With a decades-long career in technology and economic development, Dennis Yablonsky, Chief Executive Officer of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and its affiliated organizations, has played a key role in Pittsburgh’s internationally recognized transformation.
A native of the Pittsburgh region, Yablonsky is an accomplished and experienced veteran of managing and leading dynamic business growth – as a private business leader, a nonprofit economic development professional and a high-ranking appointed government official. He has grown companies from the ground up to a greater profitability and success both in the private and public sectors. Yablonsky took the Conference helm in March 2009 and announced his retirement this past summer, handing the baton to Stefani Pashman in 2018.
With so many years of service directly guiding the Pittsburgh region’s future, TEQ wanted to ask Yablonsky about his work to date; discuss some successes; address the challenges; and see what the next chapter of his life will bring. Here’s what Yablonsky had to say:
Jonathan Kersting: Dennis, It’s great to talk with you and congratulations on your tenure at the Allegheny Conference. Fill our readers in on your background and what led you to the Conference.
Dennis Yablonsky: I’ve had the benefit of two careers, both of which have been very fulfilling. I spent my first 24 years in the tech industry, where I was involved in helping to build two companies: one here [in Pittsburgh], Carnegie Group, and the one in Cincinnati before that. I was an active, very engaged, member of the [Pittsburgh] Tech Council Board during all of those years in Pittsburgh. My first career was all on the technology side where I mainly came up through the sales and marketing ranks, but I also had the chance to build and run two decent-sized software companies. Then, life throws you a new opportunity. I can’t say that I planned it because it wouldn’t be accurate. I just kind of went with this new opportunity.
I started to get interested, because of my policy work with the Tech Council, in public policy, economic development and how we could scale things in southwestern Pennsylvania a little bit more. That led me into my second career, which I’ve been involved with now for about 18 years, and which I would broadly call “economic development” – giving back to the place that I grew up in, that I call home, and that I love so much.
My first career was all on the technology side where I mainly came up through the sales and marketing ranks, but I also had the chance to build and run two decent-sized software companies. Then, life throws you a new opportunity. I can’t say that I planned it because it wouldn’t be accurate. I just kind of went with this new opportunity.
And that started with being the founding CEO of the Digital Greenhouse, which was focused on electronics and robotics and building that cluster. That model was then transferred over into the life sciences and I became the founding CEO of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse.
Then Governor Rendell asked me to take those skills and apply them statewide, and I had the wonderful opportunity for six years to serve as Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development. I worked in my native Pittsburgh, but also in the rest of the state. I didn’t plan to come to the Allegheny Conference, but all of those experiences prepared me perfectly for the role of CEO at the Allegheny Conference, which I assumed in 2008, and it’s been a wonderful nine years.
Kersting: So, you kind of had all this building up. It’s almost like the perfect job for you in a certain way. Bringing, like you said, those areas together I think is just so interesting.
Yablonsky: It is because the Allegheny Conference is private-sector driven. It has a heavy advocacy role around public policy. There’s lots of work to be done with the universities and the foundations, and we work with the [Pittsburgh] Tech Council and other partners in the area of tech-based economic development. My set of experiences prepped me well, I hope, for my work and the things I’ve been trying to accomplish for the region – with the help of many partners – over the last nine years.
Kersting: So, tell our readers – what are the core functions of the Conference? How does it operate?
Yablonsky: The Conference basically does four things. We are the regional marketing organization, meaning that we market this region domestically and internationally to attract companies, but also to retain and grow the companies already here. We also do similar types of marketing activities on the talent side – trying to attract and retain talent. That’s one function.
A second function is around intelligence. We have a robust research team here that’s on top of benchmarking what’s happening in the region and in other places, and getting us the data and facts on issues related to workforce, infrastructure and economic development.
The third function is a lobbying and advocacy function that we do in D.C., in Harrisburg and locally. Finally, there’s the kind of overriding function – it’s one of the pretty unique things the Conference does – and that is convening.
That led me into my second career, which I’ve been involved with now for about 18 years, and which I would broadly call ‘economic development’ – giving back to the place that I grew up in, that I call home, and that I love so much.
We have a unique ability to bring together groups of organizations and people from the public and private sectors who are key to tackling the long-haul issues that our region must face to become even better … more competitive.
Kersting: I would say that convening is your “secret sauce” in many ways.
Yablonsky: It really is. The convening capability of the Conference is probably the main ingredient in our “secret sauce.” We rely on bringing the right people together locally to work on issues, which we also do statewide on advocacy issues with our fellow chamber in Philly and in Harrisburg, and in D.C. with a coalition, some 40 chambers strong, called the Great Lakes Metro Coalition.
Kersting: Over your tenure here, what would you say are some of the bigger accomplishments of the Conference? What has it been able to do that you really feel is starting to get the Pittsburgh region moving in the direction that we want it to go?
Yablonsky: There are several accomplishments that come to my mind, and those make me proud of what we were able to do together for the good of the region. One was an especially big deal, and it happened literally six weeks into my tenure at the Conference. President Obama called and said, “Hey, we’re thinking about having the G-20 [summit] in Pittsburgh. What do you think?”
It took us about a nanosecond to say, “Of course!” But it took more than five months and a whirlwind of activity to get prepared. We had 3,500 journalists from all over the world here, giving us the opportunity to tell the modern, factual story about Pittsburgh’s transformation to people worldwide. Within a year, we had 7,000 stories published about Pittsburgh’s transformation.
As I said, my first hope is that we figure out how we can deal with the ‘both-and’ economy and make it work for our region because half the population lives in Allegheny County, and the other half lives in the other nine counties. So I also wish for this region a diverse, integrated population and workforce where everybody is benefiting from and taking advantage of the region’s transformation.
