By Steve Uhler
If, as the musical Cabaret so emphatically proclaims, “money makes the world go ’round,” it begs a question: What makes the money go ’round? If you do business in Austin, at least part of the answer lies in an unlikely place: The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and its varied supporters. Austin is the new Emerald City for American commerce, being rated the No. 1 City for Job Growth for the last 10 consecutive years, according to Forbes.
“Austin has unlimited opportunities as a community for prosperity,” says Michael Rollins, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce CEO. “We can be our own worst enemy, or we can be our own best friend. The path we choose to follow will dictate how well Austin prospers in future decades.”
And if you think of a chamber of commerce as a dusty anachronism from a bygone era, remember you’re in Austin. Our regional chambers adroitly promote businesses via cutting-edge multimedia and social-networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube and a plethora of theme-oriented blogs. In the words of our cover subject, 2014 GACC Chairman Jack McDonald, “This is not your father’s chamber of commerce.”
Austin Chamber Chair Jack McDonald Envisions Austin’s Next Boom
- 2014 Chairman of the Board, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce
- Founded 1877
- Members: Approximately 2,900
- Key Events and Programs: Greater Austin Business Awards, Opportunity Austin, Financial Aid Saturdays, Business Boot Camp, Ambassador Committee
Savoring the view out the window of his downtown office on the 18th floor of the Frost Building, Jack McDonald still marvels at the sprawling panorama spreading out to the horizon. It’s an impressive, ever-evolving metropolitan mosaic, and one that he’s had a significant hand in helping to shape. Off to the northwest, just beyond MoPac, he can make out the current location of Perficient Inc., the company he piloted into a worldwide behemoth.
Behind and to the east on 17th Street lies the headquarters of PeopleFund, where McDonald serves as chairman of the advisory board. Squinting westward, he can just about make out the hills of the Westlake neighborhood where he, his wife and two young daughters call home. Just a few floors directly above is the headquarters of Silverback Enterprise Group, the software acquisitions company he founded in 2010.
Finally, just out of sight three blocks to the east on Fifth Street is the headquarters of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, where McDonald currently serves as chairman of the board. He may not have a view of the chamber from his office here, but Jack McDonald definitely has a vision. As chairman of GACC, McDonald oversees myriad projects, committees, initiatives and events, tapping deep into the well of his experience and entrepreneurial expertise.
“Jack gets the large picture,” says Michael Rollins, GACC CEO. “He has a vision. He can articulate what steps need to be taken to move forward, and he has the ability to bring others on board. He’s a good leader.”
These are heady days for Austin business: With more than 150 people moving here every day, Austin is the 11th most populated city in the U.S., and the No. 1 city for job growth, according to Forbes. But it wasn’t always so.
“There was a period in this city in the late 1990s when our economy was firing on all cylinders,” McDonald recalls. “Then the dot-com bubble burst, and we had a period when we lost jobs every month for 30 straight months, 36,000 jobs in total, $1.8 billion in regional payrolls. People were literally packing up and leaving Austin. That was a sad situation, one we can’t afford to repeat.”
With McDonald’s impressive track record, there’s little chance of that happening on his watch.
As a boy growing up in Levittown, N.Y., the iconic East Coast assembly-line suburb erected for returning vets after World War II, McDonald was drawn to social studies, history and government—subjects that would serve him well as an adult. Attending Fordham Law School, he aspired to be a lawyer.
“Seven years with the Jesuits,” he reflects, smiling. “Great education, critical thinking and a moral context, but not an overly dogmatic one. They taught you that you had to work to achieve your potential, and enable others to do the same, and a sense of service and giving back. That’s what I took from the Jesuits, and it’s still with me today.”
McDonald specialized in mergers and acquisitions for several years before going to work for Blockbuster Entertainment. After Blockbuster was itself acquired by Viacom, McDonald became a serial entrepreneur, buying and selling various software companies. In 1999, McDonald moved to Austin, becoming CEO of Perficient, an IT consulting company.
