As part of BSR’s Business Leadership for an Inclusive Economy initiative, we are running an interview series with thought leaders from business, government, civil society, academia, and philanthropy. Their voices and perspectives will help deepen our conversation on how we can build a more inclusive economy and how business can most effectively contribute to that vision. We sat down with Kyle Kimball, former President and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), to chat about how business and government can collaborate to make the economies of our most vibrant cities more inclusive.
Racheal Meiers: What is the current mayoral administration’s vision and strategy to realize an inclusive economy in New York City?
Kyle Kimball: The vision is for a strong, sustainable, resilient, and equitable New York City. With the number of challenges we face, particularly given the immense inequality in the city, we’ve repositioned our economic development strategy toward more robust and inclusive economic growth—growth that extends economic opportunity to New Yorkers across all five boroughs.
Meiers: How does NYCEDC define an “inclusive economy”?
Kimball: We see growth and equity as two sides of the same coin. There is an engine driving New York City’s economy: We have more Fortune 500 companies than any other city on earth. And we have 8 million people, growing to 9 million very quickly. Regardless of your political beliefs, you must pay attention to this economic engine since it provides the largest portion of our employment, tax revenue, and services.
But we also need to ensure that this engine is able to reach all New Yorkers in all five boroughs. Under the [Mayor Bill] de Blasio administration, we’ve added a layer to ensure that economic growth occurs in an inclusive way and that all New Yorkers are participating in that growth. The focus is not only on attracting new talent to the city, but also on working to make sure people who are born and raised here are prepared for the jobs that the public and private sectors are working hard to create.
Meiers: How do you encourage businesses to hire people who need jobs the most but may be underprepared for them?
Kimball: Companies are telling us: We need engineers and programmers. The demand is very strong, especially in the tech sector. One of the most important things we can do is make sure that we are equipping the workforce in New York City with the skills that the business community needs. The city spends an estimated US$500 million annually on workforce development. Under the de Blasio administration, we have moved past the idea of rapid attachment—basically, getting someone a job—and are instead following people once they have a job to provide training and skills acquisition, and to help them move up the income ladder.
To make this effective, it’s critical for government to have an open and ongoing dialogue with the private sector, since it provides the jobs and can best determine what skills are needed and where the jobs will be in the future. It is important for every city to encourage this type of feedback loop with the private sector, which allows us to better tailor our public education system—from kindergarten through our public universities—and to constantly update our approach to workforce development.
At NYCEDC, we work very closely with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development and other agencies that focus on job preparedness, especially for youth. NYCEDC also runs several of its own programs, the largest of which is Gen Tech, a citywide competition that teaches high school students how to code and build apps, pairing students with business mentors in the tech sector. Students not only acquire a specific, and important, set of hard skills, but also gain insight into what it means to go into business for themselves.
We are also leveraging city-owned assets to realize a double bottom line, including job growth and promoting innovation. NYCEDC manages about 80 million square feet of real estate on behalf of the city, much of which is industrial waterfront properties. A prime example of our work is Brooklyn Army Terminal, which employs more than 3,700 people across hundreds of businesses.
Meiers: In essence, you are working to build local talent. What role do businesses play to ensure they are providing high-quality jobs?
Kimball: The role of businesses is to make sure that they are investing in their employees. Businesses should think about their employees as assets that they want to cultivate in the same way they would for any other approach to growth, such as customers, different lines of business, or diversification or acquisition strategies. Investing in employees should be a key part of a company’s growth strategy.
This year we announced a new certification program called “Best for New York City,” in a partnership with B Lab, which evaluates how holistically companies are investing in their employees, such as local hiring, health and retirement benefits, training opportunities, and paid sick leave. A “Best for NYC” seal on the outside of a business will tell consumers a lot about how that business serves the people of New York. B-Lab will also provide technical assistance to help businesses improve their practices. We expect to announce the businesses that have taken the Best for NYC Challenge at the end of the year.
Meiers: How else are you looking to businesses to help support a more inclusive local economy?
Kimball: Depending on how you define “infrastructure,” we see certain sectors taking on infrastructure investments around the city. For example, the city’s biotech sector needs more affordable wet lab space to grow. In partnership with pharmaceutical companies and real estate developers, we are working to put that specific intervention in place.
New York City is lagging behind other global cities with respect to certain 21st-century infrastructure, such as access to high-speed broadband. At NYCEDC, we are working with high-speed broadband providers to encourage universal access and increase the availability of broadband, especially for small businesses and “digital deserts,” like our industrial businesses zones. We want to reinforce the idea that broadband is essential infrastructure, just like electricity or water.
Meiers: Why the focus on this now?
Kimball: Mayor de Blasio was elected with a clear mandate to address income inequality in New York City, and all of us in city government are searching for ways to level the playing field. According to the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, 21 percent of New Yorkers live below the federal poverty line, but if you add “ at or near” the federal poverty line, that number goes up to 46 percent.
“Raising the floor,” as we call it, and creating an environment where workers want to work for you and will stay working for you is a fundamentally pro-business premise. Whether it’s mandating paid sick leave, expanding living wage, providing universal pre-K or the city’s new municipal identification system, we are witnessing a shift in values toward supporting a more stable and secure workforce. It’s important that an organization like BSR is spreading that message as well.