Shonna Dorsey has been an influencer in Omaha’s startup tech scene for about a decade. Now she is positioned to make a statewide difference as the Executive Director of the Nebraska Tech Collaborative (NTC).
After founding Interface School in 2014 and having it acquired by the AIM Institute in 2017, she joined Mutual of Omaha as an Information Services Manager and Sr. Business Systems Consultant.
The North High and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate left her hometown in 2020 for South Dakota while still in Mutual’s employ. Working remotely, she earned a promotion, and ultimately a green light to resettle in Florida, where she said, “I was having a great time, living close to the beach, and working for a company I loved and still love, Mutual of Omaha. Life was good.”
Only the “right opportunity” could have lured her back, and that’s what she got when NTC, an Aksarben workforce initiative, came calling.
“In my mind, I always thought it would be cool to work on something like this – to be more directly involved in tech workforce development initiatives beyond the scope of what I was able to impact at Mutual of Omaha. This gave me a really compelling reason to come back to where I have a strong foundation. Plus, I love the community.”
She feels her professional journey and entrepreneurial foray have prepared her for the role.
“I come from a lot of different jobs – waiting tables, selling cars, getting into tech, and then starting up a school. That whole scrappy startup world is crazy. Then I was at AIM Institute for a bit before joining Mutual, where I had to adjust to a very structured corporate leadership environment. I had to get my head around how to be effective in that space in terms of how I present ideas to people.”
Before her sojourn from Omaha, she served as a co-chair on the Workforce Pipeline Committee for the NTC along with Mike Baumgartner, Executive Director of Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, as a conduit “to build a world-class tech ecosystem” in Nebraska. Goals of the NTC included adding 10,000 tech-related workers and 300 startups by 2025. Other goals are to increase the number of women and persons of color in tech by significant percentages.
“I love ambitious goals. I think it’s super important to be aspirational,” Dorsey said. “The idea is not for Nebraska to become Silicon Valley or Austin. It’s more about figuring out how Nebraska can authentically be the best it can be at attracting the right talents to come here, and stay here.
“Highly skilled tech jobs are so diverse nowadays. At one point IT meant being a programmer, period. But it’s so broad now. As for those 10,000 workers, we’re really thinking about where we can make the biggest impact so we’re focusing on those who are the hardest to find and keep. Based on conversations and research, it’s software engineers. So those are the people we’re really targeting this year.”
Some 2,500 tech jobs opened a year in Nebraska since 2019, she said. “Within that number, we’re looking at where the NTC can really impact as a convener, for example, between educators and employers and help teachers and parents see the opportunities in tech careers.”
NTC will play a part, she said, in “helping educators understand what employers seek in terms of new talent and needed skill sets so that people coming through training programs have a place to land.”
“We want to ensure there is a match on the supply and demand side. Right now, there is sometimes a mismatch between what skills graduating students come out with and where they expect to land, and what employers need and can offer. The reality is that if you come out with too much of a gap it’s hard for employers to make the case to bring you on and then train you and have you do that job.
“There’s a lot we can do to smooth that transition from candidate to graduate to a placed employee as well as bring in tech professionals to support the transition. That’s going to entail partnering with the right people and that is what we’re focusing on.”
Advocacy is a big part of the job. She’s there to make the case of why improving Nebraska’s tech talent base is crucial. “Bridging the tech gap,” she said, “is to the benefit of all of us – from the worker to the training provider to the employer to the state. The average salary for the jobs we’re talking about is $80,000 to $90,000. That can make a real difference to a family and a community. It can break cycles of generational poverty.” Her advocacy encompasses a recently launched podcast she hosts and social media posts she makes highlighting collaborations, partners, and innovators in the state’s tech arena.
Under her leadership, NTC is rolling out new pilot programs and resetting others. Pitch Days bring startups and enterprise players together for possible business matches. “The idea is pairing two groups that would probably not interact otherwise,” she said. “Even if a match is not made, it’s still valuable to get feedback from an enterprise. All it might take for the startup to find a match is to pivot a bit.”
Engineers in Residence places software engineers from major companies into startups for six months to help with product development. Teacher Externships let high school educators job shadow at enterprises in the summer to learn about existing IT opportunities. Teachers then take that info back to the classroom. “It’s a great, hands-on way for teachers to be exposed to different careers and to build their networks outside the school system,” said Dorsey. “It gets us into high schools. Ultimately, I’d like us to be in the K-8 space.”
NTC Scholars are nominated-selected Nebraska interns recommended by managers of the companies they work for to be part of a formal cohort that meets for networking events. “Our goal is to help them stay connected to Nebraska companies and other interns,” said Dorsey. “There’s a big vision for that. Starting in 2024 our goal is that they will rotate through different Nebraska companies. Additionally, we’re looking at an offering through a university or community college partner where students start internships during their freshman year and then work full-time in their senior year with an employer while earning college credits.”
