Angela Smith Cobb ('93) is Asking More

Spring 2011

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Angela Smith Cobb’s clarifying moment came 10 years ago, as she stood in the street in front of her New York office, and heard the engine of the second plane.

Up until that point, everyone was envisioning that the first plane was just some errant pilot, an awful mistake,” she said, recalling the confusing moments on September 11, after she and her coworkers at Deloitte had been evacuated from their office next to the World Trade Center Twin Towers just after the first plane hit.

“But as we stood there and saw the second plane, we knew it was something else,” she said. I remember thinking, ‘One, if this is it, OK, I’m ready to go. Two, oh my God, if I go, this is it.’ To be at that moment, believing that ‘this is it’ and that I hadn’t been making the choices I really wanted to make ... I knew I wanted to make a change.”

“What 9/11 did for me was force a clarity on what my work should be. It gave me courage. So many people who didn’t make it out that day, who were waiting for their next bonus, or their next raise, or their next this or that, before they would go do what they really wanted to do, but they never got a ‘next day’ to do it.

“I was given that ‘next day.’”

Today, in considering the sum of her career, Smith Cobb describes herself as blessed to have always had work that had meaning. Almost from the beginning of her career with Deloitte, she led diversity and outreach programs as well as served as an auditor. She subsequently launched and led new philanthropic efforts at Allstate and Monster.

One of her most rewarding jobs was as the first chief diversity officer for Teach for America, an organization Smith Cobb obviously admires and took away a lot from. This job came the closest to answering the dissonance with her career path that she felt on 9/11.

Recently, she moved onto an even more ambitious and perhaps audacious job that melds her business background with civic interests. In January, she became the director of Return on Inspiration Labs, a subsidiary of business incubator ROI Ventures. Smith Cobb specifically leads the New Options Project, an initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that seeks to connect unemployed young adults aged 16-24 to career options.

On this day in early April, she was juggling the soccer schedule of her 5-year-old son, pickups and drop-offs at preschool for her 2-year-old daughter, her husband’s work and her own travels to Washington D.C. the next day. She chatted about the daily balance of family and work with such pleasure and ease that it took a minute to register – this is one busy woman.

And one who effuses a profound respect and thankfulness for her own educational and career opportunities, as well as an intense interest in providing the same to her children.

How odd it seems for Smith Cobb – someone ultra-plugged in to business and society – to work with a group that has fallen so far off those same grids. Odd, and yet fortuitous. As the first-generation college graduate in her family, she understands the needs, and the bridge that needs building.

“I think about my own neighborhood and the kids hanging out at the park,” she said. “Right now, this population is invisible, aside from the people working with them.”

Those “kids hanging out at the park” are swelling into a population of 4 million people nationwide who have become disconnected or unplugged from – out of work, often without a high school diploma or GED, and terrifically deficient in job skills. For the future of America, they represent a serious problem.

And a tremendous opportunity. As baby boomers are leaving the job market, the gap between workforce demand and supply is widening, as is the skills gap, given the increasing high-tech nature of even entry-level work against the context of a 50 percent high school drop-out rate. These trends should serve as clarion calls to not just educate and train youths with relevant job skills, but also facilitate their connection to viable employers.

“The reality is, if we don’t focus on this population, there will be a significant impact on our competitiveness as a country,” said Smith Cobb.

ROI – which, after all, stands for Return on Investment – takes a hard business approach to social ventures, which may not necessarily be nonprofits. Smith Cobb’s work involves designing programs that ultimately will enable disenfranchised youth to move into meaningful employment. This means also designing the tactical systems to measure the program’s impact to make sure that employment goals are being met. Whereas many previous efforts focused purely on getting kids back in school, New Options provides tools and new approaches to bridging the employment gap.

“It’s a tough crowd,” said Smith Cobb. “Our goal is not to force them back to school if that’s not what they need. We want to give them a vision for what is possible. And we meet them where they are.”

New Options currently has established three “zones” or locations where the organizations has set up initiatives – Baltimore/Washington D.C., New Mexico and Chicago. The program varies according to the needs of the location. In Baltimore/D.C., for instance, they are setting up an online platform that helps youth plug into entry level positions. In New Mexico, they partner with local community colleges to provide needed job skills. Chicago concentrates on “earn and learn” opportunities, where participants receive career counseling while working on their education.

Rather than a certain category of social work, Cobb Smith views her work as befitting “new capitalism,” a fairly recently coined phrase that describes a strategic philosophy that considers the social and environmental impact of business. “Doing good is not something off to the side. It should be core business. If you focus on the social impact of the brand, you can actually uncover new markets and new opportunities.”