SkyART: Mining for Genius in the Inner City

Tim CookIt’s not like Tim Cook is running Apple into the ground. For the time being anyway, the company is more than holding its own.

But let’s never forget, Tim Cook remains a classic right brainer. Tim Cook is not a creator, or a visionary, or much of a dreamer. As he’s proven time and time again since the death of his almost mythic predecessor, Tim Cook is one who likes to color within the lines, and Tim Cook is a man who focuses on things he can see, touch and, in particular, tally.

He’s a corporate leader, in other words, concerned less with creating new breakthrough products for Apple than riding the momentum of the ones already on his shelves.

Steve Jobs 2That was the utter brilliance of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was apparently prickly as all get-go. Steve Jobs could be demanding, and distant, and abrupt, and a little quixotic. But Steve Jobs was creative. And Steve Jobs was a man with a right brain as well-developed, inquisitive and in full blossom as, perhaps, any corporate leader in the history of American business.

For that reason, and unlike Tim Cook, Jobs biggest priority at Apple was not sales and marketing. It was new product development and breakthrough innovation, both of them wrapped in an alluring combination of ease-of-use and sleekness-of-design.

Because Steve Jobs knew that with those things as Apple’s North Star, sales and marketing would always follow.

In my sector (and for good reason, mind you) many have been consumed of late with what has become an acronym so popular it now threatens to eclipse the word it replicates. To many, STEM now means Science, Technology, Engineering and Math even more than it means the neck of a flower blossom or a small protrusion from a tree limb.

MFG 4.0To such people, STEM has become their North Star, their one laser-like focus to which all others ultimately pay fealty.

But what STEM fails to take into account is simple, unapologetic and irrepressible creativity; creativity in function, creativity in design, and creativity in integration.

Because, like it or not, STEM is solely a left-brain phenomenon. STEM, taken alone, is more about numbers than it is ideas, concepts, or possibilities. And while STEM, taken alone, might develop a complex algorithm capable of calculating the incalculable, STEM will never be able to paint the Mona Lisa or compose Beethoven’s Fifth.

I believe wholeheartedly in the balance between the development of any child’s right and left brain, both of them in equal measure. I believe that focusing on STEM is critical in today’s educational environment, but no more so that teaching a child to not simply play an instrument or maybe draw a picture, but to appreciate and find beauty in the art those two disciplines make possible.

Kids MfgBecause life has taught me that’s where genius lies, in the matrix of those two sides of the human brain. Genius, far more often than not, dwells in the mind of a child whose right brain is just as developed and stimulated as his left. That’s the matrix (and the educational system, in fact) that produced both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

That’s why I have become an ardent supporter of an ambitious but otherwise unassuming program in my hometown called SkyART. SkyART is an initiative designed to bring visual arts training to at-risk young men and women in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Because, as is always the case in any poor (or dangerously underfunded) public school, the very first thing to go is the arts department.

SkyARTAnd, for my money, there is no surer way to keep the insidious cycle of poverty that grips so many of our cities intact than to create generations of poor students who’ve never been schooled in the arts; a educational philosophy designed to teach our poorest children creative thinking, creative questioning and, most importantly, creative problem-solving.

This week, my company hosted a couple groups of students who toured our shop and spoke with employees about what they do for a living. They weren’t necessarily kids from SkyART. They were just school-age kids from the city whose eyes we’re trying to open, if only a touch, to the joys and wonders of a job in what has rapidly become America’s most exciting (and, frankly, misunderstood) sector.

And we had them in because we wanted to show them proof that, when it comes to skill development, career growth, and job opportunities, these days manufacturing takes a back seat to no sector in the economy.

SkyART 2But having those students in put me in mind of SkyART, and reminded me of why I initially became so enamored with it and began to support it so fervently. So, while this essay may read like a shameless plug for the program, it’s really just a heartfelt explanation for why a bold initiative designed to expose the arts to poor kids has become so near and dear to my heart (and, for that matter, near and dear to my business).

Kids Mfg 2Because SkyART (and other programs like it) dares to teach creativity to young minds thirsty for a sip of it; minds who might otherwise never be exposed to creativity’s uncanny role in the process of changing lives, creating new products and, in the end, solving society’s most vexing problems.

STEM is critical, make no mistake – especially in my world. But focusing on STEM at the exclusion of the arts is like trying to teach a child to run a race on one leg – and then fully expecting him or her to win it.

