X Years of Talent | The Heritage Group: Sally Reasoner
Merillat Flowers: 10 years ago, roughly half of Indiana's college graduates remained in the state upon graduation. This number was even lower for STEM degrees as many of these students found opportunities and offers in major tech hubs. It was in the face of this problem that TechPoint launched the Xtern program, a 10-week internship program that employs hundreds of college students in roles at local tech companies. In this Circuit mini-series, 10 years of talent, TechPoint interviews the major players in Indiana's tech landscape. From talent organizations to the people who were there at the beginning of Xtern. We look back at the past decade of Indiana's talent initiative and look towards the future of Indiana's tech workforce. Well, hi Sally. I feel so lucky to be sitting down with you today and getting to recap with you some of the history of talent in Indiana from your perspective.
Sally Reasoner: Yay. So excited to be here. Thank you for inviting me on, Merillat. I love to talk about the early Xtern days and the amazing work that you all have done since then. So very glad to be here.
Merillat Flowers: Awesome. Well, Sally, as you referenced, obviously you were the person that was there from the very get-go in the creation of the Xtern program. So take us back there, set the stage. What were the core issues that prompted the creation of the program and how did it actually come to be?
Sally Reasoner: Yeah, so the core issue, well, I would say the core issue was talent. And it really was the innovation and product of Mike Langelier, who was the CEO at the time. He had just taken over as CEO of TechPoint and was out meeting with lots and lots of tech entrepreneurs, tech leaders, and over and over and over again the issue was talent. Now, at the time, this was 2013, 2012, 2013, there had been some big moves in the tech community. ExactTarget, it was right around that time that they sold to Salesforce. There had been some big moves, so there was a lot of momentum in tech, but there wasn't a ton of data on talent. So Mike had this idea of, or he had heard the problem over and over again. He wanted to quantify it and then build programs to address it. So I joined the team in 2013 on a contract basis to kind of figure out how can we put data behind this? How can we really understand the problem? And as we dug in... And what's funny now, because I feel like from the governor's office, the mayor's office you hear tech, tech, tech all the time, that wasn't really the case then. We were building that case for support because tech in Indy specifically, but across the state was really in this period of boom. So I said in the first few months working on pulling data, and what we found was that there was this pretty significant gap in terms of skilled software development talent, at least initially that's where we focused and we published our report. We got lots of sound bites, it got lots of coverage. And I think it really put the tech sector, I mean officially on the map because we had the data to back it up. But I think what was interesting is that was the first problem we were aiming to solve was how do we get our tech companies, the people, and the skills that they need to thrive? How can we ensure that we have the workforce to have 10 more exact targets or many, many more exact targets and talent is absolutely crucial to that. And so that was the core problem we were trying to solve. But as we got into the work, the other challenge that we looked at was this idea of brain drain. And we had these major researched institutions, phenomenal colleges and universities, but their graduates were leaving because they didn't perceive that jobs were here, good jobs were here. And so I think those were the problems twofold that we are aiming to solve and they perfectly feed one another. And so that's really what birthed the Xtern program. And at the time, there were some other talent initiatives, but Xtern ended up becoming really the anchor.
Merillat Flowers: Awesome. It's so cool to imagine you and Mike in a room thinking this up and figuring out how to make it happen. So tell us some of those stories, so the early days, tell us about the companies and the students who were part of that very first class.
