Assembling the Future of Work Accelerator’s Inaugural Cohort

By Eugene K. Chow — Fellow, Office of Innovation, State of New Jersey

This is the third article in a series detailing learnings, lessons, and approaches from the Future of Work Accelerator. You can view the entire series here. You can also sign up here to stay up to date on future posts.

On September 13, when Governor Phil Murphy announced the first class of New Jersey’s Future of Work Accelerator program, it was the culmination of a months-long, deliberative process aimed at ensuring both a diverse cohort and innovative projects.

In many ways, the success of the Accelerator is dependent on the strength of its participants and getting the right mix of groups within a cohort. So the Accelerator Team recognized that the selection process would be critical to the ultimate success of the program and set about carefully designing it.

After issuing a nation-wide, open call for innovations in May that promote worker rights and safety, improve access to benefits, strengthen training opportunities, or bolster worker voice, the Accelerator Team received over 120 applications from a wide-range of sectors.

At the heart of the selection process was a clear-eyed focus on the Accelerator’s core goal — supporting New Jersey’s workers in the face of disruptive changes to the nature of work. Keeping this fundamental goal in mind, the Accelerator team developed a series of questions in five key areas to assess each application.

  1. Commitment to New Jersey: Does the initiative evidence investment in the New Jersey region? Applicants should either be operating in New Jersey or outline a compelling plan to set up in the area.
  2. Social Impact: Is the vision of the future impact they could achieve clearly articulated? Does the initiative demonstrate a clear focus on vulnerable workers? Is it aligned with the priority challenge areas of the Accelerator? Is there the potential for deep local or systemic impact? Is the initiative operating in an area that is under-resourced?
  3. Innovation: Do they describe a compelling systemic or disruptive innovation for the field? Do they bring an innovative model, partnership constellation, process, or approach?
  4. Resilience: Does the idea have the potential to be sustainable? Is the leadership capable of executing on the vision? For more mature initiatives, is there evidence of institutional buy-in and/or secure financial backing?
  5. Compatibility: Would the accelerator be a good return on investment for them? Given their achievements to date, their previous experience with similar programs, and the challenges they are facing, would a learning journey be suitable?

By looking at each applicant with these criteria, the Accelerator Team was able to filter the large pool of candidates and pull the most promising ones for further consideration. While there were many strong applications, the final decision on which applicants to select was made by considering the overall makeup of the cohort.

Peer mentorship is a key aspect of the nine-month Accelerator program, so ensuring the final class had the right mix would be essential to ensuring participants could share knowledge, see different perspectives, and learn from one another.

For instance, if the Accelerator participants were primarily made up of early stage startups, they would lack the knowledge and experience of more mature organizations that may have already addressed the challenges these startups are encountering. Similarly, if the class were primarily made up of private sector organizations, it would lack the breadth of perspective and knowledge nonprofits, local governments, and academic institutions bring.

So in deciding on the 20 finalists, the Accelerator Team paid particular attention to assembling a group from a range of fields, organization sizes, legal forms, and backgrounds that would allow them to learn from one another.

The resulting class is a mix of nonprofits, startups, worker cooperatives, businesses, local governments, and more, that are all working to support New Jersey’s workers in a variety of ways. In addition, of the 20 program participants, nine are led by people of color and ten are led by women.

Meet the members of the Future of Work Accelerators’ first class:

A-Plus Apprentice LLC

A-Plus Apprentice creates community-based employment to address unemployment and reskilling to improve socio-economic outcomes for high school students up to age 21, especially those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). With New Jersey Training Provider status pending, we are in the process of recruiting a sponsor and other employers to join us in making a local socio-economic difference by accepting special needs students for on-the-job training in official apprentice programs. For many students, this is their only path to escape the futility of job seeking while “different.”

Centro Community Partners

Centro Community Partners (Centro) is an Oakland-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission to build thriving communities by providing underserved, low-to-moderate income (LMI) people with entrepreneurship education, financial literacy, one-on-one business advising, mentorship, and access to capital. Centro empowers underserved women and minority entrepreneurs to be effective business owners, create self-sustaining jobs, and obtain microloans to grow businesses that add to the economic vitality and social vibrancy of their communities.

Driver’s Seat Cooperative

Driver’s Seat is a driver-owned cooperative that empowers ride-hail drivers and on-demand delivery workers to use shared data ownership to make the gig economy work better for themselves and the communities they serve. Driver’s Seat has developed an app to collect data from on-demand drivers in order to a) return it to drivers in the form of actionable insights to optimize their earnings; and b) sell the collected data to local and state government for use in planning and design, policy creation, and enforcement (DaaS).

FreeWorld

FreeWorld’s mission is to end generational poverty and recidivism. FreeWorld helps returning citizens earn high wage careers to thrive on their own terms. With a newfound sense of stability, prison remains a memory for FreeWorld graduates.

Hopeworks Camden

With a focus on education, technology, and entrepreneurship, Hopeworks provides a positive, healing atmosphere that propels young people to build strong futures and break the cycle of violence and poverty. They connect youth to life-changing opportunities where their growing technology skills go to work for enterprising businesses within their community. The real-world, on-the-job experience they gain raises their potential and benefits their partners. Their work of connecting youth to life-changing opportunities is, fundamentally, the work of building a more just and equitable society.

Make the Road New Jersey

Make the Road New Jersey builds the power of immigrant, working-class, and Latinx communities to achieve dignity and respect through community organizing, legal, policy innovation, and transformative education. Make the Road New Jersey’s hubs in Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, Newark, and Passaic are hubs for community organizing. Every week, hundreds of immigrant families — young people and adults — come together to fight for dignity and respect in their communities.