Steve JobsCreativity, on the other hand, is a mental acuity that when combined with the power of STEM can one day (and often when one least expects it) blossom into full blown genius.

And – particularly when it comes to the development, design, and manufacturing of industrial products, such as those my shop sets out to create everyday – I’ll take Steve Jobs over Tim Cook every time.

(To learn more about SkyART, or to support the program, please click here.)


President Trump and the New Manufacturing

Trump 1Like most Americans, I’ve been watching the first two weeks of the Trump administration with a curious mixture of fascination, hope and concern.

I’m fascinated watching a man who’s never done a day of public service in his life perform after he woke up one morning to discover he’s suddenly the most influential civil servant in the country.

And while his two executive decrees – the one banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and the one mandating we begin building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – seem astonishingly reactionary and half-baked, I remain cautiously hopeful.

I’m hopeful, despite the ham-fisted way his administration rolled out the ban on Muslim refugees, that he can bring about meaningful change in Washington – without, of course, having that change (or his odd, ego-fueled, and now obvious personality tics) lead our economy down too many rabbit holes.  After all, our national economy has been growing gradually and steadily for eight years running.

Trump 2But my guarded optimism aside, I cannot help but feel deeply concerned that, based on the man’s bombastic and ready-fire-aim rhetoric, Mr. Trump seems to understand precious little about the very same American manufacturing he promises to return to prominence.

I’ve been writing in this space for six years now that that tide has been shifting for a while, and that manufacturing is already returning. (Those who study such things have been calling the phenomenon “re-shoring.”)  The problem is, so much of what is returning is doing so because in the industrial sector automation and robotics have replaced many of our most repetitive and lowest-skilled factory jobs.

Manufacturing is coming back, in other words. Manufacturing jobs are not – at least not the ones the president seems intent on saving. It’s another one of those times in which Mr. Trump’s lack of specific knowledge and his infamous disinterest in even the most basic of details promise to derail his otherwise noble intentions.

Trump 3I’m concerned as well that he has no idea what “Made in America” even means – if only because so many of us in the sector don’t understand it either.  After all, if Volkswagen in Georgia continues to employ fulltime 3,000 U.S. citizens, are those workers assembling an American-made car or a German one?

I’m very concerned that globalization is happening, and that we have only two choices in that regard; we can either leverage it to our benefit, or – in the name of protectionism – we can close ranks, impose hefty tariffs, and then watch as China, Japan, India, Brazil, the EU and the like impose reciprocal tariffs on all American goods. Then we’ll all be forced to suffer the consequences as countries quickly (and gladly) fill the global void created as hundreds, if not thousands, of customers of small U.S. shops like mine start pursuing cheaper, tariff-free alternatives.

And speaking of small shops, I’m worried too that given the president’s apparent 1970’s view of manufacturing, he has yet to realize that many of the one-time sprawling, belching, behemoths of 20th Century American industry, the ones that exist in his mind, have been supplanted by a new generation of lean, agile and market-specific specialty manufacturers.

Trump 6And I’m worried the president – who, as a candidate, echoed the “drill baby drill” cry of the fringe right, and promised to bring back a coal industry whose product, practices and technologies all date back to the 19th Century – doesn’t realize most manufacturers (large and small) have begun weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, including natural gas and nuclear, and are already migrating toward cleaner, more sustainable, and far more efficient fuel sources, knowing such cost-effective energy sources are not only better for our planet, they’re better for our bottom line.

I guess, to sum up, what I’m really trying to say is I hope our president has a successful run. I hope, as he promised, he strengthens our economy and creates jobs. And I hope too he is able to run interference for all U.S. manufacturers and help small, thriving and independent shops like mine grow and prosper.

Trump 5But, that said, I hope Mr. Trump comes armed with more than what’s he’s shown so far.

I hope he has at least a few tangible and workable solutions in his back pocket.

I hope he’s got ideas for a stimulus package or two that will spur companies like mine to invest in ourselves and evolve as the technology the defines us evolves.

And, finally, I hope he develops a broader and deeper understanding of the marketplace, a hyper-competitive and often borderless world in which innovation, ideas and efficiencies are currencies that promise never to lose value.

Trump 4But I remain concerned.  Because, at least after these first few weeks, it seems we’re being led by a man willing to venture into the global marketplace armed with little more than a few wafer-thin promises, a rear view mirror, and a time machine he still wants to believe exists.

