Interview with Jamai Blivin, CEO and Founder of Innovate+Educate
Hope Street Group recently published Missing Makers: How to Rebuild America’s Manufacturing Workforce. Its key findings highlight the importance of collaboration among employers, educators, and the workforce—something your organization has been working toward for years. What made you reach this same conclusion and spurred you to create Innovate+Educate?
My own journey to create Innovate+Educate has been such an awesome experience, especially as I look in the “rearview mirror.” In early 2006, I was a resident of North Carolina and was fortunate enough to be offered a consulting job at the North Carolina Technology Association. At that time, an amazing leader, Joanie Myers, led NCTA. She hired me to lead a Congressional Earmark funded education project in one of the poorest districts of North Carolina and asked me to engage the technology industry in the effort to turn a low-income elementary school into a technology showcase for advancing innovation in the classroom. So, I proceeded to engage industry from across the RTP area in that effort. I found it fascinating to see what disconnect there was between the world of business and what was happening in the classroom. Yet, it was not hard at all to engage the businesses in the “change agenda” and before we knew it, we had one of the best technology demonstration projects in the state, with over $500,000 of products and services donated by the industry partners in the region.
When I started Innovate+Educate, the only real organizations that were business-led were primarily Chamber of Commerce and industry associations. There were few that where pushing for disruptive innovations with business at the heart of the work. That was my desire and I was lucky enough to find a group of folks from across the country that agreed to join my initial board of Directors, including Intel, Lockheed Martin, Cisco Systems, HP, and AT&T. Five years later, everything we focus on comes through the lens of the “demand side” of the equation and the role of business to impact real change from education to employment
One of Innovate+Educate’s fantastic initiatives is The Close It Summit, where this October 26–28 you will be announcing the winner of JOBS MADNESS, and where our CEO Martin Scaglione will serve as a moderator. What are you excited for this year as you gather leaders and innovators from across the industry?
Close It is a “kick” to create and to be a part of. It is a collaboration of amazing, thoughtful leaders, like Martin, who are willing to give up their own invaluable time to help create the agenda and the content, and to make sure that we are pushing for disruption in our U.S. education and workforce systems. Last year was our inaugural summit and it felt like a success, so we are doing it again. We all have too many summits to attend, too many places to be, so what I hope folks get out of Close It is tons of collaboration, and the opportunity to meet new people and make new “deals.” This years’ Jobs Madness competition is attracting start-ups and innovators who will also be there. We will be giving away $100,000 to three winners of the Jobs Madness competition and that will be fun as well. We know that over $1,000,000 of new deal flow happened due to Close It 2013 and we hope the same will happen again in DC this October 26–28.
Before creating Innovate+Educate, you worked in finance and education, to name a few. Were there any skills you were surprised to see transfer from your life as an investment banker to a middle school teacher?
Well, I would say there are two skills I learned in these fields that have impacted my vision and work with Innovate+Educate: one would be cognitive and the other non-cognitive.
In teaching middle school in low income schools in Little Rock, AR and Durham, NC, I found so many students disconnected from what jobs they could have if they only knew they were possible. That has continued to push our focus on jobs, job readiness, and career awareness for students, especially those at risk of dropping out or not succeeding economically without awareness and pathways to follow. I guess you would call that skill non-cognitive and it would be more about “tenacity” and “stick-to-it-ness.” Most would say I don’t give up easily.
The other would be my direct training as an investment broker. The ability to handle clients’ money, work with their portfolios, and find those investments that maximized their return on investment while minimizing their risk was what I was loved. The work we do with Innovate+Educate is similar. We want to work with great organizations like Hope Street Group that have a collaborative focus and are providing real return on investment to impact policy, practice, and strategies. The future of our country depends on real impact.
This year has seen a Makers Faire at the White House, another successful Manufacturing Day and, recently, Senator Coons and Senator Ayotte introducing the Manufacturing Skills Act, a bill to boost manufacturing skills training. What do you think are the most promising policies or initiatives emerging in the workforce space?
While there is no silver bullet for addressing our country’s suffering jobs landscape, I think the most promising thing is that finally most people—no matter which side of the aisle they are on—are saying the same thing: We must boost training, we must assure return on investment (both federal and private), and we must focus on what works and put the funding behind those things. The demand side’s role in these components is key. I personally believe that four-year education is becoming more unaffordable for the average U.S. citizen and that there needs to be a greater focus on credentials, certificates, and what skills will directly lead to employment in the fastest way possible for young adults and for all job seekers. The direction is quickly shifting to these factors, and I+E is focused on strategies that will analyze the skills that employers need and then create a clear pathway for job seekers to get the training/credentials/skills necessary for successful employment.