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Cory Booker: Start-ups Will Define America's Future

The Newark mayor and video-site founder spent the past week hanging out with hackers, founders, and tech geeks. Here's why.
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Watch out, Mike Bloomberg. There's competition in the race to be the most pro-entrepreneurship mayor. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, keynoted at the exclusive f.ounders conference in New York City last week, just after returning home from a few days at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where he met with entrepreneurs, delivered a talk, and judged a hackathon.

That's where we met him--and where he was hanging out with the founders of some of the most talked-about start-ups of this year. Lady Gaga's manager, Troy Carter, also chatted up Booker, who has lately become known for his innovative--if unorthodox--use of Twitter to chat directly with constituents. Booker is also the founder--along with former Gilt City president Nathan Richardson, and former TechCrunch executive Sarah Ross--of a new video-sharing start-up called Waywire. Inc.'s Christine Lagorio sat down with Booker at South by Southwest to find out more about his foray into entrepreneurship, his plan for breaking up what he calls "an oligarchy of media," and what's next for him.

You just started a video-sharing site, Waywire. Why did you decide to jump into entrepreneurship? And why video?
I have been very involved in social media during my job, and starting to understand the very powerful democratizing forces in social media. It was bringing government closer to people, it was creating collaborative environments, getting rid of these zero-sum-game politics of "I win; you lose." But I also saw the trend of video, and realized there were problems with it, because it was really hard to discover the video that would be really important to you. I was going to YouTube, where there are probably thousands of hours of stuff that would be important to me, but I could never discover it in that vast ocean. So we decided we would start sort of a Pandora for video.

Is there a social aspect to the video sharing as well?
To really solve for the discovery and the curation and the sharing of video, we create the right algorithms so the best ones for you appear at the top of the screen. And each person will have their own video identity. I really like you, so anything you post I'd want to follow, for instance. The bigger point of this is that the voices of the people are being shut out by an oligarchy of media that tell us every day what the top stories are. I wanted to give people the power to create video and get it into the social stream so that it starts penetrating the national conversation in a more substantive way.

What happened with the anti-Semitic videos that recently showed up on the site? 
Somebody went on the site and posted something. We have mechanisms to get that stuff pulled off really quickly. I haven't been updated on what exactly happened, but my staff has told me it was taken down.

What have you learned from your career in Newark about entrepreneurship?
We need to create a culture that calls for the innovations of individuals. And don't we live in a wonderful society now that through things like collaborative consumption, all of us can access our own entrepreneurialism, our latent economic prowess? I'm very, very, excited, especially now being involved in a start-up, starting to see what the role of government is in helping start-ups to begin. How do you deal with everything from access to capital issues to access to talent? How do you get the right programmers--the right engineering team? So this is good for me, from right now, when Newark is having the biggest economic boom since the 1950s and 1960s, to where I might want to go, which is the United States Senate.

What are the biggest things the federal government can do to stoke entrepreneurship and start-ups?
It's no one thing; it's everything. We are not preparing our young people to really compete and innovate and grow in the 21st century's global, knowledge-based economy. This is very problematic. What about access to capital? I'm really excited that technology is disrupting this, with Kiva and Kickstarter. But why aren't there more women-started companies, or minority-started companies? This is also very problematic. That's happening right now, because not enough women are getting that access to VC money, not enough minorities getting access to VC money.

We've got to be sure we're creating a climate. Congress should be doing more to fuel innovation--to fuel growth. And, frankly, make America continue to be the place with the smartest people on the globe come to learn, come to grow, come to innovate and start businesses.

What should we do about immigration reform?
It's not either-or. We don't have time for the tyranny of the "or" in America anymore. We've got to be the liberation of the "and." We've got to do education better and we need more visas for the smartest human beings. They finish their Ph.D.s in biomedical engineering to stay here and contribute here. It is ridiculous that we are kicking people out who could be driving our economy. We want them to stay here and be a part of this great society.

There's a lot of debate over whether scrappy tech start-ups are actually reliable creators of sustainable jobs.
You could say the same with restaurants, for instance. My parents opened up a restaurant when I was in grade school, and it failed. Witnessing that entrepreneurial endeavor was a great learning experience for me as a kid. But the reality is: most small businesses fail. You know what the real engine of job creation in America still is small businesses. So we need to create environments where people are willing to take more risks with capital, where people are willing to jump in and apply their innovations, their imaginations, and their ideas.

Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark schools. Explain to us how that happened, and your role in it.
I was his hundred-millionth follower on Facebook, so...

Ha. If only!
No, so, he is passionate about education, and he knows that we are either going to succeed or fail based on our ability to educate people, and that right now, the trends are scary. The majority of kids born right now in America are minorities, and right now minorities are under-achieving in education. These racial disparities in education, McKinsey pins it as today, an impact on our GDP of about $2.3 trillion. So tomorrow, 15 or 20 years from now, when these young people are entering the workforce, if they are not educated when they're then the majority of our workforce, that's very scary. And uneducated people cost so much more, they have higher health-care costs, they have higher draw-downs on social services, they have higher rates of criminality. Go to a maximum-security prison; you are not going to see a lot of Ph.D.s there.

What makes you qualified to be Senator?
First of all, I am not definitely running! (Laughs.) Look, I spent the last seven years of my life taking a city that was losing population, losing businesses, losing a tax base, and with a severely broken budget--$700-plus million budget with a projected $200 million budget deficit--and seven years later it's in its biggest growth period. My city of 300,000 people, with a state of eight or nine million, we are responsible for 30 percent of all the state's commercial and multi-family development right now as of the fourth quarter of 2012. So, we've cleaned up our budget; we are spending less today than we were when I came in seven years ago, so all these things, addressing the fiscal issues, addressing the growth issues, addressing education issues, addressing innovation issues--from urban farming to criminal-justice reform. All these things we've had successes on at the local level, I think give me a platform to stand on, should I go to the federal level.

When will we know for sure whether you are?
After the gubernatorial election. One election at a time!


This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

IMAGE: veni/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 21, 2013

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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