Sally Reasoner: So it took a lot of faith from a lot of people to get Xtern off the ground. So much of our work was reliant on grant funding. And so the cycle for that, it's not quite the same as venture capital. You can't just go out and say, I'm here to raise money and then get it. There are cycles and timelines that you have to fall within. And so I think what people... I'm sure the Xterns in the first class remember this, but now it's hard to imagine. I mean, we didn't figure out that we had funding until spring of 2014, and the goal was to launch our first class that summer. So in the absence of funding, we did as much as we could building partnerships with higher ed institutions, college and universities, working with companies, letting them know we were embarking on this large talent effort and that internships would be one of the core pillars. But we didn't have the official green light go, I think probably until February or March of 2014. And so it was like full steam ahead and we didn't have housing at the time. And so that was a key component. The core philosophy of the Xtern program was we can recruit top quality talent if they know what opportunities are available. So let's pull the jobs and companies together. We can get them to stay if we build community and help these individuals who normally would go to a company and be one of two or three interns, go home at night, shut their door or live at home and might not meet any friends in the city. We knew Indy's strength is the people and we wanted to build that community. So housing was a key component, but I was like, we signed the contract, I think days before students moved in. The good thing is students had no idea that that was happening. And Mike and I were blindly confident that we would make it work, and it did. It all worked out. But there were moments where key partners had to step up and get creative. I mean, I remember Amy from IEPY who she put her neck out there and she, Amy Conrad Warner, and she helped us get it done. And it was really her courage that opened up this new way of renting student living units over the course of the summer to an entity rather than individuals or i.e students independent only. So Amy Conrad Warner, it was just courage and faith from really key people. The team at Interactive Intelligence and at Salesforce or Salesforce ExactTarget, they had already recruited their interns, but it was really their seal of approval and their commitment to putting all of their interns into the program that made it real. And by having that initial group of interns from these large anchor institutions in Indy, it gave confidence to other smaller companies. And so Mickey Levitan at Courseload and Holly Coleman, I remember calling them every day,"Hey, are you going to hire someone? Are you going to hire someone?" And sending them resumes constantly and really placing people up until the final hour there in May and June. But we hit our goal. We had 50 students in the first class. And man, it was magic. I look back and that was one of the best seasons of my life, and I still am very close with a lot of the people because I think that the community we built was real and authentic and it just proved this big idea that Mike had that community and people matter, and that's the core. And it was so true. I watched students go from really shy, introverted sophomores who lacked confidence in the work that they do, grow into these... Understanding the brilliance that they bring to the table and walking in and lighting up a room. And that was because we all just took this step of faith together. And I think that set the foundation for what was to come. And housing was a key part of it. The amazing companies who were hiring interns, some that had never hired interns before, but were figuring it out. It just took a lot of faith and a lot of courage from our community. But I think looking back, it's such a testament of Indy. I just don't know other places where something like this could work. One, we had the Lilly Endowment, which truly made it all possible, but then we had the right mix of ingredients that are so authentically Indy to pull it together and 2014 set the stage and it just continued to grow and scale. And I think community stayed at the heart of it, which is really amazing to look back on. And we're almost 10 years in here.
Merillat Flowers: That's right. Celebrating the 10th this summer. Isn't that wild?
Sally Reasoner: inaudible.
Merillat Flowers: Sally, it's perfect. Cause I remember when I started at TechPoint, and you specifically told me this work will times feel like you're doing a trust ball, but the good news is that the people around you and in Indy are going to catch you.
Sally Reasoner: Yes.
Merillat Flowers: And that is so true. And I think the story that you just told speaks to that so perfectly.
Sally Reasoner: Xtern in and of itself is a trust fall. I forgot about that, but yes, Merillat, so true.
Merillat Flowers: Yeah, it was brilliant wisdom at the time and it's still true, which is really cool. I mean, you have been such now an institution and talent in Indiana now. And from that time at TechPoint, you create Xtern and several other programs that we should mention that developed during that time. But then you transitioned over to Ascend, which is a sister initiative of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership family. So talk to us about your role there and the key lessons that you learned from the amazing work you did.
Sally Reasoner: So what I am so grateful for in my career, and I look at my career and story as a series of really fortunate events, and I'm so fortunate to join the Orr Fellowship program after graduation because that shaped how I thought about Xtern. Mike was an Orr fellow, that's how I met him. Mike took a bet on me, and that was a really fortunate event. He kept me away from law school and brought me to TechPoint. And then meeting Jason Cloth within the CICP, the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership whose TechPoint's parents company? I don't, yeah, I've been out of it a little bit, Merillat.