Makerhoods Inc.

Makerhoods is an innovative approach to urban and economic development. A powerful catalyst for microentrepreneurs with limited resources, access to capital and networks, Makerhoods combines affordable living, shared spaces for light manufacturing, and business support to help people start and grow profitable businesses that create prosperity, secure their future, and create inter-generational wealth.

New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP)

New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program is a private, not-for-profit organization that improves the profitability and competitiveness of New Jersey’s manufacturers. Backed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), NJMEP enables organizations to enhance their productivity and efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve employee performance. For more than 20 years, NJMEP has used its extensive network of connections and proven track record of success to help manufacturers adapt to the latest innovative technologies and best practices to realize more than $4.16 billion in value. Their services are categorized into the following three areas: Operational Excellence, Innovation and Growth, and Workforce Development.

Newark Movement for Economic Equity

The City of Newark, New Jersey is launching its first mayor-led guaranteed income pilot program. In Fall 2021, 400 Newark residents will receive bi-weekly payments of $250 and semi-annual payments of $3,000 over a two-year period. Launching a guaranteed income pilot in Newark will help test theories about how to create sustained community development. After the two-year period, the city of Newark will use data and lessons learned to change existing policies and help build a stronger, more inclusive social safety net.

STEERus

STEERus’ mission is to enable success in today’s youth and all those who parent, educate, and employ them by coaching soft skills and career readiness. STEERus has modularized soft skills and created an innovative, blended learning approach to training and coaching people on EQ, problem-solving, leadership, and more. Equity is their North Star: they are striving to enable all those in need with the access and support that they need for success.

Shimmy Technologies

Shimmy is an industrial ed tech company on a mission to inspire more people to work in sewn products manufacturing and help workers stay relevant as automation changes the landscape. They build mobile and tablet-based games powered by AI that help people upskill and reskill, over time, using self-paced, asynchronous training in bite-sized modules.

Startup Tribes

The principal mission of Startup Tribes is to democratize access to innovation, learning, and economic ecosystems. Their values are to enhance access and sharing of knowledge by building vibrant innovation communities that are bound together by a collaborative culture. From their founding in 2019, they believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are central to sustainable innovation. Startup Tribes embraces the idea that all individuals, regardless of social or economic circumstances, have the potential to develop an entrepreneurial mindset; and that everyone has the right to start a venture. Their robust “Innovation Community Builder” platform provides easy access to resources, tools, events, courses, mentors, jobs, and collaboration tools to help propel the people behind the ideas.

The Center for Innovation in Worker Organizations (CIWO) at Rutgers

The Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO) is a “think and do tank” whose mission is the promotion of strong workers’ organizations. They seek to shift the balance of power towards greater economic and social equality. CIWO leverages the resources of a highly respected research university to create a centralized go-to institute for strategic and organizational development. Their primary objectives are to facilitate the generation and dissemination of ideas, strategies, and programs for newly emergent as well as established worker centers, community organizations, labor unions, and local, state, and national networks.

The Scholars Program

The Scholars Program mission is to help New Jersey graduates call New Jersey their home, where work is inspiring, fulfilling, and offers a livable wage, which is facilitated by enabling the exchange of information and expertise across the economic, workforce, and talent ecosystem resulting in an acceleration of human capital development to quickly fill jobs and close the skills gap.

Toucan

Toucan is on a mission to give everybody somebody to talk to! Toucan leverages the power of peer support in an accessible, low-cost, anonymous, 1–1, digital platform that pairs people with similar experiences/concerns for 15 minute, synchronous audio conversations. Simply put, Toucan gives users a place to speak and listen, openly and securely, to someone who is going through something similar to them.

Ultranauts Inc.

Ultranauts Academy is an initiative of Ultranauts Inc., a quality engineering firm with team members in 29 states, 75% of whom are autistic. Ultranauts is on a mission to demonstrate that neurodiversity, including autism, is a competitive advantage for business, and has reimagined every aspect of how a company operates so our cognitively diverse teams can thrive.

Viva Translate

Viva Translate strives to increase language access for underserved populations, to further encourage equality, self-empowerment, and overall better translation experiences. Viva is relentlessly committed to fostering trust and communication across organizations and low income limited-English speakers, at a fraction of the time and effort it takes to use a phone interpreter. Viva Translate’s main goal is to improve translation quality and increase client trust and responsiveness.

WeClock

WeClock aims to offer a privacy-preserving way to empower workers and unions in their battle for decent work. They build future-forward, privacy-first technologies that help workers track and share data about their working life with each other, organizers, and advocates. Their current offerings include a cross-platform mobile phone app and an Apple watch app that lets workers privately track their working life and easily share data they collect with organizers and researchers.

Workers Benefit Fund

The expansion of the gig economy has highlighted the benefits gap that non-traditional workers operate in. They are forced to choose between an expensive individual insurance market or opting out entirely. Many choose to opt-out, leaving them and their families solely responsible for high medical costs down the road. Workers Benefit Fund was founded to find a better solution for gig workers. They are passionate about partnering with platforms, policy leaders, and labor unions to re-envision what’s possible for gig workers and their families. They’ve already provided benefits to thousands of gig workers, and are just getting started.

Year Up

Year Up’s mission is to close the Opportunity Divide by ensuring that young adults gain the skills, experiences, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through careers and higher education. Year Up is committed to ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults — no matter their background, income, or zip code. Employers face a growing need for talent while millions are left disconnected from the economic mainstream. These inequities only further perpetuate the Opportunity Divide that exists in our country — a divide that Year Up is determined and positioned to close.

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