Women in Public Affairs to Know: Marie Hocker

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

As Executive Director of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, Marie Hocker leads efforts to raise the $12 million in annual funding required to support the city’s biggest summer jobs program that trains and employs over 8,000 youth between the ages of 14-24 for six weeks in July and August. Prior to joining Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, Marie spent 10 years at Ford Motor Company holding positions in Government and Community Relations. She was responsible for building and maintaining positive relationships with members of Congress and their staff while covering transportation and workforce development policy in Washington, D.C. 

She also engaged local government officials and other industry stakeholders, including UAW-Ford, to deliver business and philanthropic objectives in Ford’s Michigan plant communities. In addition, she developed and implemented mobility initiatives, including workforce development planning for autonomous vehicles and a national autonomous vehicle jobs coalition. When Marie is not at work, she enjoys spending quality family time with her husband and son. She is engaged in helping Detroit youth prepare for life beyond high school, actively mentors young people and is passionate about exposing Detroit youth to meaningful opportunities that help them explore and prepare for their future careers.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team and Margaret Rockwell, assistant vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting's Infrastructure and Economic Development team.

Question: You’ve spent the bulk of your career so far in the automotive sector before transitioning to executive director of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent. Can you talk about your career move and why you decided to make the transition?

Marie Hocker: I started my career at Ford Motor Company as a paid intern. The corporate world was not something traditionally in my family’s purview or in mine until thankfully, at the age of 21, I met a woman who became a very close mentor when I was trying to understand what I wanted to do with my life. I had a strong passion for investing in my own community in Detroit, which is where I grew up. My mentor told me about the paid internship in Ford’s community relations department and how the position would help me understand how corporations invest in communities, as well as get a flavor for the corporate sector and an appreciation of professionalism. I applied and got the internship and was eventually hired directly by Ford. I worked in the government and community relations department for ten years and that experience was lifechanging for me. Because of my career start, I have a real passion for exposing young people to career opportunities that perhaps they had never even imagined. That passion was evident in my work even while I was at Ford. In one of my last assignments at Ford, when I was in Washington, I helped launch an autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot in the city. We were tasked with hiring autonomous vehicle safety drivers. The applicants did not need to have college degrees but they needed  strong foundational skills and a passion for technology. I wanted to expose D.C. residents to an evolving auto industry, especially those who perhaps never would have had an opportunity with Ford Motor Company or Ford’s AV partner. We partnered with D.C.’s workforce agency with the goal to hire qualified D.C. residents for those positions. You don’t have an opportunity to enter the middle class if that door is not open to you, so I always approach my work through that lens.  

In 2019, I made a conscious decision to transition from Ford. I moved back to Detroit from D.C. in February 2019. Within two weeks of moving back home, I received a call from the head of workforce development for the City of Detroit. She presented me with an opportunity to come on board as Executive Director of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent (GDYT). I knew it was the time to make the transition because it’s so important to me that youth in Detroit are exposed to meaningful career opportunities and have access to a professional network.

Q: While working at Ford Motor Company, you were involved with implementing mobility initiatives, including workforce development planning for autonomous vehicles and a national autonomous vehicle jobs coalition. Can you share an instance where you’ve seen a company successfully foster disruptive thought and real innovation?

Marie: Ultimately, I think innovation is all about creating real value for your customer and iterating upon your ideas until you get it right. The customer determines if you’ve gotten it right or not. Innovation begins with listening to the wants and needs of the customer today and anticipating the wants and needs of tomorrow. Companies that have their ear to the ground are best positioned to deliver for their market and have potential to be the most innovative. I am impressed by the grocery delivery services. Those companies add value by saving people the headache of grocery shopping (if you’re like me!) and the service gives people their time back. But not only that, they offer an opportunity for the shoppers to supplement their income.  For Ford and other auto makers focused on mobility initiatives, they’re thinking about how to best move people and goods safely and efficiently from point A to point B. A customer does not necessarily have to own a car to do that.

