Shivani Siroya, the CEO and founder, of Inventure which provides credit scores for micro-business owners.

Education. Public policy. Financial access. The stool of economic prosperity has too many legs to count.

But at the annual GeorgiaForward forum Sept. 12-13 in Athens, legislators, civic leaders, policy makers and academics sought to boil down the big questions to the state level while laying out its path for future growth.

Athens, a community that recently won Caterpillar Inc.‘s $200 million excavator factory, was ripe for discussions on how to position the state to attract investment, both domestically and abroad.

Georgia has some advantages, including low taxes, quality of life, relatively low housing prices and a favorable climate, but infrastructure challenges and disparities between Atlanta and the rest of the state – known locally as the “two Georgias” problem – loom as significant issues, said Ted Alden, who leads a project studying American competitiveness at the Council on Foreign Relations.

More broadly, in a changing world with emerging countries gaining a bigger piece of the economic pie, the United States will have to step up its marketing efforts if it wants to continue to be the go-to investment destination, said Mr. Alden.

“We have assumed for years that everybody wanted to invest in the United States, that companies were going to expand here, that we were the place to be, but we’re not,” he said. “We’re 300 million people in a world of 7 billion people, and a lot of these economies are rising. They’re competing aggressively for economic advantage; they’re selling themselves to the world. We don’t do that very well.”

Despite the recent enactment of free trade agreements with ColombiaPanama and more significantly, South Korea, America could also do more to open its borders and give its firms better chances to compete in fast-growing countries.

“What you’re seeing is a lot of the big developing countries – the Brazils, the Indias, the Chinas – move from being poor countries to being middle-class countries, and as they become middle-class, they are going to want to buy the stuff that we make in the United States, not just goods but services,” he said.

As for Georgia, drawing and keeping companies has a lot to do with sticking to a clear strategy, especially on primary-school education, where the state has struggled, said Scott Holcomb, a Democratic state representative from Dekalb County who attended the conference.

“If we get that right, then all the other things are going to come together because we’re going to keep businesses here,” Mr. Holcombe said.

As he travels his “wildly diverse” district, Mr. Holcombe said he meets people from Korea, Africa, China and elsewhere, reminding him that immigration is a source of vitality and that Georgia faces competition from more than just neighboring states.

“We need to have an understanding that Athens, Ga., is competing with AthensGreeceRome, Ga., is competing against RomeItaly, and to really have that international scope to what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re not competing against Alabama or Mississippi; we’re competing worldwide.”

Shivani Siroya, a keynote speaker, said the lessons she has learned in a venture increasing financial inclusion in India are relevant to Georgia, where 722,000 small businesses are a keystone in the economic framework.

Ms. Siroya is the founder of InVenture, which provides credit scores for micro-business owners in developing countries (and some parts of the United States) who have no way to prove their creditworthiness.

Some 66 million Indians make their living in the informal sector through cash-based businesses, Ms. Siroya said. Without data, banks find them risky and relegate them to micro-loans, leaving businesspeople without expansion capital that would enable them to improve their own lives and create jobs for others.

Inventure’s software platform, Insight, allows business owners to use text messages track household finances and perform basic business accounting. InVenture captures the data and sells it to banks with the goal of improving financial access and literacy while expanding banks’ productive loan portfolios, Ms. Siroya told Global Atlanta.

She said the GeorgiaForward forum showed concern for instilling dignity at all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in a state with unemployment hovering around 9 percent and more than a quarter of the population under 18.

“To me, dignity is about choice, opportunity and the feeling of being included in one’s community, the feeling that the work that you’re doing and your contributions matter to the people around you,” she said in her keynote speech on Sept. 13.

The forum included panel discussions on the future of rural Georgia, city development, childhood hunger and transportation after the failure of T-SPLOST, the regionwide referendum on whether to provide a penny tax for transportation improvements that was soundly defeated, as well as plenary sessions on prosperity.

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...