Natrx: A Case Study in Building an Early Talent Pipeline

Guest Writers: Leonard Nelson & Anya Warren, Natrx and Anne Jones & Dan Gonzalez, District C

The economy is changing. The most innovative and nimble businesses will be the most competitive businesses. As a result, companies of all kinds and sizes are looking for talent that can do more than take direction and execute predefined tasks. 

Employers have made clear they want talent that knows how to take initiative and think critically (Regional Skills Analysis, 2018, 2020). However, this kind of talent is hard to find and is highly sought-after.

Forward-thinking companies are developing intentional and innovative strategies to make sure they get to the best talent first. These strategies include two critical pillars:

  1. Leveraging trusted talent sources to help identify talent much earlier in the pipeline.
  2. Leveraging high school internships and early-college employment to test for “fit” earlier.

Natrx, a Raleigh-based company focused on building environmentally friendly infrastructure, is a model for how to build a time- and cost-effective early talent strategy.

“In our business, we aim to protect coastal communities & ecology, and do it more cost effectively than dumping rock or building walls. At Natrx, we use digital technology on infrastructure projects to lower cost, improve safety, and help the environment. The challenges that we tackle are highly complex, have ill-defined goals, team and organizational constraints, limited time and resources, and cross multiple domains including civil engineering, coastal engineering, safety, ecology, business, material science, and software. As a small growing business, we very much benefit from highly diverse individuals with different perspectives on problem solving. The combination of persistence, intellectual humility, and playful reasoning is required to keep hacking away at the seemingly intractable challenges we face today. The vision is difficult to execute, so the ‘grit and grind’ factor is absolutely essential.”

Natrx, Leonard Nelson, CEO

Building Relationships with Trusted Talent Sources

We know that employers prefer to hire through their existing social and professional networks (Regional Skills Analysis, 2018, 2020). However, relying too much on closed networks means you will miss out on prepared and diverse talent that exists elsewhere.

Therefore, it is important for businesses to have a strategy for expanding their networks to include trusted sources of early and prepared talent, sources that do more than just aggregate resumes and post your jobs for you.

At District C, we prepare the next generation of diverse talent and we connect that talent with businesses. Based on our experience, we recommend that you ask three questions when evaluating potential sources of talent:

  1. Does the source organization have a clear point of view on what it means to be prepared for modern work, and does that point of view align with yours?
  2. Does the source organization have a clear process for helping young talent get prepared for modern work?
  3. Does the source organization provide opportunities for you and your team to see prospective talent at work so that you can make informed judgments regarding fit and readiness before you commit to making a hire?

“As a startup, we need smart people, of course, but we also look for what I call the 'grit & grind' factor which District C encourages through coaching teams in applied problem solving. The knowledge possessed by university graduates is quite valuable, but what if there is no syllabus, no right answer, and a severe lack of resources to solve a problem? The ability to continuously acquire and apply knowledge when faced with uncertainty often must be trained by employers at considerable expense after college. District C exposes promising young people to new learning environments to complement traditional education. We need more support and work for organizations like District C.” - Natrx, Leonard Nelson, CEO (cont.)

This (pictured to the left) is a C Squad, four students from four different schools who are coached through the process of solving a real problem for a local business, like Natrx. Anya Warren (pictured on the far left) is a graduate of Garner High School, a freshman at Wake Tech and a part-time Operations Assistant with Natrx.

Test for Fit

Fit is critical to success for the employer and employee. In the talent recruitment process, fit works both ways -- you are testing them and they are testing you. Early work experiences like internships or part-time employment, can be a powerful and effective way to test for fit before making a longer-term or full-time hiring commitment.

That said, these roles need to be designed with this goal in mind. This means engaging early talent in experiences that require them to think critically and work with a team to grind through problems in the face of adversity and uncertainty. Experiences that allow both of you to test for fit will have two critical components:

  1. A chance for early talent to be part of something, to add real value. This is how you inspire them to think of you first when they decide where to work full-time. 
  2. A chance to do real work, not just do a job or complete a series of tasks. It is in the mess and uncertainty of real work that you will learn whether you have found the right person and the right fit.

“This was my dream job because I wanted a job that was impactful and I could make a difference. At Natrx I feel like I am doing that, because of the mission of the company. Every action I take at work can help marine ecology and wildlife, and change the structure of the coastlines. I also wanted a job that challenged me and allowed me to use my skills in a useful way. I get the freedom to experiment and learn new things. I also get the ability to work with great engineers who I can learn a lot from. The job also aligns perfectly with my degree (mechanical engineering) and what I want to do in life. It is an incredibly valuable experience. I'm very grateful to District C being able to connect me, because before I was job searching, I was coming up short on job offers because of a lack of networking and connections. This is much better than anything else I could've found.” - Anya Warren, Natrx Operations Assistant


Build your talent pipeline by developing relationships with trusted sources of talent. Sources that have early access to the next generation of diverse doers, thinkers, and problem solvers. Sources that have a clear point of view and process for preparing talent for your workplace.

Leonard from Natrx is “thrilled to be working with brilliant young people like Anya to expose them to complex challenges as they pursue their education.” Good for Anya, and just as good for Leonard and Natrx as they develop their talent pipeline for the long term.

To learn more about District C, you can visit their website.



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