At the time he joined, there were less than 10 employees and about $500,000 in revenue. By the time he left 10 years later, the company boasted more than 1,250 employees, $250 million in revenue and offices in the U.S., China, Eastern Europe and India. It was during his time at Perficient that McDonald first became involved with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
“What brought me to it was a sense of community service and wanting to get involved and make an impact on the city that I love. I was asked to serve as vice chair of technology to help bring members of the entrepreneurial tech community in to the chamber. I did that for a few years, and was asked a couple of years ago to serve as chairman- elect, and this year I’m serving as chairman.”
Ask McDonald about his priorities during 2014, and the first answer pops out of his mouth before the question has been completed: Transportation. It’s a passion for McDonald.
“Austinites don’t need a traffic study to tell them that transportation is a huge problem,” he says.
McDonald advocates a multi-point program that includes upgrades and expansions, a new urban-rail route and improved, intersecting commuter connection points throughout the region.
“We need more transit options. Our No. 1 priority for this year is helping get passed a $1 billion strategic mobility plan for building out regional roadways and financing an urban-rail system for Austin. It’s absolutely critical.”
He cites key budget points of the proposed plan: $400 million for roadway improvement and $600 million for a 9.5-mile urban rail that runs from Highland Mall to East Riverside.
“The federal government will match our local rail investment,” he says, “which means we’ll be bringing back to Texas $600 million of our federal tax dollars.”
But McDonald’s metro makeover doesn’t stop there. He envisions new behavioral templates for Austin businesses designed to ease the glut of traffic.
“The other thing we need to do is work with major employers,” he says. “We’ve already got 6.5 percent of our workforce telecommuting, which is among the highest in the nation. We want to set a goal of raising that to 15 percent and help take more cars off the road. We’re also working on getting other major employers to participate by staggering their hours so we don’t all have rush hour at 5 p.m.”
He’s aware that not everyone agrees with him about policy particulars; some adamantly oppose urban rail while others disagree about scheduled routes and local government bureaucracy. McDonald remains diplomatically unfazed. Looking out at the western horizon, he glances off in the direction of Lady Bird Lake, his eyes slowly tracing the waterway westward, up into the hills.
“Look at what prior generations did,” he muses. “They built the dams that created the Highland Lakes. What would we be like if they hadn’t done that, if we didn’t have Lake Travis or Lake Austin? What would this city be like if they hadn’t made those investments in infrastructure? They leaned forward and made those investments in the future. And we’re all the beneficiaries. To me, it’s incumbent on our generation to lean forward in a similar way.”
There are, of course, other items on McDonald’s agenda for ensuring Austin’s continued prosperity besides transportation.
“I think the biggest challenge going forward is education,” he says. “As we continue to grow, we need to increase the supply of great jobs and great people to fill them. That’s where our community colleges are so important. The chamber has worked with ACC to get more Austinites trained up for information-technology jobs and health-care positions, which are well-paying jobs.”
The chamber offers several ongoing community-outreach programs for students and aspiring entrepreneurs, including Financial Aid Saturdays and Business Boot Camp.
“The longer term challenge is the education system in general. We’re an urban school district here—AISD—and I don’t know if everybody fully appreciates the percentage of third-graders who speak English as a second language. If you look at those numbers and high-school graduation rates among that population and roll the clock forward, it’s not going to be a good outcome unless we intervene to make sure we invest in these kids. We need to increase graduation rates and college readiness so they can fully participate in our prosperity going forward,” he says.
McDonald also serves on the board of directors for KIPP Schools. When asked how he visualizes Austin’s future, he lights up and leans forward.
“I get goose bumps thinking about that,” he confesses. “Austin is a great city, a global city, a high-tech leader, a magnet for the best and brightest to grow their dreams, build their business, pursue their passions. It’s such a microcosm of America to me. This is a great country because, at its best, it gives people the opportunity to achieve their potential. … We can all make an impact and leave an imprint. You don’t have to be chairman of the chamber of commerce to do that.”
