A Cross-sector Business Incubator in Taos, New Mexico: Building Networks for Frontline Talent Development – Digital Promise

A Cross-sector Business Incubator in Taos, New Mexico: Building Networks for Frontline Talent Development

Map pinpointing Taos, New Mexico

June 30, 2020 | By

In a honey bee hive, each bee performs a uniquely indispensable role that contributes to the overall health of the colony. Inspired by this natural phenomenon, education and business leaders in northern New Mexico’s high desert community, Taos, decided to create their own HIVE in an effort to strengthen postsecondary outcomes in their remote community.

Developed by the University of New Mexico-Taos Education and Career Center and local business partners, Taos HIVE was designed to solve challenges unique to rural communities, such as geographic isolation, education deserts, and lack of access to broadband and other services. Today, the HIVE is an innovative and inclusive co-working space and business incubator designed to accelerate innovation, collaboration, and opportunity for the next generation of leaders, including Latinx and Native American youth who are interested in technology or entrepreneurship.

Collaborating Organizations

  • The University of New Mexico-Taos (UNM-Taos)
  • Taos Community Foundation
  • Town of Taos
  • Fat Pipe
  • LOR Foundation
  • Northern Area Local Workforce Development Board
  • Kit Carson Electric Cooperative and Internet

Identifying the Shared Challenge

“They call it the Taos shuffle,” says Rose Reza, executive director of the HIVE, referring to how most residents work at least three jobs to put food on the table. The closure of local industry combined with the remoteness of the region has made it difficult for people—especially young people who are just starting out—to access sustainable, well-paying careers. While one in five young people leave each year to pursue higher education and career opportunities in other cities or states, eighty percent of young adults stay in Taos with few options to build a career. Nonprofit organizations are one of the few employment options for people to be innovative and creative, with over 200 individual organizations in the community. This reality pushed local educators, representatives, and entrepreneurs to come together in support of the next generation of leaders.

The idea for Taos HIVE did not happen overnight. Instead, it was a culmination of multiple conversations between various institutions over the course of years. Leaders understood that the future of work was scarce in their community, but it took time, research, and even legislative catalysts to break down silos and deeply engage with each other to collectively address the problem. According to Erin Sanborn from Kit Carson Electric, “One of the barriers to collaboration for nonprofit organizations in a small community is getting territorial”—that is, competing for limited resources. She added that “the benefit of HIVE, as an idea, is that no one can lay claim to it. It’s something that all of these other organizations need but they don’t have a capacity to do individually.” As Victoria Gonzalez of UNM-Taos poignantly notes: “The ego must die. That is how everyone learns to leverage their strengths.”

Leveraging Existing Resources

Propelled in part by the 2014 passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), UNM-Taos initiated a program overhaul in 2015 with the goal of aligning educational programs to in-demand career pathways. WIOA mandated that education and training providers facilitate access to career counseling and supportive services, particularly for young people and those with significant barriers to employment. WIOA funding catalyzed regional collaboration and focused data collection efforts, and in turn, spurred deeper discussions about the economic future of the Taos community. With WIOA funding, for example, high school equivalency students could attain free postsecondary degrees and certifications through eligible providers. However, the question of how students could apply their training and earn life-sustaining salaries in a small community with limited job opportunities still weighed heavily on Nina Gonzales, director of the UNM-Taos Education and Career Center.

Gonzales, who now co-leads the HIVE, understood that students need real, authentic learning opportunities to apply their skills and grow their networks. She led an analysis of local education and workforce data, including information required by WIOA, such as post-secondary enrollment, retention rates, completion rates, and barriers to employment. To evaluate the immediate needs of the young people in Taos, Gonzales explains, “we looked at everything from whether students were classified as low-income to migrant workers, or if they had been incarcerated.” But Gonzales did not stop at the immediate, short-term data to create a plan for intervention. Instead, she researched long-term, sustainable solutions that were specific to economic health and development of the entire community.

Gonzales sought guidance and inspiration from several books, such as Rethinking Rural: Global Community and Economic Development in the Small Town West and The Small Town Survival Guide: Help for Changing the Economic Future of Your Town, to help craft a vision for not just the university where she directed education and career programs, but for the entire high desert region. A critical component of this investigative phase was asking the right questions, and more importantly, connecting with the right people to address them. Gonzales wondered, “Who are the change-drivers and who can be nimble?”

To generate economic development ideas for the next generation, Gonzales and her team from UNM-Taos engaged a variety of stakeholders, such as Kit Carson Electric, the Northern Area Local Workforce Development Board, representatives from the town of Taos, and leaders from Fat Pipe, Albuquerque’s premier co-working space. Together, this dynamic group of people envisioned a network to connect young people from disparate parts of the region, a simultaneously digital and in-person space where they could learn from mentors, incubate ideas, and apply their skills.

