How New York can be the new Silicon Valley — without Amazon
It’s been six months since Amazon broke up with New York on Valentine’s Day, and the city is still feeling the pain. Many worked hard to convince the tech giant to base its second HQ in Long Island City, a plan that would have regenerated a brownfield in the neighborhood, created at least 25,000 jobs and finally signaled that Silicon Alley is a true rival to the tech hubs on the West Coast.
But the time for mourning is over.
The fact is, New York doesn’t need to depend on luring in big corporations to give our tech biz a boost. We should bet on ourselves.
New York dangled $3 billion in various tax rebates and incentives to lure Amazon to our city. This was a worthwhile bargain, but it didn’t end up working. So now, wouldn’t we be better off nurturing our homegrown tech companies by training locals and creating an environment that’s critical to local business?
To do this, we don’t need to roll out a massive tax-rebate program. We simply need to make the city easier for startups.
We already have many advantages. Tech companies need to attract outside talent — people who love living in vibrant, diverse and interesting cities. We have that. Tech companies must be near major airports and rail lines, geographically close to their customers, clients and investors. We have that. And they need access to capital. Goodness knows, we have that.
What New York doesn’t have is a culture that plucks local talent and pushes it into tech. It lacks an environment that makes opening a business and meeting local standards straightforward and reasonable, and not ruinously expensive. It fails to provide enough affordable housing or uniformly good public schools where members of the startup economy can live and raise their families.
There are many ways to fix this. The success of Cornell Tech is a start.
In just a few short years, the joint venture between Cornell and Technion in Israel on Roosevelt Island has created a new model for STEM education.
Hundreds of new tech graduates have been minted. Meanwhile, the school’s world-class faculty and students are busy promoting digital literacy in our city’s public schools, encouraging kids to begin startups of their own. And for women studying STEM at CUNY, Cornell Tech offers two- and three-week “winternships” at leading local employers. All this from an initial city investment of $100 million (about the cost of a 15-story apartment building) and free land on Roosevelt Island.
Imagine a half-dozen more such programs, run by highly qualified local universities and schools and seeded with public funds, focused on training the future tech workers of New York. Locals could gain a range of qualifications, from mid-career Ph.D. and master’s degrees to high-school STEM courses like those at Stuyvesant High School to six-week skills-based programs similar to ones found at the global tech school General Assembly.
If the leaders of our city’s five boroughs pulled together with the same energy they put into the Amazon deal, we wouldn’t have to give up so much future tax revenue (or government money). New York can offer public-owned buildings for work spaces and accelerate regulatory approvals and accreditation to get startups moving fast. By partnering with big real-estate companies and universities, the city could deliver more lower-cost housing for workers. And by collaborating with private companies offering an immediately relevant curriculum, the city can enhance our public-education system. The program CS4ALL, an $80 million public-private partnership that trains public-school educators to teach computer skills, is just one excellent example.
At the same time, there should be a standing dialogue between tech leaders and elected officials. The organization Tech:NYC (on whose Leadership Council I serve) is already working to bring these two groups together. And the city should celebrate its homegrown startups at open Demo Days across the five boroughs to generate media coverage and capital.
We already have a far more diverse tech scene by gender and race than Silicon Valley’s, but we need to do more. Let’s launch a program that takes students from NYCHA housing and brings them into paid internship programs in our very own NYC startups.
One of the saddest parts of the Amazon failure is that it hurt the borough of Queens. Yes, Amazon is still planning to bring thousands of jobs to New York (roughly 8,000 to 10,000), but they will be in Manhattan, not Long Island City.
Tech innovation is bursting at the seams in all five boroughs and the tri-state region, not just in Manhattan and Brooklyn. We need to find and nurture startups that aren’t in the obvious places. How about a new angel funding network — OuterBoro Angels, say — that focuses on that all-important first financing round for startups outside of Manhattan?
All this could fill the void left by Amazon, and it has the added appeal of being organic. Instead of waiting for a savior from the West Coast to drop in and create tens of thousands of new jobs, we would create them ourselves. To be sure, our city benefits greatly from having Google, Facebook and other tech giants among us, but we don’t have to depend on these for the future of tech in NYC.
Let’s double down on the city’s incredibly successful decision to become Silicon Alley. We currently boast about 9,000 tech startups, valued at roughly $71 billion.
Clearly, New Yorkers do amazing things all on our own. After all, if we can make it here, we can make it better than anywhere.