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A Few Lessons from Boston

November 17, 2014
Op-Ed by Craig Carnaroli, Pat Eiding, David Foster, and Beverly Harper, Philadelphia Inquirer


As Philadelphians, we've always had a complicated relationship with Boston. We share a number of important similarities - history, a Northeastern location, and strong "eds and meds," among others. These similarities have bred a healthy competitiveness and, at times, a sense of rivalry - whether it's over our sports teams or who gets to claim Ben Franklin.


But last month, 110 leaders from our region put these differences aside and traveled to Boston as participants in the Economy League's eighth Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange. The goal was to take a deeper look at how Boston is succeeding and why, with an eye toward importing promising practices back home and reflecting on ways to improve our own region. We spent three days in conversations with peer business and civic leaders driven by one central question: With so many core similarities, why has Greater Boston so often seen better results?


The gap was most pronounced around our respective economies, as Boston has maintained a different growth trajectory than our region's. Boston's economic reinvention has been driven by the explosive growth of its innovation economy, led by its life-science, biotech, and high-tech sectors. As recently as two decades ago, the rap on Boston and why it had been surpassed by Silicon Valley was that it lacked the kind of collaborative culture needed to spur company formation and growth. But since that time, there has been a remarkable transformation in Boston's economy and its culture of entrepreneurship.


Like Philadelphia, Boston had always been successful in converting medical research and development into new procedures and medications. However, Bostonians distinguished themselves in recent decades in their ability to convert research and talent in other tech fields into startups. Seeing the tremendous scale of activity and energy in Cambridge and in Boston's Innovation District, it is clear why Boston has earned an international reputation as an entrepreneurial hub.


But Boston's success has not been driven by its innovation strengths alone. Greater Boston and Massachusetts have also made critical investments in education that have placed them at the top of international rankings.

More than two decades ago, a group of business, civic, and philanthropic organizations led the charge to reform the state's K-12 education system, leading to greater accountability and increased funding for Massachusetts schools. More recently, a similar coalition drove reforms to change how the state's 15 community colleges are governed and funded - making them more accountable to students and local employers. And at the other end of the cradle-to-career continuum, the city of Boston has recently ramped up its investments in high-quality pre-K.


While Massachusetts' approach to education reform and its impressive achievements have provided a model for improving schools, real challenges remain. High average test scores mask significant disparities, as Massachusetts has some of the largest achievement gaps in the country for African American, Hispanic, and low-income students.


Boston's foundation community has stepped in to take a leadership role in addressing these challenges - demonstrating that truly transformative philanthropy is more than just grant-making. The Boston Foundation, for example, has been central to providing analysis, convening, and advocacy around key policy issues spanning the education spectrum. A 2008 analysis of the Boston school district revealed that while graduation rates were high, too many students were not completing college and earning degrees. As a result, the foundation spearheaded the formation of a cross-sector, collaborative initiative called Success Boston, which is now on track to meet its ambitious goal of doubling the college completion rate for Boston public school students to 70 percent.


The good news for Philadelphia is that almost all of the key pieces for Boston's success are already in place in our region. Our challenge moving forward is to magnify the scale and impact of our existing assets - whether it's increasing efforts to support emerging entrepreneurial hubs, expanding funder collaboratives such as the Job Opportunity Investment Network, or business and philanthropic leadership taking an active role in advocacy for K-12 funding and expanded access to quality pre-K.


As we've found with every Leadership Exchange, however, leaders - the creative and dedicated individuals who team up to make a difference - are the most critical asset to change the path of a region as complex as ours. We came away from Boston as optimistic as ever about the remarkable leadership base that exists and is growing in our own backyard.


Even with a new governor in Harrisburg and a new mayor to be elected next year in Philadelphia, let's not forget that the long-term stewards of our region are its business, civic, and philanthropic leaders. They represent the sustained leadership whose vision and resources can help address our region's biggest challenges and opportunities - now and in the long run.


Craig Carnaroli, Pat Eiding, David Foster, and Beverly Harper are the co-chairs of the 2014 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, an initiative of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.