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‘The challenges we have are clear’: a Q&A with new DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy

Hardy’s appointment comes at a time when the Governor and policymakers are increasingly emphasizing equity in conversations about the state’s economy. 

DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy: "From a workforce perspective, I’m very much focused on our labor force and figuring out how we get everybody off of the economic sideline."

In April, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced a big change: Shawntera Hardy would be replacing Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben, who had led the organization since 2012.

Before the appointment, Hardy served as the deputy chief of staff for Gov. Mark Dayton for a year, leading policy and operational projects as well as the administration’s response-to-crises efforts, including public health emergencies and floods. She also helped lead the governor’s efforts to diversify state government heads and expand economic opportunities for communities of color.

Prior to that, Hardy was a planner for the city of St. Paul, a policy director for the nonprofit Fresh Energy and a manager of government relations for HealthPartners.  

The appointment of Hardy comes at a time when the Governor and policymakers are increasingly emphasizing equity in conversations about economic opportunities available to Minnesotans — and the disparities faced by the state’s communities of color.

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MinnPost sat down with Hardy to discuss her priorities for DEED, as well as the challenges the agency faces.      

MinnPost: You’ve been on the job for about a month now. What has that been like?

Shawntera Hardy: It’s been a nice roller coaster ride. A lot of my work has been getting to know the organization, to understand the people and then the programs. Part of my job was living at the capitol with the legislative session. It’s been kind of wild.

So far, I’ve been trying to balance those responsibilities and learning to lead an organization. The pressing responsibilities of the legislative session included being available, providing the cabinet and the governor’s office, the legislative members information on the proactive tasks that we’ve put out there to the legislature.

MP: For the brief period you’ve been with the agency, what has surprised you the most about DEED?

SH: Surprise: we’re going to experience a large cut to our Investment Funds. So, as we think about those needed investments and projects and having funding to be able to partner with organizations that want to come to Minnesota, expand their existing business in Minnesota or start a business in Minnesota, we’re now going to be having to think differently about our strategy.

MP: How much [of a cut] are you talking about?

SH: The total from our Minnesota Investment Fund and Job Creation Fund is about $20.5 million. It’s a sizable cut. Even though I’m the new kid on the block, I can’t say I was surprised because I’m in the governor’s office; I saw the proposals going through. But when it all shook out in the end, I was like, “WOW, that made it through!”

MP: Why did you accept the post?

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SH: I’m extremely honored to have been selected by the Governor and the Lt. Governor to take on this role. I have a career that’s cross-sector and that fits nicely into the responsibilities and aligns very closely to the mission of DEED. My background, as you know, is in public policy. So, I understand how that world works. But also my background is in economic development and planning. So, having the opportunity to have worked on a number of economic development projects, transportation projects, business development and outreach, and also being a small business owner myself, I believe that my background is well-suited for this role.

MP: Do you have a grand vision for the agency?  

SH: Well, I need to find the bathroom — and meet everyone. It’s always about listening first, learning and then partnering to figure out what are those gaps we need to fill, what are those opportunities that we can think outside the box to be innovative, to really take the mission. That’s what I’ve been doing this month: listening, learning and taking note of those potential opportunities.

The challenges we have are clear in terms of what are the things that we have to focus on. But you do yourself a disservice if you don’t listen. As I said, it’s people first and understanding my colleagues here. From there, figuring out the opportunities and the program.

MP: Any priorities you have in mind for the department?

SH: From a workforce perspective, I’m very much focused on our labor force and figuring out how we get everybody off of the economic sideline. As an agency, as part of one of the largest employers in the state, what are we doing to be thinking about the huge retirements that are going to come out of this organization and the state? How are we going to fill those? I’m really very focused on closing the economic disparities gap. What are we going to do to tangibly get people into careers? (Because that’s the ultimate goal. We can get them into jobs, but careers are what we need to create for folks).

From a business development [perspective], we’re really focused on continuing to strengthen our businesses and making sure that they’re working in an environment that provides them with the ability to sell their goods and services as efficiently as possible.

When you think small businesses, those are the businesses that are hiring from communities. And so, our role as an agency is to create that environment and provide those resources to really create a strong entrepreneurship focus. It’s about attracting and retaining and supporting — both from a worker standpoint and a business standpoint. 

MP: Speaking of that, in study after study, we see huge economic gaps between black and white Minnesotans. How do you plan to address that?

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SH: I’ve been focused on [these issues] in a number of areas in my profession. They’re deep, they’re structural, and the solutions will not come overnight. But the intentional strategy to invest has to come sooner rather than later. We need to be able to really get to those long-term solutions.

The surprise phase is gone. This is a reality. These are people’s lives. And so, figuring out what our organization can do make those strategic and intentional investments in workforce opportunities, in entrepreneurship opportunities, capacity building opportunities for existing organizations are the tangible things that we have to do very quickly.

MP: Last month, we did a story about the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, which provides funding for private businesses to train their workers. But many business leaders don’t know about the program.   

SH: The awareness is important. What you don’t know can also be a barrier to your advancement. That awareness is something that I’m really going to be focused on. And it’s just not about sending fliers. These are programs that are here and if the legislature continues to support them, they’ll remain here. So, it’s about building relationships and really being intentional about providing access to those programs.

MP: Any bills passed this legislative session that you think could improve the lives of Minnesotans — especially those from communities of color?

SH: Before the session started, the Governor provided a clear strategy to all of his agencies: to be very thoughtful about this session that we just experienced, to introduce programs, initiatives and investments that are going to move the needle on disparities. DEED took that very seriously, and the programs that DEED put forth — and we were able to get funding for those. One of them will particularly focus on businesses of color, businesses run by people with disabilities. When you look at the data, there’s a huge number people of color that are living with disabilities. That’s a program that I’m excited about.

Another program that we were able to fund is capacity building. A lot of our programs — not only for state governments, but even foundations — the funding goes to the service and the back office of the organization. So figuring out how we can do our part because my thinking is that when you’re providing funding to these organizations you’re making an investment and you want your investment to resound. So, this capacity building grant — which is new, we’re going to be learning as we go — is an opportunity to invest in providing those services.

The other one is, as we think about the population of the communities of color, we have a number of communities that have a huge cohort of young people. So, investing in our youth workforce development programs is very important. I’m very excited about getting funding for that. That’s a place where you make that intentional early investment in young people. Then, we’re looking down the line of helping adults because we instilled those opportunities at a younger age.

MP: With new leadership usually comes changes. Should we expect the creation of new programs, big changes to the existing ones?

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SH: Again, I’m in the listening and learning [stage]. But those are the internal conversations that we’re going to have. The Office of Career and Business Opportunity will be at the center of that conversation internally and externally: Looking at existing programs. Looking at these new programs that we have coming in. How to really make sure that we’re being intentional about including communities in the development or the reform process — and making sure that they align with the outcomes that we actually want to have.