Aisha Glover, vice president of urban innovation at spoken-word tech company Audible (Newark), has been an economic development advocate for Newark since 2015. In a recent interview with James Barrood, founder and CEO of Innovation+, she discussed her career in New Jersey, which began after she had successfully helped to redevelop the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The discussion took place during a leadership chat episode of “A Few Things with James Barrood.”
Glover’s first job in Newark was with the Newark Community Development Corporation, now known as “Invest Newark.” She explained to Barrood that she wasn’t recruited to come to Newark, but had sought it out. She was living in New Jersey and commuting to Brooklyn, and had her eye on Newark for quite some time, she said. After meeting Bruce Katz, then VP of the Brookings Institution and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program, who had done some work with the City of Newark, she believed the city had a potential for revitalization. “And the mayor [the newly elected Ras Baraka] seemed like a phenomenal leader.
“I had the privilege of initially overseeing all of manufacturing and tech for the city within the city’s economic development corporation, and then I shortly thereafter became the CEO,” she said. “So, I drank the Kool Aid. I bought it and I’m all in. I’m not leaving. I keep joking that even as I changed jobs, since I’ve arrived in Newark it’s really just always been focused on economic development for me and what we can do to help catalyze the revitalization” of the city.
Lessons Learned in Brooklyn
Barrood asked about the lessons she had learned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that she brought with her to Newark. “I think one big lesson is making sure that you’re thinking about a sense of place. Sometimes within economic development, old school and traditional approaches” assume that we can have “one big fix. You land one big company or you implement one big solution,” she said.
“The Navy Yard actually went through that. It closed as a shipbuilding and naval facility in 1966. And there were so many stops and starts, with ‘Maybe we can relocate the garment industry’ or ‘Maybe we can do hard manufacturing.’
“There were all of these attempts to create these big fixes. And it wasn’t until that right combination of smaller light manufacturers; artisanal manufacturers; niche manufacturers; some of the companies that are at the intersection of design, manufacturing and technology; and artists and artisans [who] were being pushed out from other neighborhoods [emerged]. They found their sweet spot, and then we nurtured that and we started to be very thoughtful and intentional about how we could program and design and curate that.”
Supporting Local Startups and Bringing the Next Audible to Newark
Bringing that idea to Newark was important to the city’s revitalization, Glover said. She noted that, apart from the enthusiastic attempt to get Amazon’s headquarters to come to Newark, “for the most part, we have really zeroed in on the concept of localism: going small, shopping small, supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs and startups.
“And that’s one of the things I have the privilege of helping to lead [at Audible]. Audible is really helping to build the second innovation ecosystem, and we’re focused on early-stage startups. We’re focused on founders of color, women founders. We’re not focused on landing the other next big company, we’re focused on who can be the next Audible. Are there smaller companies out there like we were when we relocated and brought Audible to the City of Newark in 2007, with 100 employees? Now we have thousands of employees all over the world.”
“The thinking behind the creation of Newark Venture Partners, the thinking behind our approach now in trying to continue to grow the tech and innovation ecosystem is: Who are those early-stage founders and startups that we can attract to the city or invest in locally that are already here? It’s that combination of organic and inorganic [growth], and hopefully we support them in a way that can help them become the next Audible.”
Glover added that Audible is leveraging its own talent to match employees with founders and to think about what additional supports they need from a business development, marketing, legal and finance perspective. “We have a culture of service within Audible. We call it ‘activate caring.’ I never thought I’d be working for a big company and reciting what our corporate principles are, but here I am, and that’s because it’s truly part of our DNA. And so, within that culture of service called activate caring, we have employees that are looking for these opportunities, and it’s a perfect way for us to connect them with the companies that we’re helping to bring in” to Newark.
Immersive Experience at Harriet Tubman Square
Later in the discussion with Barrood, Glover talked about Audible’s role in the installation of the new monument to Harriet Tubman in the recently renamed Harriet Tubman Square. “Audible and the City of Newark were fortunate enough to unveil a new Harriet Tubman monument, which is just beautiful and breathtaking, in and of itself,” she said. The monument, titled “Shadow of a Face,” was designed by New Jersey artist and architect Nina Cooke John. The project was led by fayemi shakur, director of the City of Newark’s Division of Arts and Cultural Affairs.
“We had the benefit of adding a full audio immersive experience, called ‘monumental,’ that’s narrated by Newark native Queen Latifah and written by Pia Wilson, another Newark native, and so you can see how we’re starting to really think about all of this work full circle, right? It’s not just a program here. It’s how do we make sure we design this in a way that feels natural and authentic, engaging the community and getting feedback, hiring locally, bringing on local artists. We can’t do all this on our own. We’re making sure that we have the right folks at the table, to create something that’s unique and innovative, but that also feels different. We’re not just in Any Town, USA. Newark is Newark. And it needs to maintain a certain level of creativity and authenticity of grit.”