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Business development / Jobs / Leadership / Q&As

Howard County EDA’s new CEO is in ‘listening mode’

Jennifer Jones spoke to about her month-old role, her goals to support business owners, and the economic development org's efforts to better connect the regional tech scene.

Jennifer Jones. (Photo courtesy of the Howard County Economic Development Authority)
Long before she became CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, Jennifer Jones was a technologist first.

The public-private partnership (aka HCEDA or just EDA) focuses on economic growth in the Maryland county by supporting new and existing businesses in the region, and attracting established companies to move there.

Jones’ first degree was a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Purdue University. She then obtained both a JD and a master’s in business administration from Pepperdine University before stepping into the corporate world.

She spent 20 years working in business development, corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions in Los Angeles and London before returning to her native Howard County in 2016 to be closer to her parents. There, she was Howard County Executive Dr. Calvin Ball’s deputy chief of staff for four years. Jones continued to work in the county as an economic development consultant before the HCEDA CEO position opened up.

The HCEDA board of directors unanimously approved Jones’ hire after she was appointed by Ball. She started her role as CEO on July 5.

Jones spoke to about her background, what she has accomplished so far, her goals for the county’s business and economic development growth, and what she hopes for its tech space. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. How did you go from studying engineering to wanting to work in business?

Jennifer Jones: Growing up, my brain just worked well with math and science. And so I did well in that, but what I took most out of engineering was it taught me how to think. When I got to the end of my four years [at Purdue], they were trying to get a lot of students to continue on to get a Ph.D., and I wanted to be more of a generalist, [to] step back and use that experience.

At first, I thought I would maybe want to work at a tech company or engineering company to solve problems — not necessarily internal engineering problems, but external problems, like in a certain jurisdiction or certain market, how does that business expand and thrive? Junior year at Purdue, [I thought] “You know, I really like this, but I want to look at it [in a] broader way.” And so that is why I went to law school and business [school]. Also, I feel like tech drives a lot of laws, and a lot of changes in the business environment. I wanted to be on that other end of change.

It’s been about a month since you officially started. What have you accomplished so far?

Prior to taking that position, I had done a series of focus groups around the county, talking to businesses and different industries in different geographical regions, taking feedback. A lot of people still didn’t know what EDA did. We’ve been here since 1993, so it’s our 30-year anniversary this year. That means that we need to raise the profile of EDA, so people can know what resources are in the county.

So, what the first thing I did was I started a marketing and communications department. Historically, marketing communications has been taken on as a secondary or third role with somebody else’s job. I’m currently looking for a director of marketing communications, and I need them to be able to help with our branding [and] storytelling to get us out in the community.

The second thing that I was hearing from businesses: Workforce is a big issue. We have Howard Community College; we have the Office of Workforce Development. They all have their different programs, and many others. But there is a gap on the industry side, like connecting companies with the programs, because what I’m also hearing is that companies don’t even know these programs exist, and they’re saying, “I have a hard time finding a workforce with this certification or the apprenticeships,” but no one’s connecting the industry side, so I want EDA to fill that gap. Now, we have the president of HCC on our board. I’m trying to develop a bigger collaboration with the Office of Workforce Development.

The third thing is making sure the retention aspect of our job is solid, so we have a business development team. They go out and [conduct] business visits, meeting with companies, outreach, making sure businesses have what they need.

Howard County, we don’t have a lot of land left to develop in terms of having big employers come in, but business attraction is still part of our job. Retention and expansion and making sure companies have what they need is a really big focus for us, since we don’t have a lot of developable land left. So what I did was I sat with the business development team, and we outlined a strategy over the next three, four months about where geographically we’re gonna go.

What are your goals for economic growth and stability in the future?

I’m doing some analysis with the team about business growth prior to the pandemic and then growth after the pandemic, and what’s shifted. Obviously, there’s industry-related issues — the hospitality industry is still having challenges — but I also noticed that challenges and growth differences relate to the size of the business. Howard County is 80% small businesses. The SBA defines small businesses as less than 500 [employees], but our businesses are really small. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve had a huge influx of solopreneurs [and businesses] between two to nine employees. That’s been a big part of the growth.

However, the job growth for our small-medium businesses — from 10 to 100 employees — they’ve stagnated in terms of what they contributed before and after the pandemic. So what I’m looking to do is look at that 100 [to] 200 employee range and see what they’re struggling with and try to talk to them and figure out what they need from us, because I think some of those firms also took on EIDL loans from the pandemic. Their balance sheets aren’t maybe as healthy as they were prior to the pandemic.

I really think that cultivating the entrepreneurship pipeline is [also] very important. They’re the ones that are driving a lot of job creation. They are the ones that live in Howard County, decided to start their business, and want to stay in Howard County. We’re very white collar — a lot of professional services, a lot of law firms, a lot of engineering firms. Those firms like new entrepreneurs. That helps them when new entrepreneurs come through, because they need accounts. They need architects; they need engineers; they need lawyers. So cultivating an entrepreneurship pipeline, putting infrastructure around that, that’s my goal in the next year.

What does Howard County’s current tech space look like?

We have a lot of cyber companies, or cyber-focused companies. In the broad sense, I would say data care. We have a couple in Maple Lawn; we have some cyber-focused companies at the Innovation Center. However, I think the emphasis in our current cyberspace is government contracting. We have some commercialization, but a lot of it is focused [on] contracting. I really want to develop the commercial space better in cyber and other tech.

What are your goals for the tech sector?

There’s a lot of tools and resources that I think could help the tech space, [but] I don’t think they know about us, so getting them involved more with the Innovation Center, making sure that we understand their needs.

We used to have a tech council when we were called the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship. It was before the EDA came over and rebranded, and we moved into this building for a one-stop shop. The tech council [was] like a roundtable of tech entrepreneurs and business owners, and it was from different sectors. It’s invaluable, because I can reach out to that one person or that chair and say, “Hey, what’s going on with you?” I meet with them regularly, and I get a full perspective about what’s going on. Currently, we have cyber, we have some AI companies, we have a lot of IT-space companies, but I really want to dig into what challenges they’re facing in terms of commercialization.

I know for a fact that the venture ecosystem here isn’t as great as it could be, and so that’s another space that I want to help with the tech community. I think the commercialization and the promotion of tech companies in Howard County will help with the venture capital space because I think regionally, we’re [thought of] as more federal government contract folks and not innovative, but we are. I don’t think we’re getting that story out there to attract venture and angel investors.

Have you seen any notable tech initiatives?

I think the university educational space, like Towson, Maryland, they are working really hard. There’s a lot of research coming out of universities, and so using that to help with the commercialization, regionally, we’ve been doing a good job at that.

We have several programs at the Innovation Center. One of them is — if you have an idea, it’s just gonna be a thought in your head. That’s how Google started, right? Or Apple? This is a class. Let’s vet the idea. Let’s talk to people that are in this space. And then that leads to the formation of a company.

Is there anything else you want readers to know?

EDA is in listening mode. EDA has done a great job, and the previous CEO did a great job, of building on what was before him. But I really want to expand what EDA does, once again, and the only way to do that is to listen to our clients, which is our businesses. I want to know what businesses need. I want to know what challenges they are facing.

Companies: Howard County Economic Development Authority

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