MBJ: Innovate Memphis’ new leader Jessica Lotz takes on shaping a city

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This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal.

In many ways, Jessica Lotz is a data-oriented person. Research has played a major role in her career, and she can easily go down a rabbit hole with a spreadsheet, and find it satisfying. Yet she’s also keenly aware that data alone is ineffective, and that it should be part of a broader, people-focused collaboration within the community.

Data, Lotz believes, is best used as a flashlight — not a hammer.

“The data is only as good as people’s trust in it, and your ability to connect the dots and say, ‘Here’s how to use it,’” she said. “If we don’t collaborate effectively, if we don’t really understand the needs and the hopes of everybody we’re working with, then it’s all for naught. It’s got to be about lifting others up, giving them the tools to empower them to make good decisions.”

This approach is top of mind for Lotz in her new role as executive director of Innovate Memphis, a job she took after its previous leader, Justin Entzminger, became the innovation practice director for the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University.

Lotz landed with the organization after more than a decade of work with Memphis-Shelby County Schools (MSCS); and now, she’ll look to continue Innovate Memphis’ work of connecting public and private groups, and improving neighborhoods and communities throughout the city.

For Lotz, it’s a fitting position, one that could allow her to both blend her interest in data and people, and make an impact in the Mid-South — where she’s spent the bulk of her life.

The right tools

Lotz grew up in Bartlett, and graduated from Bartlett High School. She then attended Rhodes College, and during her time at the institution, helped it create a community center in a lower-income neighborhood of Memphis, a crucial experience.

It’s not that Lotz hadn’t seen others with fewer resources and opportunities than her before; her parents had always placed an emphasis on community service. But this gave her a closer look at significant economic disparity. She realized there was much she had taken for granted growing up, and she wanted everyone to have access to the resources that could lead to a better life — she just wasn’t sure how to make them available.

“I didn’t feel like I had the tools right away to figure out what you do about that,” Lotz said. “I was seeing very complex problems and systemic inequalities, but I didn’t know … what I could do that would be effective there.”

To bolster her skillset, Lotz attended Duke University after graduating from Rhodes — where she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology — and earned her master’s degree in public policy. She also tried her hand at federal work, doing an internship between her two years at Duke in the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C.

But for Lotz, federal work was less fulfilling than local work. She didn’t see an impact as quickly or as closely, and she found there were things in Memphis that she had taken for granted.

“Here, we’ve just got a real cohort of invested people [who are] passionate about the city and the communities,” she said. “And sometimes you see that in D.C., but many people are understandably federally focused and nationally focused.”

She also found the environment in Memphis to be friendlier. In D.C., she would go to bars and parties, and people would immediately ask, “What do you do, where do you work?” And if they didn’t find it interesting, they’d be done with her. In Memphis, however, this wasn’t the case.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone somewhere and talked to somebody who’s from Memphis for 20 minutes or an hour,” she said. “And you can just really bury your soul, share a lot of great things, and have a great time. You may never talk to them again, but it’s always been a very authentic and welcoming kind of ethos.”

After graduating from Duke, Lotz moved back to Memphis, and took a job with MSCS — then Memphis City Schools — in 2010, as a project manager for the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative. By March 2016, she was the director of research and performance management, a role that had her responsible for program evaluation, continuous improvement coaching, strategic planning, and expanding and scaling data analytics resources.

It’s this position that Lotz left to join Innovate Memphis, where she started on Aug. 1.

‘A healthy amount of anxiety’

In her new role, Lotz plans on biking to work. She used to walk to her office at MSCS, and always enjoyed it. But the decision to bike goes beyond just her personal preferences — she also wants to “walk the walk and talk the talk,” as she takes the helm at an organization that’s looked to come up with a variety of creative transit solutions in Memphis.

Transportation and mobility improvement is a key part of Innovate Memphis’ work, and the nonprofit is both supporting local and regional partners working on multi-modal transportation choices, and leading the Memphis 3.0 Transit Vision process.

This, however, is just one area of focus for Innovate Memphis, an organization that’s played a significant role in shaping the city in recent years.

Other areas include its efforts centered around improving public parks and spaces, and its work with the Memphis Fire Departments’ Emergency Medical Service, which has it developing programs to reduce the use of emergency resources for non-emergencies. It’s also looked to combat blight, by creating Bluff City Snapshot — which captures property conditions and puts it into Innovate Memphis’ data warehouse — and the Memphis Property Hub platform, which provides people and groups with actionable data.

In addition to this, Innovate Memphis is beginning work focused on food security and access, and digital literacy.

There’s a lot of work to do, and it’s work Lotz is excited to tackle — as a data person, as a people person, and as a Memphian.

“The big growth opportunity that excites me is being totally accountable for the strategy and priorities that we’re setting,” she said. “There’s a healthy amount of anxiety, of excitement … and having to ask myself, ‘How am I positioning this team for success?’ … I have long been a real advocate of wanting to figure out ways that I can very directly support success in Memphis. So that drives me.”

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