What Manufacturing Needs from Trump

Trump 1Let’s forget the rancor of the campaign. Let’s forget the hate-speech, the xenophobia, the simplistic war cries, and the negative passions both candidates managed to trigger. Let’s just get past those things.

Because, whether half the country likes it or not, we’ve all chosen Donald Trump our next president.

So, what does that mean? Well, the ripple impact of a Trump presidency remains to be seen, and will have to play itself out over the course of the next four years.

But I do know this, there are two forces at work in today’s marketplace that are way, way, way bigger – not to mention more powerful – than any single politician, regardless of his political ideology or country.

Trump 7And those two forces are these: globalization and technology.

What’s more, despite what Trump may have promised on the campaign trail, those two things are simply not going away. Not now. Not ever.

As manufacturers, you and I have felt (and been impacted by) by both for decades. Not only has the global market created unexpected (and often unforeseen) competition, but it’s also taken countless manufacturing functions that used to be the sole purview of this country and off-shored them to dozens of raw and even primitive economies abroad.

But at the same time, that globalization has also increased our potential market, and done so exponentially. What’s more, it’s opened wide the global market for American-made goods and brand names – things that remain wildly in-demand in the two biggest and fastest growing of those economies, China and India.

And from a technology perspective, the development of game-changers like 3D printing, computer modeling, robotics, and automation have revolutionized our segment and left those upstart economies scrambling. That’s why so many industries experts said were lost forever, have started migrating back.

Trump 3Manufacturing, in other words – despite what the president-elect might have us believe – is in remarkably good shape and well-positioned for the future.

But that’s not to say we in the industrial sector don’t need at least two things from the next administration. And they’re two things we need right now.

The first is tax reform that make sense, not some kissin’ cousin to the flawed “trickle down” theory of the 1980’s.

The new administration must understand that, while American manufacturing is in the midst of a very-real comeback, what’s emerging from the ashes is a new and improved type of manufacturer. Today’s industrial job-creators are not a few bloated, smokestack-belching mega-corporations with facilities the size of urban neighborhoods, but hundreds, if not thousands of smaller and far more efficient shops, just like mine.

Trump 6We are the face of manufacturing today, and we’re the ones who remain our best hope at reenergizing America’s middle class. We’re the hirers and income-creators that Trump should really be trying to help, not the elite one-percenters in all those well-appointed corner offices in places like Wall Street. Because tax incentives for nimble and market-responsive manufacturers will pay dividends in not simply more American jobs, but better (and better-paying) ones as well.

What’s more, we’d then be incentivized to invest in state-of-the-art upgrades and the kind of capital-intensive technology that will allow us to stay one-step ahead of our foreign competition.

Secondly, industry needs an almost epic overhaul of our national infrastructure.

Trump 5As a proud and long-standing member of the industrial sector I can assure you, there is no segment of the economy more reliant on an efficient and well-maintained supply chain than ours. A strong supply chain is our lifeblood, and, by extension, this economy’s. And for that reason, it is essential we keep the cost/headache of transporting, shipping and receiving raw materials and finished goods to a minimum.

And that is becoming harder to do the more our roads crumble and the more our bridges decay, our pipes corrode, our airport computer systems crash, and our power grids stay wedded to aging, archaic technology.

For years I’ve been calling for the Obama Administration to invest trillions and build for this country a state-of-the-art, 21st Century infrastructure – both physical and electronic. And to its credit, that administration has invested in what, to this point, has been a small but steady step in that direction.

Trump 9But we need more. We need a public works project the likes of which this country’s not seen since the days of FDR and the New Deal, and the likes of which no Republican has commandeered since the days of Civil War Reconstruction.

Such a program would give thousands of Americans jobs. It would restore worker pride and stimulate the economy by getting money moving up and down the food economic chain. And it would ensure that every sector of the U.S. economy could keep abreast of what, in terms of today’s global supply chain, has has become the new normal.

Trump 8Yes, Donald Trump did his ever-loving best to divide us for 18 months. Yes, he made a lot of promises that are going difficult to keep under the harsh glare of his new job. And yes, he has a lot of mending of fences and a lot of re-building of bridges to do before this country can truly heal its still-open wounds.

But, believe me when I say this; the best way to start rebuilding so many of those metaphorical bridges is to start rebuilding a few hundred or so real ones. #

To see the full report and learn more about what is being called the Mississippi “Golden Triangle” of manufacturing, visit the 60 Minutes site here.