Following two years of intensive planning, sharing and relationship building across and between our participating cities, the Forward Cities effort culminated in a fourth and final convening in Cleveland June 14-17. There was an air of celebration and sense of achievement as Forward Cities council members and guests gathered to deepen their collaborative relationships, highlight lessons learned throughout the initiative, elevate inclusive innovation in a national context, and above all, showcase Cleveland’s intentional strides toward an inclusive innovation economy.

To see the full list of bios, click here.

To see all the photos from all four days of the convening, click here.

View the 3-minute video recap of the convening below.

Forward Cities Cleveland Convening from Forward Cities on Vimeo.

To see all other videos from the convening, click here.

The convening kicked off Tuesday evening at the stunning Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland with a warm welcome from Forward Cities Cleveland Council member Randy McShepard, followed by remarks from Cleveland’s most respected and beloved historian Dr. John Grabowski. Grabowski helped set the stage for the week ahead by providing context to the history of immigration and diversity in Cleveland’s neighborhoods.

Forward Cities guests at Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.


Participants set out bright and early on Wednesday morning for a daylong excursion to an array of projects spanning the city. In total, the group consisting of 50 out of town leaders from New Orleans, Detroit, Durham, Washington DC and Chicago visited 15 projects and businesses that showcased the breadth and diversity of Cleveland’s growing inclusive innovation economy that as a whole celebrated the city as one on an intentional journey toward truly inclusive innovation.

Tracey Nichols, Director of Economic Development for the City of Cleveland,  led the first leg of the tour, which included stops and presentations by leaders and entrepreneurs at the Cleveland Culinary Launch Kitchen, Women’s Business Center, Bad Girl Ventures, JumpStart, PNC Fairfax Connection and Chateaux Hough Winery.

Mansfield Frazier in front of this Chateaux Hough Vineyard.From there, participants enjoyed a moderated panel discussion at Happy Dog presented by Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. The panel featured local 10,000 Small Businesses program alumni who shared their challenges and learning from the program. They focused particular attention on the challenges of talent retention and training for small business owners, as well as the importance of engagement to growing a business that serves the community.

Bike Box, an innovative bicycle parking station, located next to Happy Dog.Victor Ruiz, Executive Director of Esperanza, led a brief drive through of the West 25th Street Corridor, a neighborhood with the largest concentration of Latinos in the state of Ohio. There the Forward Cities leaders were treated for lunch at the San Lorenzo Social Club. Lunch included Puerto Rican food, salsa music and a traditional Puerto Rican folkloric dance performance by Latino youth involved in Esperanza’s programs.

The group enjoyed a brief welcome and remarks from Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson. Mayor Jackson commented on the lack of tools necessary to ensure that inclusion is part of the equation in economic development. “We’re going to have to change the way we do things to better ensure that there is prosperity that includes everyone,” he said. He then added, “We are in a position to do something about it. If we fail to do that then it’s on us. If we do that, then we’ll have a ‘forward city’, a city moving forward.'”

Julia de Burgos Dance Troupe at San Lorenzo Social ClubDuring lunch, a panel of neighborhood-based entrepreneurs and resource providers spoke to the issues facing the Latino community, particularly as they relate to collaborative planning efforts with the city and the investment of Metro Hospital in the neighborhood. Panelists included: Elizabeth Allen, Senior VP of External Affairs for Metro Hospital; Jenice Contreras, Executive Director of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Alexandra Pagan, Owner of Viejo San Juan Jewelry Store.

Watch the full panel here. 

Following lunch, the group toured the St. Clair Superior neighborhoods with Michael Fleming of St. Clair Superior Development Corporation. The neighborhoods included Asian, Slovenian & Croatian, African American and Latino areas. Stops included Upcycle Parts Shop where recycled materials and trash are turned into useful decorative items and art; the Slovenian National Home an anchor institution for the neighborhood; and Hub 55 where a healthy food cafe, a new brewery and recently developed market spaces for neighborhood food entrepreneurs come together to create a unique place based experience that is attracting young, entrepreneurial and creative people to that part of the city.

Final stops of the day included the Ohio City Farm where Darren Hamm of Refugee Response shared their efforts to provide farm labor and skills training to refugees from places like Burma and Bhutan, Mitchell’s Ice Cream where the group was treated to scoops of fresh made ice cream by Pete Mitchell who is the Co-Founder, and a visit to the Great Lakes Brewing Company tasting room.

Darren Hamm of the Refugee Response talks at Ohio City FarmsDay 2 ended with a reception and dinner for 200 people at the Ariel International Center on Wednesday evening. A former paint factory turned international business incubator by entrepreneur Radhika Reddy, the brick building overlooks Lake Erie with stunning views of Downtown Cleveland.

Attendees were surprised and delighted by a performance from two Kurenti dancers, a prominent mythical figure in Slovenian culture.

During dinner Peter A. Reiling, Executive Vice President at the Aspen Institute and Founder of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, led a panel focused on globalization and immigration as a strategy for urban renewal. Panelists included: Joe Cimperman, former Councilman and new President of Global Cleveland, Steve Tobocman, Executive Director of Global Detroit and WE Global Network, Andrea Chen, Founder and Executive Director of Propeller, and John Herrera, Co-Founder of the Latino Community Credit Union.