“Pioneers” is “a formal nine-month cohort model where some 40 entrepreneurs meet up at different spots to learn about the startup ecosystem, build connections, and be a resource to other startups.”
Laid Off Tech Worker Support is in response to a spate of tech layoffs in and out of state. “We want to work with partners who experience layoffs, to formalize a process to make it easy for people to connect to Nebraska-based tech jobs,” she said. “If you’re laid off in Nebraska, we want you to stay working for a Nebraska company versus working remotely for a company on the coast. If you’re laid off outside Nebraska, we want you to come here to work for a Nebraska-based company.”
Dorsey can attest to the tech world still being woefully short of women and persons of color. NTC supports initiatives to improve diversity.
“We’re trying to find ways to elevate the voices of those who already do that work,” she said. “David Pollock with Code Black is a member of the NTC Pioneers. We are working on connecting him with great resources. The same for Tiffany Gamble’s Emerging Ladies Academy and for Mystery Code Society. So many groups are doing amazing work and we want to make more people aware of them. We want to drive more volunteers and students to them.”
Being a convener and catalyst in tech means putting players together to work collaboratively. “Instead of having these silos that do individual things, it’s about creating a networking system where they can all continue to do their great work and achieve the outcomes they’re after, that help us achieve our outcomes and goals on behalf of Nebraska.”
The high-energy Dorsey is back being a presence in an arena she has deep stakes in as a facilitator and presenter. Her advocacy efforts in building Omaha’s tech workforce are well recognized. She earned the Outstanding Community Service Award from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Nebraska State Business Educators Association honored her for Outstanding Contribution to Business Education by an Individual. She won a 2016 Women in Technology Award from InformationWeek. That same year she was named UNO Goodrich Alumnus of the Year by the College of Public Affairs and Community Service and a Changemaker by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals. AIM Institute named her Tech Community Builder of the Year in 2015, the same year the Omaha Jaycees dubbed her one of Ten Outstanding Young Omahans, In 2014 she made the Midlands Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 roll.
She’s served on multiple boards, including
Women’s Center for Advancement, Heartland Family Service, I Be Black Girl, Omaha Girls Rock. She served with the National Association of Workforce Boards and the Nebraska Information Technology Commission She has been a Business Ethics Alliance Trustee since 2016.
“I do appreciate that people value what I bring to the table.”
Even though she never lost touch with her Omaha base while away, the pandemic slowed her roll,
“I would say for the most part I navigated it well. I feel like my mental health is in a lot better place than it was at the start of the pandemic because it was so hard and stressful. Just the unknowns of it and everything else happening at that time.”
She’s glad to be back in close proximity with friends-mentors, including No More Empty Pots director Nancy Williams. “She’s somebody who’s been there for me through a lot of different phases of my growth,” Dorsey said. Realtor Van Deeb is a valued resource for business advice. “He’s another great sounding board. I have a pretty diverse group of people that are awesome about sharing their time with me. I try to do the same thing with others where it makes sense.”
Leadership is something she’s grown into. “This has been an evolution for me. I know I haven’t always been a great boss, but I’ve learned a lot. It’s great to bring people along with you to share in the journey, the leadership, the impact.” Dealing with stress through meditation practice, she said, “has made a huge difference.” Being away from home, she added, helped get her head straight. “When I moved to Florida and didn’t have anyone, I really kind of found myself through that process and experience.”
Dorsey said she’s always been “active and engaged,” but added, “where I used to say yes to everything, I’ve decided I’m not going to say yes to any long-term commitments not directly aligned with the work I’m doing at NTC. Now I’m at a place where when people approach me about serving, I can point them to other people who are awesome. As you progress in life and your career, your priorities shift. That’s what’s happening to me. I appreciate my downtime so much. I take my work very seriously, but I like to have fun, too. That’s so important.”
At NTC she succeeded another Black woman, Jona Van Deun – their hires among a growing slate of Black women in Omaha leadership roles. “I feel as Omaha becomes a little more diverse – it’s taking time – you have more diverse people moving into these leadership spaces. There are so many smart Black women. I think the selection committees around town are doing a great job of picking the right people.”
Dorsey’s grateful NTC’s given her a chance to show her full potential.
“It fits for sure because it’s in my wheelhouse, it’s what I’m passionate about. I can talk about it all day long. I love to collaborate. It’s on an entirely different level and scope. It’s an entire state versus a single company. The fact that we’re actively working on things that could potentially move the needle for the state is exciting to me.”