In an effort to shed light on black leadership, we have brought to our readers Dannette R. Smith, CEO, of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Anthony L. Goins, Director of the Department of Economic Development, two members of the cabinet of the State of Nebraska. 

Dannette Smith and Tony Goins were respectively appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Department of Health and Human Services for the state of Nebraska and Director of Economic Development by Governor Pete Ricketts in 2019. They have been pivotal in helping to bring the governor’s vision to life in their different areas. We enjoyed having the opportunity to sit with them. Read on!

Q: Can you share a little bit about your role as CEO of Health and Human services for the state of Nebraska?

Dannette: Absolutely. Thank you for having us. It has been an honor to serve the State of Nebraska. As you may probably know, we are the largest code agency with approximately 4,800 staff. I oversee five (5) divisions, which are: Behavioral Health, Development Disabilities, Medicaid Long-Term Care, Child and Family Services and Public Health. We have a budget of $3.5 billion dollars. I am very business minded so I try to make sure that I couple the business world with being a good public servant in my service to Nebraskans. 

When asked about his role as the director of the Department of Economic Development for the State of Nebraska, Tony Goins boldly and confidently stated that “My Department supports the vision to grow Nebraska. I work with a team of anywhere from 70 to 100 individuals who come to work every day with a mindset to help create a good life for every citizen of our state.” Tony further expounded on some steps undertaken in the plan to grow Nebraska. He stated: “For example, we’ve got an entire Business Development division that focuses on attracting job creators and promoting business expansion. We pursue international trade and export growth; Nebraska does a lot of business with Germany, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, et cetera, and the export of our beef and agricultural products is central to our economy. As you know, two of our largest sectors are agriculture and manufacturing. But let me be clear, Nebraska is also a tech state. Agtec, manufacturing tech, fintech, insurance tech, sports tech — tech is a huge economic driver for Nebraska that often goes unmentioned. In addition, we have a business innovation team that focuses on entrepreneurship. We also focus on affordable housing, workforce talent, and other critical economic issues. 

Q: How do you align your core value to this type of organization?

Dannette: We make sure that we communicate with everybody. I try to make the work we do personal. Servitude is about individualized service to each person. Thant means good leadership from top up and bottom down and ensuring that the staff knows they are a part of the solution to helping Nebraskans live better lives. 

Dannette spoke extensively on the importance of communication within her teams. She emphasized it several times as being a core value in her approach to her work and to her staff. To her, good communication and developing good relationship is fundamental because inside these good relationships, good things happen to (and for) the people of Nebraska.

The passion emanating from her was contagious. You could feel the value she places on the human relation aspect of her work. Every staff member mattered and must be in the loop of what the goals for the department were to deliver great services to the Nebraskans. 

We desired to know more about the resources available to assist entrepreneurs. We ventured there with a question to Tony. 

Q: What types of resources are available to push and promote entrepreneurship in Nebraska?

Tony: There are abundant resources and organizations in our state devoted to helping entrepreneurs succeed. For example, we partner closely with a nonprofit called Invest Nebraska whose mission involves helping entrepreneurs launch and obtain startup capital. The Nebraska Business Development Center is another great example. These organizations aren’t just about funding, but solid business planning and preparation. One of the key things about entrepreneurship is that acceptance of capital should be predicated by real preparation. That shows banks that entrepreneurs are serious in their endeavors. Do you have a solid business plan? Do you have a financial forecast plan? Do you have a marketing plan? What is your value proposition? If you are starting a business, my Department can help you connect with a wide number of groups for help achieving your goals. 

Dannette and Tony work hand in hand as they strive to ensure that Nebraskans are taken care of and can live their best lives in the State. To Dannette, their work is more than just handing out benefits, it’s transforming a life. 

Now, how can we sit with the CEO of the DHHS without tackling the pandemic? We had an opportunity to pick their brains about Covid-19, the new Omicron variant and we went for it.

Q: What has been Nebraska’s response toward the new Covid variant?

Dannette: I have been very pleased. During the pandemic, we’ve been learning and building. We quickly had to mobilize and ensure we delivered good and sound information to all Nebraskans. We were also prepared to deliver information about the vaccines and boosters and sharing the important information on how the vaccines are saving lives. Under the Governor’s leadership, we took the right steps to protect Nebraskans. We also made sure testing was free for all Nebraskans.

