Podcast: The American Dream Ideas Challenge

Pete CodellaBusiness Elevated Podcast


Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 13)

This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Ginger Chinn, managing director for Urban and Rural Business Services at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and Courtney McBeth, project director for the American Dream Ideas Challenge.

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Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.


Ginger Chinn (0:21): Hi, this is Ginger Chinn from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. And today, I am really excited. We are visiting with Courtney McBeth and she is the project director for the American Dream. She’s here to talk to us a little bit about the American Dream Ideas Challenge and some of the ideas on how we can improve the income across the state of Utah and beyond. This is a little bit different for us because we usually talk to business owners about how they got where they are today. So today, Courtney, I’m super excited to have you here. So thank you for being here.

Courtney McBeth (0:58): It’s great to be here. Thank you, Ginger.

Ginger Chinn (1:01): So talk to us a little bit about the American Dream Ideas Challenge, and what it is, and how it started.

Courtney McBeth (1:07): Perfect. So first off, the American Dream Ideas Challenge is based out of the University of Utah and it’s part of this alliance for the American Dream, which is in conjunction with Arizona State University, the Ohio state and University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The Alliance for the American Dream is funded by Schmidt Futures, which is Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s giving facility that’s based out of New York City. The way the Alliance for the American Dream started was several years ago, where Eric Schmidt and his group, Schmidt Futures, invited universities to apply to be part of this alliance. It’s based on the notion that you utilize large public research universities in flyover states to run innovation challenges in their communities. So the whole idea is how do we harness the power of research universities to be able to engage multiple stakeholders, to bring forth innovative ideas to increase income for the middle class.

Ginger Chinn (2:13): Who can participate in this challenge? So you say increase income, that’s a heavy lift. I’m just curious, when you put this out and say, “Hey, come participate,” who participates?

Courtney McBeth (2:25): So in Utah, we designed our challenge to be statewide and very grassroots. So some of our other university partners just ran their challenges out of the university. In Utah, ours is statewide, recognizing that our state has had amazing economic progress over the last decade or so. But, not everyone’s enjoyed success and increased income and wealth as the state’s done really well, so we wanted to include rural, urban, all different types of communities. Essentially, anyone can submit a proposal to our innovation challenge.

This last year, in 2018, when we ran our challenge, we received 152 proposals and those came from five different universities, from business leaders, from nonprofit leaders, the tech community, retired couples, college students. So really across the age spectrum and different sectors. And that’s kind of the beauty about this challenge, is we’re looking for any policy, technology, collaborative ideas, that will increase net income by 10 percent for 10,000 Utah households.

Ginger Chinn (3:41): So I was a part of the Utah Coal Country Strike Team, just because rural Utah is obviously so important to our governor and the economic thriving success of all of our counties. And when we went to do the proposal and we did our presentation, you had quite an impressive lineup of business leaders, political leaders in the room, that were really evaluating all of these 152 applications. Why do you think … I mean, that’s a lot of interest. 152 applications, that’s a lot. So why do you think thriving middle-class America is so important to all of us, in your opinion?

Courtney McBeth (4:22): Well, it’s vital to our democracy. Our democracy was founded on the notion that our country needed an educated and well-versed middle class to help our society work. And the share of families in the middle-class has continued to go down, and we have what we call a fragile middle class. And then there’s those who are aspiring to be in the middle-class. So this initiative really hits at the heart of those aspiring to be in the middle-class and the fragile middle-class, who, as the Federal Reserve said, “There’s a majority of Americans in the middle- class that are one $400 unexpected expense away from insecurity.” And so this really hits at the heart of saying, “Our community members have good ideas and they know what they’re struggling with.” And how do we come up with ideas that will help them thrive in their regular life?

Ginger Chinn (5:23): So the Coal Country Strike Team, their idea is to diversify the economy from coal, utilizing as an energy source. What kind of ideas have you seen?