Peter asked panelists to share the mood around immigration in their city in light of the presidential election and recent conversations around globalization. Joe Cimperman commented that the mood in Cleveland is one of honesty because the city is going through centennial celebrations that are helping people remember how important immigration was to the city’s growth. He noted that true progress happens in cities, not at the national level. “My mom came from a country where people were hung in front of her as a little girl for voting the wrong way. We live in communities where as tough and as in need of social justice as America is, we are still a place where people can be who we are…cities are the places where ideas are tested and tried and our nation moves forward city by city… The mood in Cleveland right now is awesome.”

Watch the rest of the panel here.

Day 3

Thursday morning activities took place at the serene Cleveland Botanical Gardens, where 175 participants enjoyed the gardens’ lush greenery.

In the first session, moderator Jennifer Bradley, Director of the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation, led panelists Steve Standley, Chief Administrative Officer, of Cleveland’s University Hospitals; Brian Watkins, Business Development Manager for Detroit Economic Growth Corp.; Aaron Miscenich, President of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center; and Michael J. Palmer, Director of Community Relations for Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, in a conversation about the importance of anchor institutions to fostering inclusive economic development.

Jennifer spoke about anchor institutions as market creators that help develop the ecosystems that allow entrepreneurs to flourish and are thus a critical component of the inclusion conversation. Michael Palmer raised the point that an anchor institution’s best form of advocacy is its ability to connect with the community in order to truly create economic opportunity. The panelists discussed that while local procurement is a key to supporting entrepreneurs, it is important that we educate institutions on how to work with small companies while also providing support to entrepreneurs to help them scale to meet the needs of institutions. The group also spoke of the need for more workforce development initiatives in neighborhoods, as well as buy in and support from city government.

Watch the panel in full here.

After that panel, Kathy Pettit of the Urban Institute gave a brief update on the brief that the Urban Institute released on Year 1 of Forward Cities and the work that she will be doing in preparation for the final brief on the project. To see the brief on Year 1 please click here. The final Urban Institute brief on Forward Cities will be released in the fall of 2016 and will be available on the Forward Cities web site.

After Urban Institute’s presentation, representatives from each Forward Cities teams provided an update on their work to date and reflected on their experience being involved in the Forward Cities initiative. Their presentations are described in the article below:

What We Learned and Where We Go From Here: Reflections from the Forward Cities Councils 

During lunch that day, Larese Purnell presented about The Real Black Fridayan initiative that brings awareness to Black-owned businesses in northeastern Ohio. What began as an effort to spotlight businesses and encourage people to shop during one weekend each year has expanded into a holistic effort to keep dollars within the community and help build wealth. The organization also connects businesses to trainings and educational opportunities to help them stabilize and scale to meet demands. “We are building collaboration and culture and mindset change within the community, so that once [business owners] buy into it we go back and impact the actual businesses by bringing customers in the doors,” Purnell explained.

Larese Purnell presents on the Real Black Friday.After lunch, the out of town convening participants continued their tour of Cleveland’s Forward Cities council focus areas after lunch with Cleveland Director of City Planning Freddy Collier who led the group on a bus tour of the E. 105th Street Corridor. Collier focused on efforts to boost residential and commercial property development along the corridor. “Simple housing isn’t enough when it comes to creating communities,” he said. “We want to create housing choice so people can move up.”

Following that tour, Marie Kittredge led the group on a tour of the Opportunity Corridor, a planned boulevard designed to bolster transportation, economic activity, jobs and community identity in the area known as the “forgotten triangle.” The tour group stopped at Bridgeport Cafe for remarks from Burten, Bell, Carr Development Corp about their intentional community engagement efforts around housing and economic development in that neighborhood. The group then moved to the Evergreen Coop’s Green City Growers, where they learned about the Coop’s hydroponic lettuce and herbs production.

Forward Cities Group visits the Evergreen Coop.Finally, Randy McShepard led the group on a tour of the Rid-All Green Partnership’s urban farm, which reclaimed a former illegal dumping site in the Kinsman neighborhood and now grows fresh produce and tilapia, develops compost, and has an adult training program as well as a youth engagement initiative.

On Thursday evening, Forward Cities celebrated the culmination of this two year national project by treating over 175 VIPs to a special City Club of Cleveland forum talk by Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute and award winning author of the Steve Jobs and Einstein biographies among others, at the Rock n’ Roll Hall Fame. During the cocktail hour guests enjoyed a surprise performance by New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Chief Shaka Zulu and his wife Naimah. The Zulus drove to Cleveland from New Orleans so that they could wear their beautiful and colorful handmade feather and bead costumes for this performance.

Before coming to the Aspen Institute, Isaacson was President and CEO of CNN and Managing Editor of Time Magazine. Reflecting on his last two books, The Innovators and Steve Jobs’ biography, Isaacson emphasized that true innovation is not just about technology but must also embrace creativity and connect the beauty of both the arts and life sciences to technology. But innovation doesn’t happen in a silo, he said. It is a team sport that must be inclusive. “Creativity from cities with diverse populations will be the engines of society.”

