The Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA), which serves 300+ high tech member companies statewide, has been searching for a new president since the departure of nine-year president and CEO Kate Rubin in June. Last week, the organization announced their future leader: technology and jobs advocate Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who will finish her term as Speaker of the House in December. Although her work with the MHTA officially begins in January, she’s already meeting with board and community members to set the direction for her tenure. We spoke with her about the state of Minnesota’s high tech industry, startups, women in technology and
Here are some excerpts from that interview:
Lauren Melcher (LM): Congratulations on your new position. What attracted you to the position at MHTA?
Margaret Anderson Kelliher (MAK): I have admired their work, and Kate Rubin’s leadership, for a long time. When learned the position was coming open, I was excited – but I was also in the middle of the primary campaign [Kelliher was the DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate] and I couldn’t think about it until after August 10th.
I’ve had a longtime interest in jobs – maintaining them, creating them, and supporting them with a really strong education system. That’s a home run match for MHTA, and for me. I also bring the ability to build the network of high tech companies, as well as to reach outside the industry for partnerships.
LM: How do you think Minnesota is perceived nationwide when it comes to high tech innovation and business?
MAK: We have a great history of innovation in this state, as well as the ability to sell that creative environment. We also have quite strong link to the beginning of the computer industry, and we have the opportunity to both build off of that and go farther than we have in the past.
What is really important is being able to sell the entire package of what it means to be a technology company based in Minnesota. We have, and need to continue to support, a strong education system – from K-12 to early childhood to higher ed. There’s lots to be proud of and we need to show off our recent successes. People outside Minnesota know the companies that are well established here, but we also need to tout the successes of smaller companies. It’s important to show companies we have the workforce of the future – trained and ready to go – and the capacity to help employees update their technical skills as we go along.
LM: And that’s where education comes in?
MAK: Absolutely. And that’s also where we need to highlight the exciting research happening here, and turn that into commercialization. I’ve seen a need for that for a number of years.
LM: What is your vision for MHTA moving forward? Will anything change?
MAK: MHTA has strong foundation, which can be built further. We want to make sure we’re providing value to our member organizations. We plan to keep going with things that are capturing the attention of people nationwide – like the getSTEM initiative. We’re seeing opportunities for different ways to make connections in the high tech industry both in Minnesota and nationwide. We also need to continue to celebrate successes in our community, through programs like the Tekne Awards and others.
LM: How do you see your experience in public policy playing a role here?
I offer the ability to bring MHTA to the attention of decision makers across the state. I’ll be going to Rochester, Duluth, northwestern Minnesota – all over the state, calling attention to the exciting things being done in the areas of energy and tech innovation. I plan on , much as Kate did, being very externally facing in my role here. I want to promote growth and sustainability and global competitiveness for Minnesota technology companies.
LM: What are your plans for supporting technology startups in our state?
That is one of the exciting directions that the board and I would like to go – being able to have more interaction with startups and create more collaborative support for entrepreneurs in Minnesota. We have a wide range of technology companies here – from large to small – but to have that entrepreneurial creative culture grow even more, you need to be paying attention to startups.
We aren’t sure how we’re going to tackle this yet. We have lots of ideas right now, but we’ll go through a process of finding the most effective strategies for helping entrepreneurs. We also plan to talk to with those entrepreneurs and find out what kind of value they need from MHTA, and what other organizations we can partner with to provide that value.
LM: How would you characterize the gender imbalance in STEM careers and technology entrepreneurship, and is the MHTA working to change that in any way?
MAK: First of all, in a quick review of the numbers, we clearly have work to do to close the gender gap. STEM education is important, but so is mentorship. Having good role models really makes a difference in what young women are interested in doing going forward.
We want to make sure out state’s STEM initiatives are reaching all our kids, because in some areas the gap is very significant. We can see the number of IB placement tests, and in some places, like the biological sciences, male and female students are performing equally. But then you get to something like physics and you see a gigantic gender gap.
Yet we also have success stories, especially in higher education. St. Olaf College graduates the most female chemistry majors nationwide, and Carleton College sends the most female scientists onto graduate school. Gustavus Adolphus College has one of the highest nationwide percentage of female physics graduates. These are important places to look for role models, and we need to celebrate those successes so that young women and girls have something to look forward to.
LM: What do you see as the main barriers to women choosing those careers?
MAK: Women tend to be mission-driven and want to have career experiences that touch people and change their lives. That doesn’t have to preclude them from careers in science and technology, but we need to do a better job of showing them that it’s possible. That’s a way I plan to help MHTA – in highlighting how women in STEM careers change peoples’ lives.
LM: Do you have any plans in particular for supporting women who run technology companies in Minnesota?
MAK: Were going to be in discussion about ways to do that, but it’s certainly an interest of mine. I know how important it is for women to see role models in those positions. I think that’s critically important.
From a personal standpoint, I have sort of a secret science background. When I was in my 20s I went back to the University of Minnesota with the goal of becoming a large animal veterinarian. I was greatly influenced by my family vet back in Nicollet, Minnesota – she was such an amazing inspiration to me. That experience, plus having a sister who is a dietitian and in whose research lab I worked during the summers, really had me thinking hard about a science career. I ended up choosing public policy, but now I get to come back to science and find a new way to contribute. I hope that through my work at the MHTA we can change a lot of peoples’ lives.
LM: Let’s talk a little bit about STEM education in Minnesota.
MAK: It was an exciting attraction of coming to MHTA, to see the national attention they’re getting with the getSTEM initiative. I’m hoping we can grow that across the country and provide that link between educators and business leaders, between people who have needs and people who have answers. It’s a great initiative – especially at a time when budgets are so strapped in education – to have this portal available for educators to connect to business people.
Of course in the last few years in the Minnesota legislature, we’ve been concerned with the workforce of the future. More jobs are going to require advanced skills in math and science. We’re going to have a worker shortage in a number of areas if we don’t address this now. Having a broad exposure to engineering, science, math and technology is going to be a necessary competency for our students, so that is exciting in many ways.
LM: What are your thoughts are on the digital divide between urban and rural Minnesota? Is this something that MHTA plans to tackle? If so, how?
MAK: It is absolutely necessary to close the digital divide, and working with our fedral partners will be essential. It’s important, especially if we want be seen as a high tech leader in eyes of the world.
People want to be able to live in communities across this state, and the speed of information can be a barrier. For instance, when you’re recruiting doctors and nurses to move to small communities in rural areas, having high-speed internet access can help close the deal – because they know that they will be able to get their job done, and their families won’t miss out on opportunities just because of the location.
It’s really a challenge facing the entire Upper Midwest. We need to take it on because it is critical to economic growth and development. People should be able to live wherever they choose, and not be limited in their work just because of broadband and telecom speed deficiencies.