Dr. Angela Jackson

“I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather worked at the Chrysler factory in Wisconsin and he was able to make a living wage. Because he was part of the union, I was able to go to undergrad and then on to get my doctoral degree. Today, that’s not true anymore for factory workers. If you look at the adjusted wage of factory workers, their income right now is the equivalent of what they made back in 1975! I experienced first-hand what it’s like to live in a world where we take care of our workers. At New Profit, I bring the right people to the table to discuss how we can ensure the bottom quartile of U.S. workers (in terms of income) have access to well-being paying, quality jobs.”

Dr. Angela Jackson leads the Future of Work Initiative at New Profit, a 20-year-old venture philanthropy firm investing in breakthrough entrepreneurs who are solving complex social problems through the lens of the future of work. On the heels of the 2021 inauguration, I had the opportunity to sit down with Angela and discuss why we need to be thinking strategically about the future of work. We discussed 

  • Why we need to future-proof the American workforce
  • Who the entrepreneurs are working to solve for a more equitable Future of Work
  • What role New Profit plays in bringing about a Future of Work that works for everyone
  • Why jobs alone are not enough
  • What an ecosystem-wide approach looks like to solve social issues.

“The future of workers is the future of all of us.”

“At New Profit, we’re spinning our wheels trying to find answers to the question ‘How do we connect the mass majority of workers, who don’t have access to the future work skills, to opportunities to upskill so that they can really take advantage of these opportunities that exist today?’ 

Think about it this way: When you and I and our colleagues went to high school, college or graduate school, many of the jobs we’re working in now didn’t even exist yet. We weren’t trained for them but because we knew where to look and because we move in the right circles, we have figured out that learning really is a lifelong journey. But – by no stretch of imagination – is that possible for everyone else. People who are living on the margins, who might be working for hourly wages and part-time jobs, are really grappling with gaining access to opportunities to level up their skills and move into employment positions that afford them a greater quality of life. In too many cases, they don’t even know about this new economy and all the new skills that allow you to benefit from it.”

New Profit Entrepreneurs

“Too often, I meet entrepreneurs who create products for people who they’ve never met. At New Profit, we’re looking for entrepreneurs with bold ideas who are engaging with the lived reality of their end-users. We invest in entrepreneurs who want to be in close proximity and who are excited about testing their early prototypes with workers. We seek out social entrepreneurs who understand that their target group is working nine to five while figuring out how to homeschool their kids during a pandemic or care for an aging parent. We invest only in founders who build products that will help fit into their busy lives. End-users might not sit down for this type of training until ten or eleven o’clock at night when everyone else is already done with their day. These solutions might need to be in bite-sized chunks. We look for entrepreneurs who are willing to be flexible to really think about what these new learning opportunities need to look like if they are supposed to work for the vast majority of Americans who are really leading complex lives and have limited time. 

We really need to think about that bottom quartile of the workforce and how to upskill them. That benefits not only the entrepreneurs in terms of a market, but it benefits our entire country. 

Filling the innovator’s gap 

“Philanthropy alone is not going to solve any given social or environmental issue. Even the Gates Foundation – a huge player in the impact space – has not made a dent in many of the problems they’re tackling. We need more collaboration between philanthropy, government and between industry and innovators to help us think about how we’re going to solve these large-scale systemic problems. 

When you try new innovations, some of it may not work, some of it will, some of it may work for certain people under a certain context.

That’s where New Profit comes in: We act as a convener. We’re willing to put up the risk capital to de-risk some of this innovation. For example, we pay for participants of the Future Work Grand to pilot their solutions and act as a partner and liaison. That way, we are de-risking these pilots for the entrepreneurs but also for the workforce boards (a network of local public workforce offices that are charged with planning and oversight responsibilities for workforce programs and services in their area). The idea is that once a social entrepreneur has a proof of concept, workforce boards can adopt them. The current issue that workforce boards are trying to solve is helping unemployed Americans and those who are not making a living wage gain better skills to re-enter the workforce or find quality employment. But workforce boards can’t really take the risk of trying unproven innovations. Because they report to the government, they have to adhere to very strict parameters up-front that don’t lend themselves to experimentation and in-time adjustments, both of which are key when implementing an innovative solution. New Profit acknowledges that when you try new innovations, some of it may not work, some of it will, some of it may work for certain people under a certain context. We need to understand that and invest in that R&D so that literally the whole employment sector can benefit from that. In other words, we give social entrepreneurs enough leeway to test and fine-tune their solutions until they’re ready to be adopted by workforce boards.”

From jobs to good jobs

“The way most incentives are aligned these days, workforce indicators are just about placing people in jobs. But we know now that employment is not enough, we need to place people in jobs that pay a living wage and that provide healthcare. We want to shift the conversation from ‘Placing people into jobs’ to ‘Placing people into good jobs paying living wages’. One example of this is CodePath.org. Their for-profit arm is working with companies like Facebook and Google to train their entry-level engineers. As part of their non-profit arm, they take that same curriculum and train students from historically black colleges who have been outside of the workforce. With the wraparound support Code Path provides, 80% of their graduates are receiving jobs and show a 30% increase in their salary. They’re receiving jobs with benefits paying a living wage.

We need a shift in our federal policy. Billions of tax dollars – that we all pay into – are designated for workforce development. The spending policy for that budget needs to be based not just on placing people in jobs, but placing people in good jobs with benefits and a living wage. 

The government has started to put some risk capital and R&D into understanding how to better align these incentives to reflect not only employment but quality employment. So that’s a huge outcome. The other thing we’d love to see is for employers to change their practices around how they treat their lower wage and entry-level workers. If you look at professional development dollars in the corporate world, 80% are spent on their highest wage earners. 

To give you an example, when I worked in the corporate world as a highly paid executive working in international marketing, my employer paid for me to go to business school. That was excellent for me but in reality, I was making enough that I could have paid for it. Who really needed those dollars for professional development would have been someone who was in an entry- or mid-level position. 

So we want employers to start thinking about how they invest their professional development dollars up and down the line. When you look at entry-level workers right now, employees are mostly investing in compliance training and we want them to switch to upskilling and skills for the people.”

An ecosystem approach

“Late last year we brought together representatives from government and transitional assistance workforce boards to leaders in philanthropy, academics and entrepreneurs to discuss what needs to be true for us to work together. We wanted to know what the barriers were to the Future of Work and how we as New Profit could help reduce some of those barriers. One of the barriers we heard was about dollars, which is one thing we were able to help with. But more importantly, as an ecosystem player it was about convening: Who will take the time to bring these players to the table to understand the problems that we all have? And who will distill that conversation into an action plan and shepherd such an initiative forward? It’s necessary for someone to take on the role of a backbone organization to cover operations and admin to actually get past some of these challenges. It takes time and there’s a cost associated with that. 

Those are things that we’re continually thinking about when considering our role in the greater ecosystem. Luckily, with our Future of Work Grand Challenge, we have a phenomenal group of partners: We have leading foundations like the Walmart Foundation and Strada Education Network but we also have leading workforce boards, research partners at Harvard and Brandeis, we’ve got entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial ecosystems through MIT and XPRIZE. Our role as New Profit is bringing them all to the table to align on a shared vision.”

Dr. Angela Jackson

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Social entrepreneur, funder and seasoned corporate executive. Managing partner at New Profit. Convener.

Banner image credit: Angela Rowlings