ND Founders Profile #21: Business with Purpose: This Alumnus Discovers It in America’s Manufacturing Workforce

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Nd Founders Matthew Delaney Matthew Delaney (finance and peace studies, class of 2011) co-founded Covalent Networks in 2016


Company Founded: Covalent Networks Year Graduated: 2011
Title: Co-founder, Head of Sales and Service Degree: B.B.A., Finance and Peace Studies
Location: Boston, MA Residence Hall: Stanford

When it came time to explore colleges, the University of Notre Dame was on Matthew Delaney’s short list because it was the whole package—academics, athletics, extracurricular activities. But when it came time to make a decision, Delaney was drawn to something bigger that touched his very being, something that continues to guide his life to this day:

Notre Dame encourages its graduates to live with purpose.

“I saw Notre Dame as a school that would expose me to social entrepreneurship and other mission-driven businesses. Using business to solve certain kinds of societal problems was an interest of mine,” Delaney says.

He enrolled in Notre Dame as a finance major with a minor in peace studies, an interesting combination of degrees. Finance is the realm of business, while peace studies seeks to understand the causes of armed conflict with the objective of preventing and resolving violence in its many forms, and ultimately leading to the reconstruction and reconciliation of war-torn areas. For Delaney, finance and peace studies are intrinsically linked; he was carefully laying the foundation of his professional career.

He spent his junior year in Ireland at the College of Dublin, and while there, visited Belfast, the epicenter of the violent conflict in Northern Ireland that raged from the late 1960s until 1998. By this time, the whole of Ireland had experienced an economic turnaround, with more opportunities for young people.

Delaney’s experience influenced his capstone paper in peace studies, which focused on re-engaging youth after war by rebuilding economies. It included the concept of tri-sector leadership where private, public, and nonprofit stakeholders come together to create solutions. Little did he know that his professional life would circle back to this theme.

Upon graduating from Notre Dame, Delaney went the finance route, spending five years in investment banking and growth equity, primarily focused on enterprise software. While he built a strong foundation in finance, Delaney continued to search for a path to use his business degree to solve societal problems.

That path finally revealed itself when Delaney was working on his masters in business administration at Harvard Business School. He and a fellow student, Andrew Knez, started a research project within the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) centered to gain a better understanding of how industrial companies in America were addressing the workforce skills gap. Manufacturing had experienced a seismic shift from manual processes to digital automation and robotics, requiring a workforce with vastly different skills than in the past. 

The research project took Delaney and Knez across the country and inside numerous manufacturing companies, technical college systems, and economic development organizations. The pair spent time in South Carolina, Alabama and the South Bend-Elkhart region where they met with RV and other manufacturers as well as with Ivy Tech Community College in Elkhart. What they uncovered was a highly complex, fragmented, paper-based system of industrial workforce development.

“The gap in training for skilled industrial jobs and actual job requirements is a huge pain point for U.S. manufacturers, from aerospace and automotive to energy and medical devices, that was hurting employers and workers. I finally found the problem I wanted to solve, something I could fight for,” Delaney explains.

He also found a complex ecosystem where it’s hard to move the needle. “We spent 18 months trying to understand the workforce development landscape. There are issues with high schools graduating kids with the false choice that a four-year degree is their only option, community and technical colleges whose curriculums are autonomous and there’s a lack of outcomes data, and finally, companies with specific, often proprietary skillset needs that have to train new hires for months before they can do their jobs,” Delaney explains. “And, much of the training companies rely on is paper-based, and who has what skills is tracked on spreadsheets.”

The industry’s pain was intense. Cold sales calls to busy companies are typically a dead end. Not for these researchers. “Once people understood what we were doing, they were very willing to share their perspectives. People in training, operations, and human resources were very generous with their time to unpack their pain points and explore solutions together,” Delaney says.

Other pain points were revealed. Baby Boomer workers who are often responsible for training and mentoring new employees are retiring. Change in manufacturing operations is constant, creating a dynamic training environment. Lastly, many organizations didn’t have a handle on talent within their organizations and how best deploy them in situations requiring overtime, unexpected shutdowns or strikes.

In 2016, Delaney and Knez founded Covalent Networks. Based on their research, the two developed and commercialized enterprise software that supports workforce development and agile deployment of workers by streamlining technical training and qualification processes and then leveraging the qualification data to help make operational decisions. 

In addition to accelerating an employee’s time to productivity—Covalent effectively reduced training time for one customer from 100 days to just 30—the company also supports manpower planning. “We do skill inventories and help companies determine workforce needs based on new products coming online or products being phased out, anticipated retirements or who the best workers are for overtime,” Delaney explains. “We’re giving companies real insight into their workforce.”

Covalent also sees to it that employees benefit. Making sure people are equipped with in-demand skills enables economic self-reliance. We also encourage our customers to put career pathways in front of their people. For example, here’s what you need to do to get a pay bump. Here’s what you need to do to get a promotion. The result is a workforce that’s more engaged and less likely to leave,” Delaney says.

Covalent’s software may become even more important to America’s manufacturers due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused major disruptions to the nation’s manufacturing and supply chains. Delaney points to plants that have had to pause operations due to employee illness or reductions in force.

“Having an online skill inventory allows leadership to make critical decisions. Covalent’s data tells companies who’s on premise, what skills they have available, and who can work where thus ensuring coverage of critical processes and equipment. If you have to go to a skeleton crew, decision-makers must have real-time insights so the right skillsets are on the job. The pandemic really underscores the need for accessible, reliable and immediate workforce data,” Delaney says.

Since the pandemic struck use of the Covalent platform is up among existing customers and the company has a number of active exploratory conversations, some asking to accelerate the process. The economic turbulence reminds Delaney of his peace studies and belief that business can lead reconstruction and reconciliation in fractured times.

“Business can be a force for positive change such as providing data that can bring agility to securing, training and deploying a skilled workforce especially in fluid, dynamic situations where we find ourselves now. Our long-term goal is to do that in partnership with technical colleges, governments and economic development organizations—like a true tri-sector leader,” he says.

While Delaney is extremely thankful to Covalent’s investors and advisors, his greater appreciation if for the technical training managers at the many manufacturing companies across the country who were willing to roll up their sleeves and find solutions together. “We wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t answered a cold call,” he says.

Delaney is thoughtful about his advice to those who want to become entrepreneurs. “Notre Dame students have a lot of career options, one of them entrepreneurship. I would caution it’s not for everyone. You have to tackle a problem you care enough about that you remain proud and passionate in the face of headwinds.”