March 19, 2024

Jennifer Hankins and Tulsa Innovation Labs is Helping to Transform Tulsa into an Inclusive Tech Hub

Headshot - Jennifer

A fierce advocate for innovation and entrepreneurship in the heartland of America, Tulsa Innovation Labs Managing Director Jennifer Hankins is leading Tulsa’s transformation into a national tech leader. We caught up with Jennifer to learn more about Tulsa’s Tech Hub designation, how TIL is working to address equity in tech and what it’s like to be one of a growing number of women leading major economic developments.

Tulsa Innovation Labs (TIL) launched in 2020, to help position Tulsa as a tech leader in four emerging areas – virtual health, energy tech, advanced air mobility, and cyber. Can you tell us more about those four areas –that your team has dubbed Tulsa’s Tech Niche? And how Tulsa is uniquely positioned to lead innovation in these technologies? 

Tulsa Innovation Labs was born from the realization that the jobs and opportunities of the future are deeply rooted in an innovation economy defined by technological advances, entrepreneurship, and disruptive ideas. The innovation economy is driving tremendous changes across the world –– reshaping industries, altering labor markets, and revolutionizing our daily lives. The Tulsa region not only needs to be prepared for these shifts, but we at TIL believe our region has a distinct right-to-win in several emerging industries if we seize the opportunity.

We began our work in January 2020 by analyzing industry trends, cataloging regional assets, and identifying future market opportunities. After aligning over 100 stakeholders from across the state, we then prioritized industries that were accessible (i.e. created jobs that don’t require advanced degrees), impactful (i.e. high growth rates) and contestable (i.e. no geographic region had yet emerged as a winner). From this study emerged Tulsa’s “right-to-win” opportunities and the industry clusters TIL is focused on today. The beautiful thing about how we are approaching Tulsa’s innovation economy is that we’re not building these industries from scratch.  We’re leveraging existing strengths and assets – along with Tulsa’s pioneering legacy – to address ecosystem gaps, support and expand local partnerships, and to catalyze growth authentic to our region.

Last year, TIL led the formation of the Tulsa Hub for Equitable and Trustworthy Autonomy (THETA), which earned a “Tech Hub” designation from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Can you tell us more about that process and THETA’s goals? 

Tulsa Innovation Labs brings partners together from across sectors to pursue transformational opportunities like the Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) and Tech Hubs programs. The Tulsa Region was one of 21 winners in the Build Back Better Regional Challenge and recently received an “official” Tech Hubs Designation from the U.S. Department of Commerce alongside 31 other regions. These wins are not trivial and represent a significant shift underway in our region.

Tulsa’s Tech Hub, THETA, builds upon the region’s success with 2022’s BBBRC win, expanding partnerships and ensuring the community is well represented as we design programs to address the challenges preventing the widespread adoption of autonomous systems technologies such as uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), autonomous vehicles, drones and robotics. If successful, Tulsa will be positioned as a globally leading hub of autonomous systems innovation within 10 years.

Our Tech Hub embraces the Tulsa region’s existing aerospace and manufacturing prowess in order to develop and manufacture the next generation of these critical technologies, which will bear the moniker “Tested and Made in Tulsa, USA.” The THETA strategy is designed to transform our economy into one that is more dynamic, adaptable, and agile, while insulating us from future disruptions or “boom and busts.” Critical to this effort is also expanding opportunity across every community in Tulsa, ensuring equitable access to the economic gains associated with becoming a globally competitive Tech Hub.

Last year, we convened a small group of leaders for an initial informational session about the Tech Hubs opportunity.  By the end of Phase One, our consortium consisted of 50 organizations across the state, including higher education institutions, tribal governments, industry groups and economic development organizations, labor and workforce training organizations and more. On February 29, we submitted our Phase Two application for which we are competing for $70 million and our consortium is now nationwide with representation from over 77 organizations!

While women make up 47% of all employed adults in the US, as of 2022, they hold only 28% of computing and mathematical roles, according to data from Zippia. How are TIL and its partners working together to address equity in tech? 

Tulsa Innovation Labs has always maintained that Tulsa has the chance to do well where other regions have failed by creating opportunities in tech that are inclusive and equitable. This is reflective in almost every aspect of our work beginning with the industry clusters we focus on, which were chosen because they create better-paying jobs than what we currently see across our region; over 50% of which don’t require a four-year degree.

To date, our strongest partner in expanding pathways to tech has been Tulsa Community College (TCC), who partnered with TIL to launch the Cyber Skills Center, which aims to create more job pathways in cyber, data analytics and artificial intelligence. This program offers tuition-free accelerated training complete with wrap-around support to Tulsans across the career -spectrum. The Cyber Skills Center is currently in its third cohort and nearly half of our participants identify as female with more than half identifying as BIPOC, which signals significant demand for opportunities in high-tech fields.

Similarly, we have partnered with Madison Strategies Group, TCC, Tulsa Tech and OSU-Tulsa to launch the region’s most comprehensive STEM pathway in the Advanced Mobility industry. This alignment of programs will help students and workers more seamlessly access careers in one of Tulsa’s fastest growing tech industries. This effort was funded by our Build Back Better Regional Challenge award and is central to our strategy of expanding access and ensuring we have the tools needed to raise broader awareness of this industry.

These are just two examples indicative of how TIL and our partners are working together to ensure all Tulsans have access to the jobs and opportunities we are creating. There are many more efforts underway across the region that are truly transformative.

You’re one of a growing number of women leading major economic development initiatives and programs in Tulsa and the U.S. What do you think has changed for women in the economic development profession over the past decade?

There are a few seismic shifts under way: first, as you look across the country, the places that are truly thriving are fully embracing their leadership and prioritizing diverse perspectives and placing emphasis and value on a person’s potential. This broader cultural shift towards potential over pedigree has allowed many more women to secure leadership roles in economic development and is allowing us to chip away at the glass ceiling. Second, and most importantly, you are seeing women in leadership more because women are supporting each other. In my career, I have been fortunate to have a deep bench of female mentors who challenge me to be better each and every day. These women have gone to bat for me, have made seats for me at the table and they speak my name into rooms full of opportunity. Together, we are blazing new trails and hopefully unlocking potential for the next generation of female leaders regardless of industry. It’s truly thrilling to put into practice our shared values and being able to implement change firsthand is one of the things that drives me forward.