Heading the Hub | Cover Stories


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  • CHRISTOPHER JONES: The Pine Bluff native returns to Arkansas after studies in engineering and a career in neighborhood development, teaching and overseeing diversity at M.I.T.

Christopher Jones always planned to come home. More than 20 years and five degrees later, after spending time at NASA, getting mentored by former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz and working as a dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jones, 41, is back in Arkansas and heading up the nonprofit Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub.

Founded in 2013 and based in downtown North Little Rock, the Hub is a place for people to learn and create things and start businesses. Members, who pay monthly fees, have access to fully equipped carpentry and metal shops and a range of other tools, including 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC routers, garment printers, an etching press, screen printing stations and all sorts of computers (there’s a day rate, too). Thousands of schoolchildren have come through the space since it opened. Last year, the Hub merged with Winrock International, the Little Rock-based development nonprofit.

“Winrock is about creating economic advantages for the most economically disadvantaged people around the world. … We believe that same mission applies right in our backyard,” Winrock CEO Rodney Ferguson said of the Hub’s role within the broader scope of Winrock. “I think we found someone [in Jones] who has a deep passion for community development, skills development, the maker space and for addressing economic disparity. I think it’s a wonderful next step forward for the Hub.”

Jones’ resume suggests he will be up for the challenge. He has bachelor of science degrees in physics and math from Morehouse College in Atlanta, master of science degrees from M.I.T. in nuclear engineering and technology and policy, and a Ph.D. in urban studies and planning from M.I.T. He spent about a decade working as an assistant dean at the M.I.T. graduate school. He taught high school. He led a neighborhood nonprofit in Boston. He said serving as executive director for the Hub, a position he landed in March, checks a lot of boxes for him. He’s been lucky to build upon experience every time he’s taken a new job, he said. “In this case: executive director, engineer, raising money, community connections.” Even better for Jones, who grew up in Pine Bluff? “I get to do that at home.”

Jones and his wife, Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, and their three young daughters moved to Little Rock last summer after Dr. Jones got a job as an emergency room doctor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science and a faculty position in the school’s Department of Emergency Medicine. Fifteen years earlier, when they were dating seriously, Jones had floated the idea of returning to Arkansas to his wife, who grew up in Alabama but, like Jones, left after high school — to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then Harvard Medical School.

She didn’t flinch.

Jones has fond memories of growing up in Pine Bluff. He did a summer science program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, an internship at the National Center for Toxicological Research and participated in a residential program at UAMS one summer. But like a lot of smart kids, he wanted to see and do beyond home. More specifically, he wanted to go to space. After he graduated from Watson Chapel High School, NASA helped that goal along when, based on his college application, the space agency provided him a full scholarship to Morehouse. Amid double majoring and serving as student body president his senior year — which put him on the college’s board of trustees, alongside the likes of alumnus Spike Lee — he got to work at NASA centers around the country. His mentor at NASA, former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, encouraged Jones to follow his path to M.I.T. for a graduate degree in nuclear engineering.

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INNOVATIVE LEARNING: Kendle Carter (standing) gives art instruction to students from Little Rock Preparatory Academy Middle School.

  • INNOVATIVE LEARNING: Kendle Carter (standing) gives art instruction to students from Little Rock Preparatory Academy Middle School.

As he got into that study, Jones got more interested in energy systems and the policy implications of technology, so he added a second master’s in technology and policy. Ernest Moniz, the M.I.T. nuclear physicist who would serve as President Obama’s secretary of energy from 2013 to 2017, was his adviser.

The technology and policy graduate program was established to address a troubling divide, Jones said: “Too many people in policy had no clue the implications [their policies had] on technology and science. And too many people in science and technology didn’t open themselves up to the policy implication of what they were developing.”

After grad school, Jones spent a year teaching ninth-grade algebra at a high school, where about 90 percent of the kids were African and Latino and most were eligible for free and reduced lunch. Teaching “pulls on you physically, mentally and emotionally — it’s just a huge investment.” But Jones said “the experience was outstanding” and he loved being able to be a role model to students who could see “a teacher that looked like them.” He’s still in touch with a handful of the students he taught.

