Feature photo above: Benjamin Parkway by C. Kao for VISIT PHILADELPHIA
Important now: A consistent, cohesive message is the most important aspect of marketing a city, especially globally. All involved parties must communicate the same qualities and benefits the city has to offer.
Living through an economic crisis in Ecuador—including two presidential coups—and bearing witness to gender equality work in the Council of Europe in France were disparate events with commingled impact on Sylvie Gallier Howard’s career as a public servant. She understood better the universality of human rights issues and notably, the profound lift entrepreneurship can have on the impoverished.
She carried these compassions with her during the years she spent in the non-profit sector throughout Philadelphia providing guidance to social enterprises and working in areas such as education, social justice, economic development and immigration. She even started the city’s first bilingual Spanish-English entrepreneurship training program.
“These experiences have been my foundation for public service, ensuring Philadelphia is globally focused and positioned as a city, and for investing in entrepreneurship as a means of poverty alleviation and prevention,” says Howard.
Now as the acting director for Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce, Howard is able to use her multifaceted insights to lead economic development initiatives for the city. Driven by the city’s culture of embracing diversity, promoting social equity and fostering inclusive economic growth, Howard has spearheaded many city-enriching efforts.
For example, she launched Kiva City Philadelphia, a zero-interest micro-business loan program and led the successful effort to become the first World Heritage City in the U.S. She also played a lead role in developing Philadelphia’s bid to Amazon for the HQ2 search and is heading up a global identity process to elevate Philadelphia’s brand internationally.
In the following interview, Howard talks about why the city is spending $1 million to procure innovative ideas to meet new needs, how it will advance more global partnerships and what the most important aspects are of marketing any city.
What are some significant ways in which Philadelphians have changed for the longer term due to the pandemic?
One of the biggest changes is that everything is digital. Meeting the digital divide for schools started being our first priority and getting Chromebooks to all the students. We launched a $17 million program called PHLConnectED, to get all students online and households as well.
We have a number of other initiatives in place, such as a $1 million call for ideas from workforce providers to propose innovative ideas or models on how to scale up existing programs to meet new needs.
We have learned that 68% of the unemployment filings are residents who do not have a high school diploma. We are looking at models that couple organizations in the space of GED with digital literacy programs because a lot of times they go hand in hand.
One of the other priorities we have is making the Most Diverse Tech Hub (see related story in this edition of CityRevive). What we really want to do is prepare people for jobs in growth sectors. More than 30% of our industry jobs are in the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors. Overall, those jobs do not pay well and have no health benefits. Restaurants and hotels will take a long time to come back to the level they were, so we want to prepare people by investing in work development programs that are very targeted to racial equity. We want to support Black and brown residents, businesses and startups.
Which sectors will you be focused on for these work programs?
In Philadelphia we see our primary sectors to be eds, meds, and beds. We have a lot of higher education and medical institutions, so one of the areas we are prioritizing right now is tech, which crosses many different sectors. There is also constant growth, whether for computer programmers or software developers, or for more basic work like repairs and troubleshooting.
We find there are more and more jobs in the tech area so that is where we are investing. We have entered into industry partnerships around tech jobs and have over 60 employers that have agreed to be a part of our Tech Industry Partnership effort. Those employers will identify the specific skills they need now and within the next decade so we can partner with them to start training and matching up people who have had obstacles to employment in these types of jobs.
We already have partnerships in sectors like gene therapy and life sciences because we are very cutting edge in those areas, and we are also looking at how to diversify in the financial sector.
You have a new Workforce Development division in the Commerce Department. What is its mission?
It’s really focused on system building, being a convener and linking partners together. There are different initiatives the division is working on. For example, the $1 million call for ideas will be an investment in organizations, collaborations, and partnerships.
We are also investing $500,000 in the Most Diverse Tech Hub initiative I mentioned that will be focused on a combination of industry partnerships, internships for Black and brown residents and students, and supporting underrepresented startup founders.
I understand you implemented the Kiva City zero interest micro-business loan program a few years back. Can you explain how the program works and whether it has been helpful to businesses impacted by the pandemic?
KIVA is an international micro-lending program. In Philadelphia we partnered with our community development finance institutions (CDFIs) or any kind of intermediary for small businesses because KIVA is mostly based on recommendations from trusted sources. If a business is working with another lender or program, they would recommend them as opposed to crowd sourced zero interest loans. We partnered with them and were able to establish having some matching dollars toward the loans. Basically, a business owner who wants to get a zero-interest loan needs to put up a profile on KIVA and eventually get a critical mass of lenders, generally friends and family.
We and some of our partners support businesses on getting that profile up and after that it happens on its own. KIVA lenders go on to the platform and make small loans that add up to the total ask amount.
The city doesn’t put money toward the program, we fund raised years ago to set this up and created some matching dollars but now we really help drive businesses to the program and set up their profiles. They usually start with a couple of thousand dollars and can go up to $10,000. Usually with a first loan they start closer to $5,000. Once they get on there, people from all over the world go on and make $25 loans and they get a couple hundred or a thousand lenders and meet their goal; they have to pay it back over a few years.
You talk about opening up more global markets post-pandemic by identifying key markets. Are those markets different now?
The last few years we have had to make a lot of adjustments based on national politics and trade wars. Basically, we’ve done an analysis on a combination of our primary sectors and supply chains in areas like life sciences and pharma. We identified which other countries have these strengths and supply chains. Then we look at tourism, where students are coming from to study here; we have over 100 colleges and universities.
Overall, I don’t think markets will change dramatically because those types of trends don’t alter too dramatically, although who knows these days? We have done trade missions to China, South Korea, Germany, the UK, Northern Ireland; these are places we know have a lot of synergies and there are sister city relationships because of direct flights. There might be some new things happening but that hasn’t been announced yet. I’ll have a little more on that later.
In 2017, Philadelphia submitted a bid to become the second headquarters for Amazon. What were the most important aspects of marketing your city as a potential site?
One of the most important things is consistency across what we’re saying. We have a Global Identity Partnership born out of the Amazon process. When we went for Amazon, we realized a lot of people didn’t really know everything that Philadelphia has to offer.
Then we were accepted into a cohort with the Brookings Institute with three other cities specifically centered around building a global identity. What we learned from that process is that it is very important for everyone to sing from the same song book and promote the most important aspects of the city and have that really resonate. Whether that is bringing investors, or venture capital, or real estate development projects, or new businesses, everybody must promote the same attributes.
One of the silver linings of COVID is that we are a lot more collaborative in Philadelphia, with our surrounding counties and regions; we have to market the whole region. It’s not just the city boundaries, it’s the whole package and the fact we have nearby amenities, like the beaches and mountains. We are in the center of the northeast corridor, we are an hour train ride from New York, we are just over an hour train ride from D.C. and six hours from Europe. Our location is very desirable.
We also have a really great talent pipeline with over 100 colleges and universities. The cost of doing business and cost of living, when compared to D.C., Boston or New York, is much more affordable. But we are still a very major city with the amenities you can find in those other cities but with a much more manageable and livable environment.
For more information contact Kevin Lessard, communications director, Philadelphia Commerce Department: Kevin.Lessard@phila.gov