Some of the key questions that led to this idea included:

  • What are our local in-demand industries?
  • How do we blur the lines between business and education?
  • How do we create spaces for job shadowing, community-based learning, and internships?
  • How can students access this space?

They branded their idea as the HIVE, an integrated education and training space on the UNM-Taos campus designed for college students, working professionals, local entrepreneurs, and supportive service providers. As Nina notes, “The intention behind putting it all under one roof was to create this sort of cross-class, cross-sector collaboration, where the transition from employment to education and education to employment could be seamless.”

Leveraging Existing Community Resources

The next step was to seek external, shared funding to support the design and development of the HIVE. The group applied to participate in the Minds that Move Us design challenge led by ECMC Foundation and the Institute for Educational Leadership. The application deadline forced the group to zero in on their mission, goals, and intended outcomes.

As HIVE Project Manager Rose M. Reza recalls, “A lot of work went into explaining the vision and articulating what the HIVE was, but I think how it all came together was just having everyone at the table describe where they saw their individual organization or role fit into the overall idea, and turning that into our vision.”

According to Michael Santistevan of Kit Carson Electric, the people at the table, “from Councilmen and Commissioners to the top anchor employer institutions and the top educational institutions, conducted a kind of a benefit analysis to make clear what this could do for your institution.” This level of shared engagement and focus resulted in the HIVE team being selected as one of ten teams to pitch their idea for funding at the Minds that Move Us design challenge; they won $100,000 to get their idea off the ground.

In reflecting on their success thus far, Victoria Gonzalez offers this piece of advice to communities interested in collective impact: “Real collaboration takes work. You can’t just say that you want to collaborate with other organizations. It’s a matter of really taking action, talking to people who are affected, understanding their needs. For true partnership, you have to walk the talk. That is the key to collaboration.”

Moving the Needle for Greater Impact

Now that leaders in the Taos community have established a strong, sustainable, and supportive network, they are looking to advance their work through systematized data sharing both inside and outside of their region. As it stands, UNM-Taos submits their data to the state workforce data system, and there has been some discussion of data interoperability to allow university, employment, and adult education systems to “talk” to each other. Still, the data tracking process has been largely duplicative and only for reporting purposes.

In terms of next steps, HIVE collaborators envision a data system that is easily accessible for learners, providers, and employers. They hope to design an application through which students could upload their resumes, including digital credentials and competencies, and employers like Kit Carson or Taos Ski Valley could search for specific skills, like customer service or technical skills. In addition, they are working to inform learners about resources likeWIOA funding that can subsidize their education and training.

As a precursor to this system, Reza, Gonzales, and other members of the collaborative have met with employers, including Val Verde and PPC, to find out what skill sets people need to be successful in a renewable energy career. From there, they are able to develop industry-aligned courses in solar energy—integrating education and workforce content—to prepare Taos learners for future careers. This team is determined to figure out how to make this idea a reality, and leverage their networks to drive opportunity and income mobility for generations to come.

Strategies for education providers, government agencies, employers, funders, and other stakeholders:

As part of this case study, we identified a set of actionable strategies that Taos and other communities have used to build networks and solve workforce needs in their region.

  1. Collect postsecondary education and workforce data in your region.
    Think about data regionally and cross-organizationally, not just at the institutional level, to enable workers to access resources and upskill in their careers, create personalized pathways, and evaluate and improve programs and services.Key insight: Address systemic challenges that a single organization could not solve independently, and establish cross-organization and cross-sector partnerships to connect workers to gainful employment opportunities.
  2. Establish a coalition of key stakeholder groups across the region, including workers.
    Invite local drivers of change, including employers, government representatives, education and workforce providers, funders, and workers, to review and interpret the data and make data-informed decisions as a group.Key insight: Nominate a lead organization or individual to research, coordinate, and facilitate collective efforts across multiple organizations and establish communication norms and expectations.
  3. Identify a shared challenge, shared solution(s), and a shared deadline.
    Co-develop and commit to a shared vision with individuals who are most directly impacted, including workers in your community. Develop collective strategies on individual projects to advance the work of the entire community.Key insight: Identify an external deadline, such as a pitch or shared funding opportunity, such as the Minds that Move Us challenge, to ensure the work is prioritized, actionable, and gets done.
  4. Align resources for greater impact.
    Explore ways to align resources, including personnel and disparate funding streams, for greater community impact.Key insight: Allow for flexible funding and invest in shared systems. For example, each organization could contribute a small amount to invest in shared programs, technology, and interoperable data-tracking systems.
  5. Tell the whole story, over time.
    Create intermediate goals and short-term, measurable outcomes. In addition, track data longitudinally to understand the long-term impact on workers in the community, in terms of talent development and income mobility.Key insight: Be willing to shift focus and recognize when duplicative efforts may be doing more harm than good.

Visit Digital Promise’s Building Networks for Frontline Talent Development report to learn more about similar regional efforts to build learner-centered solutions to advance frontline worker talent development.

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