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Banking on KC – Karen Hornig of KC Tech Council

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC, I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Karen Hornig, the CEO of National Insurance Producer Registry, which is a platform for credentialing insurance agents and brokers. Karen is also the chair of the KC Tech Council, an independent nonprofit that's focused on making Kansas City a great home for tech. Welcome Karen.

Karen Hornig:

Thank you, Kelly. It's great to be with you.

Kelly Scanlon:

I mentioned that the Tech Council has this overarching vision to make Kansas City a great home for tech and there's three pillars that are part of that vision. If you would take just a minute to talk to us about those three pillars and how they work together to achieve that vision of making Kansas City this really robust tech hub.

Karen Hornig:

Sure. So the three pillars for the KC Tech Council are industry access, workforce development and policy advocacy, and all three of them really mash together. Industry access means, the Tech Council is here to give voice to the 4,000 plus businesses and organizations that employ over 100000 tech workers in our Kansas City region. Collectively, the industry contributes nearly 12 billion to our local economy, and we're very lucky to have large enterprise employers in our area who are leaders in key industries like healthcare records and aviation and telecommunications. And so with that kind of demand, it flows immediately into the concept of workforce development. Nationally and here in Kansas City, there are not enough skilled workers to fill open technology positions. And the KC Tech Council has recently signed an agreement with a national partner leading tech based apprenticeships in other markets in the US. We've got to get creative about how we fill these slots. And the apprenticeship model has proven to be very effective in hiring candidates with nontraditional backgrounds and placing candidates into well paying jobs.

Karen Hornig:

And these programs have a proven track record of attracting more diverse candidates into the industry, which provides a whole new pipeline of talent for regional employers. And then lastly, State and Federal public policy that impacts technology is the third pillar of the Tech Council's mission. And fellow board member, Josh Maxfield, who's the Associate General Counsel at Garmin, leads our public policy committee and Polsinelli helps us out in Jefferson City. And recently the council has led efforts to reform computer science education in both Kansas and Missouri, leading to the subject of computer science now counting as a high school graduation credit, when before it was simply an elective. And we joined several dozen other organizations in this effort, including KC STEM Alliance and Science City. And we recently signed letters supporting a reversal of the Federal decision to ban H-1B visas for international workers. Because the tech industry competes globally for talent, for particularly large employers, there simply aren't enough workers in the US with the skills necessary to meet demand.

Karen Hornig:

So longterm, we still need that additional funding and push to support STEM education for K through 12 level across the US. But in the meantime, we have to have those high skill workers from other nations to fill a critical void. So those are just two of the public policy issues that we've been working on recently.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned the programs that are being developed in order to develop workers, basically, where are those programs housed? Who administers those? Are those the individual companies that you're working with to develop those? Or is it the KC Tech Council who's actually offering those programs? Where are those being delivered from?

Karen Hornig:

The Tech Council essentially will be the hub of the wheel. There are a variety of different organizations that provide the actual training, who specialize in particularly career changers, helping people transition from one career into technology. So learning how to code, and there are a number of different ones in Kansas City. The apprenticeship program will leverage all those programs, it's program agnostic. So you don't have to necessarily go to one single one of those programs, but we will serve as the hub of the wheel that will connect the apprenticeship programs with those coding programs and with the employers who are interested in participating.

Kelly Scanlon:

So any potential businesses that are listening to this episode and are interested in that should just get in touch directly with the KC Tech Council.

Karen Hornig:

Absolutely.

Kelly Scanlon:

Back in the late 90s, 2000, Tech met somebody who had a network, they come in and they would put your network together, troubleshoot it, that was it. Now every business is really a tech business. You just really can't have a real chance at success unless you are using technology to leverage so many different functions of your business. So how do you define tech?

Karen Hornig:

The Kansas City Tech Council has some exceptional data on its website that really outlines what those different categories of workers are. And we do an employment report on a regular basis so that other businesses have access. But you're right, it isn't just somebody who knows how to fix a desk top or laptop computer. We're talking about software engineers, software architects, quality assurance engineers, business analysts. And that's just on the software side, there are people who work with data and whole categories of people who work in data analytics and warehousing data. And then there are the people on the infrastructure side, either the systems upon which the computers work or the actual hardware itself. So there are a number of layers when we talk about technology, when we talk about computer science. And not all of those are just coding, many of them are more business facing, but the person has to have a fundamental understanding of how the technology works.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the things that I really find interesting Karen, is that I'm sitting here listening to you, rattle off all these terms and all of this information, but you don't have a formal background in technology. Yet here you are, you're leading a company NIPR, and you chair an organization, the KC Tech Council, that are leading change in the tech industry. So how did you land in this space? What was your path?

