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New York Times highlights the quiet, influential 'Itasca Project'

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The Itasca Project.

There's a good chance you haven't heard of it, nor have you probably seen it in action – but it's a key influencing force in the state of Minnesota and the Twin Cities, despite its quiet nature.

The New York Times wrote a full piece on the Itasca Project last week, most of them CEOs of private businesses, according to its website. (The governor, the mayors of both Twin Cities, and some other local political and education leaders round it out.)

They all meet four or five times a year, and pick some "priority issues" to tackle, all concerning "regional economic vitality and quality of life ." Then a small working team meets weekly.

The New York Times however talks about how different of an approach the Itasca Project takes – "they take on thorny issues that executives elsewhere tend to avoid, like economic disparities and racial discrimination."

One Esquire writer was skeptical, writing in part: "Good intentions don't justify unaccountable power."

Priorities and process

There are four big priorities the project lists on its site: Education, job growth, transportation, and socioeconomic disparities.

Last year they put out a report on how staying competitive within the region is dependent upon getting minorities more, and better, opportunities in the state – and then laying out how businesses who want to diversify their workforce can get there.

Said David Mortensen of the construction giant M. A. Mortenson (and current Itasca Project chairman): “We’re not just asking for lower taxes and less regulation. ... If we’re taking on education or income disparity as a group of business leaders, we want to be able to break some eggs.”

Once the group picks an issue, a CEO (or team of CEOs) takes a leadership role, puts together a task force, then works with other partnerships and organizations to get things done.

"Itasca Project has no standing agenda, employs no staff and owns no real estate," the site says. Instead, they find out where they might be able to help on the issues, then try to unite "public, nonprofit and business interests" to accelerate change.

The New York Times says other cities have shown an interest in copying the project. But the Minnesota culture is a big part of why the Itasca Project is so effective.

Writes the Times:

"Part of what makes Itasca work is also what has helped Minnesota prosper: a long history of progressive and engaged business leaders, a largely homogeneous population with a low poverty rate and a consensus-driven Midwestern culture where egos are checked at the door, or at least not displayed too openly."

You can find more history about how the project came together on the McKinsey&Company website.

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