Support needed for Delaware small businesses, entrepreneurs

Have you ever had a moment perfectly frame for you how much things have changed? It happened to me last month.

It was at a reception for students who had participated in my Congressional App Challenge event — a statewide competition that encourages high school students to develop their talents in coding and computer programming.

I was watching a pitch video for the winning app made by four very talented young women from Cab Calloway School of the Arts. The app is called VirDoc. Teachers and students can access it on their phones or tablets. It demonstrates an animal dissection through a step-by-step video— the same way most high school students would do with their teacher in biology class.

Rep. John Carney, D-Del., used the opportunity of the MilCon breakfast to call on Congress to pass a bipartisan budget. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

John C. Carney Jr.

For students who miss class, or for schools that don’t have the equipment or funding to teach the lesson, this could be a game-changer.

In 1971, when I was sitting in Mrs. Bathon’s biology class dissecting a frog, I couldn’t have imagined that one day kids sitting in those same seats could be performing the same experiment — except on their iPhones. In fact, I couldn’t have imagined an iPhone at all. It was striking to realize how far we’ve come since I sat in a biology class 35 years ago.

How the world has changed really hit home for Delawareans in December when DuPont announced that it was merging with Dow, and that 1,700 employees were being let go.

The announcement hit me like a punch to the gut. But, the fact is, DuPont has been in transition for decades.

At one point, one-tenth of Delaware workers were DuPonters. In the 1990s, DuPont employed about 25,000 Delawareans, including many at a huge plant in Seaford that was the cornerstone of the community.

But as of last December, we were down to 6,000 DuPont employees in our state. And the iconic DuPont buildings that line Wilmington’s skyline all had new tenants — DuPont had moved to the suburbs.

The message couldn’t be clearer: Delaware’s economy is in transition. We can’t take what we have for granted. And we have to be ready to compete for new opportunities.

In a 21st century economy, that means investing in helping startups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs succeed.

I’ve made this a priority in Congress. I was the main sponsor of a provision that makes it easier for emerging companies to go public and trade their stock on the public market. This was called the IPO on-ramp and became law as part of the JOBS Act. Making an initial public offering, or IPO, is critical because it gives companies access to funding that helps them grow, innovate, and hire new employees. On average, 92 percent of a company’s job growth occurs after an IPO.

I’ve also been a champion of the Make It In America agenda, which includes the America COMPETES Act — a law Congress passed that helps small- and medium-sized manufacturers invest in innovative technology. I’ve also introduced legislation to train more workers in STEM fields and to connect employers with employees who have the skills their businesses need.

Here at home, Delaware has come a long way in recent years in its support of small and growing businesses. A few weeks ago, I toured the Mill, a new co-working space that opened last week in the Nemours Building in Wilmington — once a cornerstone of DuPont’s presence downtown. It’s a good illustration of our state’s history, and where we need to go from here.

As you step off the elevator, you see display cases filled with patents and artifacts from the original DuPont mills at Hagley. And then you turn the corner into old DuPont office space that has been transformed. Modern desks, warmly lit conference rooms, state-of-the-art technology, even a coffee bar, where entrepreneurs can meet and plan and build their ideas into successful companies.

Not long ago, the Mill, and other co-working spaces, like the coIN Loft and 1313 Innovation — both in downtown Wilmington — sounded like a futuristic vision of a workplace you might only find in Silicon Valley. Now, they’re the hub of a growing entrepreneurial community here in Delaware.

Delaware’s also building a pipeline of talent to feed into this new economy. The University of Delaware’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship not only helps students turn innovative ideas into businesses; it teaches them the importance of creativity, problem-solving and leadership — qualities that today’s employer values.

Meanwhile, ZipCode Wilmington is breaking new ground in the software development industry. Over an intense, 12-week program ZipCode students learn the skills they need to qualify for the many well-paying IT jobs that Delaware companies have a hard time filling.

For generations, Delaware’s economy has transitioned from one big employer or industry to the next: DuPont, manufacturing, financial services. I’m often asked “what’s the next big thing?” But it’s not the next one thing. It’s the next 50 things, many of which will start with an innovative idea and a team of smart people.

Delaware has come a long way in building the infrastructure to support startups, small businesses and entrepreneurs. But there’s more we can do. We have to build on this momentum to retain the many talented employees we have, attract more growing businesses to the state, and build a stronger, entrepreneurial community throughout the state.

John F. Kennedy said that “change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Working together as a community, we won’t make that mistake. Delaware’s future will certainly look different than Delaware’s past. But this is our chance to make sure it’s just as bright.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John C. Carney Jr. represents Delaware in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is also a candidate for Delaware governor.

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