Courtney McBeth (5:38): Sure. We’ve had ideas that span from ideas around affordable housing with design and financing, to a lot of workforce development and education ideas, because the surest way to an increased income is a college education, which is why these initiatives sitting at universities makes so much sense. We’ve also had ideas around the healthcare system, which is incredibly complex and a large thing to tackle. We’ve also had ideas around childcare and elderly care, because there’s a lot of people in the workforce that are trying to figure out affordable quality childcare, as well as helping their aging parents.

So they sort of span across the spectrum. What we’re really looking for in 2019 are ideas that will address certain types of disparity, whether that’s racial, income, demographic area, etc Ideas that are really honed in, that have diverse team members who are coming up with the proposals, and ideas that are really innovative and have some sort of tech component, are what Schmidt Futures is looking to fund.

I think, to answer part of your previous question, how did we get the interest that we did? I think setting this audacious goal of increasing income by 10 percent for 10,000 households by the end of 2020 is audacious, but it forces groups who are already doing really great things to put down on paper the ideas that have been rolling in their head for a long time. And it’s been a catalyst to bring different groups together to put forth proposals, knowing that there is a national group out of New York City that cares about Utah, that wants to improve our community, and they’re willing to put a million dollars behind that.

We also have seed funding along the way for our top 10 teams. They get $10,000. The top three teams get $30,000. And then they’re connected into this national network of funders and resources that can really move the needle. So I think given that it’s a different type of challenge, you’ve got this audacious goal, and you’ve got some national funding, has helped us raise the prominence of it. And having President Watkins, of the University of Utah, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as the co-chairs is also very helpful and they are a hundred percent behind this initiative.

Ginger Chinn (8:13): I love the idea of taking Utah’s entrepreneurial spirit, the idea behind innovation. And beyond all of that, I think Utahns are very collaborative and I think you touched on all of those areas in just looking at your applicants and how you select your winners. So the winning idea can get a million dollars?

Courtney McBeth (8:37): Up to a million dollars. Yes.

Ginger Chinn (8:39): And that’s a lot of money. You talked a little bit about how they’re tiered up to get to that million dollar round. How many out of these 152 applicants were funded and what are the levels? And how did they get there?

Courtney McBeth (8:53): Sure. So the 2018 process and the 2019 process is the same, and that is: we have a community advisory board, that you alluded to, that’s made up of over 20 business leaders, nonprofit leaders, government leaders, etc., that review and select these top 10 teams.They receive $10,000 each, and that money then helps them improve their proposal to make it to the top three. And those top three teams get an additional $30,000. Then at that point, those top three teams are pitching in front of the National Schmidt Futures Board, and they select the top team to then pitch for the million dollars. So it’s sort of a four stage process. And then the final Utah team pitches alongside four or five other teams that come from our alliance members from Arizona and Wisconsin and Ohio. Then from there, those teams all can get up to a million dollars.

Ginger Chinn (9:59): And I believe there was a final pitch in New York, is that correct?

Courtney McBeth (10:01): That’s right.

Ginger Chinn (10:02): That’s pretty exciting.

Courtney McBeth (10:03): So our Coal Country Strike team pitched in front of Eric Schmidt and his team in New York City. It was pretty spectacular to see the mayor of Price City, Utah talk about how his community is transitioning from coal. And they’re open to the change, and open to the innovation, and incredibly grateful for the national support, and this process really galvanizing the community to come together and think innovatively.

The University of Utah and Utah State has really partnered up in this effort, and county commissioners, and the AOG, and various other government entities, to say, “This is a great thing to wrap our arms around and all paddle in the same direction.”

Ginger Chinn (10:50): And I had the chance to talk to Mayor K, out of Price, Mayor Kourianos, and he said, “It’s just so amazing that people are paying attention to what we’re doing in Price and they care.” And I think that’s the key.

