1. The first thing they have in common is kind of a cheat: They’re all being honored at Leadership Austin’s Best Party Ever (#BestPartyEver) on Friday, June 14. (Tickets are still available! Get a $10 discount with this code: BPE13PRM)
2. They all saw a need in the community and they’re stepping up to do something about it.
For Gary Farmer, president of Heritage Title Company of Austin, Inc. and Heritage Exchange Corporation of Texas, a key moment in his life was initiated by his friend Dick Rathgeber, who reached out to him one day with an offer.
“Dick said, ‘Gary, I’m going to give you a chance to be significant.’ And I accepted that invitation and helped him raise $12.5 million for the Austin Children’s Shelter. And the great thing is there are opportunities like that in the community today.”
Susan Dawson started her career as an engineer but saw the potential in data to steer education reform. She founded the E3 Alliance, which has been recognized across the country as a unique model of objective and ground-breaking work in building systemic change for education.
“We have a low-income population growing at 3.5 times the national average,” says Dawson. “We can either look at that population as a challenge or figure out how to vault them into the most powerful workforce in the world.”
Chelsea McCullough is a community-building entrepreneur, leading and founding organizations like Digital Union, a consulting company that launches social impact initiatives. “We serve to introduce social impact initiatives to for-profit companies,” she explains. “When they’re ready to make a difference in the world, we’re ready to help. They days of just writing a check are ending and a lot of companies are looking for ways to marry profit and purpose.”
3. They all believe that seeking input from diverse communities is the only way a project will succeed.
Dawson puts it this way: “Never make a decision in a vacuum. Look for diverse perspectives in every kind of major decisions, in every direction – political affiliation, ethnic background, geographic background…. It will lead ultimately to a better outcome.”
Farmer says in all the teams he’s led, what’s kept them on-task is that pursuit of a common goal. “Why stay in your silo? There’s a phenomenal opportunity to join different teams, meet a wide range of people from different backgrounds … and it lets you see the entire playing field.”
Inclusiveness is how McCullough seems to measure her success. “Austin wouldn’t be where it is today without selfless leaders like Gary Farmer, Susan Dawson, Sen. Kirk Watson, Jo Ann Christian…,” she says. “They can see the potential of Austin and they realize that success happens when you have a community in which everyone is participating. The true servant leaders aren’t the big egos or figureheads. My goal is to help build a platform to support the progress that will benefit Austin in the long term.”
4. They all set goals, not just for themselves but also for their teams.
Farmer has served on far too many boards and committees to mention, but the work he’s most proud of so far has been with Opportunity Austin. “You look at where Central Texas has been ranked in the last 10 years for job creation. Five years before Opportunity Austin, we were 24th out of 100 MSAs in the country. Now we’re first. I think that’s something to be applauded.
“How did we do it?” he continues. “We found a commonality of interests, articulated a vision, then set a strategy to do it. When you have a program like that, everybody does better.”
Among the elements that lead to success, Dawson also requires that teams share a common agenda. And recommends being “doggedly persistent” about achieving that. “You can only work through influence,” she says, “so you have to have understandable data, build relationships of trust and be willing to change the rules. I stay motivated because I see that when you apply those principles — not just me but all the people making a difference in this community — you can make a difference. In five years, we’ve increased the number of students in the STEM pipeline 430 percent. Change does happen.”
Considering her personal goals, McCullough says that a framework of values and beliefs helps her stay motivated. “I think it’s about identifying those pillars of belief, being honest with yourself and sharing that honesty and even vulnerability with the people around you. To achieve your goals, you have to stick to who you are.”
5. They all believe in Austin.
Farmer is especially excited about the new medical community growing in Central Texas. “That initiative is going to grow to become a tremendous economic driver and a tremendous asset in regards to the provision of healthcare in Central Texas,” he says. “I was happy to help the campaign to pass Proposition 1. What we’re doing is not just good for Central Texans, it’s really a model for the rest of the country.”
Dawson says Austin responds to data and information that helps paint a picture of the city’s future. “Part of my work is creating the real understanding that we may or may not have a moral responsibility to step up and act in light of the changes in Austin, but it doesn’t matter because we have an economic imperative to act.”
McCullough says that unlike some, she’s not worried about the future of Austin. “I think the Austin framework is pretty solid,” she says. “We have a culture of collaboration and inclusiveness, and we don’t have to worry about that changing.“
Meet these community leaders and others at the Leadership Austin Best Party Ever on Friday, June 14. Tickets still available. Get a $10 discount with this code: BPE13PRM