Merillat Flowers: Organization.
Sally Reasoner: Organizations, the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership had Jason in and literally in the break room, which virtual work has changed that, but in the break room over coffee, I got to know Jason Cloth and heard his vision for Ascend, which really at its core had the same principles as TechPoint's talent programs. It was focused on bridging these talent gaps that existed beyond just tech, but really like financial services, healthcare, life sciences, all of the other core wealth driving sectors in the state and understanding their talent needs. And then also focused on brain drain. We have these amazing institutions, let's connect their talent. But I would say a difference in approach was scale. And really, I mean, TechPoint programs have scaled tremendously, and I know you've impacted now thousands of students. And the summer program, I mean the Xtern, how many Xterns are there this year?
Merillat Flowers: There's now over a thousand, but we have over 150 every summer in the program.
Sally Reasoner: That is massive scale. And I think what we were looking at at Ascend was how can we borrow from the core elements of success that TechPoint really founded and made clear on this community-based recruitment model, how can we borrow that, put a layer of technology underneath, and rather than impacting 50 students at a time like the first class of Xtern, impact thousands every single year. And so at Ascend, that was really my focus, taking the key elements of individual relationship, that cheerleader role that the TechPoint staff plays and advocate evangelist, that role that TechPoint staff plays for the Xterns, how could we individualize that but have technology allow us to scale? And so I spent five years at Ascend building the Ascend Network. We had a team of recruiters, and our approach was one-on-one conversations with both students and employers and leveraging technology to bring them together, but still having that individual advocacy that makes programs like Xtern so special. And it was hard, and we didn't always get it right, and we had tons and tons of learnings over those five years. But now I look at what the team at Ascend has, I've been gone just over a year now, and I look at the progress they've made, and they're probably close to 10,000 students placed by now. And it's really, the technology has come so far, and it's a new way of looking at recruitment, but with the things that Indiana and TechPoint does so well, which is keeping humans, real humans, not AI, but real humans at the core of the work. And so it was a wonderful experience and wouldn't have been possible if TechPoint hadn't paved the way on what community-based recruitment could look like.
Merillat Flowers: That's awesome. Well, they've been such a great partner over at Ascend, and you're right, the development of both organizations, at TechPoint and Ascend, and I think that really probably mirrors so much about what development work in the city. It's a good segue because you've now pivoted, as you mentioned, and have been over at the Heritage Group as the people and cultural strategic projects lead now for little over a year. So tell us a little bit about Heritage Group and what you're doing now and how you're applying the past lessons to your work.
Sally Reasoner: It is all the same, but I mean, back to the series of fortunate events and the power of Indy, I think what makes Indy so powerful for the people and the community within it, which I mean, anyone who's been closely Xtern programmed totally knows that. But Betsy McCaw, who is my boss, was at Central Indiana Corporate Partnership. She was the COO there before moving over to Heritage Group. And she called one day and said,"Hey, there's a lot of change happening, a lot of progress happening at Heritage Group. We're in this moment of change and innovation and a company that's built on a foundation, 90 years of innovation and growth, come join us." And so I've spent the past year almost and a half at the Heritage Group working with Betsy and the team at the corporate level supporting our businesses and the amazing work that we do in the community. And it's totally different. I never thought I'd want to leave the nonprofit sphere. That's where I really built my career. And I have so much passion for the work and the outcomes and the impact, but what I learned is that you can have that same impact in a corporate setting too. So Heritage Group is a 90-year-old family owned company. We own many, many businesses, but we operate in three core industries, construction and materials. So the roads that you drive on across the state and into the Midwest, many of them were likely, not only were they paved by our teams at Heritage Group, but the asphalt was actually produced by our teams. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, our team paved and created the asphalt for that. We have an environmental services company that collects and disposes of environmental waste. So they were founded actually the exact same year as the EPA, which I find interesting. And we were really a leader in doing the right thing and making sure that the waste is properly disposed of. So that's Heritage Environmental, and then Monument Chemical, which is a custom chemical shop. So they are a large producer of isopropyl alcohol. So took off with hand sanitizer in the past few years, but also produce a lot of chemicals and products that we use every day. And so it's really neat because my role is impacting the 5,000 employees that we have at Heritage Group and helping our HR processes and practices transform, ensuring that it meets the needs of not only our frontline workers that are doing the hard, hard, important work out in the field, but to all of those at the home office as well, and making sure that it meets the needs of every single employee. And so much of the core principles and tenants that I learned at TechPoint and that, almost Merillat, I think that idea of trust fall, like you just believing in the people around you and knowing that you're all moving in the same direction, and we can make the lives of our employees better and give them career opportunities and growth and learning. And it's been a really, really fun adventure. And I think I'm just so beyond blessed to be there.
