Matt Varilek became the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) on June 20, 2023. Since late 2016, he served as president of the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, which supports economic and community development in the 14 counties and two sovereign tribal nations of Central Minnesota. Previously, he was chief operating officer for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), regional administrator for U.S. SBA Region VIII, and a candidate for a South Dakota U.S. House seat. He also served as an economic development director and speechwriter for the offices of U.S. Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, and director of policy and research for Natsource LLC, an energy brokerage based in New York. Commissioner Varilek earned a B.A. from Carleton College, a M.Phil. in economic development from the University of Glasgow, and a M.Phil. in environment and development from the University of Cambridge.
What opportunities attracted you to take on the job as DEED commissioner?
Matt: Before I applied to become DEED commissioner, my wife and I decided we should talk about the opportunity with our three kids, Willa (14), Mae (12), and Rhys (8). That’s because we knew the job would increase the amount of time I’d spend away from home, and we didn’t want to take that on if there were any family objections. So, I said something like, “You know how proud I am of the ways we get to help people at [my former job as president of] the Initiative Foundation? Well just imagine if I could do many of those same things — helping business people get started or get financing to grow their business; helping current and future workers find good jobs and move up the career ladder into key sectors like manufacturing and childcare; providing funding for community infrastructure and projects that make Central Minnesota an even better place to raise a family — but with even more resources, and in all of Minnesota instead of just part of it.”
“Oh, and imagine I could do it as a teammate of Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (whom the kids have admired since meeting them at a childcare roundtable in Little Falls back in 2019).” I’m not totally sure my eight-year-old knew what I meant by “key sectors” and so forth. But overall, the kids thought that sounded like a pretty cool gig, and they blessed the idea of me submitting an application.
What are the top challenges that you have had to confront in your early days on the job, and how have you responded to them?
Matt: It’s a “One Minnesota” job, meaning DEED is supporting good work in every corner of the state. As a new leader at the agency, I wish I could be everywhere, meet everyone, and see everything all at once, so I could instantly be up to speed and have all the relationships one needs to have to make a difference. But of course, that’s not how it works — you can only be in one place at a time, and you’ve only got so many hours in a day to have those meetings, do those tours, get those briefings, forge those relationships. So, one challenge is weaving in a little patience to balance with the urgency and eagerness I have felt since learning I would have the honor of doing this job.
When it comes to economic challenges, we are so fortunate to have a really strong economy in Minnesota. You see it when you’re at a busy restaurant, a crowded concert, or a humming factory floor. And I see it when I look at statistics on the Minnesota economy, with steady job growth — and now six straight months of a growing labor force. Even so, demand for workers still far outstrips the supply. So, we’re very actively partnering with numerous stakeholders to grow that pipeline of workers.
Finally, I’ll add that we’re at a point where DEED and other state agencies have been provided historic levels of funding. We are working hard to get that funding out the door and put it to work in communities as quickly as possible — all while maintaining high integrity throughout this process, knowing that every taxpayer dollar is precious.
How did your experience with the Initiative Foundation/McKnight Foundation prepare you for your new job?
Matt: I should begin by calling out the fact that my time at the Initiative Foundation gave me the chance to partner extensively with Bob Kill and the great team at Enterprise Minnesota! Sponsoring and taking part in the Central Minnesota release of the State of Manufacturing® survey was an annual highlight for me, and one of the ways I tried to get smarter about what was on the mind of employers in a sector that is a source of such pride and so much prosperity in Minnesota.
In addition, when I first arrived at the Initiative Foundation, I was someone who had worked in the private sector and in government, but never in the nonprofit or philanthropic sectors. Leading the foundation for more than six years gave me an appreciation of all the ways those sectors have positive impacts on our communities.
My time there also provided a first-hand education on numerous economic and community development realities in Greater Minnesota, related to the foundation’s role as a small business lender, a trainer of entrepreneurs, an active partner on workforce development, childcare, community-based fundraising, and more. That’s all knowledge I try to use in my current role.
At the end of the day, how will you determine the level of your success in the job?
Matt: I start with our mission statement: “To empower the growth of the Minnesota economy, for everyone.” That’s what we’re working toward, and that’s how I measure our success. To measure success, I ask whether we are driving greater prosperity in Minnesota, and whether we are helping more Minnesotans contribute to and benefit from that prosperity.
Beyond that, we’re in implementation mode. We have the honor and great responsibility of deploying historic levels of appropriations for our existing programs and exciting new ones like paid family and medical leave, which we think is going to make Minnesota even more attractive to workers. So, we’re focused on implementing efficiently and professionally in a way that delivers maximum benefit for Minnesotans with the resources entrusted to us.
Featured story in the Winter 2023 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.