Plastics and career development entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg, a Democratic candidate for governor, has a dream
Author: Ernest Luning - January 8, 2018 - Updated: February 16, 2018
When Noel Ginsburg was 5 years old, he began spending time working the manufacturing line at his father’s pickle business in Arvada and says he fell in love with it. By the time he was in college at the University of Denver in the late 1970s, his father had sold the business he’d thought might be his some day, so Ginsburg set about coming up with something else to do.
That’s how he founded Intertech Plastics Inc., which started as a business plan for a school project and makes a variety of plastic products — including the ubiquitous Koala Baby Changing Stations and buckets restaurants use to transport mayonnaise and tartar sauce, one of the very first products the company made.
Ginsburg smiles as he leans back in his tidy office at the company’s north Denver plant — another company he bought a few years ago that uses injection molding to manufacture medical devices sits a couple miles west on Interstate 70 — and waves over to a bookshelf that holds an honorary degree from DU’s Graduate School of Social Work.
Ginsburg left college behind at the beginning of his senior year to start Intertech, he says, and never got his degree, but the school bestowed an honorary degree some years later to recognize the work he’s done in the community.
“My reasoning was not just to make things, which I love to do, but I view this company as a way to give back, and it’s done that,” he says. “And, fundamentally, it’s enabled me to run for office.”
While he’s worked on civic activities involving education and career training at the state and national level for more than two decades, it’s only been the last year or so he’s stepped back from day-to-day involvement at the business, since the Democrat announced he’s running for governor of Colorado. He’s one of five major candidates in a primary field that includes U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and former state Sen. Mike Johnston.
It was on a trip to Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, with then-Gov. Roy Romer to testify about school-to-work programs the two were working to encourage, that the seeds of a gubernatorial bid were first planted, but Ginsburg shrugs and says he didn’t pay it much mind at the time. They had just appeared on C-SPAN to talk about the role businesses can play developing a workforce when Romer turned to him nonchalantly, Ginsburg recalls, and said, “‘You’re going to be governor some day.’”
“It was a really cool thing that he said, but I didn’t connect it, it isn’t like a light bulb went on,” Ginsburg chuckles. “He thinks big, and he thinks long-term. I’ve been on this path a long time. I just didn’t know it.”
The work with Romer, a Democrat who served three terms, was his “first exposure to the power of the bully pulpit that he had” as governor, Ginsburg says, but he traces a straight path from helping found the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation in the late 1980s to his current work, spearheading CareerWise Colorado, an ambitious project that’s gone in just two years from conception to a full-blown pilot program pairing high school apprentices with businesses in five school districts around the state.
About 10 years after joining with Romer’s son, Chris Romer, to found the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation, which helps disadvantaged Denver metro students get through high school — like Ginsburg’s $20 million business, it started as a class project, this time in the Leadership Denver program — Ginsburg and his wife adopted 42 children from the South Lincoln housing projects and spent a decade mentoring them, eventually turning a 90-percent dropout rate into a 90-percent graduation rate. In the 10 years since, the Ginsburgs have kept in close touch with some, as he makes clear when he proudly displays photos of class members on his iPad.
“That experience is probably what sent me on a trajectory to do what I’m doing now and what I did with CareerWise,” he says. “The connection is, if you can turn a 90-percent dropout rate into a 90-percent graduation rate, can you do that for a city, for a state or even a country?”
He found the answer a little over two years ago, when he traveled to Switzerland and learned about that country’s apprenticeship model as part of his work chairing the Denver Public Schools College and Career Pathways Council.
“By the third day, it was I Have a Dream for a country, but not for some kids, it was for all kids. I was convinced that that was the answer that I’d been looking for but couldn’t find. It seemed too elusive, that you couldn’t make that big of a difference on that scale,” he says, pouring out the statistics in a rush. “But there, youth unemployment rate is 3.2 percent. It can be as high as 30 percent here in this country if you’re a minority. Starting wages are between $45-55,000. Kids enter into a career of their choice — it’s a starting point that 70 percent of the country still uses.” Ginsburg pauses for a breath and then keeps going. “Then about 30 percent go on to get a four-year degree. If you do both, your market value is 30 percent higher than if you just got a four-year degree.”
Quickly, he was able to encourage Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose administration Ginsburg had witnessed from the inside as part of a leadership group he’d helped found, and the ball was rolling. Hickenlooper led a delegation to Switzerland, was sold on the idea, and they raised $16 million in seed money and about $2 million worth of work donated by the McKinsey & Co. management consulting firm.
Students in Cherry Creek School District, Denver Public Schools, Jeffco Public Schools and Mesa County Valley School District 51 are already taking part in the program a couple of days a week, earning an apprenticeship wage, a high school diploma, college and an industry credential, and they’ll have a well-paying job waiting for them. (CareerWise also works with the Colorado Community College System and is expanding into the Eagle County Schools in the fall.)
“That’s the trajectory,” Ginsburg says, laying out the steps like the elements of an assembly line. “I founded I Have a Dream, and then found something that could really transform education in a way that needed changing — not in a way that they weren’t doing their job but, frankly, because business and industry wasn’t doing its, and this model enables us to do that. And it’s not a government program, it’s being paid for by business and industry.”
Hickenlooper’s approach to government and the doors that were open to him as governor — “you really can make a difference if you’re willing to use that bully pulpit,” Ginsburg says — prompted his to run for office after years of crossing paths with candidates and potential candidates, including a visit former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid to his factory for a tour and a discussion about workforce issues in 2014, before she launched her last presidential run.
“It isn’t that I’ve been involved in politics, it’s that I’ve been involved in issues that politicians are interested in,” Ginsburg said.
He turns his discussion to the political climate and whether there’s a place for a businessman-turned-politician who believes in government. At the conclusion of a recent editorial board meeting on the Western Slope, he says with a smile, one of the journalists turned to him and asked Ginsburg if he might be “too thoughtful and pragmatic” to actually win the governor’s race.
“That’s a good question,” he said with a modest shrug. “I believe that people are now looking for something a little bit different. They heard we’re going to build a wall, and Mexico’s going to pay for it. Is that really what they want, or do they want sound policy that’ll move this state forward?”