Luckily for Austin, we have Jack McDonald occupying that seat for the rest of the year. He seems to enjoy the view. And with his vision, we may need a bigger window.
Infusion of Inclusion
- Chairman of the Board of Directors, Co-Chair of the Government Affairs Committee, Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce (GABC)
- Founded 1984
- Members: Approximately 450
- Key Programs and Events: Annual Small Business Awards, Collegiate Chapter
Inclusion is an imperative word in the doctrine ofAustin Black Chamber Co-Chair of Government Affairs Ashton Cumberbatch. How else would you explain an associate pastor at a Christian church who signs off his emails with the word “Shalom”? As a boy growing up in Queens, N.Y., Cumberbatch learned the virtues of inclusion at an early age. His mother, a teacher who knew the value of a good education, made sure he went to the progressive McBurney School on West 63rd Street across the river in Manhattan.
“It was a college prep school run by the YMCA,” he says. “There were several students there who weren’t from families with money: Italian kids from Astoria, African-American kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I was fortunate.” The experience opened young Cumberbatch to a world of ethnic and economic diversity. While attending Brown University, a chance conversation about the University of Texas with a fellow student prompted a decision to attend law school in Texas.
“I knew UT had football,” he says, “but I hadn’t known they had an exceptional law school. As soon as I heard that, the Lord said, ‘That’s where I’m sending you: UT.’ ”
Cumberbatch moved to Austin with his wife in 1979, beginning a vertiginous career trajectory, which he devoutly believes was inspired by divine guidance. In succession, he became a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, a litigator for a major law firm, police monitor for the City of Austin, an associate pastor and, finally, vice president of advocacy and communications for Seton.
Along the way, he joined the board of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce as a vocal advocate for increased involvement with ethnic minorities. After completing his tenure at GACC, he was immediately invited to join the board of the Austin Black Chamber, eventually becoming chair of the Government Affairs Committee. He was instrumental in recruiting current CEO Natalie Cofield.
As chairman, Cumberbatch has helped implement major changes in the GABC. The chamber not only promotes and supports local African- American businesses on a local level with innovative programs such as the Black Technology Council, Collegiate Chapter and Education Committee, but also extends far beyond the city limits and ethnicities. Under Cumberbatch’s leadership, the GABC is establishing relationships between Austin and global markets such as Brazil, Kenya, South Africa and Israel, which have led to formal partnership agreements and trade missions.
“More and more businesses—large corporations— are finding value in being part of us to connect to African-Americans,” he points out. “There’s value to be gained by connecting with us. We may be small as far as population, but as far as dollars generated from African- American businesses, our output is larger than Dallas and Houston.”
Cumberbatch also embraces an increased awareness of technology and social media as vital tools among minority business owners.
“I love seeing the sparks that come from synergistic relationships being formed,” he enthuses. “At South By Southwest last year, we had African Google Chat, and just watching the people mill around, having conversations, people were feeling like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Google had folks that looked like me working for them!’ ”
But there are still age-old cultural challenges facing black-owned businesses and their owners, as well as major corporations that continue to practice questionable hiring and advancement practices among African-Americans. With a population of 885,400, Austin is the only major American city with a shrinking African-American population, an urban anomaly. Cumberbatch is keenly aware of the exodus to outlying areas.
“They leave because they don’t feel their kids get the education they need, they can’t afford housing or there’s no cultural life,” he says.
He laments the fact that many black students come to Austin to obtain a degree and then move on.
“I want to reverse that trend and increase the number of people who come here for education and for jobs to stay, to give them the opportunity to say, ‘You know what? This is the place for me.’
“No one institution can do it alone,” he says, citing GABC’s alliances with other Austin-based chambers, as well as other organizations like the NAACP. “To solve a lot of these issues, it’s going to take all of us working together, bringing our respective skills, knowledge and experiences to the table, working together in a collaborative fashion instead of competing.”
