To the late Marjabelle Young Stewart, author, teacher and etiquette icon, the South was the most polite region in the country and Charleston the capital of civility. Our city was among her annual list of best-mannered cities for more than 20 years and Charleston ranked first more often than not. It was an honor most often mentioned in relation to tourism, a pleasant accolade that fit nicely with Southern stereotypes and reinforced a well-deserved romantic view of the city. But as Charleston redefines itself as a tech innovation hub, it's social interconnectedness means much more than a genteel "please" and "thank you." It may be our biggest entrepreneurship advantage.
According to a new study published in American Sociological Review, individuals in communities with high levels of social trust are more likely to be self-employed than counterparts in less connected communities. In other words, entrepreneurship blossoms in communities with available social capital - preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.
Richard Florida, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of "The Rise of the Creative Class," argues that cities with greater social capital hold two powerful start-up advantages. First, diverse and extensive social networks help entrepreneurs get the word out about their new businesses. Second, social trust helps entrepreneurs establish the kind of reputation required to secure financing, attract employees and customers, and build a viable business.
At DIG SOUTH, the first and foremost event celebrating the Southeast's information economy, we're deeply concerned with the financial, intellectual and social capital needed to foster innovation. While Charleston, my home and our host city, is not yet a hub for venture-capital investment and still growing as a talent supplier, it holds a distinct advantage in the social arena. In fact, the politeness it's known for is only part of something deeper, a cultural touchstone that is truly unique.
The broader story of Charleston is as much a commercial narrative as it is religious, political, or culinary, despite its "Holy City" moniker and secessionist past. In large part, its socially interconnected nature was born from the need to solve complex commercial problems. A city doesn't survive fires, earthquakes, war, piracy, the destruction of its agrarian economic model, base closures or the unpredictability of maritime commerce without a little friendly teamwork. Charleston owns a legacy of risk-taking. It has made mistakes, including some truly tragic ones, and has also seen breathtaking victories. And after more than three centuries of history, it has a hard-earned sense of place and authenticity.
All of which brings us back to the indefatigable Mrs. Stewart. In many ways, her awards were merely confirmation of what we already knew: people in Charleston are friendly and that geniality is meaningful to residents and attractive to outsiders. In the information age, where companies and talent can locate anywhere, that appeal makes Charleston a formidable competitor for tech innovators and entrepreneurs. It also makes the city an ideal place to start something, form a partnership, find an ally or simply make a friend.
But it's bigger than that. As technology continues to break down geographic barriers, new partnerships arise between cities that previously held no real commercial or social ties. The feisty start-up at Charleston Digital Corridor has more in common with its counterparts at The Iron Yard in Greenville than anyone (or anyplace) in between. These ties strengthen the social connectedness factor and lead to regional initiatives between emerging tech hubs.
As we get closer to the second annual DIG SOUTH Festival from April 9-13, we'll hear a lot about exciting things happening in other cities. We should welcome it and celebrate success across the country.
But in doing so, we should remember the unique competitive advantage Charleston and the Southeast collectively hold and be good stewards of it. So keep being nice and encourage the newcomers to do the same. It's part of what makes us special - and the social capital of the world.
Stan Gray is the founder and CEO of DIG SOUTH, celebrating the Southeast's information economy: www.digsouth.com.