Sheila Ireland respects legacy and despises convention. That shines through in the way she’s dedicated her illustrious career to building upon Philadelphia’s legacy of invention and ingenuity by refreshing the conventions that haven’t served all residents.
In a city that thrives on equal parts innovation and scrappiness, Sheila stands as a beacon of change and empowerment. Her wisdom and boundless curiosity have fueled her journey, leaving a profound impact on the city she holds dear.
On September 26th we’ll recognize Sheila as the Cultivator Honoree at the 2023 Nucleus Awards, presented by CSL. Read on for a glimpse inside the mind of a change-maker who finds inspiration in the pursuit of a better tomorrow, one filled with opportunities for all.
Your career spans several organizations with strong roots to this city; the City of Philadelphia, the PA Department of Labor, West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, University City District; how are the needs of the West Philly community different than others you have seen?
The needs of the West Philadelphia community are not very different from others I’ve worked with but interestingly West Philadelphia represents the perfect set of circumstances to demonstrate the power of workforce development. Home to some of the nations pre-eminent meds and eds, seemingly intractable poverty, crime and poor educational outcomes are literally just blocks away. It speaks in a very clear way to both the joint responsibilities that people have (meaning both organizations and community) to come together to ensure that we create places where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. It also speaks to how one change agent can truly make a difference. Dr. Judith Rodin created the West Philadelphia Initiatives and in my mind to this day stands out as a leader who walked the talk. She did that by creating the critical infrastructure that was needed to address the issues and create the change that was needed at the time. UCD is the only nonprofit still standing, but its work alone is a testament to the power of her vision and the power of a collective table when you are trying to drive change.
You’ve been in the “people business” for 25 years across a variety of industries and interventions. What do Philadelphia organizations do well and what do we need more of?
Well, I believe that Philadelphia still honors its birthright as a city of firsts. We are still a city of invention and ingenuity. We’re scrappy and we don’t give up easily. We are in play in the growth industries expanding across the country, from life sciences to tech to medicine, if we are not dominating the field, we are a player to be recognized.
With that said we still have some work to do, to level the playing field so that we all can continue to prosper. Whether we like it or not a zip code is an indicator of destiny in this city. And we cannot seem to agree on a collective way forward. We are still addressing solutions with “but” when it does not fit our preconceived notions of the right path forward, when we need to start thinking “and.” Poverty and its associated ills are complicated, and it requires complex, sophisticated, and collaborative approaches.
Why is workforce development a critical piece to regional economic success?
Easy question. Your business is only as good as the people running and working in it. As learning becomes ubiquitous, as higher ed stumbles as Gen Z questions its ROI, and as AI makes information increasingly accessible, people with the power to think critically, juggle multiple variables and discern the very human “why” of it all, will become even more critical to every organization’s success.
Frankly, workforce development is faster, quicker, and cheaper, than more traditional learning models. It will never, nor should it replace them. But because workforce development is more sensitive to the near term set of skills, and the context of actual execution needed for success in the workplace it is a critical part of talent development today.
Your business is only as good as the people running and working in it. As learning becomes ubiquitous, as higher ed stumbles as Gen Z questions its ROI, and as AI makes information increasingly accessible, people with the power to think critically, juggle multiple variables and discern the very human “why” of it all, will become even more critical to every organization’s success.
Can you talk about the work already being done by organizations like the OIC Philadelphiato foster economic empowerment through workforce development?
For me economic empowerment means supporting the people that we serve so they become economically or financially self-sufficient. It means taking control of your own economic destiny. With that said some very exciting things are happening at OIC Philadelphia. First, we are looking at the future of work and we are revamping our offerings to focus on preparation for jobs that pay family sustaining wages, with career ladder opportunities, which are future resistant (nothing is future proof!). Secondly, we are leveraging our commercial space to build collaborations with like minded non-profits within our physical space, to provide in place holistic solutions to the barriers participants are facing. Lastly, we are building new pathways to employment by building commercial enterprises within the OIC Philadelphia affiliate structure. I believe, jobs are one part of the picture, but wealth in America is built through business creation. We want to help build the vehicles to do so for the people we serve.
What advice would you tell your younger self just starting out her career?
First, slow down, Rome was not made in a day. I know I have driven some folks crazy with my sense of urgency. Second, discipline your disappointments. People will disappoint you; it is up to you what you do with it. Third, keep leaning into your sense of humor (it is easy to make me laugh), you’re going to need it.
I believe that Philadelphia still honors its birthright as a city of firsts. We are still a city of invention and ingenuity. We’re scrappy and we don’t give up easily.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you up at night?
My career and my life have been wildly rewarding. I’ve been able to contribute in ways that make me spring out of bed in the morning happy to take on the day’s challenges. I love my work and I have been blessed with tremendous opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives.
My restless nights are spent worrying about the pace of change in this city. Workforce development is a role that puts you on the front lines of poverty and unemployment. The percentage of people in poverty, and our labor participation rates, speaks by itself to the barriers that still exist, particularly for people of color in this city. At OIC Philadelphia, we see people every day that are creative, resourceful, and whole and who simply need an opportunity to improve their skills, their approach or both to effectively connect to the labor market. At 2am I am typically wrestling with how we can improve the bridges to opportunity that we are building.
What is your superpower?
Curiosity. I’m endlessly interested in how things can be. What is around the next corner? How can we do this better? I respect history and legacy and despise convention.