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Shabaka Gibson’s Path to Creative Destruction  

By Risk and Insurance Department

October 26, 2022

Everyone has a story to tell, and today, we are interested in taking this moment to introduce to you Shabaka Gibson, Director of the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL)-Wisconsin.

When you talk with Gibson and he shares his story, you can easily hear his energy and visualize how his position at CDL is a natural step in his professional journey. “I value that each of the CDL ventures are at the forefront of change and are creating a positive impact on society. Creative destruction in economic terms means destroying the old ways, such as technologies or business models, to create something new. This is what I was obsessing over earlier in my career and why I applied for the CDL director position,” explains Gibson.

Gibson brings the perfect combination of skills, enthusiasm, and background to CDL-Wisconsin and his position. After graduating from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Shabaka began his professional career as an economic developer, then City Manager in southwest Michigan. In parallel, he served in the United States Army Reserves in a Civil Affairs Battalion as its Intelligence Officer and eventually as a Civil Affairs Company Commander in Iraq.  He won’t speak about his intelligence work, other than it led to him becoming fluent in Russian. However, in his capacity as a Civil Affairs Commander, he worked to build and strengthen relationships between the US military and the people of Iraq, as well as their business and economic institutions, with a focus on stabilization and redevelopment. Of his 10 years in the Army Reserves, he spent 5 of those years on active duty, eventually leaving the military as a Captain.

Following his military service, Gibson studied at the University of Chicago and earned his Master of Public Policy in 2009. After graduation, he began his work with ExxonMobil helping to remediate brownfield sites and determining how to return those sites to their best public use. He then relocated to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to build the corporate citizenship platform for ExxonMobil in that country. After a stop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Gibson left ExxonMobil to get back into pure economic development. Gibson returned to the Midwest, landing in Battle Creek, Michigan, to serve as the Vice President of Battle Creek Unlimited. There, he implemented a food innovation district strategy—the idea being to energize and connect the numerous local food-based entrepreneurs with the abundant agricultural assets, food industry talent, expertise, and local corporate partners to generate business and job growth.

During this time, he also earned his Doctorate in Business Administration from University of Maryland Global Campus. “Throughout my career, I have worked in an economic development capacity in some way, shape, or form. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to understand both small businesses and those on the highest level, such as Exxon,” explained Gibson. He went on to say, “My belief is that by growing businesses, we create value for society through job creation, tax revenue, population growth and stabilization, and other factors. Economic growth helps all parts of our community. However, these benefits to society are not realized when we focus only on making large companies bigger. We need to identify, support, and grow the small, cutting-edge ideas and entrepreneurs who support local communities, create jobs, and bring innovations to the market. Eighty percent of all new jobs are created in small- to medium-sized businesses.”

As Gibson was working and studying in Battle Creek, he became fascinated and obsessed with innovation districts. In particular, he became fixated on the transfer of knowledge from knowledge-generating sources to entities who turn that knowledge into new solutions to real or perceived problems. He also became absorbed in creating mechanisms that transfers understanding, lessons learned, and resources between firms and their networks. The opportunity to serve as the director of CDL-Wisconsin was a perfect fit. 

As well as enjoying his position and co-workers at CDL-Wisconsin, Gibson appreciates living in Madison, WI. He has lived throughout the world and feels comfortable calling this Midwestern spot his home. This summer, he has enjoyed riding his bike around town, heading to local festivals, and spending time with his young son. He may be reached at