Newsmaker Q&A: A new role for Panda’s Jacob Castillo

Filling a role formerly held by the same person for more than 30 years is no easy task – especially when that person is Lew Wymisner. But Jacob Castillo feels he’s up to the task.

In November, the Larimer County Workforce Center hired the Fort Collins entrepreneur as its new economic development manager, Workforce Investment Board liaison and enterprise zone administrator – replacing Wymisner’s position with the county. The former vice president of the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. and Panda Bicycles founder originally left economic development to pursue an MBA at CSU, and is looking forward to getting back into a field he feels passionate about.

He shared with the Business Report his plans for the future of the LCWC, and what that means for his nationally-recognized bamboo bikes.

Question: Economic development manager, Workforce Investment Board liaison and enterprise zone administrator are fairly broad and arguably ambiguous titles. How would you define your role with the LCWC and what will that look like practically?

Answer: I have three primary functions. The first is the economic development manager. On this role I work with the board of commissioners, county leadership and other economic development organizations and personnel in the region to develop an inclusive economic development strategy that works well for all of the communities within the county and serves the needs of Larimer County residents. I will be working with businesses to better understand their needs as they consider expanding or relocating here, supporting other economic development agencies with labor market information, statistics and strategic workforce information.

The second role I have is the workforce investment board liaison. The WIB is a federally funded, state-administered and locally-controlled workforce development system that strives to address the workforce needs of local employers. Our board is made up of public- and private-sector individuals, who are all dedicated to finding workforce solutions to help Larimer County residents and Larimer County-based businesses.

One of the initiatives they’ve done in the past, for example, is working with local businesses and Front Range Community College to develop machinist and welding programs that directly addresses some of the skill gaps that we’re seeing in local businesses.

The third hat I wear is the enterprise zone administrator. We have state-designated enterprise zones within Larimer County that are designed to incentivize job creation, business growth and investment in capital equipment. The enterprise zones are also critical to nonprofit fundraising, as projects within the zone or that service the zone can opt to give contributors a 25 percent state tax credit. This helps keep money in our communities and delivers real value to many people that need it.

That said, I see all of my work falling under the economic development umbrella. And it is predominately working with the human side, which is really important to me. It has been a passion of mine to see the human side of economic development, matching workforce with business, and making sure the two are aligned.

Q: What are your goals for the center? Do you have any major changes in mind that we can look for in the next few years?

A: Part of my role at the workforce center is to bring the right people to the table so that we can have a meaningful conversation on how we develop the workforce of the future, starting now. It’s a lot of information-esprocessing and forward-thinking. If the only reason business can’t grow is they can’t find the right people, then there is an opportunity for us to help either find those people or work with others in the community to grow skills in our workforce to meet employers’ needs.

My goals are to work with the team here and the board of commissioners to define Larimer County’s role in economic development and to create a policy program that serves Larimer county businesses, and supports job creation for residents. If we can make forward progress on that, then we’ve done a good thing.

There are some very big shoes to fill from people that have previously been in the role in Larimer County and I think you’ll see we’ve revamped our business development program, so you’ll see more outreach to the business community and more friendly faces out talking to the business community to understand what they need so that we can help match those needs to people seeking jobs in the area.

Q: You’ve also started two successful companies already, and we heard you are working on a book. What will happen to Panda Bicycles and PowerMundo as you take on this new role? How will you prioritize between all the hats you wear?

A: In regards to PowerMundo, I am almost completely hands-off. That company spun out of work I was doing with a friend and business partner out of the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise program at CSU, but I’ve been hands-off for a number of years. Regarding the book, I was doing some co-authorship and editing support for a textbook with a professor at CSU and that project is thankfully complete now.

My main priority is the Larimer County Workforce Center and the role as economic development manager. This is where I am at every day. Although I still am involved in Panda, we are finding someone who can do the day-to-day operations and help move the company to the next level. We are looking for someone who has experience in the startup environment and knows how to grow a company from something young and exciting to something older and even more exciting. So I am in the throws right now of raising some investment capital and talking to some skilled entrepreneurs who can help run the organization.

Q: How will the entrepreneurial experience you have be a benefit to the role you’ll be serving with the workforce?

A: Running a business gives you an amazing skill set in terms of practicing the art of triage on a regular basis and understanding time management and organization. Those are just some basic skills that come from managing a small company. One of the other things I think is advantageous is making sure that businesses can find the right people, because I know how important it is to have the right people at all levels. Also having that network of people in the business community that we can reach out to as the workforce center, and again understand what businesses need from an employment standpoint.

Q: Why is the role of the workforce center a crucial one in Larimer County, worthy of tax payers’ dollars at a time when many are strapped for cash?

A: I’ve known and had the pleasure of working with the workforce center even back in my time at the NCEDC. But it was not until I came on board that I saw the breadth of amazing things that this organization does. The Larimer County Workforce Center annually sees over 20,000 people. Thousands of businesses are touched by what we do. We work with targeted populations like veterans, people that have been laid off, youth and people on public assistance, and all of the work that the amazing people here are engaged in every day is transitioning in a meaningful way to positions that are making a positive difference in their lives and in our community. I’ve been blown away by the things that this organization is able to accomplish on a daily basis.

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