Ellen Bourdeaux on Aspire Mississippi

Ellen Bourdeaux is program manager of Aspire Mississippi, a program to train county leaders in economic and community development. Bourdeaux holds degrees from Boston University and the University of Baltimore and is a graduate of the Community Development Institute at the University of Central Arkansas and the Business Advantage Program at Millsaps College. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the Aspire program, and its impact on local communities. The program is under the purview of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA).


Tell me more details about the program.

“It’s an application-based program for counties. We work with the executive directors of local economic development organizations. If a county does not have an economic development organization, we’ll work with the chamber or an elected official who wants to be better versed in community development, economic development, and workforce development. Also, with the program, participants have to implement projects that would benefit their communities in some way.”


What do you mean, application-based?

“It means counties have to apply. They have to fill out an application on our website. In fact, I just came out of a meeting with the deputy director of MDA, Mike McGreevy, where we went over the applications for the 2019 cohort, which is our fourth cohort.”


Who is eligible to participate in this program?

“We like to work with the executive directors of local economic development organizations. Those individuals assemble teams of up to eight people from the county. We want diverse teams – people of different ages, races, male and female. We want people who have a business or financial background, a faith-based background, educational background, a background in workforce development. We want owners of minority and women-owned businesses. This year, we are allowing counties that have applied to include high school and community college students. So I’m excited about that.”


How many counties have applied this year?

“We had several.” 


How many counties have participated so far?

“Twenty-two counties.”


Has Hinds or Madison County participated?

“No; Rankin County was one of the counties we worked with when Aspire was still called the MDA Ambassadors Program. We would be very happy to work with Hinds or Madison County.” 


Why the name change, from the Ambassadors Program to Aspire?

“Aspire Mississippi answers more of what our goals are for the communities we work with. We want all of them to aspire higher, and I think the Ambassadors name was a little limiting in its name.”


Is Aspire pretty much the same program?

“Aspire Mississippi is more in-depth. We had three sessions plus graduation with the Ambassadors Program. In Aspire, we have five sessions plus graduation. The things we’ve added were a session on your community’s data – why is data so important? How to use the data and where to find the data. Everything is so data-driven these days, so it’s really important to understand that aspect of economic development. Then, because each county’s team has to work on a project, we added as a session where we bring in two individuals from the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University … to help (teams) hone their projects.”


What service projects have been done so far?

“This year, we worked with five counties, four of the five have established classes for high school and community college students and people who are either unemployed or under-employed to help sharpen their soft skills. These classes teach why it’s so important to show up at work on time, why it’s important to get along with your colleagues, why it’s important to show respect to your customers and your coworkers, conflict resolution – all of those things that make up soft skills.

“The fifth project, the team from Choctaw County started by wanting to increase tax revenues from businesses … that morphed into wanting to make downtown (Ackerman) more attractive. The city of Ackerman has invested $10,000 to that end, because of our Aspire Mississippi team from Choctaw County got buy-in from the town’s leadership.”


How are the projects funded?

“The communities typically find a way to fund (them).”


Are these programs implemented for the long-term, or just for the duration of the class?

“Sustainability is part of the assignment. We don’t stop our engagement with the communities (once the class is over). We stay engaged for the long haul.”


There are several other leadership training programs out there, like Leadership Greater Jackson and Leadership Mississippi. Is Aspire duplicating what the other programs offer?

“I have not been through other leadership programs, so I cannot speak to that. But what I can say is that based on the survey responses from our (participants), the folks across the state who have been part of the Ambassadors Program or Aspire give us really good grades in terms of value. These people believe that going through the program has benefited them.”


What are some of the trends in workforce development?

“One of the things companies say is that their biggest need is people who show up on time for work. Teaching soft skills is the most active trend right now.”


It seems that things are always changing in terms of economic development, workforce development and the like. How do you keep Aspire up to date on the most current trends?

“We keep abreast of what’s going on. Over the years, the workforce has become really important to the governor, so I put a lot into the workforce development session this year. We have also placed a greater emphasis on early childhood brain development because science tells us that it is the most important time (early childhood) of a person’s life in terms of brain development. We really try to keep up with the trends in the major sectors we focus on. We are constantly learning ourselves and we try to expose ourselves to different areas of thought.”


What have you learned from the program?

“I have been fascinated by how site selectors do their jobs, how they look at the workforce (of an area), how they find out information about your community in ways that the average citizen would not know how to. I have also been fascinated with the fact that if a community does not have an economic development organization, if it does not have available sites with square footage, or information on how those sites can be used, or where the workforce comes from and what people in the community are trained to do, that community is out of the running (for new business) before they even knew they were in the running. Site selectors look for reasons why your community should not be considered for a project – that has been fascinating to me.” 


The 2018-19 class graduates on March 28. The 2019-20 class begins in April. The application process for the 2019-20 year is closed.




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