Larry Morrissey was 35 and had never held a political office when he ran a successful campaign as an independent candidate to become mayor of Rockford, Ill., in 2005. Now in his third term, Morrissey is determined to bring the city where he grew up back from years of economic decline.
Among efforts to bolster local business and the city’s faltering education system, he recently teamed up with the online marketplace Etsy to create a pilot program for entrepreneurship education. He says it’s a link to an era when entrepreneurship was a way of life, not something learned in grad school.
Despite what he calls “the beatings that come if you’re trying to make change happen,” the mayor believes his city is rising to meet its challenges. Techonomy spoke with Morrissey about how classroom learning can help regenerate a community’s small business acumen.
As a shot in the dark, I sent a tweet to Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson about the importance of an Etsy economy. I wondered whether they’d done any partnerships with cities or school districts to see the Etsy formula injected into the education system. He responded. That began our communication and ultimately led to the project.
Our 20th-century school system model is designed to produce employees, not employers. It’s been a huge problem in cities like Rockford. We don’t have a single publicly traded company headquartered in Rockford. We had quite a few at one point. Many of them were acquired by larger corporations or merged with other companies. So we’ve lost a sense of local ownership over our destiny.
Etsy points back to an older education system based on learning by doing. Etsy is providing all kinds of tools for entrepreneurs to learn on their own, reducing a lot of barriers for entry into the global marketplace. It’s is an example of one of those killer apps that connects the microelements of our economy together¾consumers and suppliers. It gives the little guy a chance to be a constructive member of the global economy. It’s a very human-scale economic exchange, as opposed to … shopping at Walmart or Target.
Did you have ideas for an entrepreneurship program before you came across Etsy?
My ideas about the need to blow up and rebuild our education system predated me knowing anything about Etsy. I believe in the potential of the charter school as a method of introducing a fundamentally different type of learning system where students would learn by doing and making, which I still think can be a stand-alone approach to learning that can encompass a child’s entire day.
The idea of teaching entrepreneurship doesn’t make any sense if you’re not doing it. So when I stumbled across Etsy and saw the different types of products being made and had some interaction with small business owners who were selling their wares on Etsy, I realized, “Hey, if we took some of this and injected it into the education system, it would be an opportunity for a wave of change.” The lucky part, from a timing standpoint, is that we had begun a community-based program called Alignment Rockford that was structurally embedding community connections into our public school system. Once the Etsy connection was made, it paved the way for development of the program.
How is the program structured?
Etsy brought a team out to Rockford last fall. One piece is a curriculum for adult education. This would be, for example, out-of-work public housing residents, maybe people who’ve never worked, or people coming out of prison who can’t find a job. We’re saying, “Can you make your own job?”
The second piece is to inject the Etsy platform into high school education. Our pilot classroom this year is a traditional art class at one of our public high schools where a curriculum has been developed that will insert the Etsy elements of entrepreneurship.
Our hope is to work out the kinks in these pilot efforts, but ultimately we think that we can expand quite rapidly on a high school level. We’re already getting requests from teachers at other schools to introduce this platform at their schools.
We’re also looking to take what we started with the Etsy curriculum and get into more of a co-op model that recognizes that we can probably accelerate the pace of activity and economic productivity by allowing teams, as opposed to just individual entrepreneurs, to work. The theory is that they can do together more rapidly what they could not do alone.
How is Rockford particularly well-suited for this kind of a program?
First, and most importantly, we are desperate. Our poverty numbers are striking; our unemployment rate is extremely high. Traditional approaches to job creation and economic development have left large portions of our community behind. We’re prepared to go in some new directions.
Second, we still have a strong institutional-community memory of the importance of manufacturing. Making things still matters to a lot of people in our community. It’s not as big a leap as it might be in some communities to say that making handmade goods can be an important part of our economy.
What’s your view of entrepreneurship training in higher ed?
I fully reject the notion that college has to be as expensive as it is or that [getting a college education] is the only way to become a valuable member of our economy. In our country 100 years ago learning-by-doing was appreciated and supported. For whatever reason, we abandoned it.
I want to do what I can as a local mayor to innovate and create different types of learning-and-doing opportunities. That’s really what our partnership with Etsy is all about. We’re shifting the notion that school is separated from commerce, and I challenge the notion that a young person cannot be economically productive until they’re finished with grad school.
With a lot of political support from our community, our school board has made a commitment to completely rebuild our model of college and career. You don’t have to make that choice between college and vocation; we can teach job-related context for college-bound students.
How do you imagine the program becoming integrated into your community, and possibly other communities?
Assuming we execute well in the pilot efforts, I see this happening in a very similar growth pattern to what Etsy experienced as a company. Etsy works because it is a decentralized platform: its strength depends on many sellers and many buyers.
If we take that same approach, as long as administrators don’t get in the way, there’s nothing to stop an individual teacher in an art class from creating an Etsy shop that allows students to post products they make on the site and learn about accounting and marketing and all the elements of being a successful shop owner. That can happen rapidly within a school, within a school system, and within the country.
It’s not going to be measured on the volume of products sold, but the fact that they’re making and selling products. The hope is that over time classrooms or teachers become known for making a certain type of product, and that can create an ecosystem of earning and learning at the same time.
Mayor Morrissey will be a speaker at the Sept. 17 Techonomy Detroit event.