I live in Jackson, a city of 65,000 that’s 80 miles east of Memphis on I-40. A few days ago, I was chatting with my church small group about this assignment and asking the attendees (who’ve been around longer than I) if anything entrepreneurial takes place here. They all thought. Well, there’s lots of bakeries, specifically cupcake places, one said. Another chimed in that her friend had started a cupcake place but that business had failed. One mentioned rental properties, since housing is cheap here. I asked about tech, and they all remembered Aeneas, an ISP that’s headquartered here. They weren’t exactly overflowing with ideas.
“Jackson is very intolerant ideologically and socially,” said one man who I’ll call M, who runs a hardwood flooring company. “Creative types are frozen out. They don’t last long here.” I was so interested in hearing more about this that I asked him and his wife, whose first name also begins with M, to lunch today.
“Football and beauty queens; that’s what’s important to people here,” the wife told me. (Readers may not be aware that Jackson hosts the Miss Tennessee pageant every year.) As we talked, I realized that entrepreneurship is a frame of mind. Jackson, M&M said, has small manufacturing businesses and small retail. But it has what they called low human capital (few folks are well educated despite there being two universities and one community college in town) and low physical capital (not much in the way of heavy manufacturing) here. There’s no venture capital. There’s also very little creativity outside the box. We all remarked about bicycling; how the flatness of west Tennessee ought to lead to tons of great bike paths but there’s nothing of the sort here and no interest at building any. Apparently there are old railroad beds locally that could be converted into bikeways but there’s no thought of doing that. I noted that the town is on a river, but there’s no development alongside the river as there is in San Antonio or Portland, Ore. Thus, even some of the natural things that Jackson has going for it are not exploited.
M&M seemed to feel that for creativity to flourish, there must be a community that makes room for it. When different people encounter each other, ideas happen. But, said M&M, Jackson is like two separate cities: One rich and white living mostly north of the freeway and one black and poor living south of I-40. Creativity also respects dissent. Jackson surely does not, as I found out last year when I wrote an editorial in the local paper urging the Madison County school board to not start schools on Aug. 2, one of the earliest start dates in the country. I then appeared at their meeting to press the issue and got a very icy reception. I then wrote an essay for CNN.com talking about Tennessee having the earliest school start dates in the country. I know the school board was furious about that piece because they called my then-employer, Union University, to complain about me. No thought, mind you, of me possibly being right about it. No, I was a northerner, an outsider, a troublemaker.
M&M is involved in a local hiking club and it was remarked that hardly any of the members are from west Tennessee. They are all out-of-towners who experienced hiking elsewhere. But the locals don’t hike. Where I used to live in Maryland, local communities were on Yahoo groups, which aided greatly in getting to know your neighbors and in trading/swapping possessions back and forth. There’s no such thing in Jackson that I’ve run into. The place is like a time warp except for modern vices such as sex trafficking, which very much goes on in Jackson thanks to its I-40 locale.
Entrepreneurship, I’m realizing, needs a village. It needs the right atmosphere in which to flourish. And where the people resist change, it will die.
*****BREAKING NEWS! – On Oct. 1, the Entrepreneur Center of Southwest Tennessee is having a ribbon cutting and open house in downtown Jackson. Who’d have thunk it?