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Tell Me More: A Conversation with Your I-Corps Team, Featuring Jessica Fields

Jessica Fields, Associate Director for NY I-Corps Hub at CUNY, has been with I-Corps for nearly seven years. Jessica holds a BA in Psychology and Anthropology from Webster University and an MPA in Public Administration from Columbia University.

1. Can you share a recent accomplishment?

My colleague and I presented at the Promotion and Tenure in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PTIE) conference last summer in Oregon. We shared initial research on how innovation and entrepreneurship support retaining faculty members, particularly in the STEM disciplines. I believe exploring this area further could be worthwhile as we’re seeing the value of supporting faculty by implementing entrepreneurship training and promoting their entrepreneurship goals having long-term positive impacts based on the data.

2. What motivated you to become an I-Corps instructor?

As an undergraduate, I studied Applied Anthropology. When I was completing my bachelor’s degree, I had a very smart teacher. It was a recession, and no one was bringing on anthropology PhD students, so I figured I would go get a master’s degree somewhere in the interim. Instead, he told me, go out and find a real problem that you want to dedicate a decade to, that you want to research for your PhD. Eventually I went to Vietnam and tried to really pay attention and see what I was drawn to. I found that I gravitated over and over to female-led businesses. When I came back to the States, my first job was working for an all-female entrepreneurial network, and I’ve kept that focus of supporting women and underserved founders for over a decade. Through my anthropology background, I learned to appreciate that you can’t advance technology without contextualizing it from the customer’s point of view. That is something I bring to the table to help scientists and engineers to achieve the impact they seek. And that mindset is a part of what I hope I convey to our teams as an I-Corps instructor.

3. What question do you wish entrepreneurs asked?

“Why?” I wish they asked why… anything! Why is one of the biggest tools in our arsenal. Entrepreneurs should always dig into the deeper reasons for why someone is doing what they are doing—or not doing. People are often initially scared to push, but that’s such a simple way to dig deeper and get information—it’s one of my favorite questions.

4. After learning about so many different customer markets, can you share a market or customer challenge that still requires a solution?

I can think of two—and they do not have simple solutions. One is food security, also known as food scarcity or food deserts, and the other is figuring out energy storage and the role of companies in doing so. These cannot be solved with simple fixes; they require multiple companies and a collaboration-oriented mindset.

Food security is a socioeconomic issue that demands collaboration and applied technologies. Energy distribution, security, and storage have tech components but also must work with many different partners. There are a lot of technologies that can aid in resolving these issues, such as agricultural technologies, transportation, vaccines for birds, and food storage, but if we don’t contextualize those in socioeconomic issues, we can’t resolve these problems. We must bring the customers in and collaborate to resolve these big issues—which both have a huge impact on the health and productivity of our population.

I have seen some homegrown solutions; for example, we worked with a few Navajo entrepreneurs who are working to develop their own farms along with clean tech and water tech. People are coming up with some good solutions, but we must be sure we can collaborate enough to get support and resources to them. On the energy side, we see teams working on batteries, wind turbines, solar panels and microgrids, among other ideas. We are not there yet in terms of having energy storage and transfer at the level we will need, but I’m hopeful we will make that progress.

5. What are you reading (or hoping to read soon)?

I just finished reading Lincoln and the Fight for Peace by John Avlon. It’s about Lincoln’s restoration plan. He was trying to balance a nation divided. He needed not only to win the war, but also to win the peace for the whole country to move forward. These issues really resonate today, when we think about the challenges of straddling large divides and trying to implement big policies. I also recently picked up Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I was surprised by how much the book echoed my own teaching and management style—that it’s important to help people build skills and set them up for success, but ultimately, it’s up to them to do it for themselves.

6. What do you do to relax?

I hang out with my dogs. I have two Newfoundland dogs, which are very big dogs. I love to be with them. I also like to ride my bike along the Hudson. Some days I get a Citibike and ride the Hudson Greenway to my office—it’s just a great way to start or end the day.


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