Merillat Flowers: What a cool next step for you and to come full circle from being the person who's been talking to corporate partners all this time about their talent needs to actually sitting in the seat being that person. Yeah.
Sally Reasoner: What's interesting about that Merillat is it's like I will sometimes shoot messages to TechPoint. I'm like, oh, this is how they think about it at a corporate level and give insight to things I just didn't know about. And oftentimes I wish I would've had this experience almost before TechPoint-
Merillat Flowers: Totally.
Sally Reasoner: Because I think it would've made me a lot better partner to our corporate entities, but yeah, exactly. And we hire from the Orr Fellowship one day, we're going to get Xterns. I-
Merillat Flowers: Can't wait. We'll be ready.
Sally Reasoner: We need to. We hired through the Ascend Network and so it's really fulfilling to be on the other side.
Merillat Flowers: Absolutely. And use things that you've really helped build. That's awesome. Well, here's kind of the perfect ending question. As you've watched the talent landscape in Indiana evolve over the past 10 years, what are your main takeaways about how far we have come and also what you hope to be true in the next 10 years for Indiana?
Sally Reasoner: Well, to the point on how far we've come, something that we identified early in the creation of the Xtern program, and honestly, I think Orr Fellowship probably had a lot of these learnings too, was not that Indiana necessarily had a negative perception amongst talent. It was that there was no perception. And so people just didn't know. They had no idea what existed here and what I think TechPoint has done a phenomenal job... And I mean, I look back to Al and Alex and Nicole and Fran, and when they were out on campus, that's for those not familiar with the old crew, that's the old crew of Xtern leaders. When they went out on campus, they told that story. And I think that's something that I feel is different now. I just hired a young woman who right out of college, worked a couple years at McKinsey Consulting and she wanted to come back. She's like,"I tried the remote work thing, but I missed the community. I'm looking for something local." And she went to Purdue. She was a student athlete, but she left with a positive impression of working in Indiana. Now she tried the National Consulting firm and was like, it lacks the magic that Indy has. And so she wanted to come back. And to me, I'm hearing more and more stories about that. And I always said, Mike and I would talk about what does success for this look like? What does success of the Xtern program look like? And I said,"I want to be in a coffee shop one day and hear people talking about how cool a new tech is, or the opportunities that exist for their kids here or for themselves here." And I feel like that has been achieved because I hear it all the time. And so that makes me really proud to have played a small part in this movement that I think TechPoint's really been at the forefront of. But Ascend, all of the initiatives across the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, the Indy Chamber, the IEDC, it's been a community, EmployIndy, it's been a community effort, but I see the impact of it. And I feel like people perceive opportunity here in a way that they didn't 10 years ago. Because if there is opportunity now for the next 10 years, what I'm really passionate about, and when the time is right at Heritage Group, it's something that Betsy, our leader and I are really both passionate about is high school. I think that in our state, we have so many knowledge economy jobs, those that require a college degree, and we built amazing inroads into our college and institutions because of the funding of Lilly Endowment colleges and institutions are working with their students to recognize opportunity in Indiana more so there's been this movement at the college level, and I just see high school as this really important opportunity. And I should have looked up the stat before I joined, but I think it's something like 63, 64% of high school graduates go on to college. And that means every year there are over 30,000 students that graduate not going on to college. And no direct connectivity into the workforce outside