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Interview with our Chief Operations Officer

Updated: May 26

Our COO, Alex Topalovic, had a great time sharing the Digital Leader story with Hunter Guthrie from enFocus!

Alex, thank you for taking the time to elaborate on the work you’ve been doing to provide improved and accessible digital literacy resources to a broader community. How did you become interested in resolving the problem of digital literacy?

It all started during my internships in the food and automotive industries. A few rotations between accounting, production, and logistics departments helped me notice not only the potential of digitalization but also a major concern. Most of the companies are focused on improving their machinery and automation, but there was not enough focus on the major factor of this process: the value of human skills and abilities. This realization later inspired me to write a research paper on digitalization in manufacturing and ultimately to start working on a viable educational solution to resolve these macroeconomic challenges.

Why did you choose enFocus and the South Bend - Elkhart region as the launch  point for this idea?

I chose enFocus because it gave me the opportunity to work on this passion of mine, not only through a large regional project but also through the entrepreneurial time allotment afforded to enFocus employees--something we call “30% time.” Similar to Google’s 20/80 model, enFocus allows its employees to utilize 30% of their time by working on innovative solutions that would primarily (but not exclusively) impact the South Bend - Elkhart region. This rare opportunity to develop not only specific but also holistic skills early in my career made enFocus a perfect environment for creating meaningful community impact while accelerating professional and personal growth.

How has your ‘30% time’ enabled you to advance your startup?

Devoting salaried hours to this personally-developed initiative has created more time in my day to complete tasks. I don’t need to add two or three hours to my workday to make some calls or hunker down and design this program--though, admittedly, sometimes I do anyway. Still, aside from this time-saving benefit, enFocus has also proven to be a very supportive environment for me--both internally and externally. enFocus’ agile culture makes interdisciplinary collaboration extremely viable; we can easily access and consult other Fellows, our Second-Year Fellows, our Leadership Team, and our Board Members--all of whom have distinct passions, interests, skills, and expertise. During my market research, I was advised by colleagues and Board Members who have an immense amount of technical knowledge, and others who have spent a number of years in public education. Such diverse expertise might be found in larger corporations--but you often don’t get to meet all of your coworkers at these sorts of places. Because of this key difference, enFocus employees have great networks that include distinguished community influencers and leaders. The fact that enFocus collaborates closely with the University of Notre Dame has also opened a lot of doors for me. These resources and network effects have helped me develop a fantastic start-up team that I wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise.

What is the Digital Leader Academy, and what makes it stand out when compared to similar programs?

While there are many extracurricular programs that focus on specific skills such as pure coding, our goal is to democratize education on technology, innovation, and leadership by bringing these three concepts directly from business leaders to teachers in high school. By doing so, we are able to develop what we call Digital Leaders: students who are not only interested in pursuing STEM degrees later in college but are also directly employable in technology and business fields right after high school. To achieve this outcome, the Digital Leader Academy provides a fully-developed emerging technology curricula that removes learning barriers through a digital platform and easy-to-use manuals for teachers. We're seeing an increasing need for career and technical education to prepare young folks for the workforce rather than college. This program is unique because it encourages either option simultaneously; students who attend colleges will be better prepared than their peers to take on collegiate coursework, and students who want to go straight to work will have met the baseline requirements for entry-level positions.

What work are you doing now, and when do you imagine this program could start rolling out?

We are currently developing the Business Analyst curriculum which focuses on artificial intelligence and will be piloted at Riley High School in South Bend in the Fall. This course is one that can prepare high school students for entry-level positions in the workforce, specifically in the business field. We’re really excited to get started!

Lastly, we are living in unprecedented times with the novel coronavirus impacting our daily lives and, in some cases, our long-term plans. How do you envision a program like the Digital Leader Academy could benefit young folks as we navigate this crisis and discover “the new normal?"

Even before the pandemic, we saw an increase in digital learning and e-learning days--especially as a means to make up for lost time surrounding weather-related school closings. So, as the world is adopting more digital, or remote, work technologies, we purposely wanted to develop a program that could thrive in this transition by offering flexibility, both in terms of catering to different learning styles and in providing different options for content delivery. The teachers can decide how much they want to utilize the digital learning platform which comes along with our all of our content. The students can also do their homework and ask questions on-the-go via any browser-enabled device. So, the program is tailor-made to fit into this digital movement, and will be readily-implementable during times like these when it is ready.

Thanks for sharing this information with us, Alex. The Digital Leader Academy seems like an exciting opportunity that is well-positioned to do a lot of good for our region--and maybe beyond. Where can people go to contribute or to learn more?

Thanks for having me! Yes, we would love to get some feedback. Anyone interested in the program can email me at alex@digitalleader.tech. Our website should be launching soon!

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