Steve Grove is a collaborative kind of guy. Even the Minnesota state tattoo on his rib cage was a group effort.
His dad, brother and brother-in-law sport the same one. "I never thought I'd get a tattoo. But doing it with your family? It's a special bond," he said.
Grove — a former Google executive who's now head of Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) — grew up as the oldest of four kids in Northfield. The 41-year-old ran track and worked summers at his dad's landscaping business.
Today a visit to his old hometown means a walk down memory lane — one he literally built. There are the library stairs that gave him grief, the flagstone path just off Cedar Avenue, plus patio floors, ponds and retaining walls all over Northfield.
"While I love technology and the scale and impact of Google," he said, "there is something about tangible, hands-on work where you get to see what you built that is so satisfying."
The former reporter, Google and YouTube executive is the first to admit his path to government is unusual. But he's betting he'll construct something fresh.
"This is definitely an opportunity for me to bring a new set of eyes into the government sector and see what we can do," said Grove, who most recently led Google's $300 million Google News Initiative.
At DEED, he will run a $582 million agency that runs job training and employment plus economic development programs. Grove's goal is to use DEED's arsenal of job creation and training grants and company partnerships to erase wage disparities, training gaps and to help startups and businesses that struggle to find skilled labor.
"We do want Minnesota to be on the map as a great hub for innovative companies to grow. We want our Fortune 500s to thrive and to weather this transition to a digital economy," Grove said. "We want the next crop of Fortune 500s to get started here."
When Grove moved back to Minnesota about a year ago, Walz was on his mind. After graduate school at Harvard, he campaigned for Walz during Walz's 2006 congressional run, and the two had stayed in touch. By fall, Grove was volunteering again, this time for Walz's gubernatorial race. When Walz was elected, Walz said he knew just the guy he wanted to lead DEED.
Walz recalled that in 2006 YouTube wasn't yet a household name, yet Grove convinced Walz to upload video of his campaign stops.
"No one was doing this at the time," Walz said. "Steve was young and visionary and very operational about how you could use technology to connect with people. I loved the mix of passion and vision and optimism but also his ability to operationally make [those connections] happen."
Over the years, Walz said he watched Grove ratchet up those efforts as he worked for YouTube and Google but also through school visits when Grove personally got youths and people of color interested in technology and its high-paying careers. Grove runs a technology camp for Twin Cities teens.
After winning the election, Walz called Grove and told him he needed his skills to help narrow Minnesota's maddening job-skills gap.
"I called Steve and made the pitch," Walz recalled. "I was mindful of finding a leader who understands the values of investing in talent, who has experience with the business community and who is an innovative leader. I was such a believer that he was the one who could bridge our opportunity gap. "
Grove spent 12 years at Google and nearly 20 years in California before moving back to Minnesota in April 2018 for mostly family reasons. (He's the father of 2-year-old twins.) But he said Silicon Valley also "was becoming a bit of a bubble."
Grove's wife, Mary — another former Google executive who now runs a Minneapolis office for Rise of the Rest, a venture capital firm created by AOL founder Steve Case — said the return to his home state was inevitable.
"Steve bleeds Minnesota blood through and through," she said. "I joke there is a microchip where everyone from Minnesota is programmed to [one day] move back."
Grove's shift into government work also makes sense, she said. He has wondered how technology can help government — make it more efficient and data-driven, more transparent and build more private-public partnerships, she said.
Grove conducted "listen and learn tours" with technology and government leaders in Minnesota during Walz's campaign to identify state needs and how Grove could use his experience to help. He said he jumped at the chance to be DEED commissioner.
"We had the opportunity to really put down roots in a community that we wanted to invest in on the ground level. That was a big part of the move here," he said. "The other part was really Walz. I am just a big fan of the governor. His vision for the state is one I really share. Whenever you are making a big move like that [across the country] and especially to leave the private sector for government, you really have to believe in who you work for."
Grove hopes he can help Walz spur a "strong innovation culture."
"We have some technology growth, but no one would say Minnesota is the super technology epicenter of the country," he said.
Grove embraces Walz's plans for a Minnesota Innovation Center and restoring the Minnesota Angel Tax Credit to help fund startups. Grove also wants to improve internet access in rural areas and for inner-city students who don't always get early or adequate computer training. Those "opportunity gaps" must end, he said.
Because he spent years forming thousands of educational and news partnerships through Google and through his Silicon North Stars technology camp, Grove said he knows that technology and innovation is a forceful economic development tool and job creator.
Grove also hopes to help erase Minnesota's racial and geographic disparities.
Minnesota has "some of the worst income disparities between whites and people of color in the country. That is an embarrassing fact," said Grove, noting that minority unemployment is significantly higher than the state's total 3.1 percent rate.
Lowering minority unemployment "will be an emphasis of this administration," he said.
The half year Grove spent as a volunteer agricultural researcher in rural India and Thailand after college made Grove sensitive to the pangs of poverty and the mind-boggling gaps between wealth and deprivation.
"Seeing the poor on the doorstep of such great wealth was difficult to see," he said. "It was life-changing."
Fueled Collective CEO Kyle Coolbroth, who is on the Silicon North Stars board, said Grove's aptitude for empathy and action has been impressive.
"Steve is one of those rare leaders. It doesn't matter if you are the CEO of Google or an about-to-be high school student in Minneapolis Public Schools," Coolbroth said. "He has the ability to be completely present with them. To take the time and apply the energy. That comes from the heart. You can't fake that."
Grove developed his passion for technology and innovation as he discovered YouTube. He was finishing his master's degree at Harvard in 2006 and was about to travel to Vietnam, Georgia, Serbia and Africa to see foreign politics up close.
Grove wanted to film what he saw and approached Harvard with an idea. He would make news videos abroad that should appeal to Harvard students and post them on YouTube. Harvard liked the idea so much it helped fund his trip.
That summer, former U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Republican from Virginia, was filmed making a racial slur during a campaign stop. That YouTube video went viral, instantly downshifting Allen's political trajectory.
Grove called that a unique moment in internet history, calling YouTube a way to hold politicians accountable.
He pitched the idea of doing that full time for YouTube (which Google bought in November 2006) and quickly became YouTube employee No. 85. At YouTube, Grove partnered with CNN and CBS, bringing citizen journalists into political debates, on campaign trails and into the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions. He drove the annual White House interviews where regular citizens got to ask former President Barack Obama questions live or via video.
"Obama become the first YouTube president," Grove said. "A good part of what I did at Google was to help companies [and politics] transition to a digital world. We were all about helping our partners improve."