Season 1 / Episode 8
Early Life and Foundation
Executive director and lead maker of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub Chris Jones, Ph.D. says his parents instilled in him at an early age to make the most out of what is in front of him. The Pine Bluff native could be found doing research at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, long before he was college-aged. He was also at ballgames building entrepreneurial skills selling popcorn, hot dogs, and sodas.
“My parents exposed us to as much as they could with a modest upbringing,” Jones said. “I learned early on what it means to do research, what it means to unpack a question, and how to navigate different social environments.”
Jones says those early experiences, combined with his faith in God, encouraged him to “look up and look out,” and served as a foundation to his success.
“Thinking back on my childhood, my parents tried hard to get us to see that there is value in every human,” Jones said. “They taught me to show up as my authentic self every day. And when I marry that experience with going to Morehouse and being surrounded by people who look like me, it gave me a sense of comfort in my own skin…to show up as Chris, because – at the end of the day – God created me. If I don’t show up as me, then there will never be another me on this planet.”
Jones holds Bachelor of Science degrees (mathematics and physics) from Morehouse College, where he received a full scholarship from NASA and served as student body president.
“I’ve been inspired by a huge range of folks,” Jones said. “Of course Dr. [Martin Luther] King was one of them. That’s why, as a child, I always wanted to go to Morehouse. Fun fact: I only applied to Morehouse.”
He earned master’s degrees in nuclear engineering and in technology and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a doctorate in urban studies and planning from MIT.
NASA astronaut and physicist Ronald McNair was another inspiration for young Jones. Jones was among the estimated millions of students watching from classrooms as the Challenger space shuttle launched and subsequently exploded. McNair was on that flight along with six others, including the first teacher selected to go to space, Christa McAulifee.
“In my generation, the Challenger became a really defining moment for us,” Jones said. “My response at that moment was to want to go to MIT. I only applied to MIT for grad school.”
Jones later became assistant dean for graduate education at MIT. In that role, he led efforts that doubled minority enrollment and more than tripled minority applications to MIT graduate programs.
“The fight for representation and inclusion continues. With that being said, I have a view of MIT that starts in 1999 and goes into today. As a student, alum, and administrator, I can say that the amount of support has increased. The way in which MIT engages with the minority community has improved significantly,” Jones said. “But there is still ground to cover. There are students that will say to me, ‘Chris, the struggle is still real.’”
It is in MIT’s original mission to train people to do good in society. The school’s motto, mens et manus, is Latin for “mind and hand” and reflects the ideals of founders who promoted education for practical application.
“In the last 25 years, the culture began to add the heart,” Jones said. “And it became ‘mind, hand, and heart.’ It’s important to get to the heart of things…the heart of the institution and the heart of the individual.
Presidential Leadership Scholars Program
The Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program is for individuals who have the skills, values, and motivation to become a special kind of leader. Jones is one of 60 Scholars (one of three Arkansans) for the sixth annual class.
The leaders collaborate in the PLS program and learn more about leadership through the presidential experiences of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Over the course of six months, the Scholars travel to each participating presidential center to learn from former presidents and other influential leaders.
About a year ago, a college friend, who was a PLS participant from New York, texted Jones to tell him he was in Arkansas.
“He had never been to Arkansas before, and I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ That’s when he told me about the program and said, ‘You really need to look into it.’ I did. And I saw there were a number of folks who I highly respected that had gone through it.”
Jones initially thought PLS was a great opportunity to learn leadership principles and more about the presidents but soon found out it was much more than that.
“I began to reach out to people I knew who were in the program and discovered from our conversations that it is an experience that’ll have you to not only connect outward but to also look inward in a really deep way,” Jones said.
After the first session on Jan. 28, Jones learned that he would be given quality time to work on a project.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute.’ Because on a day-to-day basis, I have 100 million things coming at me. There’s not time to stop and think deeply about almost anything. This is an opportunity to pause and think deeply about something that really matters.”
Jones’ project is the Mobile Maker Space, the traveling Innovation Hub. He’s excited about connecting with resources to make the project sustainable and collaborating with other brilliant minds to make it a reality.
“What I found after the first session is that transformational doesn’t even begin to describe the experience,” Jones said. “Most significantly, you get a bunch of folks – and I’m not including myself as much – who are superstars: founders, surgeons, inventors, etc. I’m looking at their bios and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I messed up. How did I slip through?!’
“I’m already impressed by everybody that comes in the room. But what is more impressive is that every person left their ego and their resume at the door. It was a real encouragement to lean in and connect with a broad range of folks and build networks that will last a lifetime.”
From Jones’ early days of research and building entrepreneurial skills at UAPB to his 20-plus years of experience in energy and infrastructure to rubbing shoulders with some of the nation’s greatest minds in the PLS program, Jones traces it all back to his upbringing and his belief that talent exists everywhere. There just needs to be an opportunity.
“People who really want to make a difference in the world are like charcoal on a barbecue grill. You can have one coal that is on fire, lit. But if it’s sitting alone in a corner, it will die out. The only way you can sustain the heat is to pile the charcoal together. Some of us are wood chips. Some of us are big charcoal blocks.”
But at the end of the day, Jones says, bringing all of the chips and the charcoal together will create the hottest fire.
“That brings me back to the fact that we need to look up and look out. Connect with the other charcoal around me that may not be in the PLS program. How can we all come together and be on fire? They don’t all look like me, or believe the same things I believe in. But we’re all on fire and we all want to make a difference in this world.”
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