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Obama’s “Winning the Future” Comes to CSU

President and his team of advisers listen to local small business owners in an attempt to turn around economy

March 3, 2011

BY JORDAN STEVENSON

“Sitting right in front of President Obama. Wow, I’m [loving] my senior year," CSU Vikings player Norris Cole updated his Facebook status on Tuesday. Cole was not alone in his excitement, as more than 100 small business leaders and CSU student and faculty invitees gathered at The Wolstein Center on Feb. 22 to participate in President Obama’s “Winning the Future: Forum on Small Business.”

This was President Obama’s third visit to CSU since the 2008 campaign. The president “came to listen” to the voices of Cleveland’s entrepreneurial community.

“We want your stories,” said President Obama addressing the business owners in his introductory remarks. “Your successes, your failures, what barriers you're seeing out there to expand, what you've learned along the way.”

This time many of the prominent members of his cabinet accompanied him. The team from Washington included Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and SBA Administrator Karen Mills. Chief economist Austan Goolsbee and Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling, both key advisers on Obama’s economic policy, were also present.

Many among the faculty, students and staff feel that the choice of CSU as a venue adds to the university’s profile and significance in the local economy.

“Cleveland State University is clearly recognized as an institution of value in the civic and economic life of Cleveland,” said President Ronald Berkman who attended the event and participated in one of the breakout sessions.

During the separate break-out sessions that included forums on entrepreneurship, access to capital, workforce development, the growth of exports and the importance of clean energy business leaders from companies such as NorTech and JumpStart weighed in on the untapped opportunities in Northeast Ohio. Some areas of particular emphasis that the business leaders discussed with the president’s team included tax breaks for small business angel investors as well as networking opportunities in sustainable energy fields.

“I thought it was a very interesting format for the president to show up with members of his cabinet and listen to people talk about their issues and about how small business operates,” said Jim McGregor of McGregor Metalworking Companies.

In his speech President Obama also highlighted a budget plan that calls for a five-year spending freeze, which he said will aide in reducing the deficit by $400 billion over the next 10 years. The president stressed the importance of government support for cutting-edge innovation in energy research, information technology and transportation to “win the future.”

We have to “out-innovate, out-educate, out-build, and out-hustle the rest of the world,” said Obama, reasserting once again the key theme from his State of the Union speech, delivered last month.

Another under-developed area of recent focus is training programs between universities and small businesses, which Obama believes will facilitate building confidence in young people and sustaining jobs out of college.

Berkman was not alone in recognizing CSU as a “neighborhood asset” as Obama shared his enthusiasm for the university’s ability to “retool and reinvent” itself.

“Right here at Cleveland State, you’ve got a dedicated office that works to help move your research and discoveries from your local labs to your local businesses,” said Obama.

“That’s making you a local economic development engine that taps into one of America’s greatest assets, and that’s our entrepreneurial spirit.”

Obama said Cleveland is emblematic of a sweeping trend in the Midwest to “reinvent the Rust Belt as the Tech Belt.” With growing universities, state-of-the art medical facilities and visionary entrepreneurs, who act as the “cornerstone of the community,” Cleveland has emerged as a global leader of biotechnology and clean energy. While Obama applauded the influence of big business on the economy, he revealed that small businesses “pack the biggest punch” as they create two of every three jobs in the U.S.
With the naming of Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, as the leader of the Start-up America Partnership, Obama will continue promoting entrepreneurship and innovation in forums across the country. While Obama works to strengthen the economy and “keep America moving forward,” it remains to be seen if such small business forums will cultivate new and enriching opportunities for owners.

During his opening and closing remarks, Obama referred to Al “Bubba” Baker, a local retaurant owner, calling him “one of the more popular participants [of the forum]” and later asked if Baker had brought samples of his patented De-Boned Baby Back Ribs.
Baker, the owner of Avon’s Bubba’s Q Bar-B-Q and Catering, feels the “Winning the Future” forum has already had positive effects on his business. The one-time NFL defensive lineman had tears in his eyes after Obama’s recognition, as he was in awe that “the President of the free world would encourage [him].”

“When President Obama said my name, it was the largest endorsement I’ve ever had in my life,” said Baker. “The president encouraged me on a large scale and it was the most valuable thing.”

The day following the forum at CSU, Baker received several phone calls. Attendee of the forum, JumpStart contacted Baker to offer aid in cultivating his business plan. Tom Heinen, co-owner of the grocery chain, Heinen’s, also reached out to Baker in hopes to move his product into stores.

“I don’t think any of this would have happened if the president had not used my name,” said Baker. “It happened in one day.”