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SUMESH ARORA: A deeper look at innovators in Mississippi



A s we continue to look at ways of building a culture of innovation in Mississippi, we have to remember that people’s actions create the culture regardless of what type of culture it is.  Take for example the culture of charity.  Mississippi is recognized as one of the most generous states in the country because we have a culture of giving.  According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Mississippians on average gave five percent of their adjusted gross annual income in 2014, second only to Utah’s average of 6.5 percent. It is safe to say the spirit of giving has been passed down from one generation to another in Mississippi, and we have an entrenched social ecosystem which promotes this positive behavior.

Our people are our greatest asset and our citizens are willing to share their wealth and resources for charitable causes.  As Mississippians, we have the power and ability to choose what types of activities we wish to grow and nurture.  When it comes to building and promoting a culture of innovation, we have to able to recognize the benefits that we will reap from it, but simultaneously learn to manage the changes that may accompany it.  Depending on the level of innovation, these changes may be radical in some cases and take longer for them to be accepted or they may be subtle and adopted immediately.  Sometimes change is mandated by policy, for better or for worse, and often times it is market or need driven.  In either case, the potential for new innovations to be adopted is greatest when people can visualize how they will benefit from it.  It often takes a coach, a leader or an organization to help others understand the value of innovation.

Our goal at Innovate Mississippi is to work with a wide variety of partners in the industry, universities, other non-profit organizations and state agencies to drive innovative business growth across the state.  The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship was recently on display at Innovate Mississippi’s 8th Annual Mississippi New Venture Challenge (NVC) business plan competition held May 19 at the Jackson Convention Complex.  Nearly 60 Mississippi innovators and technology entrepreneurs, male, female, black, white and Asian, representing more than 30 startups or existing companies, competed in this rapid-fire contest, pitching their pioneering business plans to a panel of judges comprised of the state’s top entrepreneurs and investors.

The range and products of services presented at the NVC was mind boggling and ranged from color-enhanced CAT scan images to a new hair dryer that can cut the normal drying time in half.  There were solar electric boats, a device which promotes safer driving and another that lets you cook on a grill vertically so you do not burn your food.  I could have used this device during my Memorial Day cookout!

I had the honor of moderating the student division during the NVC competition and the personal stories of the students presenting were equally compelling as their products.  One of the emerging “game-changers,” as I called such individuals in my previous column, is doing an internship at Tesla Motors in Palo Alto, California this summer; another has deferred his guaranteed admission to the Harvard Business School to work on his startup company; and then there was a single mother who realized that all breast pumps currently on the market are very cumbersome and inconvenient for working moms to provide breast milk for their infants.  While she was completing her studies, she developed and filed a patent for a completely untethered all-in-one electric breast pump, with a built-in storage and cooling unit.  The common thread behind such a diverse range of innovations is the talented and creative Mississippians of all ages who are not only coming up with great ideas, but have the dedication and passion to turn those ideas into real products and services. Sponsors of the NVC must also be commended for their role in encouraging innovation in Mississippi.  They made it possible to award $18,000 in cash prizes and $5,000 worth of in-kind services.

Thanks to the efforts of many organizations, there is a growing awareness of entrepreneurship in Mississippi.  It is exciting to see that our new culture is being recognized nationally; based on thirteen unique metrics, Jackson was ranked #5 out of 150 cities on WalletHub’s list of 2015’s Best Places to Start a Business.  In developing this ranking, WalletHub also recognized that “innovation is never easy and hardship and necessity underpin much of our entrepreneurial progress.”  So hang on to your hats because the road ahead is not smooth and our journey on the path of innovation will be bumpy, but it will be worth it!

» Dr. Sumesh Arora is Vice President at Innovate Mississippi, a non-profit organization with a mission to drive innovative business growth in Mississippi.  His doctoral research was focused on how new ideas spread and its applications to business, economic and policy development.  Follow him on Twitter @DrSumeshArora or contact via email at sarora@innovate.ms with questions about developing innovation strategy for your company or organization.


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