Chris Jones attended two of the most prestigious institutes of post-secondary education in the country, picking up multiple degrees at both of them: the historically Black Morehouse College, where he earned bachelor's degrees in physics and mathematics, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned master's degrees in nuclear engineering and technology and policy before deciding to stick around and get a doctorate in urban studies and planning.
“I’ve been deeply rooted in Arkansas. I wanted to go out and explore and learn and grow. But I’ve always known that I wanted to come back home. Home never left.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
His resume reveals a slew of leadership positions, publications, honors and other accomplishments that would make some more famous than he feel like slackers.
Although he'd been determined since childhood to attend Morehouse and MIT, Jones was equally as determined to return to his beloved home state.
"I've been deeply rooted in Arkansas," he says. "I wanted to go out and explore and learn and grow. But I've always known that I wanted to come back home. Home never left."
Jones, 43, not only found a role that utilizes all the degrees he has earned; he found the perfect opportunity to do so. At home.
Since 2018, he has served as executive director and lead maker of the North Little Rock-based, nonprofit Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. Part of Winrock International, the Innovation Hub promotes and encourages innovative ideas among, and creates opportunities for entrepreneurs, students and other makers with an aim toward expanding Arkansas' "economic ecosystem."
The organization provides tools, technology, equipment, education and programs for makers of all ages, interests and skill levels, including classes and workshops covering everything from sign design and 3D printing to welding (with virtual classes now available due to covid-19).
The Innovation Hub had recently announced construction of a solar power plant with Scenic Hills Solar. That work slowed down due to covid-19, but the project is getting a restart.
"What I love about the Innovation Hub," Jones says, "is that I get the benefit of ... working with youth, of working with adults, working with entrepreneurs, working with engineers, working with makers, [and also] focusing on the broader-systems change that needs to happen."
The Innovation Hub's goal is twofold, he says.
"One is, we want to help build the infrastructure and the networking systems so that every kid in every corner of the state could be exposed to exciting and engaging science, technology, engineering, arts and math experiences."
Right now, they're creating a virtual experience for these children via partnerships with museums, the zoo, the Clinton Foundation and Arkansas PBS.
"The other thing is, how do we unleash enormous untapped potential that's living locally? For us, that means ... the Arkansas Maker Task Force" -- the utilization of local makers to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to Arkansas health-care workers, first responders and others at modest prices.
In addition to marrying all his degrees in one role, Jones has managed to marry his science with his faith and his considerable accomplishments with humility.
Linda Work of Pine Bluff, a retired teacher who taught Jones' civics and gifted and talented classes at Watson Chapel, describes her former student as "respectful, loyal, with a high moral character [and] who will listen to you. ... Chris is an exceptional role model."
'MADE' IN SOUTHEAST ARKANSAS
One of six siblings (including two half-siblings), Jones was born and reared in Pine Bluff. His parents, Beverly and Leon Jones Sr., are ministers -- as well as an educator and insurance sales representative, respectively -- so he enjoyed the benefits of blood and church family. He grew up spending a lot of time in the Delta town of Hughes as well as the south Arkansas towns of Stephens, McNeil and Magnolia, from where his parents' families hail.
Jones credits his parents with instilling in him and his siblings "the understanding that we were created by God, and He created us for something special. And that something special has to be centered around serving others. ... We always were taught to love our neighbor as ourselves."
Another thing Jones credits his parents for: exposing him to horizon-broadening experiences. Even as a child, he was a scholar, doing research at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. "I always loved solving problems and creating new things," he adds.
As a youngster, he saw the biggest problem in the world as a dual one: energy and environmental pollution.
In middle school, Jones even wrote a book -- "The Day the Earth Died" -- "about what we were doing to the planet. [I warned that] if we didn't make some decisions to solve the problem, then we could end up in a situation we can't reverse."
Because Jones loved science and wanted to do work that related to energy, he decided to major in physics in college. Even as an eighth-grader -- having been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- he wanted to attend King's alma mater, Morehouse. And he wanted to go to MIT because he was inspired by one of its earlier notable graduates: Dr. Ronald McNair, the Black astronaut who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster.
"And then I wanted to become an astronaut," Jones says. "And while doing that, I wanted to solve the world's energy problem."
Suitably high goals for someone who was a true renaissance man even during his days at Watson Chapel High School, where he excelled academically, played quarterback on the football team, ran the 400 in track, acted in school plays and sang in the choir. He graduated in 1995 as one of the top in his class.
OPEN DOOR OF OPPORTUNITY
Because his parents couldn't afford the education he envisaged, Jones knew he would have to leave it to God. He received a full ride to Morehouse -- a National Aeronautics and Space Administration scholarship. Jones would be required to do research at NASA during the summer.
"You can't make that up, man. God orchestrated that in an amazing way." Although he didn't become an astronaut he had the opportunity to work for one during his summer internships at NASA, working on a gas injection system for a rocket that would go to Mars.