If the day comes when Ashton Cumberbatch packages his philosophy of inclusion, it will no doubt come in a box labeled “Everything and everyone included.”
Reconnecting to His Culture
- Executive Committee Chair, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
- Founded 1972
- Current Membership: Approximately 1,200
- Signature Events and Programs: Celebrando Austin Gala, Health and Wellness Committee, Bilingual Toast Masters
As a third-generation Hispanic kid growing up in the Southside barrio of San Antonio in the 1980s, just making it to class each day counted as a victory for Thomas Miranda.
“You had to constantly worry about stability and survival,” he recalls. “There were a lot of urban issues that could draw people to the dark side. Regardless of how decent your parents were, delinquency and drugs were everywhere.”
While his parents urged their son to stick to conservative, blue-collar expectations, Miranda hungered for something better.
“I wanted to be an entrepreneur so bad,” he remembers. “I broke open radios and computers. I actually had a business in high school out of my house, selling computers. It was a small profit, but it was the beginning of being an entrepreneur. Through doing that exercise, I avoided a lot of problems in my youth, and at the same time developed critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”
After graduating from the University of Texas San Antonio in 1995, Miranda was recruited by Hewlitt-Packard in Silicon Valley.
“It was the epicenter, the intersection where innovation meets entrepreneurship in a corporate setting,” he says. “I was in utopia.”
As the company’s first chief technology officer for Cisco’s Hispanic Employee Organization for the Americas & Europe, he collaborated with innovative thought leaders at Cisco Ventures and throughout the globe. But as Miranda became increasingly global, he was gradually losing touch with his own roots.
“I was so ‘international,’ I was feeling unconnected to my own country, my culture and my community,” he says.
After his father passed away in 1997, Miranda moved to Austin in order to be closer to his family, where his quest for his own roots led him to the Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He related to the chamber’s mission and its programs advocating issues facing Austin Hispanics, such as education, health and wellness, economic development and leadership. He also arrived at the perfect time to apply his now considerable entrepreneurial skills. Miranda found the scaled-down vibe at the Hispanic chamber both challenging and fulfilling.
“I knew what I knew from corporate America, but I needed to absorb the community and understand what was happening with my neighbors, and get more deeply involved,” he says.
He did his job so effectively that he was elected chair. In Central Texas, there are more than 33,000 Hispanic-owned businesses. But according to Miranda, roughly 40 percent of the Hispanic chamber membership is non-Hispanic.
“It’s a blend,” he observes. “People come into the circle to access the Hispanic market. You don’t have to be Hispanic to join, but know that most of those businesses are going to be in Hispanic circles. So if you want access to that, it’s here. “The future of the Hispanic market is changing, and more so in Austin. It’s diversifying, it’s broader, deeper, wider, particularly with the various sectors, from high-tech to clean energy to transportation to bio-med.”
Through popular events such as the annual Celebrando Gala and weekly Bilingual Toast Masters program, the Hispanic chamber has become one of the most vital—and festive—business-support organizations in the state. The chamber also reaches out to the next generation of Hispanic entrepreneurs.
With Hispanic kids representing more than 60 percent of the AISD student population, the chamber is currently developing what Miranda describes as “a shark tank for at-risk schools,” and a Hispanic Business Research Center is in the planning stages. Addressing the changing face of the Hispanic business models, Miranda is reaching out beyond the city limits, which is taking him full circle back to his old global negotiating skills.
“Through our economic-development activities, we’re engaging with Latin-American countries to develop business prospects here in the region,” he says. “You’ll be seeing more of that from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Spain. The future of this region—and the Hispanic chamber—is both domestic and international.
“I was never as connected to the community as I am today. The reward for me is that I feel I have contributed. It’s gratifying to see so many programs come to life, to see new capabilities, new partnerships, new growth.”
The trip to Austin from San Antonio may be less than 100 miles, but for Austin Hispanic Chamber Board Chairman Thomas Miranda, it’s been the journey of a lifetime.
