NJII Monthly Employee Spotlight: Interview with Lauren Baldino VP of People, Development, and Culture at NJII

2024 has already been a year of significant transformation for New Jersey Innovation Institute.  This transformational trend started last summer and as the pace accelerates, it continues to spur growth and opportunity.  NJII has a vision to double in size and retain top talent, to support this, Human Resources leadership recognized the need to adapt.  Lauren Baldino took on the mission to evolve the HR department to ‘People, Development, and Culture’.  Just 60 days into this initiative, Lauren is already impacting the quality of employee experience.  We sat down with Lauren to learn more about her journey.

Q: How long have you been with NJII? Since then, what changes have you noticed in the organization?

A: Since September 2022. I’ve seen a significant amount of changes. The first year of my employment we did not have a president, so that was a challenging time. But since Michael Johnson joined, I think we’ve had an upward trajectory that’s just been sensational. I think he’s brought clear vision and a lot of strategic goals, but also being very mindful about the employee experience.

Q: How does NJII stand out from some of the other companies/organizations you’ve worked for?

A: NJII is a great sale. I’m an NJIT alum, so I take a lot of pride in the education that’s offered by the University. So given that we’re a wholly owned subsidiary, there’s a lot of pride that I’m able to emulate and convey to prospective candidates; it’s such a hidden gem in the heart of Newark. I encourage anyone who can to come onsite because it’s truly just a beautiful campus, and it’s grown exponentially since I’ve been here. Our company, built on the four divisions, is an intriguing opportunity built around innovation and how we can leverage technology to help different industries.  We offer a robust employee benefit package as well, so I think in tandem between what we offer and what the university offers, we are a very intriguing opportunity for candidates. We have some really driven people working toward the same mission… some truly incredible leaders who are excited about their teams, and guiding people along this journey. The organization offers a lot, but I think the people behind it are really the key. That’s the secret.

Q: About your promotion and your new role. When you first learned about your new role, what challenges did you anticipate?

A: Good question. I think that the first challenge is taking a step back. We wanted to re-position ‘Human Resources’ to ‘People, Development, Culture’ to align with the strategic goals. It’s not the antiquated version that HR used to be, just this perfunctory division that would send out offer letters and what not. We wanted to encapsulate the employee experience and improve upon it, taking what these leaders are doing and bringing it to the next level. Find the best talent, retain them, give them the best skills, and then have growth. So, what are the challenges? ‘What can I do to best support my team while they’re on this mission?’ To be able to guide them and make sure they feel supported in a high-performance environment. I think the cross-section between performance and feeling appreciated is something I’m very mindful of.

Q: Has anything surprised you since you took over?

A: Even back in September 2022, I feel the people are exceptional here. Everyone is mission focused; it’s just a common theme throughout. Every division you speak to, the leaders, those who work in the division, there’s a lot of passion in what we do. Given that we’re a nonprofit, people are really excited about what we’re able to do for the community at large. I think that’s something that really speaks to me.

Q: In your words, what’s the difference between ‘HR’ and ‘People, Development, Culture’?

A: I think it’s just the direction that we’re going. So, ‘Human Resources’ I think is a stockpile of forms, dos and don’ts, handbooks, procedures, policies – what you need to do at a bare minimum to support your team. As we transition to ‘People, Development, and Culture’ it’s what we can do retain the best talent, to give the support that they need so they’re challenged and able to fully do the role in this next stratosphere we’re going into.

Q: Do you think other companies are seeing the same trends and making those changes as well?

A: Oh, absolutely. I think when you look at the entire employee landscape, a lot of companies are realizing that people have options, even with this market volatility. There’s a lot of places they can choose, so I think those employers that are truly people-centric really take a step back and say, ‘what can we do to improve the experience?’ So, we’re certainly not the first to reposition, but I think we took a lot of mindfulness with the way we’re approaching this.

Q: What upcoming programs/projects excite you the most?

A: January we focused on wellness, and so we had not only reminders and ideas for physical wellness, but we also talked about financial wellness. So, we had advisors come in from Morgan Stanley to talk about some best practices. They’ve also extended by offering different resources in the future. Again, I think we’re looking at the employee experience from a full 360.

We also incorporated monthly celebrations where we’re recognizing those milestones in people’s lives. Michael Johnson has started with the town halls, which is a great people-centriq initiative to communicate from his mouth to the employees.

Even before Michael started, he was on campus, connecting with people. He hit the ground running and just hasn’t stopped. He’s definitely brought the two sides of the street between NJIT and NJII together, and it’s identified that NJII is the best kept secret in New Jersey. There’s not a lot of people who know about us, which is great because we’re doing all this amazing work without even a ton of people knowing who we are yet.

One thing I use as a recruiting tool, but it’s the truth: this is not only a great organization to work for, but this is an exciting time to work here. There are so many organizations out there who are pulling back or cutting back; we’re not. We have this great trajectory, we’re on this great ride.

Q: Last question. One word to describe your experience at NJII?

A: Transformational. We can do so much; the sky is the limit.