Watch the full talk here.

After Walter’s talk, which was aired on IdeaStream, the local NPR affiliate in Cleveland, Mayor Frank G. Jackson took the stage to join Isaacson for a brief interview. They began with a discussion of gentrification and the importance of inclusive development. Mayor Jackson emphasized that managing gentrification requires having “policy and tools to prevent these things.” He also reinforced a prevailing theme of the convening, that the overall economy of Cleveland has grown because of startups and entrepreneurs. “Innovation,” he said, “has spurred the economy.”

Walter Isaacson presents at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Day 4

The final day of the Cleveland Convening took place at the spectacular Global Center for Health Innovation, which is part of the Cleveland Convention Center. For the morning’s first panel, moderator Jean Claude Brizard, Partner and Vice President at Cross & Joftus and a Pahara Fellow at the Aspen Institute, talked with Evelyn Burnett, Vice President of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, Lisa Johanon, Executive Director, Central Detroit Christian Community CDC, John Thompson, Founder of Resurrection After Exoneration Movement, and Ed Boyd, Founder of Invictus Office Center about the role of individual entrepreneurs in supporting the city’s comeback.

Brizard opened by asking why inclusive innovation is important to cities. Evelyn Burnett responded that while we know that entrepreneurship & innovation drive our economies, “We need to take a close look at innovation and who we see as entrepreneurs.” Ed Boyd piggy-backed on that by saying that low income people look at entrepreneurship as unachievable because there are so many barriers. But entrepreneurs are “not just wealthy & privileged people,” he said. They are often people of color who are motivated to give back and provide opportunities for others in their communities.

And for that reason, not every entrepreneur needs the same things. It’s important, Burnett said, “technical assistance options look different. We have a tendency to fish bowl entrepreneurs and don’t spend enough time talking to them one-on-one. We can help every entrepreneur but we don’t take the time to do it. Class after class, networking, and workshops, all are time intensive. They better walk out with everything they need.”

The panel also discussed the barriers to entrepreneurship, what infrastructure is needed, and what the city can do to better support an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Of Durham, Ed Boyd said, “We’re in a tech hub and entrepreneurship is seen as ‘the dream.’ You have investment funding at an all time high, yet less than 9% of all that funding makes it to minority-owned companies, so the conversation hasn’t really changed.” There’s an issue with the landscape, he suggested, just because the field isn’t equal doesn’t mean you don’t have to compete.

Watch the full panel here.

During the next session, the group engaged in a roundtable discussion about the challenges and opportunities related to inclusive economic development in each respective city – and what could be shared across cities. Each table rated their city on inclusive economic development and discussed what challenges they were facing and what strategies might advance their work. They also discussed how a national learning collaborative like Forward Cities could help.

Friday participants split up in groups and discuss how their cities can do better.As the program approached its closing and guests enjoyed their lunch, Forward Cities Council Co-Chairs Randy McShepard and Deb Hoover offered final remarks on the role of inclusive innovation. Deb Hoover remarked on the value of Forward Cities having allowed discussions about the challenges to inclusive innovation. “We need to make sure we continue these conversations. We need to continue to innovate and find new ways to address these problems, because it’s not just about us. These problems are all of our problems.”

Randy McShepard went on to reiterate that philanthropists need to continue to ask hard questions and look for the gaps. “When philanthropy talks about it,” he said, “other organizations are put on notice.” As it relates to what philanthropy can do to help minority entrepreneurs, he suggested that they be more willing to meet entrepreneurs where they are and be more willing to accept incremental gains.

In closing, Christopher Gergen interviewed Janis Bowdler, Managing Director of JPMorgan Chase Global Philanthropy. They discussed how philanthropy can better approach inclusive lending. “We need to throw ‘financial literacy’ out the window,” she said. Entrepreneurs know how to manage their money. They don’t need that kind of training. What they need is better access to capital. In lending, she emphasized the importance of looking for companies that have diverse leadership and staff, that are in diverse communities, and that are benefiting diverse communities.

Christopher Gergen interviews Janice Bowdler of JPMorgan Chase Global Philanthropy.On what cities can do to support inclusive innovation, Bowdler went on to say that cities need to start asking themselves “What’s our risk in not doing this? What happens to our population if we don’t tackle this question, if we achieve some element of progress but leave whole communities behind? That is a decrease in your tax base, those are your future home owners, that is revenue that you’re not generating at the state level.” Quantifying that and making a business case for why cities need to think about inclusion will go a long way to making sure cities think about inclusion differently.

Watch the full interview here.

Forward Cities’ final convening was truly a grand bookend to a remarkable two-year journey that not only dove into hard questions about diversity and inclusion in our local economies, it did so by bringing together people in a collaborative and enriching cross-city conversation. As this initiative comes to a close, the Forward Cities councils and partners left Cleveland seeing and feeling the momentum we’ve created. From New Orleans, to Detroit, to Durham, to Cleveland, we’ve talked, we’ve planned, we’ve toured and most of all, we’ve had a blast.