of a really good counselor or one or two employers that might recruit at the high school. And so I just love the community-based programs that have been built at a college level. And I would just love to see something like that built at the high school level because that talent is needed. We need that at Heritage Group desperately, and I know we're not alone. The economy has changed so much. Those are now good paying jobs with full benefits that allow people to provide for themselves and their families and EmployIndy with the Good Wages Initiative. There's a focus on making sure that those jobs are good jobs. And I think that that opportunity exists for high schoolers. There's just not a clear way to make those connections. And so that's what I'm looking forward to. And that's what gives me hope is that, I feel like the work's never done, but I feel like we've done a great job in the college level, but now how do we think about our high school and youth and do our part to help them connect to really meaningful opportunities that will provide for good work and good managers and a bright future.
Merillat Flowers: Yeah, well said. And I'm with you. I can be more compelled about the high school space and Ascend, Employ Indy, and they are probably setting seeds, laying the foundation for the work that hopefully 10 years. I think you're right. Hopefully this conversation about Xtern will be them 10 years with the inaudible apprenticeship work that they're doing and our community adoption of it.
Sally Reasoner: It's not easy. Modern Youth Apprenticeship is hard. And it takes employers to change in some cases the way that they work. And it's hard, but it's so important. And Modern Youth Apprenticeship is, I see that as the Xtern, right? It's small, it's not small, but it's growing rapidly, but it's really wraparound service. It is hands-on community at its core, which again is important to get started in the high school space. And what I would love to see is that really be the epicenter, but then have others like Ascend did with the learnings of TechPoint, have others do it at scale and more of a connectivity basis. And so I'm really hopeful, and I think you're right, I think CACP, Ascend, EmployIndy and what they're doing with Modern Apprenticeship is we should all keep an eye on.
Merillat Flowers: Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. Well, Sally, it's been such a delight to look back on this whole journey with you. There's so many moments I got chills just thinking about how far this program, this people, this community have come and how true it is, how people are talking about Indy tech. And I know that will continue to be the case.
Sally Reasoner: Hey, one other question for you. Does TechPoint still, well actually, do hackathons still exist? Are those a thing anymore?
Merillat Flowers: Yes, they are. They're definitely a thing.
Sally Reasoner: Do we still do Red Bull slushies?
Merillat Flowers: We don't still do Red Bull slushies.
Sally Reasoner: No.
Merillat Flowers: So I will confess for those of you watching, there was a day when that was a big part of our recruitment effort. And our team would show up at hackathons on college campuses and be the cool ones running through the crowds with wild things like Red Bull slushies. And it made us really popular.
Sally Reasoner: It literally put us on the map.
Merillat Flowers: Now fortunately the brand carries itself. Thanks to you and your effort running around doing that, now people come to us and we don't have to show up with the Red Bull slushies.
Sally Reasoner: That's awesome.
Merillat Flowers: To do it. Awesome. Well, Sally, thanks so much for your time and can't wait to see all this ahead for you and for our community.
Sally Reasoner: Thanks Merillat.
In this episode, we sit down with Sally Reasoner, People + Culture Strategic Projects Lead with The Heritage Group. The Heritage Group is family-owned business based in Indianapolis managing a portfolio of more than 30 companies specializing in heavy construction and materials, environmental services and specialty chemicals. Sally talks about her time with TechPoint and the creation of the Xtern program, her journey to Ascend Indiana and then The Heritage Group, and what she sees on the horizon for the future of talent in Indiana.