Obama adviser: Creativity sparks growth

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Innovation comes from a state of mind, not from a degree or a position, an adviser to President Obama told students at Albany State University on Wednesday.

Barry Johnson, who Obama appointed in October 2009 to be senior adviser to the Economic Development Administration and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives in the U.S. Department of Commerce, spoke after a large number of local political dignitaries welcomed him.

Speaking in the ACAD Auditorium, the 46-year-old Birmingham, Ala., native started by motivating the capacity crowd of 330 people, which included ASU, Turner Job Corps Center and Albany Early College students, faculty and others.

"When I see all your faces, I see infinite possibilities," said Johnson, who attended Yale College for his bachelor's degrees in economics and political science and Harvard for his master's degree in business administration. "You are amazing. I say that because I believe in you. You can be anything you choose to be. It all starts with a dream."

Johnson said the road to country's economic recovery rested in "regional innovation collaboration." He explained that multiple agencies work together in an effort to improve a region's economic vitality.

"The strength of our regions is tied to our ability to be creative," he said. "Starting jobs (and) sustaining economic growth means all hands on deck. ... The countries that have brought this forward have had really good success with their economic outcome."

Known for his innovative work with companies such as Microsoft, BET, Sony Music Entertainment, Walt Disney and BMG Music Group, Johnson then reminded the crowd about the history of African Americans' creative abilities.

"In a largely African-American population, innovation is nothing new," he said. "They (brought into existence) the traffic light, peanut butter and open heart surgery. The African-American community has been innovating for years. It's about a frame of mind. Innovation doesn't require a certain degree or job."

Recently, Johnson visited Flint, Mich., which has been hard hit with unemployment following the U.S. auto manufacturing industry's troubles. The city had a 15.8 percent unemployment rate as of February, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. However, Johnson said he was impressed with the resiliency of some former auto workers. After being retrained, they were working in a high-tech environment, earning four to five times more than they had made before.

"What's the federal government's role in the innovation economy?"

Johnson asked the audience. "We supply the resources. We supply the funding to help business grow and expand. ... You don't want to do what's hot. You want to take stock in what's best for your region, that you can support.

"My message to you as a university community is that the government's role can only be enhanced by your role. You are the teaching centers. You play a key role in invigorating the young minds to inspire these folks that have high growth (industry) possibilities locally, regionally, nationally and globally."

Johnson said some of the country's growth could increase by expanding U.S. exports.

"The president wants to double exports" in the next few years, he said. "Less than 90 percent of companies here don't export and the majority of those that do export only export to one or two countries."

Johnson concluded his talk by encouraging the students to make time to dream and to live life to the fullest.

"I want you to take time out to be quiet and dream because that's where the big innovations began," he said. "You think Stevie Wonder and Mozart ... came up with their great ideas out of chaos. I encourage you to engage with each other and to give life your best.

"The question isn't how life is treating you," he added. "It's how you're treating life. What's the best way to get a smile? To smile. You are the initiator of your life. If you want gifts, give gifts. If you want a professor to recognize you, talk to your professor. Life is waiting for you. Engage your life and you will have a great life."

Albany State junior Rychia James of Lilburn appreciated Johnson's half-hour speech.

"I thought it was very inspirational as far as we can do whatever we want to do," said James, a biology major. "We can dream big and don't have to limit ourselves. And, that we are all innovative."

Freshman Tom Frey Smith was happy to have someone of Johnson's prominence speaking at the school.

"I thought it was informational and interesting," said Smith, who hails from Atlanta and is studying business. "It was something new. This was the only time we've had someone speak of that stature."