Milken Power of Ideas Series: “A Reason to be Optimistic? The Innovation Economy”

This article originally appeared in the Milken Institute’s Power of Ideas series. 
With change enveloping our lives at an increasingly faster pace, there is tremendous potential to continue to produce more meaningful societal advances more quickly. The scope of the challenges we face also gives rise to innovations with bolder, deeper purpose. Working with some of the most innovative companies in the world and those who invest in their success, I see the change and the possibilities daily. 

Innovation economy leaders and entrepreneurs are thinking harder and smarter about how we prepare to adapt and help others adapt to a more connected, technically savvy world. We see firsthand how these advancements coming from deep tech are spinning out entirely new sectors and job pathways. 

As we—the innovation economy—invest in what’s next, it is our responsibility as corporate and industry leaders who are advocating for technology and positive disruption to ask tough questions: How can innovation produce more benefits for more people? What is the impact when these innovations are introduced to the world? What economic opportunities are there in these evolving job-creating ecosystems?

 No matter the sector or the business model, working with a higher purpose will serve all of us well as we adapt to our fast-changing world. 

What makes me optimistic about our collective future is how I see innovation closing, not widening, divides. What if we attract people who may have never thought of a tech or life science career, let alone get a chance for tech workforce training? What if the innovation economy becomes more and more accessible to all? And what if the problems they tackle serve a bolder, deeper purpose? 

I see this happening among the industries we have the privilege to work with, and I believe the innovation ecosystem is on the verge of delivering a lot more opportunities.    

As one example, consider the multiplying benefits of an emerging post-fossil fuel transportation system. By 2030, electric vehicles are expected to account for one-half of new US car sales, and for such a transition, automakers are poised to make half a trillion dollars in investments. The flywheel of deep innovation is creating a variety of spinoffs and new jobs, from manufacturing batteries and EV charging stations to repairing them. 

Consider this story of a CEO from South Central Los Angeles who embodies the spirit and ingenuity that inspires action for a greater good. Do you ever wonder what happens when EV charging stations break down? Kameale Terry knows—at her old job she took the calls day and night from upset motorists, but often struggled to find enough skilled repair teams. 

More frustrating, she says, was the lack of green jobs for people in the neighborhood she grew up in—despite lots of promises. She developed a curriculum and began training crews at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a public-private partnership. The seed for her company ChargerHelp! was planted in 2020 (with financial support from the incubator): an on-demand app that EV charging manufacturers use to deploy her trained crews, now in 11 states handling 20,000 charging stations. 

Kameale’s co-founder, Evette Ellis, formerly worked as a career transition and outreach specialist for the Department of Labor’s Job Corps program, and many of their employees are found through workforce development programs. Even in a tight labor market, last year ChargerHelp! received more than 1,600 applications for 20 repair crew spots, which pay $30 an hour. Proof of grit and problem solving is what they look for. “Those are the people who are going to make the next big companies. But if they aren’t exposed to cleantech, or two Black women founders or even just technology, they couldn’t even dream of their ideals,” she says. Simply put, we want to “redefine the norms of business. You can still be profitable, you still can pay your front-line workers really well, and you can help society—the normal things a business should be doing.” 

Here’s the takeaway for me: Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires visionaries and change-makers with ambitious goals to create deep tech innovations, and it also requires many support layers such as a well-trained workforce, a healthy investing ecosystem, and the engagement of communities, schools, and policymakers to fulfill the promise of the invention. 

I am fortunate to spend many of my days with entrepreneurs and investors, and many tell me that they are growing more optimistic about innovation’s potential to create solutions, exactly because the stakes are only growing higher if we don’t. 

No matter the sector or the business model, working with a higher purpose will serve all of us well as we adapt to our fast-changing world. As Kameale reminds us, these are “normal things” businesses should be doing. 

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