Dannette accentuated the importance of being vaccinated. She stated that the Department had been heavily involved in getting the word out about the importance of vaccination. Although the decision to being vaccinated is personal, Dannette feels the need for every Nebraskan to have sufficient information and make their decision accordingly. Dannette did not fail to mention the tremendous work of the department’s healthcare partners who are on the frontlines working diligently to saving lives.  At the time of this interview, over 577 people were in the hospital and ICUs were overbooked and most of that was due to people not being vaccinated. At the time of publication, 68 beds are Covid occupied and 7 of those are ICU beds. 

Tony continued with the below from his department’s perspective as far as the economic aspect of Nebraska’s response towards the pandemic.

Tony: One of the things I am most proud of is that my team worked around the clock to distribute over $400 million in grants from the CARES Act to help small business owners and our industries make it through an incredibly challenging time. We were able to help over 14,000 small businesses and livestock producers keep their doors open by way of those programs. I would go as far as to say we probably distributed CARES funding to businesses as fast or faster than any other state in the country. At the same time, Nebraska was officially recognized by Bloomberg as distributing Paycheck Protection Program support more quickly on a per capita basis than any other state. That took a coordinated effort involving the SBA, the Governor, myself and the Nebraska Banking Association; we got on the phone with over 200 banks across Nebraska to conduct logistics and help them get those resources out the door as efficiently as possible. 

To that, Dannette added the distribution of benefits such as childcare, nutrition, benefits for the homeless. The pandemic pushed the Department out of their comfort zone and enabled them to get creative in their approach. What Dannette recalls being one of the actions she is proudest of is the level of communication her division leaders made to the community. Dannette relates it in these terms “They were committed to providing great communication and service. Everybody was leveraging their strength and their ability to work together to help Nebraska.”

Tony: Our tactics were extremely intentional because that’s what business is about. And we saw the results in the form of resilience through adversity. Nebraska had the lowest unemployment rate in US history in 2021. Though many people have suffered tragic losses and setbacks during the pandemic, comparatively we’ve been extremely resilient in Nebraska, and faster to rebound and restore jobs. We’ve been able to get our communities and families back to work. We were also able to safeguard and successfully manage our hospital capacity in the interest of public health and safety. That’s something that Governor Ricketts — as well as Danette Smith and DHHS, and many others — deserve tremendous credit for. The people of Nebraska also deserve credit for being able to adapt to challenging circumstances, such as masks and social distancing, while staying strong and compassionate for their fellow citizens.   

Both departments still have all hands on deck and the focus right now on the Omicron variant. Dannette reminded us that the State of Nebraska had no Mask Mandate. However, several campaigns were carried out about the importance of wearing a mask and this drove Nebraskans to get serious about wearing their masks. She wishes more people would get vaccinated as she reminisced Nebraska being among the first states to have their senior citizens partially/fully vaccinated at over 60%.

Navigating a pandemic isn’t easy. In moments where everything seemed stale and halted, results are still required, progress is still demanded. It is in this vein that Tony pointed out that his department never forgot about growth in the midst of the pandemic. He went on stating this: “We’re deploying strategic marketing to encourage growth. We have executed a national marketing campaign, The Good Life is Calling, to rebrand Nebraska as a technology state and a diverse opportunity state where anyone can succeed. The goal is to attract more people and jobs. The story of Nebraska is under-told and under-sold, and we are going to bring that story to people all over the U.S. I hope anyone reading this article will visit thegoodlifeiscalling.com to see our campaign in action.

According to Tony, it’s important for Nebraska to emphasize its diversity and “Do More Good” mentality. The North and South areas of Nebraska will be two focus areas as far as areas of development are concerned – helping black and brown small businesses grow in order for them to contribute to the overall growth of the state.  The Health and Human Services just launched their business plans where the focus is on the poor areas. The sole purpose is to help people be self-sufficient and within a reach of needed benefits. A website was developed and made accessible to the communities (iservenebraska) where people in need can apply for benefits. To provide good options to the Nebraskans, new bids are being placed on requests for proposal for Medicaid. Dannette’s programs are designed to help each Nebraskan advance their lives.

Tony concluded by saying he believes economic inclusion is key to solving social issues.  

“We must lead initiatives that produce professional careers, largely driven by technology. Tech jobs at scale create economically sound communities and promote talent growth. Great paying careers, along with support for entrepreneurs, are levers to close the economic gap and create self-sufficient citizens. This intentionality will ensure that North and South Omaha are real participants in The Good Life. 

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