Karen Hornig:

Well, Kelly, I wish I could tell you that I developed a well considered and executed strategy for my career, but the fact is I've specialized in getting and keeping jobs for which I was completely unqualified. But I'm a lawyer by training and I had many opportunities over my career to use that original training in law and apply it in different areas. Legal training is actually very good as a foundation for doing other things, because I spent most of my legal career as a litigator. And when you have a new case, you have to learn the business. If it's corporate litigation, you have to immerse yourself in that business. So every new professional challenge was just a new set of facts. It was just a new case that I had to learn. And that's how I approached the work at NIPR. I had this opportunity because I served as Deputy Insurance Commissioner for the State of Maryland. So I understood the regulatory side, I understood the industry. So coming over to NIPR then, what I had to learn was the technology piece.

Karen Hornig:

And so I left leveraged a lot of the same skills that I used as a lawyer. I went to experts, the experts were my staff, and I leveraged them as my teachers. I gathered evidence, I did a whole lot of reading and studying. And while I do not claim to be a technologist, I am not, I have found it fascinating, endlessly fascinating and interesting to learn about how these organizations were.

Kelly Scanlon:

This has been a theme throughout your career, stepping into those situations, as you just said, opportunities, where you don't necessarily have that strong expertise or experience, and yet you embrace them, like you said. But so many times this brings up something else that I hear a lot, I'm involved in a lot of different women's organizations and I hear this a lot that women especially disqualify themselves from jobs, from political office, from board service, whatever it might be, just because they take a look at what's required, or somebody's trying to talk them into joining something. And they take a look at the list and they disqualify themselves because they cannot check off every box. And yet you did not do that, you decided to embrace it anyway. I know you said that your legal background prepared you very well for asking questions, but it just strikes me that there's something more that's involved as well, because those are big leaps. Talk to us a little bit more about just your approach to challenges.

Karen Hornig:

For years I was sure I was not smart enough, experienced enough or talented enough to become a corporate leader. And while many people lack confidence in their ability, as you say, Kelly women particularly avoid highlighting their strengths. Instead, they downplay their gifts and talents. I was lucky, I have a remarkable mentor, he has worked with me since I was a very young lawyer, and I developed greater confidence by taking risks and accepting opportunities even when I was convinced I was unprepared. I always say to young colleagues now, trust people when they see something in you that you don't see in yourself and have confidence in them that they are wise, and many women's struggle. And as I did in striking a work life balance, promotion or relocation opportunities are turned down as we put the family first. And so I took the view that I could have it all, just not all at once. And this view resulted in slower career growth early in my career, but later opportunities that I would not have imagined, like leading NIPR.

Karen Hornig:

And I think with age comes wisdom, and I felt more confident in myself as I moved through my career. And that's when I was willing to take risks. The bottom line, I've been very lucky to have been offered so many opportunities and in a variety of what we call verticals. And you learn from one and you take that and you apply it to the next thing.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, success breeds success, is one of the things I'm hearing you say there. I know the numbers are growing in terms of women in STEM, but there's still a lot of work to be done to encourage women to embrace the field. I know the Kansas City area has made really good progress in that regard. Do you see this primarily as a recruitment issue? Like we talked about when we first opened the conversation, or do you think it's something broader, something more systemic that is required in order to attract women?

Karen Hornig:

I do think it's more systemic. There was an excellent article written last year by a journalist named Clive Thomas in the New York Times called, The Secret History of Women In Coding. And it really was excellent. And it shows that computer programmers were originally almost all women.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, I've seen some of those articles.

Karen Hornig:

Right. And that really changed with the advent of the personal computer and the personal computer becoming a learning tool, a tool around which particularly young men really gravitated for gaming and coding as more of a hobby or computer building is more of a hobby. And so then we saw this real divergence where women dropped out at the industry. What we also see is that, when I'm talking about software development because that's primarily what we do. Software isn't developed for itself, software is developed in order to deliver a business result for an organization. And so you need lots of different ways of looking at business problems to deliver good software. And so diversity around the team table is very important. And the issue of the systemic problem that we see today, the reality that we see today, is that women make up, most studies say only about 20% of technology jobs. And a lot of women come into technology, not having a computer science or a formal engineering or computer science background. And so it is why the more nontraditional educational program certificates, those kinds of things are very important.

Karen Hornig:

So it is, I believe a systemic problem, and that means there's no easy fix, there's no silver bullet. It requires a multifaceted response and approach to solving that problem.

Kelly Scanlon:

What would be a few of those, I know we don't have time to go into solving that whole problem in the next 10 minutes, but what would be some of the things that need to be addressed that would go a long way towards solving it?

Karen Hornig:

Apprenticeship obviously is a big one, I think, mentorship programs that we have for encouraging women, especially girls who code, those kinds of problems. To solve that problem that we see in elementary and middle schools, where girls are doing great in math and science, and then they have a tendency to drop off as they get into middle school and then go onto high school. And so programs that really target those kinds of things. But I think we have this sort of fundamental marketing problem when we talk about technology. And that is that we talk about technology like it is this mysterious thing, and it can be really hard and difficult, and yes, it involves numbers and math and some science, but it's art and science. It is about solving business problems. And so I think we have to talk about technology more as the means to an end versus the end. We need to talk more about what technology brings us. As business organizations, as societies, talking about the mission of it, I think makes it more attractive to more young people.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, that higher purpose.

