In 1989, when Bill Generett, Jr. left his Point Breeze home for Morehouse College in Atlanta, he vowed he would never return to Pittsburgh. But after earning a bachelor’s degree and subsequently a Juris Doctorate from Emory University, practicing law in Atlanta for 14 years and then in D.C. and even a stint in Shimabara, Japan teaching English, he returned in 2004 and hit the ground running.
Generett, 43, actively serves on several nonprofit boards and advisory committees, including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, Pittsburgh Economic and Industrial Development Corporation, Phipps Conservatory, Innovation Works and more.
As the new president and CEO of Urban Innovation21, Generett manages the organization’s public private partnership, connecting the region’s successful innovation economy to underserved communities. Taking an entrepreneurial approach to developing programs among local, regional and national stakeholders, he and his team have been recognized nationally for their work. See him tonight at The NEXT event: 5 Innovators Shaping Community.
As the inaugural president of Urban Innovation21, what is your biggest challenge in connecting the successful innovation sector with underserved communities?
The region has done very well in terms of transforming its economy. I’m excited because we played a role in that through the Keystone Innovation Zone (an incentive program that provides tax credits to for-profit companies less than eight years old within specific industries and boundaries). Part of our mission is to always make sure that communities that aren’t connected are included. Stakeholders are focusing on that issue, but we all have a lot more work to do.
There is an education component that we really have to figure out–how we can make sure that we are teaching our kids and getting the right education for jobs in the new economy, making sure we’re giving our kids a good STEM education, especially in our public schools. We also have to work to make sure students attending our colleges and universities are getting exposure to internships and job opportunities in the new sectors.
We have a very large internship program. We pay students from Duquesne, Point Park, Carlow and CCAC to work in tech and innovation companies and also advanced manufacturing companies. We do about 100 internships per year. I wish we could do 1,000 or 2,000. That’s what the need is.
We need to figure out how stakeholders across the region can provide more opportunities like that for our students because the reality is if you don’t have an internship these days, if you’re not exposed to industry, your chances of getting a job are pretty slim.
If you take UPMC and PNC (who have their own internship programs) out of the mix, we have the largest innovation economy internship program in the region. Sixty percent of the participants are women, which you generally don’t see, and 40 percent are African American; we are really proud and excited about that. A lot of our students are first-year Community College, Pittsburgh Promise recipients.
What is your vision for Urban Innovation21?
We have some good programs that are going well. We are actually going across the county talking about inclusive innovation and the best practices that cities and innovation sectors can use to include more (people) so that’s good. At this point we want to figure out how we can help others who are starting to do the work that we do so that they can have an impact and collectively, we can really create an impact.
What does success look like?
Success looks like having a city where we are not talking about any kind of inequality – there will always be differences, but (a city) where the differences aren’t so stark. One of the things that it’s hard for me to accept is that for as great we are doing, African Americans here are the poorest group of African Americans in the top 50 metropolitan areas in the country. We have these statistics that are polar opposites in many ways. Success is seeing that gap closed.
As a newly appointed member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (advising U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker), what knowledge will you take with you from Pittsburgh when working with those from other regions of the country?
Our innovation started in 2007, and we are really one of the first organizations in the country to work in high growth clusters to disconnected communities. What we’re seeing nationally, whether it’s urban or rural areas, is that the innovation sector is trying to figure out how to do that. I think we’ve done some things exceptionally well. I have a wonderful board that has allowed me and our team to really take an entrepreneurial approach to this issue because there is no road map. We are taking that to the National Advisory Council.