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New DEED chief Hardy outlines vision

Karlee Weinmann//May 18, 2016

New DEED chief Hardy outlines vision

Karlee Weinmann//May 18, 2016

Walk into Shawntera Hardy’s new office at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and you’ll quickly see that people are happy to have her there.

One day last week, the newly minted commissioner — who replaced Katie Clark Sieben after she stepped down last month — picked at congratulatory cookies from a friend, adding to the doughnuts and flowers from other well-wishers.

To be fair, Hardy checks off many boxes on DEED’s priority list. Most recently, she served as Gov. Mark Dayton’s deputy chief of staff, where she spent months addressing persistent racial disparities that lie at the center of his policy agenda and the agency’s programming.

Hardy started in politics in her home state of Ohio, then took a master’s degree in planning to St. Paul. After that, stints lobbying for Health Partners and environmental nonprofit Fresh Energy taught her the ins and outs of local policymaking.

On top of all that, she co-founded Civic Eagle, an award-winning startup that links elected officials and other groups with the public.

“I keep saying, and I really mean, that I’m honored to have the opportunity to take this role,” Hardy told Finance & Commerce last week. “It is the role I’ve been built to have.”

The commissioner outlined her ideas and vision in a recent interview, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


Q. How does the experience you’ve had so far in your career prepare you for this job?

A. My career has really been woven with this strong emphasis on building healthy and thriving communities. Being able to impact policy and place is really near and dear to me.

DEED is such a diverse organization with a keen focus on individuals, businesses and communities. My career led me to sit in a number of rooms with DEED workers who are doing specific programming. I understand how to actually speak the language and understand that, if programs are done in a certain way, we can have a huge impact.

Q. How do you feel DEED’s programming can aid this focus on building healthy communities?

A. A lot of what we do is directed from the Legislature, so a lot of the programming and ideas usually start from the community.

Understanding what communities need and also understanding how you are able to invest to respond to those needs are important. Everything is not going to work everywhere for everybody, so it’s really being able to take that direction from the Legislature and implement programming that is actually going to respond to the needs of the people.

Q. Racial disparities are a huge point of focus now. What does Minnesota need to do to solve the problem?

A. As a state overall, we’re in a strong economic space. We have low unemployment and strong labor force participation. But from a standpoint of communities of color and individuals living with disabilities, we see some of the worst disparities in the country.

We’re at this tipping point of not having time to study it — the numbers are the numbers are the numbers. We need to figure out the economic investments we can move forward in partnership with the community and businesses to address those needs.

That’s not an overnight task, but the urgency has to be there so the community can see that there will be a change. When I look at this work, it’s not a program. It’s not an initiative. We have to change the way we do business if we really want to have the outcomes we want.

Q. How does the business community factor into that effort?

A. Our state demographer has a chart that shows the trends of our labor participation rates. For decades we have been rocking and rolling, putting over 40,000 people every time we measure into the workforce. Right now, we’re staring at 7,000 [annually]. In getting the best and brightest, the ante has been upped.

Figuring out strategies so that we can get those who are on the economic sidelines in the game is going to be so important.

I would call on the business community to think about short-, medium- and long-term strategies to change the way they do business to connect to all Minnesotans. Training and capacity-building efforts to connect to populations that are not in the workforce is critical if they want to sustain their economic standing.

Q. How will DEED encourage businesses to be proactive about that?

A. We have a huge role. DEED is a division of the largest employer in the state of Minnesota. That’s first and foremost — we have to be a model. We have to hire diverse, we have to do business with diverse communities.

From an external standpoint, as a state agency, we play a role in convening. Partnering with the business community is something that we’ve done and should continue to do in a stronger way to come up with those strategies together.

Q. Are there any specific outcomes you will focus on within this agency itself?

A. The governor has laid things out very clearly — we have a roadmap. In his State of the State speech, he said he wants to double the state workforce in terms of people of color. We’ve got to get on that. As the largest agency, we’re at the top in terms of our output.

We have very clear requirements from a targeted business standpoint. Small businesses are the backbone — nine times out of 10 they hire people from the community they come from. As a large employer who does millions of dollars in business, we play a role in that with our contracting.

As we work to develop these strategies, those that are impacted need to be a part of the process. It doesn’t make sense for us to create stuff without that connection to people who are impacted by the decisions.

Q. We’ve already touched on at least a few of these, but what are your key priorities heading into your tenure?

A. First and foremost, workforce. Figuring out innovative ways to train our workers and connect them to businesses. We have a shortage. The numbers are very clear that we can’t wait to get everybody off the sidelines.

As the state’s premier economic development agency, attracting business is so important. Being able to have a clear plan for those businesses that may come here, to say we have the talented workforce, is so important.

What I’ve heard from the governor is we have to do that. If not, we’re going to leave the state in a position where the workforce is not ready and businesses don’t have what they need to succeed.

Q. Minnesota has received praise over the past year for its business climate, but where do you see room to improve?

A. We need to think about a stronger environment of innovation. That is our success. Where is our next Post-It note? Where is our next engine that’s going to be a Minnesota company for the next 100 years?

As we continue to build on our strengths, I’m really focused on how we create a good climate of innovation. That comes with investment, and I believe that if we have sustainable investment it’ll nurture that cutting-edge innovation that we want to see.

Q. When you think about this role, what legacy do you hope to build?

A. It’s early — I just found out where the bathrooms are — but I envision a Minnesota with a vibrant and diverse economy that’s working for everyone.

I envision from an operations standpoint that the work that we’re doing at DEED is mirroring needs and also anticipating changes that are happening in the economy. I envision that the headlines won’t always talk about the stark racial disparities — that we will change that.

That’s a huge feat, but I guess that’s what a vision is, to be bold. The first step is creating a strong foundation.

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