Another career highlight, on a pure economic development basis, was working with our team at the PRA (Pittsburgh Regional Alliance) for the last nine years. They’ve directly closed over 300 projects during that period of time with tens of thousands of jobs tied to them. A real highlight was working on attracting a world-scale petrochemical investment from Shell, a deal which closed last year and one that represents the largest single economic development project, capital investment-wise, in the region’s history.
Beyond that, there have been a number of public policy successes, tied to economic development, that are noteworthy. For example, the passage of Act 89 which provides $2.5 billion a year of incremental transportation funding for roads, bridges, public transit and more, plus the recent passage of the State Pension Bill, on which we worked for 13 years.
Kersting: That goes to show the endurance that you and the Conference have here.
Yablonsky: Exactly. Endurance is a hallmark of the Conference. We can persist on the issues that demand a long haul commitment – sometimes a decade or more.
Kersting: Tell me about the ImaginePittsburgh.com job site.
Yablonsky: ImaginePittsburgh.com is a dynamic digital platform that the Conference created, and it’s the only place you can find all the open jobs in the Pittsburgh region. It’s updated daily with all the opportunities our employers have. Last year, we had 2.1 million job seekers come to the site. The site has helped to get the word out about not only Pittsburgh in general, but specifically about the plentiful opportunities professionally and personally, in the region. Getting that word out has helped our businesses attract more of the talent that they need.
Kersting: That is fantastic. It goes to show how much good work has been done here and that’s why we’re so excited to talk to you about these issues today. Obviously, as you’re pursuing all that, there are huge challenges that always persist. What would you say have been some of the bigger challenges?
Yablonsky: Particularly, public policy. Public policy requires patience. It requires facts and it requires persistence. I think it’s always going to be a challenge. Yet, you have to stick with it because people have different views on public policy. That’s one of the things I learned working in Harrisburg – that there’s a whole bunch of other views out there.
Kersting: So, let’s talk a little bit about the region in general. We need to attract as many people as possible. How can we be better at attracting people?
Yablonsky: Attracting people is our number one challenge as a region going forward, and if we solve this challenge, it will propel us. If we don’t, it will slow us down. The question is how do we identify, train and get into the workforce all the people that we need? You’re familiar with the Conference’s Inflection Point [the future of the workforce in the region] study rolled out last year, and the data is pretty daunting about the numbers on the demand side. The supply side is the issue. This is, in my opinion, an all-hands-on-deck issue for the region.
Shell is one example of significant, strategic investment that is creating jobs and advancing economic development that will benefit the other nine counties. And it isn’t an ‘either-or.’ It’s a “both-and.” We need more of that.
The business community, the educational system, philanthropy and government all need to be together on this to solve the problem. We need to devise an all-hands-on-deck solution that includes doing everything we can to identify and train people that are unemployed or underemployed and get them into good jobs with family-paying wages that provide for a future. There are models for doing that. My successor, Stefani Pashman, has been a stalwart in this. We also need to do a better job of retaining more of our college students. We graduate 40,000 a year. We’re retaining only about half now, and that’s not acceptable.
Kersting: So, Dennis, what’s your biggest wish for the region? You’ve been such a big part of this region really helping it get to where it is now.
Yablonsky: I actually have two. One is that we can figure out how to support a “both-and” economy. The tech economy is the primary beneficiary of what is going on in our urban core – high-value activity clustered around the universities, research centers and so forth with some peripheral benefit extending to the other nine counties. However, in other parts of the region – take Beaver County, for example – there’s opportunity that plays to our other strengths, such as energy and manufacturing expertise and capacity and natural resources.
Think about Shell’s investment, which plays to such strengths. Shell is providing 600 direct jobs, 5,000 construction jobs [at peak] and 2,000-4,000 people that will likely be employed in a robust supply chain. Shell is one example of significant, strategic investment that is creating jobs and advancing economic development that will benefit the other nine counties. And it isn’t an “either-or.” It’s a “both-and.” We need more of that.
Kersting: I love it.
Yablonsky: As I said, my first hope is that we figure out how we can deal with the “both-and” economy and make it work for our region because half the population lives in Allegheny County, and the other half lives in the other nine counties. So I also wish for this region a diverse, integrated population and workforce where everybody is benefiting from and taking advantage of the region’s transformation.
I wish to see the disparity that exists today be eliminated or substantially reduced … that minorities, particularly the African American community, fully participate in this economy … and that we’ve created a world-class place that’s diverse with an integrated mobility strategy that allows people many options for getting to where their opportunities, professional and personal, are. That’s my vision on the population and demographic side, and I hope we see it become a reality for southwestern Pennsylvania in the next 10 or 20 years.
Kersting: I love your vision. I want that to happen and I hope it comes true without a doubt. So, 2018 – what’s up? What are your next steps? What do you plan on doing?
Yablonsky: In the short term, I’m going to take a bit of a breather and spend more time with my wife and family over the winter. But I’m not going to disappear from the business and the public policy scene. I’m going to stay involved … just maybe a little less intensely than this job [with the Conference] requires.
My hope is that I’ll be able to find a handful of projects to work on with businesses, universities and foundations to continue some of the special things that are going on here in economic and community development. I want to use my experiences to continue to help, but without having to run an organization. That said, I still want to be able to contribute in some appropriate ways.
Kersting: We don’t want you to disappear. We’re glad you’re going to be sticking around because we need you helping us to continue rowing this boat forward. So, my last question of the day – it’s the penultimate question that I have to ask everybody – Beatles or Stones?
Yablonsky: Oh, easy. Stones. I just love the music. They’re on my playlist when I work out. I’ve seen the Stones three or four times in concert. The last time Mick and crowd were here in Pittsburgh, I was just amazed at a 70-year-old guy dancing and singing for three, four hours straight. I aspire to be that fit when I’m in my 70s.