Earlhamites discovered the challenge of measuring economic impact as part of a new research endeavor last summer.
In its report about Richmond’s Innovation Center, a business incubator and tech start-up, the team identified that up to 53 jobs, $2.8 million in local earnings and $7.9 million in economic development can be associated with the Center’s work. Or can it?
“The report’s main finding is that there is no acceptable way to determine what share of this impact is actually due to the work of the Innovation Center,” says Professor of Economics Jonathan Diskin, the Earlham faculty mentor who managed the project. “The work done by the students and I led to the conclusion that there are many causes of economic change and attributing these outcomes to specific actions is a problematic way to do impact studies.”
Ali Shahram Musavi ’19, Isit Pokharel ’18 and Anh Nguyen ’19 worked alongside Diskin last summer to document the range of economic and community impacts the Innovation Center has fostered as part of a broader set of community redevelopment goals throughout the city and Wayne County.
“This project was born out of an existing relationship and a need,” Diskin says. “We mobilized to do that. What I really like about this work is that there was a sense of discovery to it. We weren’t quite sure what questions we would be asking at first. We started by looking at what the Center is and what it does and how it supports local learning and economic development. For the students, and for me, having a deadline and a product that someone expects you to produce helped us focus our attention in different ways than classroom assignments do.”
Over the course of the research project, the team conducted nearly 40 interviews of downtown entrepreneurs, educators, non-profits and city leaders. The team inventoried the type of education, workshops and networking the Center hosts, as well as the investments and hiring being made downtown. They also studied other business incubators in other communities.
“I wanted to have the experience of working with a faculty member and doing more than a traditional research project where I might just sit at table reading and writing,” Pokharel says. “This project accomplished that goal. I got to be part of something that let me engage with the community and develop real research and communication skills.”
With a modest budget of $145,000 annually, the report determined that the Innovation Center has a wide-ranging impact by promoting technology education, workshops, co-working and office space, and fostering networking relationships. But they also determined that there was no clear way of separating the impact of the Center’s initiatives from the many other forces shaping economic development.
“I’m really happy with the work this team did in researching coworking, business incubator and maker spaces as part of their broader research findings,” says Scott Zimmerman, the director of the Innovation Center. “I expect to continue my relationship with Earlham and its students as we expand our important work downtown.”
This project is just the latest opportunity available to students through Earlham’s growing faculty-student research program and the EPIC Advantage, which offers every student a funded internship, project or research experience before graduation.
“There was a lot of discovery and coming up with new ideas,” Musavi says. “We had to be assertive and creative while determining how we were going to analyze the activities of the Innovation Center. The People of Richmond were really open, friendly and inviting. That made this experience very exciting.”
Diskin, who teaches courses on Urban Political Economy, is a regular collaborator with students. He has led three research projects in Cincinnati where he serves on the board of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, a Cincinnati non-profit committed to affordable housing and inclusive community. This is Diskin’s first summer research initiative in Richmond though students in his Urban Politics Economic course did research on Richmond’s blight elimination program three years ago.
“We learned that people have their own stories but share common concerns about the downtown,” Nguyen says. “We even discovered that Earlham alumni have a strong network downtown and that the relationship between Earlham and Richmond has changed over the years.”
The research team found that Earlham’s legacy on the tech world in Richmond is substantial, showing that the creativity and resilience needed for successful entrepreneurial activity and a broad-based liberal arts education go hand in hand.
- Ray Ontko ’84 was a pioneer in Richmond’s technology sector downtown. He launched a technology consulting company and, later, co-founded Doxpop, LLC, which provides electronic access to public documents.
- Eric Dimick Eastman ’96 is the co-founder of Green Filing, another Richmond-based company that provides electronic court filing services for attorneys in five states.
- Chris Hardie ’99 remains a key tech entrepreneur having run Summersault LLC, a web development firm, from 1997 to 2014.
- Paul Retherford ’90 has a firm, Scanpower, with an office in the Innovation Center to this day.