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Insights   September 18, 2023

Q&A: Tom Fewer, Vice President, Talent Programs and Partnerships at NobleReach Foundation

In late 2021, three experts at the juncture of tech, government, and entrepreneurship came together at Georgetown University: Arun Gupta, a long-time venture capitalist excited by the ways entrepreneurs could solve societal problems; Gerry George a professor who had spent 25 years teaching entrepreneurship in the world’s top business schools; and Tom Fewer, a postdoctoral fellow who had studied the challenges facing businesses as they navigate shifting political landscapes. All three had seen the ways that venture and government can come together to address society’s most pressing problems, and the difficulties in making these partnerships work. To identify some solutions and inspire the next generation of changemakers, they conducted interviews with successful entrepreneurs and government officials and captured the results in a series of case studies. The result is their forthcoming book, Venture Meets Mission: Aligning People, Purpose, and Profit to Innovate and Transform Society (Stanford University Press, January 2024).. Gupta and Fewer went on to help found NobleReach Foundation, an organization dedicated to putting those lessons into practice.

We asked Tom Fewer to share the genesis of the idea and explain the team’s approach to connecting government, academia, and industry to fuel innovation.

You’ve spent much of your career focused on the connections among the corporate world, government, and academia. Why is that intersection so important to you? 

As a PhD Candidate at Drexel University, I wrote my dissertation on the ways that political polarization hurts businesses, adding layers of complexity and inefficiency to organizations  as Americans move to opposite ends of the political spectrum. I became very passionate about how businesses interface with political institutions. But when I started my postdoc work at Georgetown University, I pivoted from the negative to the positive, asking: How can the private sector and the public sector come together to solve big problems?

In the course of writing the book, we spoke to dozens of people doing phenomenal work with one foot in both worlds—stories that you just don’t hear about in the polarized news environment. Rahul Singhvi, for example, cut his teeth in biomanufacturing and found himself transforming the vaccine manufacturing process in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: He was able to dissect critical inefficiencies and vulnerabilities in the manufacturing of vaccines and completely revolutionize the supply chain, making it easier to get shots into arms faster. We also spoke to Nate Mook, who was CEO of World Central Kitchen—a nonprofit that goes into disaster areas and war zones to make the food supply more resilient; when we spoke, he was on the front lines of Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion. Both of these people were doing transformative work at the intersection of the public and private sectors, and we felt like their stories had to be shared with more people. 

The ideas in the book speak to liberal thinkers and conservative thinkers, who have different views of government. Talk about that dichotomy. 

At NobleReach, we see the desire for greater innovation and stronger national security as completely bipartisan: Americans’ support for cybersecurity and a strong corporate sector aren’t limited to one political party—we’re giving voice to both sides. We’re all for more mission-driven capitalism, which allows the private-sector to innovate, while the government sets goals and coordinates critical work. By taking promising government technology to the private sector, where it can be turned into commercial ventures, we’re creating more resilient partnerships, and ultimately leveraging the strengths of each sector. 

Can you say more about how NobleReach hopes to help the government with hiring and recruitment? 

The government is facing an uphill battle in recruiting the next generation of changemakers. On the one hand, we are facing historic distrust in government, which is preventing many people from considering a career in government. On the other hand, the government lacks a real presence on college campuses. NobleReach just hosted its first group of interns, and they told us, ‘We went to job fairs in our first year of school, and there’s always one government agency with a booth, and it’s the ROTC.’ Students are seeing big banks and consulting firms that are willing to pay them a bunch of money, but they’re not seeing the innovative work of the government. Some amazing projects are being pursued within government agencies that people may not expect to be at the cutting edge of innovation, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Defense. NobleReach is trying to expand that talent pipeline with our focus on placing Interns within agencies and by identifying early career professionals who want government experience as NobleReach Scholars. 

And we’re also working with more experienced professionals, recruiting Embedded Entrepreneurs, who can help government agencies scale tech within the public sector, and identifying Fellows who take their experience in fields like quantum computing, cybersecurity, and biotech, to turn government-funded research into products scaled in the private sector.

Some amazing projects are being pursued within government agencies that people may not expect to be at the cutting edge of innovation, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Defense. Tom Fewer

As you reimagine the relationship between government, industry, and academia, one of the biggest challenges is establishing trust. Can you talk about that? 

It’s been scary to see how much trust in some of our most critical institutions, like government, has deteriorated over time, and it’s dangerous to the fabric of our country. But a lot of it comes down to fundamental misconceptions about the government itself: Americans generally are unsure of how the government operates, think that the government is incredibly wasteful, and conflate political discourse with government functioning.

We see trust as the cornerstone of a working relationship among sectors, and that comes down to people. We don’t see a 40-year career in the public sector as the only solution to resolve the government’s talent needs and reestablish trust in government—if we can carve out pathways and give the next generation a one- or two-year ‘tour of duty’ within government, that creates some understanding and empathy for the mission of government, and greater willingness to support and partner with the government after their tour of duty is over. We see a lot of parallels between NobleReach’s talent approach and programs like the Peace Corps and Teach for America, where young people can not only improve their resumes, but get a deeper understanding of their own connections to government and public service. 

Let’s go international: Many people believe that big-scale innovation is easier for autocratic governments that wield enormous power. Are you optimistic about America’s chances of keeping up, and leading once again? 

It’s true that autocracies have accelerated advancements, mainly in in artificial intelligence, by putting the power of the regime behind those efforts, because they derive enormous benefits from it—entrenching their power by monitoring their own citizens, and  by preventing certain information from reaching the public. So it makes sense that Western nations are starting to wonder if democracy can keep up with autocracy in this grand innovation race. 

But I believe democracies actually have the advantage, and it lies in entrepreneurship. Citizens in these autocracies aren’t creating businesses at the rate that they used to, because they’re scared that their governments will steal their intellectual property—which means there’s practically no incentive for them to innovate. Even though Americans have lost some trust in government, no one is concerned that their ideas will be stolen by Washington, D.C. The true superpower of democracy is private industry and specifically, the venture community, and that’s why I’m optimistic that in the larger geopolitical context, democracies will ultimately prevail.