Q&A: Ilene Shapiro, Summit County Executive
Ilene Shapiro feels a little bit like an air-traffic controller, and the planes are coming in fast. In January, Shapiro, the first woman elected to lead Summit County, was sworn in. And she quickly got to work steering a very busy county, working with the leaders of its 31 communities and getting up to speed on their concerns and issues.
That’s no small task, but she’s loving every minute of it.
Shapiro took over as interim executive in July, after the unexpected death of executive Russ Pry. In November, voters gave her the job for the next four years, the first woman elected to the office.
While Shapiro may be new to the top spot, she’s not new to county government or leadership roles. She served on the Summit County Council for nearly 10 years, three as president, working closely with Pry on workforce development issues. Shapiro also has had a vibrant business career, serving in leadership roles with the Summa Foundation and FirstMerit Corp., plus running her own beauty supply business and consulting firm.
Crain’s recently chatted with Shapiro about her first months in office, her economic development goals and what it feels like to break down gender barriers. — Sue Walton
What are some of your goals in terms of economic development for Summit County?
Making the county a more proactive partner in retaining and attracting businesses in Summit County is a priority. I’ve already begun to further focus our efforts on working with existing small- and medium-size businesses, the engines of the economy, to help them grow and prosper. We are developing a more substantive business visitation program to truly learn what local businesses need to stay competitive and grow. I also want to continue the improvement of our workforce development programs, so that our local workforce meets the needs of current and prospective employers, and we are providing our residents with the training, education and skills they need for a lifetime of employment.
What kind of new businesses, specifically, would you like to attract?
I believe we need to be more strategic in our efforts to attract new businesses. In recent years, the state and our local private and public sector partners have done a lot of good work in identifying the key business sectors in Northeast Ohio: polymer research and development, advanced manufacturing, medical/biomedical and IT firms. We must now leverage that work to target businesses in those key industries. We must also train and prepare our workforce in the skills that complement these sectors, so that as we work to grow those industries, we have the labor pool that companies need to succeed.
What are Summit County’s biggest challenges in driving business development? What are its biggest assets?
Unfortunately, economic development in our region is still more fractured than I would like. A main focus of my administration will be to work collaboratively with our economic development partners and communities in Summit County to ensure that we are pulling in the right direction and that territorialism and silos become a thing of the past. Trusted relationships are a thing of the future. We need to improve our process because we are a county rich in natural resources, at the center of America’s infrastructure network, with a long history of hardworking, talented workers. We must continue to leverage those assets.
How does regionalism play into your business/economic development plans? Is it important?
The county does not operate in a vacuum, so regionalism is very important. I always say that I want businesses to locate to Summit County, but if we cannot find what they need, I want them to be in Northeast Ohio. And if they still cannot find what they need, then I want them to be in Ohio. Businesses are not contained by the imaginary lines drawn by governments. Several years ago, the county introduced a revenue-sharing/anti-poaching agreement to reduce the offering of incentives to induce intracounty relocations and to compensate a community that loses a large employer in the event of an intracounty relocation. I plan to expand that concept and work with our local communities to ensure if one of them is unable to close a deal with a business then other communities in the county can pick up that lead to try to close the deal for itself. None of us benefits if that company moves out of the region, much less the state.
Give us an update on the ConxusNEO workforce training program. It’s something you championed; how is it progressing?
When we created ConxusNEO, we were clear that this was to be a private-sector driven collaboration. For example, ConxusNEO has done a great job engaging manufacturers that are motivated in linking their talent needs to our workforce system. ConxusNEO also has engaged educators, parents and students in this process. The goal is to work with all stakeholders to develop and build a pipeline of skilled talent in high-growth industries (manufacturing, IT, health care) that is largely defined by the private-sector businesses who are the job creators. All indicators are that we have developed a viable model that is proving to make a deal difference. I’m optimistic.
You’ve been both a businesswoman and a public servant. Some people feel governments should be run more like businesses. What’s your take on that?
I know that people say that, but the rules in the public sector are quite different from those in the private sector. In reality, what you need is a businessperson who understands the differences and is able to retrofit some private-sector best practices to make them work in the public domain.
There’s a swell of new leadership in the county in the past year: you, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and University of Akron president Matthew Wilson. How does that affect your approach to how you will govern?
Change can be challenging, yet change is real opportunity. It creates the opportunity to think in new ways, to forge new relationships and to innovate and reshape things to keep our community contemporary and relevant. I believe that our core collective leadership shares a common vision toward advancing our community in meaningful ways that prepare us for the future. People know that I’m always asking what is this community going to look like in five, 10, 15, 20 years? I’m encouraged and energized, and look forward to working with leadership at all levels across our community, both new and old.
You’ve longed worked with women’s leadership organizations and have been behind such things as the creation of the Women’s Endowment Fund of the Akron Community Foundation. What does it feel like to break the glass ceiling as the first elected female county executive?
It has been an amazing journey. I have led with my heart and my head, and been true to my commitment to make a difference. That has taken me to amazing places in my life. I am so grateful and proud to be a glass-ceiling breaker.
What kind of progress still needs to be made in terms of women in business and civic leadership roles?
We’ve truly made inroads but much still remains. We need to work daily on bringing diversity and inclusion to every table. Having those diverse voices at the highest level of our community positively impacts our bottom line.
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(2017, March 5). Q&A: Ilene Shapiro, Summit County executive. Crain’s Akron Business. Retrieved from http://www.crainscleveland.com/article/20170305/NEWS/170309923/qa-ilene-shapiro-summit-county-executive#utm_medium=email&utm_source=ccl-weekly&utm_campaign=ccl-weekly-20170305&email_realestate