“Be flexible, be teachable…because if you are open to learning, doors will open to professional opportunities that you may not have ever imagined.”
It is only fitting that such words of advice to aspiring urban planners come from Shawntera Hardy, whose pathway into the executive offices of Minnesota state government was paved by making the most of her opportunities – and then some.
The state’s first Black woman Commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a former steel-town that cultivated in Hardy a gritty work ethic and passion for serving under resourced communities.
After earning a bachelors degree in consumer affairs on a full scholarship at The Ohio State University, Hardy landed a position as a legislative aide in the Ohio House of Representatives. Working on behalf of district residents in Columbus, Ohio, she drew connections between state economic policy and community planning.
She pursued the kernel of interest and, with a HUD Fellowship in hand, connected with Dr. Henry Taylor in UB’s Center for Urban Studies. An eager and engaged student, Hardy found particular interest in community-based planning methods, housing development and helping to develop a neighborhood plan for Buffalo’s Masten District.
Taylor, who still stays in touch with Hardy, recalls her ambition. “She’s one of the best students I have ever taught. She blended smarts with authentic caring, deep insights, creativity, hard work and dependability. She was tough, and knew how to close projects.”
"They care about improving people’s lives. They instilled that in each of us. We still all work from that playbook.”
Hardy’s first job out of graduate school would take her to the City of Saint Paul’s Planning and Economic Department, where she led community engagement initiatives and district planning for light rail transit and housing development.
She took a turn toward policy relations in 2008, when she assumed the role of government affairs manager for insurer HealthPartners, followed by a position as policy director for Fresh Energy, a clean energy research and policy nonprofit in Minnesota.
By 2015, she had risen to the state’s executive leadership team, serving as deputy chief of staff for Gov. Mark Dayton, heading up policy and operational issues and coordinating the administration’s response to emergencies such as floods, fires, and public health crises. Also, Hardy was particularly instrumental in leading efforts to diversify state government.
As commissioner of the state's principal economic development agency, Hardy focuses on promoting business recruitment, expansion and retention statewide; advancing state workforce training and development; and supporting international trade and community development. She continues to play a key role in diversity efforts and expanding economic investment in people of color and people with disabilities.
Hardy’s commitment to community has an entrepreneurial side, as well. She is a co-founder of Civic Eagle, a tech company which develops mobile engagement tools that connect residents with their elected officials. She is also the co-founder of Fearless Commerce, which is a platform focused on elevating black women business owners.
Indeed, as flexible and teachable as Hardy is, she knows her true north. “My compass has always been to invest in communities through policy and placemaking so they can thrive. Every professional decision and opportunity I’ve taken, no matter what the title, connects to that compass. It’s how I decide where I am going to go, and how I am going to show up.”
“I was fortunate to have a core group of fellow planners while at UB. It was organic how we came together. We challenged and supported each other on the MUP journey. To this day we are still friends.”