There’s a lot of important work ahead for Shonna Dorsey, the new executive director for Nebraska Tech Collaborative (NTC), an Aksarben Foundation workforce initiative. In her role, she oversees the day-to-day operations, goals and relationships for the organization.
“I basically lead all strategic initiatives for the NTC … I’m able to leverage a lot of relationships that I’ve built over the years to help move these initiatives forward,” she said.
Dorsey fostered those relationships throughout her tech career, which included positions with Mutual of Omaha, a leadership training and consultation company, and AIM Institute, among others. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in management information systems from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Aksarben Foundation functions as the parent organization of NTC, which serves the entire state, Dorsey said.
“They provide basically all of the administrative and other supports that the Nebraska Tech Collaborative needs to operate so that we can focus on our mission. It’s a great relationship,” she explained. “The simplest way I can describe NTC is that we are a convener and collaborator with leaders throughout the state to help advance the state’s talent, attraction and retention goals for both tech workers and tech startups … NTC has really big goals, which is great, and I love aspirational goals. But it’s important for us to focus.”
NTC’s focus areas include emerging talent (a tech internship program and an immersive summer program for teachers), skilled talent (connecting engineers to startups for product development support and formalizing a process to streamline the placement of laid-off tech workers) and innovators (connecting Nebraska innovators in an annual cohort to grow the startup ecosystem and connecting high-growth tech startups with Nebraska companies to pitch their products).
“One of my immediate goals, when I came in, was to get a really good data source for tech workforce trends so that we can track how we’re progressing toward our goal,” Dorsey said. “I’ve completed the first phase of that, and now I’m working with some other partners on creating a more robust solution.”
Dorsey has also taken a close look at the longer-term goals established prior to her involvement with NTC.
“The goals of the NTC are to increase the number of tech workers by 10,000, increase the number of startups by 300, increase diversity in tech by 40% women and 20% underrepresented groups,” Dorsey said. “Lofty goals — amazing — but all to be completed by 2025. Knowing that it’s not likely that we’ll get there, which is totally fine, we are thinking, ‘How do we carve out a chunk of that?’ And so, in visiting with our leadership team, and also looking at trends in the workforce, we’ve decided to focus on engineering talent, specifically, this year. How do we increase the number of engineers here? How do we retain the engineers we have?”
Nebraska Tech Collaborative launched in 2019, and Dorsey said she’s proud of what it’s already accomplished, including supporting LB1112, a Nebraska legislative bill requiring computer technology coursework for high school graduation.
“That bill has recently been amended. So, we’ll see what happens next,” Dorsey said. “But just being a part of that process and having any influence in the outcome is incredible for the NTC.”
NTC is already finding its place in the local tech community, Dorsey said.
“There’s so much great work happening. An example is that we have a lot of local groups that are focusing on helping more diverse people get into IT like Mystery Code Society, Code Black, and Girls Code Lincoln. I have always thought it would be really great if these groups were better connected so that they can do more of that great work — and then taking those connections and helping the students they serve get into some more advanced training programs as it makes sense, if the desire is there, and then connecting that training to placement on the back end,” she said. “So, what NTC is really good at is helping to make those connections and bringing these pieces together to serve the candidate, future diverse talent, and the employers who are seeking the talent.”
Supporting the tech community’s professionals has a larger impact, Dorsey added, in a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats kind of way.
“The jobs that we’re talking about are some of the highest-paying jobs out there. There’s great work in other industries. But in tech, these jobs can easily get into the hundred-thousands, depending on the person’s skill set and the demand for the role,” she explained. “So, with that, we can really help influence the state’s economy by helping more people get into these high-paying jobs.”
Dorsey has an impressive professional background, but she calls herself a late starter.
“I had my first real internship at 28 years old. I went through the master’s program at UNO and thought I should try to get an internship. I ended up at a help desk and worked my way up,” she said. “Prior to that, I spent many years waiting tables. And I believe that that helped me tremendously as far as dealing with different customer issues that came up when I was working in tech. And it helped me become a very strong business partner; I was marrying my technical skills that I was developing with the customer service skills that I had honed over many years.”
As she advanced her tech career, Dorsey eventually was approached about starting Interface: The Web School.
“I started that company without a lot of any real business leadership background. But it seemed like a great opportunity, and I’m often a person that will just look at the situation and say, ‘What’s the risk? What’s the reward?’ If the reward seems like it could be great, that means there’s obviously a big chance that if it fails, it would be very difficult. But I just push through things constantly,” she said. “I feel like failure is possible, but I like continuing to get up and move forward. That’s how I operate.”
The AIM Institute eventually acquired Interface. Dorsey took on a new opportunity with AIM followed by consulting work and then IT leadership positions at Mutual of Omaha.
“While I was there, I helped launch a program where we took existing employees in customer service roles or other business roles, sent them through a code school program, and then placed them in technical jobs,” she said. “From what I know, the retention rate from that program is still very high. People who’ve gone through it, they’re still invested in the company and continue to grow their careers within Mutual, which is outstanding.”
Mutual of Omaha Chief Information Officer Michael Lechtenberger, also the executive committee chair for NTC, connected Dorsey to the opportunity with NTC. Dorsey was working in Florida at the time.
“I was working remotely, I had my team, I’d been promoted to a manager,” she said. “But the more we talked about it, and the more I began to understand what the NTC is and how it could impact this state, I thought this is probably the thing I need to pursue,” she said. “So, I applied and was selected thank goodness. And now I’m here and having a blast.”
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