Courtney McBeth (11:02): Right? And in both Carbon and Emery counties. It’s no small task to bring together a strike force like Natalie Gouchnour and the Gardner Policy Center has done around this Coal Country Strike team. We’re really proud of the work that they’re doing and their team is working hard every day to try and put together those four pillars that they’re working on, around the housing, and tourism, and workforce development and custom incentives.

Ginger Chinn (11:00): It’s a heavy lift, but I think that people are up to the challenge in working together to get some of these things accomplished to raise incomes. What criteria should people be thinking about if they were to submit an application? What would you look for?

Courtney McBeth (11:41): Sure. So it’s very important that they clearly state what the problem is they’re addressing and they talk about their innovative solution. Their team, we want to see their team’s made up of a diversity of people and perspectives. And we’re really looking for ideas that … It’d be ideal if they had some tech component to it and that they really are shooting towards that target of increasing net income by 10 percent for 10,000 households.

Ginger Chinn (12:14): And tech reaches so many sectors. That’s probably why you felt like you’d hone in on tech, because it’s in manufacturing. It’s in just about everything we touch, there’s a little bit of element of tech.

Courtney McBeth (12:25): Right. And it makes sense, given this is Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and chairman of Alphabet Corporation. He had a short stint in Utah in the 90s, where he worked for Novell, but he’s been a tech CEO and executive for his career. So it makes sense that his philanthropy and investing would go towards these ideas that have some tech component to it. We’re really excited about that. And you noted, given the entrepreneurial spirit and the focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, both at the University of Utah and as a state, it’s a perfect challenge situated for our friends with silicon slopes and government and nonprofits.

Ginger Chinn (13:11): What a unique idea. Have you seen anything like this anywhere else?

Courtney McBeth (13:15): No. I think there’s two elements that are really unique about this Alliance for the American Dream. One is that the Schmidt Futures team astutely observed the anchor institution power of a research one university and the ability that they have to use their research resources, but also bring together various stakeholders across different sectors and their ability to lead in a community. And then pairing up these research one institutions across the country in areas that typically aren’t focused on, like on the coast. And then the second piece is a lot of philanthropy is focused on intergenerational poverty or very low income folks. This is a recognition that we have some shifts in our economy and the way our society’s made up. And in saying that, we really need to ensure we have a thriving middle-class. So the focus on the fragile middle-class and those aspiring to the middle class is a really interesting scope and focus on this project.

Ginger Chinn (14:24): You have to be proud about the work that you’re doing. This is incredible. And how many years has it been going, again?

Courtney McBeth (14:30): So we are in year two.

Ginger Chinn (14:32): Year two. So 2018 was the first year?

Courtney McBeth (14:34): Right. We launched this in May of 2018 and it’s an initiative that’s run at a Google tech pace, if you will. We have been working incredibly quick within the university environment and launching this across the state. And hopefully people will see and hear our radio ads, and our bus wraps and our billboards. It’s a real recognition and aligns with what President Ruth Watkins feels like, that everyone has an expertise and something to give to better our society. We really are seeking out ideas from everyone.

Ginger Chinn (15:09): Well, thank you for your work and thank you for caring about our communities. If our listeners wanted to know where to get more information, how to get involved, where would you send them?

Courtney McBeth (15:18): americandream.utah.edu. So on our website, they can learn more about the challenge. We have resources there that talk about the state of the middle-class. Our Gardner Policy Institute created a really nice policy brief specifically around Utah’s demographics and what Utah’s middle class looks like. And to submit proposals, the deadline is November 15th. That is all an online process and they can reach out through email, as well. But again, the best spot to go to is americandream.utah.edu.

Ginger Chinn (15:56): Well, Courtney, thank you for being here today, again, and for getting this information out. I know I was super proud to be a part of that first group and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of these 2019 submissions. So thank you.

Courtney McBeth (16:07): That’s great. Well, I love that you were part of the process and can attest to the innovative and collaborative nature of it. I can’t think of a better extension into the community for the University of Utah than this challenge. And we really hope to engage many more people this round and look forward to it. So thank you for having me.


Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.