John Warner has a clear vision of South Carolina’s future, and it is entrenched in an entrepreneurial spirit and sweeping improvements in public education. As a business leader and innovative thinker, Warner has been called upon by various organizations and state committees to offer his expertise and insight on helping South Carolina establish a supportive network for would-be entrepreneurs and cutting-edge industries.
Q: What is it about South Carolina that you think are our competitive advantages and relative weaknesses in this global marketplace?
I think one of our most underappreciated assets is that we have people here who are among the best in the world at what they do. We have people in life sciences at the Medical University in Charleston. We have 42 scholars who are part of the Smart State Endowed Chair Program. We have people in industry who go to work for Michelin Research; Milliken Research; who live in South Carolina but would be competitive anywhere and we have an opportunity to take advantage of that. I think the big challenge we have is we’re going through a cultural change. We haven’t always seen ourselves that way. We traditionally have tried to get people to come here because we had cheap land, cheap labor, and incentives. That model is obsolete One of the things we have not done a good enough job with is education, starting at the earliest levels. We have a culture of folks, where the parents didn’t have adequate educations, who don’t necessarily know how to help their children be successful; especially for children in poverty. We need to lead the country in the reinvention of public education and make it a more innovative, creative type of culture like we expect everyone else to have. We need to have children going on to higher levels of education. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to go to the university. Some may go to technical colleges. Some maybe go to internship programs.
Q: It seems we as South Carolinians, don’t think of ourselves as world-class people every day like you do. How do we expand that thinking down the socio-economic food chain so that a middle-class family in say, suburban Columbia, sees world-class talent and connects to it?
People aren’t going to support something unless they see themselves in it. And that’s one of the challenges in a lot of the things that we’ve done. We have 42 Endowed Chairs. That’s wonderful but there are a lot of families having breakfast this morning who don’t necessarily see how that’s going to change their lives in any particular way. Being able to communicate why it’s important broadly to the people in South Carolina is essential. I also think that this attitude that “maybe we can’t win,” I think there are some generational aspects to that. Younger people, for example, that I talk to don’t have that attitude as much; they don’t know that they can’t win. And so we have seen across the state the emergence of an entrepreneurial culture: the Charleston Digital Corridor, the Don Ryan Center for Innovation in Bluffton, or the USC Incubator or NEXT up in Greenville, or the Spartanburg Entrepreneurial Research Network. So all of a sudden there’s this burst of energy of entrepreneurship and a lot of people participating in these programs don’t know that they can’t win and that’s a good thing, because they’ll go out and some of them will change the world.
Q: How do you change South Carolina’s culture of negative things that you’ve talked about?
Success breeds success You have to tell people what the first step is, and here’s the vision of what we want to accomplish It’s difficult to boil the ocean, but you can boil it one teaspoon at a time and once people kind of get the idea of how to boil a little bit . over a long enough period of time you will have that cultural change. We also need to appreciate that oftentimes; cultural change is a generational change. The folks that are going to create the future in South Carolina are young people today.