“We started the bar with music, then added the games, then the food, and somehow… it all works.” This is what the bartender at SisterBar tells me when I try to understand what I’m seeing. There’s a DJ playing Dubstep and a crowd that’s in their own world on the dance floor; a group of 20-somethings that look like they just walked out of J. Crew are playing foosball; an after work crowd in business casual are sprinkled along the long bar drinking beer – and I’m eating delicious Mexican street food and drinking a craft cocktail. That’s just a fraction of what I’m taking in on a Friday night out at Sister Bar in Albuquerque. Every shade of self-expression, style and background is present, all in one place, and I’m here to learn as much as I can about a city known more for being ground zero in AMC’s Breaking Bad than being the place to launch a high-tech startup.

In many cities, groups of people will quickly segregate themselves and bars and restaurants will attract the hipster or the banker or the millennial type. But that’s not the case in Albuquerque. In a city that lacks a center, it pushes everyone together in the same place. Others I interact with during my time in Albuquerque tell me that I won’t find areas of town that can be easily labeled, so people congregate where they can. The result: a diversity of folks colliding in a place like this that’s a combination of a dark bar/restaurant/dance club/arcade. And somehow, there’s harmony here.

In a lot of ways, the City of Albuquerque is hoping to make the same magic happen through encouraging a collision of ideas and backgrounds that will lead to a more diverse and thriving economy. From places like ABQid that want to take innovations occurring inside labs to the marketplace and invest in the next generation of entrepreneurs, to the development of the Innovation Corridor – a district in downtown Albuquerque where people from different backgrounds will literally collide, Albuquerque is betting on bringing people together that all have innovative ideas with the hope that they will create jobs and develop businesses that stay in the city. For Gary Oppedahl, the City’s Director of Economic Development, it’s not enough to have the built environment and the knowledge assets. If a place isn’t “sticky” and people don’t stay, you won’t have a solid foundation. “We gotta make this a place people want to stay once they become successful,” he says. 

Albuquerque has had a much harder time bouncing back after the recession than other cities. The State of New Mexico was ranked the fifth-worst economy in the country in 2016 by WalletHub, and Albuquerque’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the country – hovering around 6.2% as of March 2017. Albuquerque is a city that many people we spoke to described as being in its teenage years as far as development goes – a place that still has a lot of growing to do. The city is putting all of its bets on developing a leading entrepreneurial ecosystem, with a focus on high-tech and science, in order to bring more economic stability and to improve equity and diversity. When visiting Albuquerque, you feel you are on the cusp of a city that is about to grow and take off in big ways, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty and evolving to go.

The big story in town starts with the mayor’s proclamation in 2014 to make ABQ the ‘Most Entrepreneurial City in America.’ Since then, the city has changed quite a bit – 6 coworking spaces have opened in the past year alone and incubators like ABQid and Creative Startups are taking off and expanding. Unlike some other cities, ABQ is much more interested in doing capacity building within the city, versus trying to attract outsiders, and locals are fiercely protective of their “big skies” and low cost of living, with some pointing to Denver’s rapid development as something they’d like to avoid.

Creating A Collaborative Approach To Development

According to the City of Albuquerque‘s website: “Until now, there has been a lot of talk about our unhealthy dependence on government for economic stability and the need to create a community-based economy to achieve long-term prosperity. We are no longer talking. Today – and tomorrow – is about taking action, using a collaborative and inclusive approach to economic development that will not only impact you but also involve you to the extent you want to be a part of Albuquerque’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

This perhaps best reflects how the economic realities of Albuquerque have forced the government and its residents to look within at what they have and build self-reliance based on their existing social and knowledge capital. And that capital lies in two major industries: high-tech and creativity.

On the creative front, one of the major success stories to come out of Albuquerque is the Creative Startups Accelerator, which sees 90% of its startups still going strong and $7.9 million in new revenues to date. The focus of the accelerator is to help creatives build thriving and sustainable businesses. According to Creative New Mexico: “Albuquerque ranks second among U.S. metropolitan areas in the density of visual artists” – and that’s second only behind Santa Fe, another major city in the state of New Mexico. Tapping into the creative talent that exists here and helping creatives build thriving businesses will be key to Albuquerque’s economic future.

When speaking to the co-founder of Creative Startups Tom Aageson, his excitement is contagious. He feels deeply that Albuquerque is on the verge of breaking out, and he thinks that it is possible to build a creative economy that is true to the unique culture of New Mexico. He explains that the State of New Mexico is seen as the “weird kid” and that tailoring startup programs to the outlaw-type and creative nature found in many residents here is the reason is the reason for the success of the CS Accelerator. The team also believes fiercely that the longstanding traditions of the region don’t have to be in conflict with innovation – and they’re on a mission to show how they can co-exist.

