Startup Capital: Dustin Daniels

For our inaugural Startup Capital interview, we spoke with chief of staff to the mayor’s office, Dustin Daniels.

That’s right! We’re talking with tech and community leaders all around town to learn their stories and find out what’s in store for Tallahassee startups, software and tech. For our first ever Startup Capital Q&A we talked to Dustin Daniels, the chief of staff to Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum.

Dustin graduated from FSU in 2011 with degrees in Economics and International Affairs. He then returned to Tallahassee from London, where he went to graduate school and worked as a consultant, to be closer to and more financially supportive of his family in Weeki Wachee, FL. In this conversation, we talk about Tallahassee’s evolution from government town to entrepreneurial hub, and how we can continue to bring talent and investment into our fine city. For the full interview, keep reading.

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Cuttlesoft: Why Tallahassee right now?
Dustin: For a long time, Tallahassee has had a lot of assets but also a lot of challenges. Every time you talk about Tallahassee, there are things you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize are huge amenities. Our universities, one of the largest community colleges in the country, the level of education in the workforce and the community — all of these things are extremely attractive.

…for the first time in a long time, local leaders are trying to help put all the pieces together.

What’s driven the local economy for so long has been public sector organizations. They create a baseline economic output doesn’t take too much of a hit during a recession, but also doesn’t really drive people towards innovation. It doesn’t really drive people to make new businesses or to focus on how you leverage other amenities in the community.

Recently, I think for the first time local leaders in the community are trying to pull the rope in the same direction. It’s a change in mindset. It’s not like anything new is happening in Tallahassee, it’s just that for the first time in a long time a lot of local leaders are trying to help put all the pieces together.

Do you see tech and software as one of the pieces of the puzzle?
To create any sort of new economy, it sure as hell can’t come from state government. Unfortunately, despite our efforts, we are seeing a reduction in the state workforce. That means that growth has to come from innovation, tech and research commercialization. That’s what we’ve got that not a lot of other communities have, which is a very high talent base of workers and a very high percentage of PhDs in the population. There’s been a mindset shift to say “how can we commercialize these new technologies?”

We should want more from opportunities like Taxol, which can help to create jobs and local thriving companies for years to come. The question is: how do we couple academics with people who know markets and entrepreneurship so that we can create some of those home-grown business here locally?

How is the city planning to utilize the TechHire designation?
The TechHire designation creates worthwhile partnerships with the White House, LinkedIn and other large corporations around the country that can provide us data and technical support for addressing our tech talent challenges.

This will help us address the current asymmetry between the local tech-focused organizations in the community and some of the talent in town. Some of the folks coming from campus are either A) not being trained in the types of skills that employers are looking for or B) graduating with the right skills to contribute to our local economy but on the first flight out of Tallahassee to places like Austin, TX, and Raleigh, NC. There’s a bit of a disconnect at the moment.

You also have a number of people underrepresented in the tech space who could really be inserted into better jobs and a more prosperous future if they just had the right skills. It used to be that these undereducated/underrepresented populations had to go through a four year bachelor’s program and then maybe they have a chance of getting a high paying tech sector job. But those days are over.

…from an empirical standpoint, you can actually prove that talent is more evenly distributed than wealth.

Now you can rapidly train people with a variety of different skills — coding, cybersecurity — that make them immediately desirable to employers. There are in fact just over 500 tech sector jobs open in the area right now. What we need to do is better align our university and our training programs to fit them more to the needs of the private sector. More must be done to increase the dialogue among our local educational institutions and the private sector on what skills are needed and what challenges they are facing.

So we’re leveraging TechHire as an opportunity to broach that conversation to align our workforce ecosystem to the tech space, and really set ourselves up for additional investment. Whether that comes from local sources or from other Department of Labor grants, what we have to do is create and align our ecosystem, find out what’s missing, and then fill the gaps.

How is that TechHire designation going to affect local businesses?
It creates a dialogue for local businesses to express any difficulties that they might be having from a talent perspective. Whether it’s locating talent or retaining talent, or training and upgrading the skills of local folks, TechHire really offers up a conversation about what the right skills are and how we make sure that there’s an adequate workforce here in town. TechHire helps us find these asymmetries and figure out where the gaps are so that we can start planning to fill those needs.

For instance, if we found — based on interviews and surveys and various engagements — that there were 250 Java coders needed in this community, then we could plan for and invest in programs that rapidly train people and help them develop the relevant skills and help businesses get what they need. That helps local businesses get the talent they need to help their bottom line. But if we do it in the right way, we also have the opportunity to focus on underrepresented populations like women and minorities who may not have the relevant skills to join the tech sector.

What’s interesting is that from an empirical standpoint, you can actually prove that talent is more evenly distributed than wealth. So you never know, there are potentially folks in the lower socioeconomic areas of our community who really have the opportunity to create something very powerful for our community who don’t necessarily have the opportunity to get there, so we need to be doing more to address that.

How do we turn Tally into a hub for tech and software? In other words, how do we create that “tractor beam” for talented individuals?
There’s no silver bullet. For people that love their community and would like to see change happen more quickly, I would say that this can’t happen overnight. However I do think that it matters a lot what we say about ourselves. Things like the TechHire designation, of which we’re one out of only 50 cities across the U.S. to earn, are extremely important. They get people talking about what’s going on in Tallahassee.

The fact that we were only the second city in Florida to host a startup week, the fact that we have all sorts of research symposiums and conferences that focus on FAMU, FSU, and TCC for the first time, and all of the technology and commercialized innovation that those organizations are creating — these things are definitely creating a buzz regionally. Tallahassee was also named the best city in Florida to open a business.

From the standpoint of government, our entire economic development organization has just gone through a complete overhaul of what that looks like, what services it provides — that will help development happen more quickly. There’s also a necessity to bridge the gap of what local students think about Tallahassee. When I graduated from FSU, I remember exploring the area about a mile around campus, and that was pretty much all I knew of Tallahassee. But once you open your eyes to all the other things that are available around town right now, and also what’s coming very soon, you figure out that “it’s ok to want to stay in Tallahassee.” It’s a great place to live, our schools are amazing, and the quality of life is very high.

For a lot of people, they choose a place to live that is catching some momentum so that they can be a part of building something, as opposed to just going to a place like Austin, TX, that’s fun and great and there’s music, but the price of living is also much higher. There’s downsides to moving to a big city like that versus staying and spreading roots in a place like Tallahassee.

I think all of these things are part of the answer but that it takes everybody, including government, the private sector, non-profits, the student sector and the startup community all pulling the rope in the same direction to get us there.

We’d like to thank Dustin Daniels for sharing his thoughts on developing a tech economy in Tallahassee. Like he mentioned, public sector support is a vital “puzzle piece” for our growing city, and advocates like Dustin can go a long way in making sure our government is prepared for progress. It seems that by securing the TechHire designation and continuing to discover and address roadblocks for the tech community with initiatives like the Tallahassee TechHire Talent Survey, they’re on the right track.

Check back in two weeks time for our interview with Ken Baldauf, an individual who represents another major piece of the puzzle for the Startup Capital, our public universities.

View all of our Startup Capital interviews.

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