The Interview Issue: Aisha Glover led Newark’s quest for Amazon’s HQ2, helping its reputation soar

By Tom Bergeron
Newark | Dec 17, 2018 at 6:00 am
From our print edition

People around Newark knew all about Aisha Glover, the smart, hard-working, well-spoken leader of the Newark Community Economic Development Corp.

Then, Amazon announced it was looking for a second headquarters — and, soon after, that Newark was one of 20 finalists for the project that promised billions of dollars in investment and tens of thousands of jobs. Glover, the woman overseeing the city’s bid, suddenly was in the spotlight. And she shined.

In the end, Newark was not selected for HQ2, but Glover earned rave reviews. Last month, she made the jump to head the Newark Alliance, a nonprofit committed to leading the city to greater heights.

ROI-NJ recently caught up with Glover to get her thoughts on Amazon, Newark and making the move to the Alliance.

ROI-NJ: Let’s talk about your move to the Newark Alliance. Why did you make the move there after being so influential as the head of the Newark CEDC?

Aisha Glover: The move was very intentional, very strategic and very thoughtful, both on the part of the mayor and the private and corporate community. I spent the last 14 months working very closely with nearly every major corporation and anchor in the city of Newark on the Amazon HQ2 bid. Through that process, I got to understand the personalities on a different level. It was a level of intimacy and collaboration that had not previously existed between the public and the private sector. The momentum was unbelievable: To have everyone highly responsive at any time of day for more than a year showed me that they are ridiculously committed to the city of Newark and they want us to move it forward as much as possible. I found everybody is coming at this from a genuine place of, ‘How do we make Newark a better, stronger, more vibrant and more equitable city?’

Throughout that process, I also realized how much the Alliance was operating separate and apart from the mayor’s office. It became abundantly obvious that it was a missed opportunity. Individually, the members are extremely powerful, influential and doing great economic and social impact work on their own, but collectively the power of the Alliance was not being maximized. I said, ‘How do we actually maximize economic development?’ We can’t do that separate and apart from the private sector. We just can’t. So, this was (a) very strategic, very thoughtful and very purposeful idea to bring the Alliance and the corporate and anchor community into the fold, to make sure that those efforts are coordinated with the broader economic development strategy.

ROI: How does the move happen? Do you approach them, do they approach you?

AG: It starts with rumbles and quick mentions and things said in passing. And then it becomes a request. At that time, I had a very open and frank conversation with Mayor (Ras Baraka). The vision is this: How can we create this economic development trifecta in the city of Newark between the mayor’s office, including economic, housing and development; Newark CEDC; and the Newark Alliance? The potential is undeniable. I will still go to all the weekly meetings with the mayor, I’ll still go to the Economic & Housing Development Department meetings, I’ll still be meticulously engaged at the city level. I have to be, otherwise the Alliance is going to continue to act as a silo. There will be a strategic and purposeful effort to bridge everyone together, and I’m the person that is going to do that, both at the city level and then also by improving the communication and coordination at the state level with both Choose New Jersey and the (Economic Development Authority).

ROI: Let’s talk about your time at Newark CEDC. How were you able to accomplish so much in three years — and what is on the wish list that you weren’t able to get done?

AG: It was a perfect time to be at the CEDC. When I first joined, three years ago, we were at the beginning of conceiving many projects or just starting to finalize things; Mulberry Commons is a great example. The fact we were able to do so many groundbreakings and be at the front end of some major projects that had been sitting dormant for years — some over a decade — was just really inspiring. We were able to use that momentum to leverage other investments, smaller developments that wanted to come in, not just downtown, but in the wards as well.

As to what I’m missing out on, what’s beautiful is I know that I’m going to feel the same way in one or two or three years as I did, as I do now, when I look at what’s going on at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I look at all the major things that are finally opened or about to open or just recently opened and I’m like, ‘Oh, I worked on that deal.’

ROI: You mentioned the Navy Yard. Many in New Jersey may only know you for your work in Newark. Give us a tour of your life prior to coming here.

