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Industry Insights

How in the world did we dominate this year’s Olympics?

By ,
James Barrood of the New Jersey Tech Council.
James Barrood of the New Jersey Tech Council. - ()

Sometimes, these days, it's easy to momentarily forget just what it is that makes America so extraordinary. Fortunately, the Rio Olympics showed us the quintessential example of it. America's team was both our most successful in modern history and our most diverse.

That's no coincidence. When America lets everyone play, we attract new hearts, new minds and new achievers  and we do the incredible. That's true in elite athletics. It's just as true in our state, and our technology and life sciences industries.

Consider, for example, that U.S. women earned a record-setting 61 medals in Rio. Other than the U.S. itself, no country's team  men and women combined  earned more golds than U.S. women did. America's women medaled in sports ranging from tennis to boxing, triathlon to judo, beach volleyball to shooting and wrestling.

All this didn't "just happen." It was the outgrowth of a national public policy decision, codified in 1972's Title IX, that women deserved an equal shot to participate in athletics.

It's hard to recall just how different things used to be. Then, policy changed (even if not everyone was happy about it at the time). Culture changed. Leadership was required, at every level. But, given a chance, look what America's women have done. And, looking back, who would wish to deprive them of their chance to compete?

I see a similar arc of progress in our traditionally male-dominated technology industries. We've increasingly seen women earning top leadership roles at great tech companies. Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and IBM's Virginia Rometty may be the most prominent, but we have many great women entrepreneurs and leaders here in New Jersey, too. To name just a few: Thai Lee at SHI, Marni Walden at Verizon, Marene Allison at Johnson & Johnson, Monica Smith at Marketsmith and Ranjini Poddar at Artech (who'll be speaking at the Tech Council’s Leadership Summit on Oct. 5).

But we need to do better  both in welcoming women into STEM disciplines and opening the networks and resources they'll need to build and grow companies. At the New Jersey Tech Council, where I'm CEO, this has been a key priority since our founding 20 years ago by Maxine Ballen, and will continue to be an important focus going forward.

Of course, America's remarkable success at the Rio games wasn't only about women. It also reflected America's openness to wonderfully talented people from around the world. It's remarkable how many first- and second-generation Americans were competing on our behalf. Among the nearly four dozen members of Team USA who were born outside the U.S.: four Kenyans who came to America, joined the U.S. Army, trained in its World Class Athlete Program, took the oath of citizenship and represented us in track and field. So, too, Enkelejda Shehaj, who escaped Albania in 1999, earned U.S. citizenship in 2012, and competed on our behalf in skeet shooting. So, too, runner Charles Jock, who came to America at age three with his family of refugees from Sudan's civil war.

Our team's strength and our culture's vibrancy are intertwined: each welcome relentless hard work, creativity, and talent from anywhere. And as we know, New Jersey, America's most diverse state, is one of the nation’s most vital centers of innovation. As you read this, talented immigrants and long-time natives are teaming up here to create inventions that will soon change your life  and medicines that may someday save it.

Again, the link between diversity and innovation in New Jersey (and America) is no coincidence. But for this virtuous cycle to continue, we must keep embracing talented people who want to come here and build with us. And, as with Title IX, this will require enlightened policy, thoughtful leadership, and an open culture that welcomes the future, instead of fearing it. Our newest Olympians remind us of the core lesson of American history: when everyone can play, we win

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