Jones served as student government association president at Morehouse. After graduating in 1999, it was on to MIT. A year and a half later, he met the woman who would become his wife, Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, a graduate of Harvard Medical School. Jerrilyn Jones is an emergency room physician at the UAMS Medical Center and serves as the preparedness medical director at the Arkansas Department of Health. The couple met at the Mattapan neighborhood church where Chris Jones had been leading Bible study.
"She complements and enhances me in ways that I could never even imagine," Jones says. They married on Dec. 28, 2002, and have three daughters: Jordyn, 11; Janelle, 7; and Jasmine, 4.
Jones spent 15 years at MIT. After earning his master's degrees in 2003, he taught ninth-grade algebra at the Media and Technology Charter High School (the MATCH school) for the 2003-2004 school year before returning to the institute as assistant dean for graduate education.
LIFTING AS HE CLIMBS
Jones says one of the blessings of being in the MIT environment of dedication to problem-solving "is that now, wherever I go, one of my first questions is, 'Who else needs to be at the table?' ... If I'm serious about solving the problem, then I need to have the stakeholders at the table."
He also realized, "If I could figure out the solution to the world's energy problems, it still may not matter because of policy. Unless I can convince policymakers to do something different, then I can have all the solutions in the world and it won't matter." He prayed a prayer he has periodically prayed ... to be put in a place where he could live out what God created him to be.
Meanwhile, Jerrilyn Jones, a member of the Air Force, finished medical school. After finishing her first year of residency, she was called up to two years of active duty at North Carolina's Pope Air Force Base; during that time, she was deployed to Afghanistan.
Upon her return, she was stationed in Boston. The couple led a busy life -- she resuming her residency; he working at MIT and beginning his doctorate; they starting their family with Jordyn's birth in 2009. During this time, Jones began volunteering for a community organization called the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and eventually accepted an invitation to join the Dudley Street board.
Then came the day, Jones recalls, the Dudley Street executive director told Jones he planned to run for mayor and wanted Jones to take his place heading the organization. Jones said no at first, but the director approached him again two months later. After some prayer and discussion with his wife, Jones took the Dudley Street job, working there from 2013-2015 and managing an annual budget of $3.4 million for the organization. He completed his doctorate in 2016.
Meanwhile, his wife completed her training and the couple eventually moved to Maryland. Chris Jones went to work for BCT Partners, a management consulting firm, while Jerrilyn Jones took a job as an ER doctor. One day, one of her colleagues asked her if she would ever consider moving to Arkansas.
"She said, 'Well, funny you should say that because my husband is always wanting to go home. And we're just kind of waiting for the right time,'" Chris Jones remembers.
The colleague told her about a job opening in the Natural State. She applied for it.
"They loved her," her husband says.
Finally, Jones was coming back to his native land.
Once here, he continued to work for the consulting firm, traveling the country. He loved it, but he wanted to make a difference here.
Perusing the newspaper, he saw a story about the Innovation Hub and the departure of Joel Gordon, its executive director. He knew this was the job for him.
"So I called [Jordan] up, and I said, 'Hey do you think it's worth me dropping my name in the hat?'"
Within 24 hours, Jones was talking to the head of human resources. Within 48 hours, he was meeting with the chief executive officer of Winrock International. He got the job.
Dr. C. Fred Higgs III of Houston, a friend and vice provost at Rice University, is touched by Jones' belief that native sons must return to their home states to initiate massive impact.
"He thinks he can help make Arkansas one of the nation's most successful states," Higgs says. "He has all of us non-Arkansas people praying for some of the poor communities in the state to flourish. He always wants to hear game-changing ideas that he can apply to Arkansas communities, transforming their gateways to education, STEM and workforce skills."
The Innovation Hub brings together all Jones' past experience.
"I get to help make a difference for the individual, and help make a change to the institution."
And he gets to do so beyond his day-job boundaries. In January, Jones was chosen to be a Presidential Leadership Scholar in a program established by the presidential centers and foundations of Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Lyndon B. Johnson. The six-month program calls for scholars to travel to the participating presidential centers and, through study and other activities, equip themselves to make positive impacts on their communities. In March, Jones was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to the board of the Division of Science and Technology, Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
Lary Zeno of Maumelle first met Jones -- a friend and mentor Zeno affectionately nicknamed "Rocket Man"-- earlier this year after both earned a seat in the 14th Class of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Arkansas Program.
"Dr. Jones is the kind of man who sees obstacles as opportunities," says Zeno, owner of Diamond State Roofing. "He is highly dedicated to the improvement of his community and has a unique ability to inspire that same dedication in others, myself included."
Jones is proving that out at the Innovation Hub, where he compares nurturing up-and-coming business people to growing crops.
"We're an agricultural state; we understand growing from your own soil. We want to help grow entrepreneurs from the ground up."