116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Vying to lead a city known for its entrepreneurial spirit, candidates in what has recently become a four-way race for Cedar Rapids mayor pitched their visions Wednesday for fueling innovation.
As the Nov. 2 city and school elections approach, a forum hosted by NewBoCo at The Olympic was the first opportunity for the four mayoral hopefuls to appear together since Myra Colby Bradwell, formerly known as Gregory Hughes, filed shortly before the window closed to get on the ballot.
Women Lead Change Chief Executive Officer Tiffany O’Donnell said the city has the ingredients to make an entrepreneur. Those need to be packaged properly, she said, to make sure people know about opportunities here and have access to the capital they need to start new ventures.
Entrepreneurship “is the personality and identity of this great city of Cedar Rapids,” O’Donnell said. “We build stuff. We're dreamers and doers here. Across the state, that's how we're known. We need to lean into that.”
O’Donnell said she sees communication skills and relationships as her top strengths, and vowed to leverage those to foster personal relationships with companies and help retain businesses here.
She also spoke of envisioning NewBoCo — the nonprofit supporting entrepreneurship, innovation and technical education — as “that third leg on the stool” in approaching economic development in addition to the city’s department and the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, calling for an official city partnership with the organization.
“Who better knows who's out there and who's looking for capital and places to begin and grow?” O’Donnell asked.
Cedar Rapids already does provide some support to NewBoCo. Under an agreement, the city is providing $50,000 over the next two fiscal years to support small business development, entrepreneurship and startup assistance. The agreement identifies the Kiva Microfinance Initiative, Delta V Code School and Iowa Startup Accelerator Program as those funded.
Mayor Brad Hart highlighted existing city efforts to spur innovation and support entrepreneurship, such as its partnership with Kirkwood Community College’s Small Business Development Center to provide technical assistance to small businesses.
“There's a long history of entrepreneurs being successful,” Hart said. “We know the big ones, but there are hundreds, thousands of smaller businesses that have started, and put their time and money and their sweat into it and have succeeded.”
To contribute to the entrepreneurial innovation and tech education ecosystem, Hart said if he had an idea, the city already would be doing it as he is in office.
“I don’t hold back on ideas,” Hart said, but he would hope to increase funding for organizations doing this type of work already.
TrueNorth executive and Advocates for Social Justice Vice President Amara Andrews shared her experience creating a startup business incubator program at in Champaign, Ill. That helped make connections between different stakeholders to drive innovation, she said.
“When you can get the right people in the room, you can create amazing things,” Andrews said. “ … What the city can do is start having these regular meetings where we are bringing together the right people to think through innovative solutions to many of the problems that we face in the city.”
To remove barriers to accessing technical education, Andrews supported preschool as an extension of K-12 education to expand child care access and turning to start-ups as an opportunity particularly for women and people of color to have a more flexible career path.
A former teacher, Andrews also said educating young students about their career options would help steer youth on a better path and contribute to a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem. She envisioned the city’s colleges and universities and K-12 schools being part of that effort.
Bradwell, a Quaker Oats employee, said his top priorities for the city would be “jobs, jobs and jobs,” though he later said, “I don't think I'm going to get elected.”
Bradwell said he himself has failed business attempts, “as Babe Ruth failed at swinging a ball,” so he understands that people put their hearts, souls and money into their small businesses.
“If you don't have people working, you don't have an economy,” Bradwell said.
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