Hometown hero: Montclair resident Carley Graham Garcia is leaving Google — yes, Google — to lead Feliciano Center

The Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation has changed a lot since it was founded in January 2013 on the campus of Montclair State University.

The center, which started with an offering of a certificate of entrepreneurship, has ramped up its curriculum offerings, adding a certificate in innovation design in 2015; a minor in entrepreneurship in 2017; and a concentration in entrepreneurship as part of the business administration major in 2018. It also has a co-op internship program, which sends students out to New Jersey startups and entrepreneurial companies.

Women Entrepreneurship Week, which was started by the  center in 2014, has grown into a global movement with events held last year at 169 schools in 46 states and 32 countries. And the 6-year-old Montclair Entrepreneurs Meetup now has more than 5,000 members.

Last week, the Feliciano Center announced its biggest change: Google executive Carley Graham Garcia was selected to replace the retiring Dennis Bone as executive director, a position Bone held since the creation of the center.

ROI-NJ caught up with Garcia, a resident of Montclair, to discuss her career, how she came upon the opening at the center and her plans for her new role.

ROI-NJ: We’ll start with the easy line. It seems everyone in the world would love to work at Google. You’re walking away from it. Talk about making this move.

Carley Graham Garcia: That’s a funny way of looking at it. And the truth is, I wasn’t really looking to leave Google. Google is an incredible place and at the forefront of a lot of things in tech and global business. And that’s really exciting. But this opportunity, especially within my own backyard, was too compelling to pass up.

It just seems like the perfect intersection of business, public policy, economic development and community building that I had really enjoyed at Google.

From left are Jason Frasca and Iain Kerr, co-directors of MIX Lab, with Carley Graham Garcia. ­

ROI: How did you hear about the job?

CGG: Last year, I went to the Propelify Innovation Festival and facilitated a panel on workforce development. The leaders at the Feliciano Center saw that I lived in Montclair and invited me to visit. I got a chance to tour the MIX Lab, which is their maker space at the university, meet some of the students and hear a little bit more about the programming. Through this relationship, I was invited to present at Women’s Entrepreneurship Week. 

And, at the end of 2018, I got a notice saying Dennis was retiring. I remember standing in my kitchen reading the letter and my first thought was, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, he was great.’ And then my second thought was, ‘I want that job.’

ROI: How will your Google experience translate at the Feliciano Center?

CGG: A lot of work I was doing recently at Google has been in workforce development and community engagement. Communities for Google means multiple things. It’s not only the tech ecosystem, but the tech talent pipeline — building the future of people that a company like Google would hire. It’s helping to shape the things this new workforce needs to learn and understanding how we can diversify the type of the type of candidate that Google hires. 

I’ve found that same opportunity here. I realized the opportunity to touch all of it, in the community that I am a part of, made it worth the jump. The fact that Montclair State is a university that serves a broad spectrum of young people across New Jersey, young people who have a certain grit, who are oftentimes working themselves, who have other priorities but have prioritized going back to school and then really building their careers, really resonated with me.

I did my MBA at night. I was a working professional trying to make a better life and build a better, bigger career. I see myself in a lot of the students that I met.

ROI: You are succeeding Bone, a legend in the New Jersey business community. Following him is both an honor and a challenge. How will you approach that?

CGG: I know what a huge name and huge impact he’s had in shaping and impacting the business community. I’ve seen it. When I went on the (New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Walk to Washington) last year, I saw how Dennis knows everybody. To have the chance to learn from him and have the privilege to carry forward what he’s built is an amazing opportunity.

ROI: Bone, of course, not only helped found the Feliciano Center, he has been its guiding vision since Day One. You get a chance to create the next version of the center. Talk about some of the possibilities in front of you?

CGG: There are a couple of different things I think about. One is the actual physical space of the center, transforming it into a bit more of an innovation hub, a more collaborative space in whatever way that makes sense for the university. We are a center that serves students first. But I liked the idea of having it be something that’s a little bit more porous, that brings in business leaders, both from Montclair and the broader business community.

The emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship has had a huge impact, not just here but around the globe. Allowing that to bring more of those business leaders to interact with our students, whether it be sort of at the beginning stages of business or learning from established leaders who’ve been running Fortune 500 companies, would be great.

Another would be doing even more events. I first got introduced to MSU through Women’s Entrepreneurship Week. It’s a wonderful event. How can we do more things like that to serve more people across the calendar year? How can we make it more impactful? How can we connect it to students and job opportunities?

And then I think also expanding on the impact of the maker space, the MIX Lab, is worth looking into. How can we become more connected to Montclair? How can students who are building businesses that actually make physical objects experiment with retail and selling those pieces in Montclair. How can we broaden opportunities here?

ROI: You mention collaboration — that’s the first thing Aaron Price talked about when he was named the new head of the New Jersey Tech Council. He talked about how New Jersey has been slow to collaborate — mainly because so many institutions, especially at the university level, have been slow to work together. Do you see that as a big challenge or a big opportunity? 

CGG: I see that as a big opportunity. You want to be careful not to reinvent the wheel on all of these campuses and all of these forms, but, together, we’re stronger. I’ve known Aaron for a long time and I’m excited to be able to collaborate with him and the Tech Council and create a collaboration that can exist between us and across the university system and across the state. Frankly, I think it’s an incredibly exciting time.

ROI: Let’s talk about the future of New Jersey as an entrepreneurial hub and a center for innovation. How do you see the landscape?

CGG: It’s a really interesting moment in New Jersey. Gov. (Phil) Murphy is really doubling down on moving innovation forward. First lady Tammy Murphy and (Economic Development Authority CEO) Tim Sullivan are helping the state partner with Golden Seeds. Possibilities with the Opportunity Zone program and evergreen funds are out there. 

It’s clear the administration wants to build businesses and keep businesses here. I think I have an incredible opportunity to be a part of that. That’s why I jumped and that’s why I’m excited.

ROI: Last question. A lot of your network is on the other side of the river. Give people in New Jersey who do not know your style and personality a few takeaways.

CGG: I hope they’ll recognize my energy and I hope they’ll all quickly see my impact. I have had really the privilege of being able to touch a lot of interesting things while at Google, and I’m really hoping to bring not only that network, but those experiences and opportunities.

I want them to see I have the appetite and the enthusiasm to bring all of these things together and realize the power of our collective strength to push ideas forward and create opportunities in the state.