State should follow lead of Invent PSU, embrace entrepreneurial spirit

This past fall, I had the great opportunity to attend an event at Penn State where I heard from several students who are taking part in an exciting new entrepreneurial program — one that has grown by leaps and bounds in the little more than two years since its founding. Invent Penn State has forged an ingenious partnership between the university, its students and communities that host Penn State campuses. This partnership promotes the school as a leader in global research, boosts economic growth and job creation and encourages individuals to develop a strong business acumen that will take them far in their careers.

The innovation hubs that are a cornerstone of Invent Penn State crisscross the state, offering hopeful entrepreneurs a place to inspire and be inspired, share their ideas and develop a foundation for their business. The hubs have already sparked a number of success stories, featuring students much like the ones I spoke to last fall who are now expanding their business, hiring new workers and making the world around them a better place. In October, Invent Penn State hosted its first Venture and IP Conference in State College. The event attracted 585 people and welcomed 95 startups that had an opportunity to connect with 69 venture capitalists. It received such high acclaim that a second conference was soon booked for April 2018. The sky is the limit for how far this incredible program can go.

For the Pennsylvania Chamber and other chambers of commerce (including the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, which has partnered with Invent Penn State since 2015), the goal is to ensure that Pennsylvania is the best place for these entrepreneurs to grow their new businesses and create jobs. In addition to Penn State, the commonwealth is home to a number of other world-class educational institutions that graduate thousands of bright millennial minds each year. Unfortunately, many of these graduates leave for jobs in other states once their diplomas are in hand. In asking our members why this is the case, one of the things we hear is that there is more startup money in areas like the Silicon Valley and Boston. That answer is not sufficient, and our job is to figure out why those areas attract that capital and adjust what we need to do to compete on equal standing.

One thing that absolutely needs to change is our state’s tax structure. At 9.99 percent, Pennsylvania’s corporate net income tax rate is the highest in the nation, immediately raising red flags for anyone making the decision on where to invest and hire. To help business startups like the ones being pursued through Invent Penn State, we’re advocating eliminating the cap that Pennsylvania currently places on net operating losses. Removing this cap would allow these startups to survive their early years of operation, and would also help cyclical businesses withstand financially lean times.

Just as important to offering a fair and predictable tax climate is ensuring that Pennsylvania has a workforce that’s primed to take on available jobs. This includes promoting STEM education at the high school and college level to help guide students toward jobs with a promising future. We’ve also heard for years from our members that they can’t find qualified job candidates to fill open positions — a complaint that became evident through a workforce survey we conducted last year which showed a sizable gap between what employers need and what job-seekers can do. This prompted the Pennsylvania Chamber to host a Workforce Summit last spring featuring TV host Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame) and kick off a constructive dialogue about the need to educate students and their families about the good paying, family-sustaining jobs that are available in the skilled trades. Working to match hiring employers with the qualified job candidates of tomorrow is a major priority for our organization in 2017 and beyond.

Perhaps the best element of the Invent Penn State initiative is the collaboration it incites among educators, students and members of the community toward the shared goal of a stronger economy. The program also encourages young men and women to pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship, while helping them realize that owning your own business — while far from easy — is a goal worth pursuing. The Pennsylvania Chamber is proud to support Invent Penn State, and we remain committed to making the commonwealth the best place for the entrepreneurs who come through the program to live, work and raise a family.

Gene Barr is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.