AG: When I went to grad school to get my (Master of Public Administration) from Baruch (College), I knew I wanted to work at a nonprofit. My first job was at New York City’s largest provider of environmental education programs. I ran public affairs and development. I did fundraising, their public affairs outreach, government affairs and community relations. I was there for about six years. What drew me there was their environmental justice lens and really thinking about the development of a talent pipeline that was more civically engaged and environmentally savvy. I felt that was particularly important in an urban environment.

Through them, I began working with the Brooklyn Navy Yard on one of their development sites. They wanted to be a lot more thoughtful and sensitive to the surrounding communities and have a little bit of a sustainability lens. So, given my background in environmental education, they brought me on board as the director of public affairs to really think about public programming, public outreach and engagement, with a focus on dealing with some of the sensitivities of the impact an industrial park can have on its surrounding communities.

ROI: How did that job prepare you for Newark?

AG: My role there grew quickly and expanded extensively. I was doing a lot of business engagement, providing technical assistance and support services. I was critical in overseeing the on-site employment center. I was working with all of the local officials, the community, both inside the yard — there were 7,000 people working in the Navy Yard — as well as the surrounding community. And, because of that outreach and engagement with businesses, I was really focused on entrepreneurship and business development: How can we grow and scale these businesses in a smart and environmentally sound way, getting them access to grants and funding opportunities so they can be more efficient as well as helping them to recruit locally? 

There was a range of responsibilities, but it was really kind of a microcosm of a small city. It’s 300 acres on the waterfront, off the grid, but city-owned property. We had free reign to create a mini-city that we wanted, so there was a lot of intersection and overlap between the community and environmental-supporting businesses. In many respects, it was like a really-smaller-scale version of the city of Newark.

I had my eye on Newark; I had been living in Jersey for six years. And I just started networking, reaching out to people and going to events. The rest is history.

ROI: So, you come to Newark — and then you quickly get tasked with helping to bring Amazon to the city. Talk about the process.

AG: I knew that we’d apply, but I didn’t understand how big a deal it could be until we really started digging in. I had people across the country calling me, saying, ‘You guys need to apply for this, Newark needs to win.’ And there was such a frenzy and such an outpouring of energy here because of the supposed promise of this opportunity. That was our driver. And as the community really started to come together in support of this, I started to understand what a game-changer it could be.

ROI: So, let’s go more in-depth. You’re known as someone who never sleeps. How did you find more hours in the day to handle the Newark bid along with the already heavy load of projects you already had?

AG: There were two reasons why this was possible. One, we had an amazing committee of corporations and anchors who dedicated time, energy and resources. I had more than a dozen working groups. There was transportation, there was talent, there was lifestyle, quality of life. I had writers, people cranking out and doing several drafts. The committee structure worked well. That’s the only reason why you hear so many people giving us accolades. My job was just wrangling so many different groups. Let’s be clear; Aisha Glover did not do this proposal on the weekend and in her free time. This was a team effort. This was a community that really came together.

On the flip side of that, everything that was in the pipeline, everything that was up in Newark CEDC purview already, stayed with Newark CEDC. Other than Jorge Santos, who is my right hand, I did not pull on any Newark CEDC staff. That was intentional. It was critical that I was able to rely on Carmelo Garcia and the staff of Newark CEDC to kind of keep doing their jobs while I pulled on our committee structure. Again, a total team effort.

ROI: One last question. You are a talented, smart, hardworking, well-spoken leader, well versed in the worlds of business and politics, social justice and equality, urban and statewide issues. You’re also a woman and a person of color. The city, the state and the country are looking for leaders like that. Does political office appeal to you?

AG: (Laughing). Let me be careful what I say, because I don’t want to curse in print: ‘Not at all.’ I will support all of the public officials, but I don’t have any interest in joining them.

Conversation starter

  • Name: Aisha Glover
  • Position: CEO and president
  • Organization: Newark Alliance
  • Type of business: Nonprofit
  • Location: Newark
  • Date founded: 1999
  • Financial goals: Not disclosed
  • Website: newark-alliance.org
  • Phone number: 973-596-6400

The Interview Issue