From there, Jones returned to M.I.T. to get a Ph.D. in urban studies and planning and to serve as assistant dean in the graduate school, focusing on diversity. In the 10 years he worked at M.I.T., graduate applications from underrepresented minorities rose from 300 to 1,300 and enrollment doubled from 7 to 14 percent. Phil Thompson, now deputy mayor of New York, was Jones’ Ph.D. adviser. Thompson and the department put a lot of emphasis on “how do you take what you know and go out and make a difference and do something?” Jones said.

Jones got the chance to put that into practice when he was tapped to head the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community-based nonprofit in Boston founded in 1984 to reclaim a neighborhood blighted by divestment and arson. Thirty years later, thanks to the DSNI, the neighborhood had “several hundred units of permanently affordable housing, community school, urban gardens,” Jones said. Jones was hired to administer a $6 million Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department. of Education. He worked to find partners to match that amount.

From there, Jones joined BCT Partners as senior consultant, where he worked on several multimillion-dollar federal projects.

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The Hub will soon embark on a strategic planning session to determine what its future mission, vision and values should be, Jones said. He has some ideas of the challenges the nonprofit faces.

“The innovation ecosystem in Arkansas is still very young, but I think it’s old enough now that the players are ready to come together. There’s not a long history of partnering in this space, and so, when you’re new to partnering, there are always bumps and bruises that are par for the course. But to me, it’s exciting.”

Since the Hub opened, other groups with similar missions have started up, including the Conductor in Conway, the Little Rock Technology Park, the Venture Center and Startup Junkie in Northwest Arkansas. A number of business accelerator and incubator programs also have sprung up across the state, including a health care accelerator at the Hub sponsored by Baptist Health. All those players and experiences will figure into the Hub’s future vision, Jones said.

Jones expects the Hub’s reach to extend beyond Central Arkansas. “I think we’ll find hubs popping up across the state and find ways to network all those hubs,” he said.

North Little Rock investor and Hub founder John Gaudin based the nonprofit on several programs around the country, including the Cambridge, Mass., Innovation Center, which Jones was familiar with from his time at M.I.T. “He gets the idea, with his urban planning background, of developing and attracting talent through technology and inclusion,” Gaudin said of Jones.

“Whether it’s racial diversity or economic diversity or gender diversity, there’s a role for the Hub to play,” Jones said. “This is not to the exclusion of folks who are already here. No matter who you are and what your background is, I want you to feel welcome. It’s not lost on me that I’m an African-American man with an engineering background, so I’d be remiss not to bring others into the fold. It’s not lost on me that I’m the father of three girls, so I’d be remiss to not bring more gender diversity — though that’s already happening.”

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MAKERS: New director Christopher Jones says the biggest challenge for the Arkansas Innovation Hub is choosing among all programming and outreach it could be doing.

  • MAKERS: New director Christopher Jones says the biggest challenge for the Arkansas Innovation Hub is choosing among all programming and outreach it could be doing.

Some of the issue is a matter of branding, Jones said. “I think there’s an untold story of women and minorities in tech,” he said. He noted that his college roommate, Paul Judge, finished Morehouse in three years, got his doctoral degree by the time he was 26, had started his third company by the time he was 30 and is now “leading the charge in tech in Atlanta.” Another of his college friends runs the startup accelerator CO.LAB in Chattanooga, Tenn. He knows the people behind Black Girls Code.

“The challenge is really showing the next generation of youth that this is a space they can really be involved in,” Jones said. He cited the recent Marvel superhero movie “Black Panther,” where the hero rules an African country that is far more technologically advanced than the rest of the world, as a positive step toward changing perceptions.

The biggest challenge for the Hub? Jones compares it to his time in the administration of M.I.T.:

“At M.I.T., people know it. It’s a really strong brand. Great folks. The challenge there was choosing. There were many directions to go. Here the challenge is choosing. What do you do today? What do you want to be doing in five years? Because there are so many good options.”



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