Next Doors: Building a More Inclusive Economy

GPEC and partners focus on expanding Arizona’s economic base

When we think about economic development, we tend to think in terms of home runs. Landing a big new industry for the state. Luring a company from another market. Opening a new manufacturing facility or tech lab. The kind of stuff that makes for good headlines. 

All that is great and important. After all, we didn’t get to 7 million Arizonans by sitting on our hands. There’s been a tremendous amount of work done to position Arizona as an attractive place to do business — as well as to live and play.

But it’s the 7 million of us already here who are really going to shape the future. It’s a fact magnified by two recent factors — the pandemic (of course) and the overall changing demographics of our state. 

First, think about the demographics for a moment. You hear a lot of talk about this from a political perspective, but the undeniable fact is that Arizona is becoming more culturally diverse. The Hispanic population is now a majority in Phoenix, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and other minority populations continue to grow. 

As these groups grow, our state grows. As they prosper, our state prospers. But unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed a difficult truth — minority-owned businesses are not experiencing the same economic rebound that white-owned businesses are seeing, and wage and job growth are happening at lower rates in minority communities. 

That’s why a coalition of public and private organizations Valleywide — led by the Greater Phoenix Economic Council with partnerships across the cultural spectrum — are working on ways to ensure a more inclusive economy. Their goal is an economy where a rising tide lifts all boats and Latino and minority business owners have the tools they need to grow and thrive. 

“The regional economy here in the metro Phoenix area is on really good footing,” said Chris Camacho, president and CEO of GPEC. “We’ve seen massive growth in high-wage job sectors — advanced manufacturing, semiconductors, software, healthcare. We’re leading the nation in many of these categories, which is a great thing.”

With that, as we’ve seen the COVID-induced economic effects impact not only small businesses, but Main Street workers — hospitality, retail and sectors that have had historically more modest wages — it’s creating a divide. “On one side, you have massive high-wage job growth, and on the other, you had this massive contraction occur. A lot of those workers vacated their previous work and are now trying to figure out what to do next,” Camacho said.

He sees this as a challenge and an opportunity. It is a chance to build an inclusive economic growth strategy that not only attracts big business but cultivates entrepreneurs across the socioeconomic spectrum. Which sounds great, but how do you get there? 

“We need to be more focused on opening up access to capital and building a support ecosystem to support startup companies, because many of the employees work for small businesses,” he said. “It’s a good thing for big business to have small businesses flourish.”

GPEC’s efforts are being made in partnership with Valley of the Sun United Way, Chicanos Por La Causa, the Black Chamber of Arizona, the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Arizona Community Foundation, StartupAZ Foundation and many other organizations. GPEC’s next strategic plan, set to roll out next summer, will include a great deal more on inclusive economic growth.

It starts with, as so many things do, education. Recognizing the challenges that some minority populations have in starting new businesses is key, but it also includes realizing the untapped potential that these entrepreneurs and their employees may have. 

Then the effort moves to reaching out to more marginalized small businesses. The pandemic provided some unique new opportunities through PPP funding and other stimulus initiatives. 

“As a byproduct of that process, we need to go on offense and advocate for programs that put capital in the hands of these businesses,” Camacho said. His point is that it took a crisis to create some of these programs that would work perfectly well in normal times in providing opportunity to small business. 

While most think of GPEC as a recruitment organization, the shift in focus to Arizona’s internal economy has been a new opportunity for the organization to leverage its experience and influence.

“What we saw was that we have a powerful voice in this region to help advance equity and access to capital, and I wanted to throw our weight with our communities and with private sector companies behind what we believe this is all about,” Camacho said. “It’s about entrepreneurs, it’s about access to capital, and it’s about a better society at the end of the day.” 

Camacho said that public education is key to creating a more equitable economy — today’s students are tomorrow’s business leaders, and they’re more diverse than ever before. 

“The more students that flow through our high school systems that are ready for a two- or four-year university or are ready to get to the workforce, the better economic outcome we’re going to have,” he said. 

So what does success look like? Camacho said it’s a broad-based effort involving a wide variety of community partners working for the same result. 

“We’re all rowing in the same direction trying to solve similar challenges,” Camacho said. “And that momentum will lead us to a very positive outcome.”

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and the Senior Vice President at Lumen Strategies
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