hope that they go on to create local jobs. “I know a kid from one of the worst housing projects in Brooklyn, and he’s the smartest engineer I know,” Ortiz said. “Why can’t someone like him build the technology used by Ford, or a company like that? Those are the kids that will rebuild that community.”
But for now, Ortiz just hopes Viridis is as successful as he imagines it will be—and he imagines it will eventually be the largest website of its kind and the “best in class in the human supply chain.” He said his goal is to execute well in the U.S. and then take Viridis global.
“My mission is to bring the middle class up to its heyday, and if God blesses me with a lot of money, I want to give it all away,” he added.