Building the Next Generation
- Board Chair/President, Austin Young Chamber of Commerce
- Open to Young Austin Professionals Ages 21 to 39
- Membership: Approximately 1,200
- Founded 2009
- Signature Programs and Events: FAVE Awards, AYC Imagine, AYC Annual Tailgate, CASA Superhero Run
At 5 years old, the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce is, appropriately, the youngest of the city’s chambers. With its frequent socializing events like Monthly Membership Mixers, it’s also one of the most active, a popular hub for networking, brainstorming and just plain schmoozing. And the busiest person in the room is usually AYC Board Chair and President Tommy Belton. Belton is a man in almost constant motion, which partly accounts for the three guitars leaning against the wall in his small downtown office.
“I just moved into a bigger apartment and don’t have cases for them,” he explains. “So I’m keeping them here for the time being.”
A former musician himself, Belton doesn’t have much time for his old pastime these days. He’s too busy splitting his time between his duties with AYC and his job as lodging director at Hotels for Hope. On top of that, he and his longtime partner are expecting their first child in November. Boston-born but Austin-bred, Belton’s dad worked in the local hospitality industry, and Belton followed suit.
After attending Texas State, Belton worked as conference sales manager for three years at Hammock Beach Resort in Florida before returning home to Austin to serve as group sales manager at the Driskill Hotel. It was there he first became aware of the Austin Young Chamber through Hotels for Hope Founder Neil Goldman. An active board member in the AYC, Goldman asked Belton to step in and help create a program designed to recognize and promote young business professionals in Austin.
“He knew I had a lot of event planning background,” Belton recalls. Thus was born the FAVE Awards (Favorite Austin Ventures & Enterprises), an annual gala for young professionals that is one of the hottest tickets in town. “We recognize local businesses that cater to young professionals. We came up with a slew of categories, everything from Favorite Happy Hour Spot in Austin to Favorite Night Out to Favorite Investment in the Future. Members of the chamber could nominate their favorite businesses that fall into those various categories. We get it down to about five finalists, and then the members vote for their favorite and we present them with this award.”
After its inception, Belton ran the FAVE Awards for the next three years before becoming board chair and president last year.
“It’s a way to network and get involved in the Austin community through any of the various committees we have that do something for the community, and also to network with other young professionals in that area,” Belton says.
In addition to the FAVE Awards and Monthly Mixers, AYC’s numerous programs include community committees that help nonprofits, volunteer community service, mentoring at-risk kids and the Imagine Committee, which focuses on fostering music and the arts. The AYC is also a powerful resource for prospective employers, allowing them access to a deep pool of talent and skills.
“We’re also creating a lot of opportunities for businesses to have a really solid resource to look to if they’re looking to fill a position,” Belton adds. “If they post a job and they say, ‘I really want to reach out to the Austin Young Chamber,’ it’s a great group of people who are all very good at what they do, well qualified, well educated young professionals.”
Belton still makes time for his other job as lodging director at Hotels for Hope, overseeing housing management for such heavy hitters as Circuit of the Americas, the X Games and C3 Presents.
“The great thing about Hotels for Hope is that for every room-night we book, we ask the hotel to give a $1 charitable contribution, and then we match that dollar. We have 10 partner charities that we work with, all benefiting children in some way,” he says.
To date, Hotels for Hope has donated more than $300,000 to various charities. Between his myriad duties, plus his impending status as new dad, Belton has little time for his old hobbies.
“I still go out and see live music when I can,” he says, “when I have the time. I’m definitely a big blues fan—Stubbs, ACL Live. …” He glances wistfully at the forlorn guitar in the corner, tempted. Just as he’s about to reach for it, the phone rings and it’s back to the business of business.
Photos by Andrew Chan. Hair and makeup by Lauren Lumsden, Rae Cosmetics, 237 W. 2nd St., 512.320.8732.