Inner-cities aren't usually thought of as hotbeds of entrepreneurial activity, but they are often harbingers of things to come for the rest of the country.
The Inner City 100
Trees are the record keepers of time's march: The years etch their passage in radiating rings. We think of regions that way, too. A city is a core, a relic of the past, while suburbs -- constantly aborning farther and farther from the tired center -- are fresh, vital, forward-looking.
But cities -- like the pith of a tree -- mark the place where something happened first: where immigrants settled and highways sprouted and wires snaked beneath the streets. And it is in cities, still, that the future touches down. There, companies have already faced (and mastered) an environment that is just emerging elsewhere: one where workers thrash out technical specs in seven languages and standard service means having someone on a customer's doorstep in 10 minutes flat. Inner-city businesses don't need lectures on managing diversity; they were built on diversity. And while office-park denizens hold yet another meeting on how to speed up service, their urban counterparts have finished their deliveries and are heading home.
These durable, if sometimes gritty, harbingers are the subject of the third Inner City 100, an annual ranking of the fastest-growing privately held companies in America's urban core. The IC 100 is a joint project of Inc. and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a nonprofit founded in 1994 by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. "When we started this, I thought we could reverse a lot of bad policies and bad perceptions that have prevented the inner cities from having a place in the economy," says Porter. "I never dreamed the inner city would become a window onto the future of the economy."
One aspect of that future is likely to be the triumph of the multis: ethnic, cultural, and lingual. In inner-city companies, managers who speak only English work productively with staff whose origins range from Argentina to Zambia. People who walk in the door with no work experience walk out brandishing real rÉsumÉs. "The growth of the workforce is slowing dramatically, and we know that most of that growth is going to be among minorities," says Porter. "Inner-city companies have already confronted that."
Logistics is another looming concern for vendors in thrall to just-in-time manufacturers and devout outsourcers. Companies that invested millions of dollars trying to move people through cyberspace have ignored the more basic problem of moving products and services through real space. But logistics is the oldest of hats for urban enterprises, which by definition labor close to transportation hubs. "The irony is that in the age of the Internet, location has become even more important," says Porter.
And while dot-com management styles -- feverish, fun, flip-ready -- were revered in a horizonless economy, inner-city resourcefulness shines more brightly as the clouds descend. These are companies that never indulged in the excesses of the rest of the economy; companies with basic, proven business models; companies that haven't had it easy and are stronger for it. "The Inner City 100 have always had to face the reality of management," says Porter. "They are the enduring models." In the stories below you will meet some of those models. Read their stories. Glimpse the future.
The Inner City 100
Comeback Markets Most companies have taken a pass on the huge inner-city service market. Some smart CEOs are eagerly filling the void. Curricular Extras SuccessLab shores up the academic moorings of kids in poor school districts Doctors Without Orders Molina Healthcare gives physicians freedom to match the treatment with the culture. These Old Houses Rego Realty brings dilapidated buildings back to life -- and livelihood. Mother's Giant Helper Allegheny Child Care lifts a burden from welfare-to-work moms.
City Lights There are a million stories in the inner cities. These are some of them.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan