Dec 4th 2015 | Posted in Education by Peter Partheymuller

City’s development corporation puts emphasis on building out workforce, too

ruby_redA city’s economic development corporation is typically a fairly straightforward business. It does what it’s name implies: It seeks out business opportunities for the city, developing the town’s economic base.

The Mission Economic Development Corporation (Mission EDC) does this too. In 2013, it led efforts to bring Royal Technologies Corporation to Mission, adding a manufacturing plant and creating 500 jobs. Southwest Steel Coil, Inc., expanded its operations in 2014 when it acquired land in Mission to build a steel processing facility. That brought another 50 jobs to the Rio Grande Valley town of almost 90,000 residents.

That’s great, but, as Mission EDC’s CEO Alex Meade (pictured, below) is fond of saying, “That’s what you’re supposed to do.” Meade and his organization have spent much of the last five years doing the day-to-day work of economic development, plus a whole lot more.

It started with the 2012 founding of Ruby Red Ventures, which Meade describes as akin to the television contest for entrepreneurs Shark Tank, where individuals present their business ideas to a panel of corporate investors. With Ruby Red Ventures, those experts are local business leaders. The project began as a $100,000 small business fund initiated to encourage entrepreneurship. There are two rounds of funding each year, and $50,000 is awarded in each round. No one company is granted more than $25,000, and the average grant is $10,000. The recipients are required to attend classes and workshops to give them guidance on how to spend the money to advance their projects.

It’s a successful program. Since 2012, it has awarded about $235,000 to 26 local businesses. But, Meade says, he began to question the entrepreneurs about the lack of technology incorporated in their pitches. They answered that they didn’t know much about high technology.

“They lacked the experience, the skillset,” explains Meade. “We said, well, let’s teach them that. Let’s create a program that teaches them that. And so we started the program Code the Town.”

Code the Town is an educational program designed to teach coding, computer science and other technical skills. It started in elementary schools. Mission EDC partnered with Sylvan Learning Center, which created the curriculum for the city.

alex_meadeWP“We’ve taught 800 kids to code. They wrote 82,000 lines of codes,” Meade says. “They didn’t create anything fancy, but they took what we taught them, and they did something with it.”

The students also took what they learned and brought it back to school, telling their teachers about the experience. The teachers, in turn, approached the program leaders and asked to learn those technical skills, too. “We’ve taught more than 100 elementary teachers,” says Meade.

The plan  for those participating in the program is that the learning doesn’t stop at the classroom door. “The hope is that, as people go through Code the Town, they’d be able to enter their projects into Ruby Red Ventures,” he says.

Other people are taking notice, too. In September, a White House initiative called “Bright Spots in Hispanic Education” recognized 250 educational programs throughout country that are doing good work educating Hispanic students. Code the Town was the only program that came from an EDC rather than a school.

As well, the management of one of the companies brought to Mission by Meade and his organization, Royal Technologies, approached Mission EDC about developing a program to encourage kids to study engineering. The resulting program is called Engenuity, which is intended to expose students to engineering, design and manufacturing careers in the Rio Grande Valley by having them connect with Royal Technologies and its employees.

Meade explains that industry has always come to the Valley, and they’ve done so “because of the workforce. It’s a skilled workforce,” he says. “But what that’s meant is that we can work with our hands. Hopefully, if we continue these programs, companies will come here because we can work with our minds. We’ll have both.”

In November, Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Meade to the Texas Economic Development Corporation. It’s an opportunity for him to bring what’s worked in Mission to other areas of the state. He points out that what Mission EDC is doing isn’t unique. He describes a federal program called Tech Hire, which is similar to the city’s Engenuity program. Also, “One of the governor’s main priorities, when he was elected, was STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education,” Meade says. “This aligns well with the governor’s goals.”

For Meade, as for any economic development leader, it boils down to jobs.

“What we keep seeing from companies is that companies go where the workforce is,” he says. “Incentives and all that stuff help. But if the workforce is there, that’s what it’s about. The workforce can be in Indiana, it can be in Ohio, in Virginia or it can be in Texas. The hope is that, if this works, then other communities will see that and follow suit.”