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A Conversation with Crystal Shamblee, Senior Associate

Meet Crystal Shamblee, an expert in human-centered design and innovation. She leads some of FedTech's most important programs that support Diversity Equity Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) — including leadership in support of U.S. Department of Defense programs like the Army HBCU-MI Forum and xTechHBCU.

We sat down with Crystal to learn about her pathway to FedTech and understand how these DEIA programs create important opportunities and Deep Tech awareness:

Q: Crystal, what led you to FedTech? Share more with us about your professional background.

A: Prior to FedTech, I spent about 15 years in higher education, primarily at art and design institutions because that's my background. At my last institution of employment at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I had an opportunity to come in as a director, leading a dual degree program between MICA and Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. I was also tasked with establishing, launching, and creating a new program that wasn't in existence yet — all that preliminary work to get the program up and running, recruit students, and marketing, etc. That — again — added into my background; we're working with faculty, working with students, building curriculum, doing assessments, and evaluation.

Probably about three years before I left MICA, I was promoted to Associate Dean. So, then instead of being more focused on a specific program, I was tasked as a second-in-command of the Provost of that office with having some responsibility for all of the programs in our portfolio. So, we had programs ranging from K-12, graduate programs, and we also delivered community programs. So, people external to the campus and college could take some of the community courses that we had. Then, my work started to focus more on compliance and I started to do a lot of work with some of the students that were using their military benefits. My job changed drastically. I mean, I think the pandemic really put an extra layer of stress on it, just in terms of affordability for students. All of that was coming to me because I was also in charge of student complaints and student concerns, whether it be grade or finances; a lot of that would come through me first.

And it was taxing, I think it was just at a place where I just couldn't do it anymore. Hearing some of the personal stories, it just was too much. Then, it was time for a change, because I've been in this space for a really long time. I felt fulfilled, like I had accomplished the things that I wanted to accomplish.

I had started to look out for other opportunities, but in doing that, I started to have conversations with a lot of the connections that I had made while at MICA. Before coming to MICA, a lot of my close contacts and colleagues and I were just having conversations about how to put a new spin on what I'm able to do. I knew how to do all these things, but how do I find the words to describe those things? One of the conversations with one of my colleagues who was previously at the Carey Business School, basically said, "Your resume right now is written for the career that you have, but it doesn't speak to where you want to go." A little tough to hear, but just how do you rethink the things that you've done and put them in a way that other organizations will be receptive to listening to that?

Doing all of that was difficult, but I did it and she made me aware of an opportunity. She's like, "I know some of the things that you want to do, getting back to some of the work that you had done at the Director level with the design Leadership Program." It was based on innovation and human-centered design. I wanted to get back into that, as well as with the user experience design program because I'd done that for three-and-a-half years. I really enjoyed it, but when I got the promotion, it shifted my work completely. Trying to find an opportunity in that space was what I was trying to get back into. When she made me aware of the opportunity at FedTech, she was like, "Some of the things align with experiences that you have. Of course, not all of the things align with your background, because it's always the case. No one's a unicorn." She's like, "You should just apply for it and see what happens." So, I applied, and that was how I found out about FedTech and how I got started here.

Q: You have been through all these different changes and it brought you to FedTech, where you're still doing some human-centered design thinking. You have worked with the Internal Innovation team and the DoD team. What do you like most about the projects you work on?

A: The one thing about human-centered design and innovation is you have to constantly be in a space of creativity. There's something that's new, something different, customizable. Again, that aligns with my background, because my degrees are primarily in design and design by way of science. It's just constant manipulation, changing, always needing to be creative, and constantly reiterating. So, yes, that's fun and exciting, but it can also be exhausting; I don't have any more ideas and I don't have any more thoughts. Why can't we just have this thing, and this is a thing, and we repackage it for the next person, like constantly coming up with new stuff all the time – it can be a bit draining and taxing. Then, I also have to just think about where I am in my life and career; I don't know if I want to constantly brainstorm every single day, right? At some point, we need to have things that we can act on.

So, I think when the opportunity came for the reorganization and having that even in Internal Innovation, we started to get some of the projects from the Army and saw that it was more of a consistent framework. Even in working with Booz Allen as another partner on some of this work — keeping things focused, making sure we're delivering every week— I like that. In my life, I'm very, very, very step-oriented, routine-oriented. I like structure, right? We're going, "Okay, we're going to do this. And this is what it's going to look like, and it's due on this date. This is the format, the framework, and this is the content." I like that more than constantly trying to reinvent a wheel that's already spinning. I think that was one thing that prompted my desire to shift over.