Supporting creative businesses and training creatives in entrepreneurship is not unique to Albuquerque – in fact, if anything, it is a universal challenge. Part of what is so appealing about Creative Startups is their conviction that profit and creativity don’t have to be at odds. To create an accelerator program that would speak to creatives while instilling necessary skills for their success, Creative Startups partnered with Stanford faculty to build their curriculum, and since launching, they’ve taken off. One of their biggest success stories to date has been Meow Wolf, an immersive art experience in Santa Fe, which has plans to open in other U.S. markets. Meow Wolf is part of a new creative industry of immersive experiences that have potential to be profitable, and Tom Aageson feels this is just the beginning of what’s possible. 

Beyond the creative industry, the city itself has a mix of short- and long-term plans in place to make entrepreneurship the new status quo. Gary Oppedahl discusses an initiative they’ve developed called Mindset Memo, which has already seen 100 employees go through an Entrepreneurial Mindset training, with the ultimate goal of training 2,500 government employees in this method of thinking. According to Oppendahl: “The point is to be entrepreneurial from WITHIN government.” Entrepreneurship isn’t about starting a business, it’s about “seeing every single situation as an opportunity for an upgrade…once I find it, I passionately pursue it despite current resources and current obstacles.” The ultimate goal of Mindset Memo is to see legions of government employees become action-oriented problem solvers that feel empowered to make choices and take control of situations – two things that will be key as the city grows.

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Gary Oppedahl, the City’s Director of Economic Development, walking us through Mindset Memo. Photo by Jennie Armstrong.

And they aren’t keeping what they’re learning from Mindset Memo inside City Hall: some employees are going out to elementary school classrooms to teach the entrepreneurial mindset to young Albuquerqueans. The city has a long history of being a government and lab town, and it knows that in order to build an entrepreneurial city, it has to start with changing the mindset of the people who live here to be more action-oriented and to think like entrepreneurs – and part of that is training a new generation of future entrepreneurs.

Many that I spoke with talked about how millennials love their home city, but they’re leaving and going out of state in search of better job opportunities. With a flourishing downtown, investments in entrepreneurship, and efforts to up the city’s cool factor through having a presence at festivals like SXSW and Collision, Albuquerque is hoping to start by attracting those who have left to come home and keeping the next generation here. There’s a strong sense that they need to first convince locals to believe in Albuquerque and stick around before a major effort is made to encourage outsiders to start flocking to the city.

Beyond the creative culture, what really sets Albuquerque apart is its history of groundbreaking scientific research and the presence of a well-respected research university, the Kirtland Air Force Base and two major labs. There are unique knowledge assets and social capital in this town that you won’t find in places like Austin – a city that has become a well-established hub for entrepreneurship. Albuquerque boasts The University of New Mexico and two federal research labs, Los Alamos and Sandia. But according to one reviewer, these research institutions “have historically been unable to leverage their considerable intellectual resources into economic benefit for the region, operating quite separately from the city and its people.”

Partially to address that issue, and inspired by the Brookings Institution, Albuquerque is launching an innovation corridor in the heart of the city. And just like the harmony and collision at Sister Bar, the idea is for students, professors, researchers, data geeks and entrepreneurs to live, work and play in a centralized area. When talking with Oppendahl about the melding of diversity of thought, he says: “This is a place where a nuclear physicist, a rocket scientist and a cyber security expert really do walk into a bar.” 

When speaking with ABQid Director of Business and Financial Development Harold Lavender, it becomes clear just how important something like this is. “One of the biggest problems – not just in New Mexico, but everywhere – is getting the technology out of the labs and into real life. I’ve seen some of the most amazing things that I can’t believe aren’t out there [in the marketplace].” In order to bridge the gap between entrepreneurship and the research labs, Harold says simply: “It has to be us, it has to be an accelerator.” 

One case study of this happening is InnoBright, a company that successfully transitioned research from the labs and built a scalable company. InnoBright has found a way to reduce the amount of time is takes to render a film by about 90%, and for a state with a strong film industry, this is huge (New Mexico’s film industry brought $387 million into the economy in 2016 alone). Through accelerators like ABQid and the launch of an innovation district, Albuquerque is well on its way to tapping into cutting-edge technology coming out of labs and launching more successful high-tech startups.    

Finding a balance between Albuquerque’s rich cultural history and an increase in high-tech entrepreneurship will be something worth following. At the end of the day, Albuquerque’s low cost of living, 300 days of sunshine, active city officials and an embrace of the creative culture makes it an attractive place for millennials to move and launch startups. The real test will be how much of that can be maintained once it hits its goal of being one of the most entrepreneur-friendly cities in America.

 


The #CreativeCitiesUSA Albuquerque editorial project was made possible with the support of: 

 

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