If you ask Jennifer Jones how her transition from serving as Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s deputy chief of staff to running the Howard County Economic Development Authority is going, she’ll say she’s still in “listening mode” before contemplating many new moves. However, make no mistake: two months into her new job, she’s already establishing some new parameters that include a heightened integration with the business community and expanded marketing efforts.
The new job is just the latest step up in the career ladder for Jones, a native of Columbia and graduate of Wilde Lake High School. But if you haven’t heard her name, you’re not alone; she was away from the area for more than two decades. Her journey led to her earning her bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Purdue University, and then her J.D. and master’s degree in business administration from Pepperdine University.
Those following 20 years were spent working in a variety of business roles in Los Angeles and London ― in such disciplines as mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance and business development ― before circling back to Columbia to be close to her parents. During her four years working for Ball, her duties included, among others, working as an economic development consultant.
What attracted you to your new position?
This is an exciting time for economic development here in the county. When I was growing up, my dad owned a Columbia-based engineering firm, so that was my introduction to the local business community and what can happen here. That’s why I love working with small businesses and watching them grow.
In addition, after COVID-19 I think county residents expect better engagement within the community. That’s what I plan to work on because that’s what I love.
What will be different under your direction at the HCEDA?
We just updated our strategic plan from 2017. That was a 5-year plan that HCEDA had started to implement, but then COVID-19 hit and obviously some of it needed to be updated. So last year HCEDA commissioned Sage Policy Group to evaluate the strategies put forth in the plan and decide how they should be altered in the context of an economy that has changed by the pandemic.
Community and stakeholder feedback was integrated in the update. As with the 2017 plan, business retention and expansion and innovation are core focus areas. That revised initiative aligns with the county’s General Plan.
What else will be different?
We’re also making sure that we support the HCEDA’s Maryland Innovation Center and continue to expand our resources by adding mentoring classes and programming to strengthen our entrepreneurship pipeline. That’s especially important while we keep our finger on the pulse of artificial intelligence.
We’re making these efforts as we align with the county’s new overall general plan, which will also be implemented soon.
How is the HCEDA addressing the general lack of workforce?
We’re working with stakeholders, notably the Howard County Office of Workforce Development and Howard Community College since they offer key access to multiple paths to employment. Some employers even offer programs to upscale their worker’s skills, which broadens their pool of potential employees.
What are your thoughts regarding the health of the county’s tech sector?
We are known for cybersecurity, but we also have a diverse range of tech businesses in Howard County that focus on AI, biotech and health tech. However, many of our businesses are federal contractors, which makes sense given our close proximity to D.C. I would like to see more diversification into the commercial space.
How would you like the county’s tech sector to look in three years?
I would like to see an increased commercialization of technology.
What efforts will the HCEDA make to work with the region’s tech community?
We have partnered with the Greater Baltimore Committee to apply for Phase 1 of the federal TechHub, as have many other tech organizations and educational institutes. We applied in August and hope to hear by October if we’re going to be granted designation within one of the 20 zones around the country.
What are your thoughts about the all-encompassing approach of the MIC?
It makes sense to take a broad approach and not just focus on technology as many other organizations do because we have to help businesses along the entire ecosystem. Some of these concerns are in the idea stage, while others are operating and are getting funded to make their next move forward.
And that’s why the MIC is so valuable: it caters to the breadth of the market. While it has a regional scope, I would like to see it assist Howard County residents who want to start businesses here as well as settle here long-term.
Do you think many observers understand that most growth comes from existing businesses and not large new companies moving into the county?
I think our residents know that about 80 percent of small businesses employ 20 workers or less. We’re still focused on attraction efforts but the 80/20 rule is true, generally speaking, in most any jurisdiction. That’s why you need to work with everybody.
Do you feel that local businesses have a solid understanding of what services the HCEDA provides?
No, I don’t. And they don’t. That’s one reason why we’re hiring a marketing and communications team, starting with a director and two people who will report to them. The team will handle events, social media and photography.
How does the HCEDA work with the education sector?
We work with HCC as well as the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. We have a memorandum of understanding with APL to bring innovation projects to Columbia Gateway Innovation District. We’re going to map out what that will look like in the next quarter.
What’s the HCEDA’s best-case scenario concerning the redevelopment of Gateway?
That is part of the county’s general plan and it just issued a request for proposal for a general developer to handle that project. We should know who that will be later this year.
To read the rest of this interview with Jones, which includes queries concerning hybrid offices, AI, the HCEDA’s challenges, go to www.bizmonthly.com.
Do you think the hybrid approach to office work will continue or will the trend shift back toward a general return of workers?
I think there is more of a return, anecdotally, to at least three days in the office. It seems to have progressed from 100 percent remote to one day a week in the office, then three, etc. I think many companies feel that’s the best way to capitalize on the synergies of their workforce. At our office, we plan to be in the office a minimum of three days per week.
What are your thoughts on how your office operates as a public-private partnership?
It’s great because it enhances our relationships with the private sector. The majority of those companies are small businesses, which are the backbone of any economy.
What are your thoughts on the positives, as well as the concerns, about artificial intelligence?
I’ve heard both sides of this discussion. In our case, Howard County is home to a very high percentage of professional services (technical) workers compared to the state and national averages, but there are concerns about job loss in the white-collar arena. We need to monitor where the needle is pointing in regard to that trend.
While that may sound frightening, remember that we’ve been through a revolution already with the Internet. People were afraid of it as well but also had to work with it. So concerning AI, the train is down the track and we’ll work with it. On that note, there are already companies that are using it for autonomous vehicles and in advanced manufacturing, where it’s already proving to be valuable.
What do you see as Howard County’s biggest challenge as it concerns economic development?
Many of our businesses are in various growth stages and may need more land than is available in our footprint. Raising our profile is tough, too. It is important that businesses and residents know of our resources. I would also like to work better with regional partners.
What is the high point of your career so far?
Being able to take what I’ve learned from my career and apply it to the county where I grew up.
What are your long-term goals for your career?
I’m two months into my current position, so I’m focused on making sure HCEDA serves the County. I am excited about the current phase of my journey.