And I just really liked working with the Army as a client. I really do like the partnership with Booz on a lot of the conversations. I really liked that structure, having deadlines, and needing to have XYZ done. That's what I really enjoy now about being on the DoD side and working with the Army as a client.

Q: You are the PM and assistant PM on a project working with HBCUs and MSIs. How do you think entrepreneurship education has changed or is evolving? What have you seen in your work with these institutions?

A: There are two separate programs, but they were both by the Army with two different Army clients. There was an xTechHBCU, which I'm the project manager on. Then, there was the Army HBCU-MI Forum, which was still under Thom's leadership as project manager.

I think entrepreneurship is evolving, given what's happening. If it's institution-based, it's changing based on what's happening with finances within an organization, institution, or another type of entity. I think it's true for people that may not be in institutions, but a lot of what I've learned — based on resources and funding — is that there can be limitations on what schools are able to do in terms of entrepreneurship.

Business is just a standard program and most schools have the standard business program. Very few institutions — in some of the research I've done, looking at the programs, the offerings — offer programming that is specific to entrepreneurship, which is a little bit different than business. So, I think there are students that are in these varying disciplines, but they have some interest in entrepreneurship. They may not know that that's what it is. They may have this thing that they're passionate about, and they're trying to figure out, "Well, how do I action that?" They may not know how to do that.

What is unique about the xTechHBCU program is that opportunity was presented to allow students who might not have been in your traditional programs that had ideas and things that they were passionate about. It gave them a platform, an opportunity to work on something that was more entrepreneurial that could have been drastically different from a lot of the work that they were doing. I think that is some of the newness. Traditionally, when people think about entrepreneurship or when they thought about in the past, it had to be some student that was like specifically in business, maybe marketing. There are STEM students and other students in other programs that might be more non-traditional that are interested in entrepreneurial opportunities. I just think having platforms in places where students can do that is important and I think that program provided a space for them to do that.

Q: What do you view is a barrier to entry into entrepreneurship, specifically Deep Tech entrepreneurship?

A: I would say, what is a point of entry for someone who doesn't know how to do that? Again, business is providing you with the principles and methodologies of how to start a business, get into business space, how to have those conversations and engagements, how to network. If I am a liberal arts major — or majoring in theater, dance, fine art, literature, or whatever it might be — I may have this really cool idea, but I have the least bit of understanding of how to have a conversation or how to even find that entry point to have conversations with someone that might be interested in my idea. I think that is the thing that's missing; what is the entry point? How do people get started? What is an accelerator? What is a startup? How can that programming be introduced to students or organizations, just as some traditional knowledge.

Take my background, for instance. I had to take micro- and macroeconomics, right? So, you have some classes that people have to take, regardless of their field of study. I think just even in educating people, I think some of that is evolving, and it needs to be incorporated, right? Even for me, I didn't really fully understand the Deep Tech aspect until I started at FedTech even though it's been a thing for a really long time.

So, how do we start to incorporate that information into programming or into course content; not to say that it needs to be the focus? How do we introduce that information to groups of people that may or may not be interested in it — but you've been introduced to it — you have some awareness of it. There's some level of awareness building that needs to be done. How do you make people aware that these opportunities exist? I don't have the answer to that, but I feel like that's something that's missing. What is the entry point? And how do you make people aware of these opportunities? Where do people start to consume this information and learn about this whole other thing that exists? There's not a major that's called Deep Tech, but where does this live for people to consume it?

Q: What is exciting in the Deep Tech space right now? and/or what do you see on the horizon?

A: I will say with some of the various projects that I've had the chance to be a part of, I just think some of the advances in technologies, the way in which inventors and researchers are thinking about some things that we've used before, new ways to use them to do different things can be really impactful for the Warfighter. If you think about civilian usage, there are some advantages to that as well. Again, I think about some of the things that we take for granted now that had a dual-use and we didn't know that was a thing, right? It's just like, "Oh, this was something that was created for dual purpose." That's exciting.

If the initiative and what the government is focusing on is getting X number of technologies off the shelf and into commercialized space over the next several years, that should really impact things in the future. I think about for kids my daughter's age, they're going to have some of the advantages of these things. That's going to be the norm for them. Thinking about when we grew up — even the computer — it's going to evolve so many other things that I think we may have taken for granted, but it's going to be a common thing in the future. I think that's the exciting part — seeing how a lot of these inventors are rethinking some of the things that we use, how to use them in different ways, and how to get the maximum use and benefit out of them is the exciting part. Some of the technology and capabilities in drones can probably be used in an aircraft. Just thinking about advancing some of the things that we already have is exciting. It is going to change everything.


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