Karen Hornig:

Exactly. And frankly, the more risks that women take to enter the field, the younger women see it then as an opportunity for them. Trust me when I say, if I was able to do this, anybody is able to make the transition into a technology company. This is not my wheelhouse, I was a history major, but that ability to think broadly and deeply about problems, serves you regardless of the area that you're working in. So I think the emphasis on career changing, we have whole segment of our population that feels like it doesn't have an appropriate place in the economy. We have a lot of people in our company who have come out of the military and trained up to enter technology, have career changed, to enter technology and providing really great programs that make it easier for people to do that while they're raising their families and all the challenges that we all have, I think will really serve the industry really well.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. Some great insights there on how to think about it not being the end game, part of a higher purpose, solving business problems. Those are great marketing messages for recruitment. Absolutely. The Kansas City area tech scene is growing, you're making progress on the KC Tech Council's overall mission of making Kansas City a tech hub. So how would you describe the current KC area tech scene? Where are the gaps? What are the opportunities? How do you bridge it?

Karen Hornig:

Well, in addition to the workforce gap, which I feel like we've talked about a lot, the area's tech scene I think is very vibrant. Brush Creek Partners, has just launched a new accelerator program that was announced in the business journal last week. And I think Kansas City's tech industry has really a great opportunity to aspire to become one of the most equitable and diverse hubs for the industry in the Midwest and the country. And we're consistently ranked as one of the best cities for women in tech. And that data again, can be found on KC Tech Council's website. And we can expand this to support increased racial diversity and equity within the sector. And we have the opportunity to create a perception to differentiate KC's tech scene from competing markets, especially in the Midwest. And a lot of the industry is driven by perception. And while I would say Kansas City does not have a negative perception, our presence on the national stage, I think would be enhanced by maybe leaving our Midwestern humbleness behind and being more willing to share our successes with the world.

Karen Hornig:

And the fact that we are a centralized location, and we have an opportunity to watch the tech sector grow along other important industries in our region, transportation, logistics, healthcare, agriculture, all areas that are blowing up in terms of technology. Agritech is gigantic, the Hyperloop is a real thing and is going to be a real thing.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes it is.

Karen Hornig:

That is really KC getting back to its roots. And so that makes me very excited. There's a growing demand for internet and how large enterprise corporations can more safely store and access data from a centralized source. We've just had a groundbreaking here in Kansas City for a large data center project and that's really critical. Google Fiber, that's a great benefit to being in Kansas City. So I think there really are real opportunities. One of the realities of the pandemic may be that people want to spread out a bit more. And so the Midwest may well be a more attractive area for many people.

Kelly Scanlon:

All of these things that you just mentioned, all opportunities of achieving that goal of Kansas City being a great home for tech. How would achieving that goal change the city? What would Kansas City itself look like if it really did become everything it could be in terms of a tech hub?

Karen Hornig:

Yeah, I think Kansas City should again be viewed by the rest of the nation as a crossroads, and now it would be as a tech crossroads. And to do that, we must be a community that is open and welcoming to others. We can not be insular and that will change Kansas City, but the most important area of opportunity is to ensure we have a diverse and high skilled workforce to sustain the growth in the industry. And that growth has to be supported by key policy based infrastructure, like the computer science education funding and workforce development. Kelly, you know I'm not from Kansas City, I've been here now for six years, I relocated here six years ago. And I hear people say all the time, we're one of the nation's best kept secrets and I always say, why, why would you want to keep it secret, make it a great story. We need to live the values of a 21st century city that really has that concept of being a crossroads and being open both to changes in our industry and changes in our community.

Kelly Scanlon:

Great advice. So Karen, thank you so much for sharing your insights, your inspiration, for women especially, and just best of luck on achieving this goal. It sounds like you're on the way there.

Karen Hornig:

Thank you, Kelly. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Kelly Scanlon:

Absolutely. And you said that there is a website, kctechcouncil.com?

Karen Hornig:

That's correct. Yep.

Kelly Scanlon:

For anybody who wants to go out and dive further into some of the stats that she was talking about, kctechcouncil.com. Thank you again, Karen.

Karen Hornig:

Thank you.

Joe Close:

Hello. I'm Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Karen Hornig, for joining us on this episode of Banking on KC. The KC Tech Council's vision of Kansas City as a thriving tech hub, is attainable, Kansas City is already a leader in smart city technology and is making strides in ag-tech, FinTech, telemedicine, and many other technology driven sectors. As a city with a long history of being a crossroads to other places, Kansas City today is at a crossroads moment for making the critical decisions necessary for becoming a world class leader in technology innovation. As Karen said, Kansas City must be willing to be inclusive and embrace adversity in order to cultivate the best ideas and attract the brightest minds. That takes the effort of the entire community, not just the KC Tech Council. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.