InnovateCT Founder Nick Wagner spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about the importance of Connecticut fostering innovation through education.

NAN PRICE: How did you develop the idea for InnovateCT and how has your mission evolved?

NICK WAGNER: The idea started in 2016, when General Electric announced it was moving its headquarters from Hartford to Boston. I got a little upset. My initial thought was: How can I promote innovation in the state? I want to raise my kids here and I want to give back.

I quickly realized that scope was far too large for one person. So, I narrowed the scope to specifically focus on the education space and how I could help students. And then, through conversations with some educators I work with, I narrowed my scope again, based on their feedback.

They told me: Don’t focus on the students, focus on the educators because they can have an impact on the students. I will have a bigger impact working with the educators, which will then impact the students. That made perfect sense. But it took me a couple of years to get that point.

I always tell people: If you’re not willing to pivot with your idea, you are pretty much destined for failure. You have to be open minded. I pivoted twice. I feel now, focusing on the educators has been making the most impact.

NAN: How so? Tell us about that.

NICK WAGNER: Our mission is to help educators promote innovation in Connecticut schools and colleges. We do that through knowledge and best practice sharing.

I’m not an educator. I have an IT degree and I was an entrepreneur and now I’m in HR. But I’m passionate about helping the state and specifically helping educators because I feel that, no matter what your demographic or socioeconomic status, education can be helpful.

Connecticut does education very well—we’re one of the leaders in the country. I want to ensure we continue to be that.

The gap I found in talking with numerous educators, including my wife who is a speech pathologist, is educators are stretched for time. They have a lot going on and they usually do a lot of work outside of school. So, my idea was: Can I help them be more proficient and productive by using knowledge and best practice sharing across the state to arm them with resources to better do their jobs?

Connecticut has 169 towns, and many of the school districts don’t talk to each other. They’ll share information within their school district, but they won’t share it in other districts. I’ve been trying to give educators a platform to share innovative things they are doing across school districts.

An example, through our knowledge-sharing initiative we post videos from educators across the state sharing something innovative they’re doing.

Melissa Thom of West Hartford Public Schools shares her thoughts on developing a school-wide culture of reading.

We’re also working on a professional development webinar series, where we dive a little deeper into a topic, such as assisted tech or resources to help students with disabilities. We host different events to help educators learn something new. For example, we went to the Microsoft store at Westfarms to host an Education Open House. We also have the InnovateCT Podcast, where we interview someone who’s doing something innovative in Connecticut schools.

My goal is to have an Ambassador Program where we ideally have an ambassador from every school district in the state who would be a part of our knowledge-sharing community and share relevant information internally with their school district. I have a handful of people right now who are interested, I’m trying to gain more interest before we formally roll it out.

NAN: How does Connecticut remain innovative?

NICK: If you look at the History of Connecticut Innovation, Connecticut was known as “The Silicon Valley of the 19th century.” We have a long history of innovation in the state, dating back to Samuel Colt, Igor Sikorsky, and Eli Whitney, the list goes on.

What we do in the education space ties into everything with innovation. We need to have a great education community, not only K-12 but also in colleges and universities, to promote that innovation ecosystem. Because a lot of the innovation comes from the schools, colleges, and research universities.

If we want to have innovative companies here building great products and services, we need the workforce. How are you going to have a great workforce? You need good education.

And that doesn’t just mean going to a four-year college. It could mean going to a technical college and becoming a skilled craftsperson who can work in the aerospace industry. It’s about continuous learning at places like MakerspaceCT in Hartford.

There are so many ways to learn. We need to foster the entire ecosystem of education and continuous learning, which will then help drive innovation. This will help Connecticut attract and retain talent, which is what the businesses here need to thrive and grow.

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