Q: A focus of your current work is supporting Detroit’s biggest summer jobs program for youth. What have been the biggest opportunities and challenges during the ongoing pandemic?

Marie: We had to create a new normal for Grow Detroit’s Young Talent this year. We had to pivot the city’s largest summer youth employment program (over 8,000 jobs) to a virtual model. One of the biggest challenges we faced in March was losing most of the 5,400 jobs that we had already secured. Employers were laying off workers and no one was certain that they could bring a 16 year-old onsite in July. We had to work with all our partners to determine how many positions could be converted to a virtual work experience. At that time, only 700 jobs could be converted.

Our program team did the research and identified virtual software platforms that could simulate real-world experiences that lined up with the high-demand, high-growth industries in Michigan. One platform that we landed on, EDSI (Educational Data Systems Incorporated) required youth to check into a virtual classroom every day where they were greeted by a live instructor who was an expert in either manufacturing, construction, healthcare, customer service or IT. The students engaged with the instructor every day and completed assigned modules. Youth also engaged directly with employers who participated on the platform. These employers gave youth assignments and participated on virtual Q&A panels. All youth were required to complete individual assignments, group assignments and a capstone project to earn their stipends. Pivoting to a completely new, virtual model for GDYT was our greatest milestone in 2020.  

We also surveyed all the youth. It’s amazing to know that many of them felt that this year, their work experience was as meaningful as, if not more than, previous years. I think it was because although the program was virtual, they were still able to engage directly with experts in the field and deliver good work for employers. It really boosted their confidence to see what they were able to accomplish.

Another major challenge was bridging the digital divide for our young people in Detroit. The technology gap is common in many communities across the country, where a lot of young people just don’t have the technology to work or go to school online. This was a big hurdle: While we had a great program and software solutions that allowed youth to engage with instructors and employers, we were now faced with the challenge of ensuring that all GDYT participants had a laptop and internet connection to do the work. We had to get out there and fundraise well above our original fundraising target to cover the cost of laptops and internet access for 3,300 youth. A handful of key partners came together to wrap their arms around these young people and ensure that they had a device and the internet to do the work. Even better, our youth were able to keep the devices. This support had significant ripple effects because the young people were able to complete their virtual work experiences, earn credentials in many cases, and the youth and their family members were able to apply for jobs post-GDYT and use the devices for academics in the Fall. We are so proud of all that we were able to accomplish for our youth in 2020.  

Q: As an active mentor of young people, how do you think today’s leaders can best influence and promote change?

Marie: I tell any young person that I engage with, or mentor formally, that the best leaders influence and promote change by being the change they want to see. You have to live your values and work toward the change that you want to see. Without action, you’re just talking, and no one has time for that— particularly today, where there’s so much need. In my case, the change that I want to see are more young, African-American men and women in senior leadership roles in the workplace. I transitioned from Ford to open up doors of opportunity for others because I now have the connections in the corporate world and beyond. If I can mobilize others to invest in our youth, support their foundational skills development, and quite simply, encourage them, there is no telling what heights our youth can reach. The sky is the limit!   

The one thing I’d add is that being the change you want to see is easy to say, but it’s actually hard to do. It can be difficult to go for things that you want, particularly if you’ve never seen what the process or outcome looks like on the other side. I didn’t know what it was like to work in corporate America because no one in my family or circle at the time had that experience. I think it’s crucial to surround yourself with people who share your values and genuinely want to support your growth. We try to address this need in Grow Detroit’s Young Talent by providing mentors to our 18- to 24-year-old youth population. We reached out to our partners to find out who was interested in making a personal investment in the life of a young person and guiding them along their personal and professional journey. This year, we had over 200 partners that stepped up in this arena. It means everything to have at least one person in your corner. And bottom line, it has to start with yourself.  

Learn more about the 2021 program for Grow Detroit's Young Talent and how you can help.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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