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Posted: October 10, 2012

Texas-sized lessons on individuality, creativity and growth

We learned a lot in Austin

Kelly Brough

The Leadership Exchange (LEX) delegation just returned from three days in Austin, Texas, and we are energized by the experience – not weirded out by it.

I say weird in the fondest sense because Austinites take great pride in their unique culture and strive to “Keep Austin Weird,” with bumper stickers, festivals and websites dedicated to that cause. In fact, Austin has developed a powerful brand around that idea, and the city is known as the live music capital of the world and a hub for creative work.

Some of the 150 delegates from Denver learned more about the Austin’s music scene through tours of Austin City Limits, the famous live-music venue that broadcasts its shows nationwide and by visiting a few of the live venues on 6th street. The live music scene truly helps make Austin a destination for many travelers. You know—it’s not live if you aren’t there in person.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Gov. Rick Perry briefed us on how Austin leaders are working to maintain that vibrant brand and culture as the city continues to grow and become more diverse – with a population that doubles every 20 years (the city is now home to nearly 825,000 people), Austin is facing the challenges of job creation, infrastructure and services that all big cities must address. Our own Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper engaged in lively discussion with these two Texas leaders.

A group of delegates and I had the chance to learn more about Austin’s creative approach to urban planning and improving quality of life for residents on a tour of the St. John’s neighborhood. Alan Weeks, executive director of Austin Voice for Education and Youth, moved into the St. John’s neighborhood with his wife 11 years ago to help effect change at the grassroots level. His nonprofit has helped save several schools from closure, improve access to health care and addressed crime and safety issues in the area.

I also joined the excursion to learn more about Austin’s efforts to attract and retain technology companies like Dell (a company originally hatched in a University of Texas dorm room), LegalZoom and PayPal. It was clear that the University of Texas doesn’t simply have connections to the business community—it is an institution that has multiple points of entry for students to connect with business and vice versa. One presenter described it as permeable.

As usual on these trips, we delegates spent two and a half days absorbing as much information as possible about how the city ticks and what challenges it faces. We came away with some great insight about the importance of encouraging diversity, maintaining business growth, investing in education and ensuring a unique and thriving culture. Many thanks to presenting sponsor PCL Construction, trip Chair Peter Beaupré and Vice Chair Christine Benero for their hard work to make this LEX trip a success. A big round of applause to Tameka Montgomery, the new executive director, and the entire staff of the Leadership Foundation for what some participants described as their best trip yet because of the caliber of presenters and the relevancy of the topics.

The trip closed with some thoughts from Bijoy Goswami, co-founder of the Austin Equation, on how to “Be Yourself.” Individuality is at the heart of Austin’s culture and value system – something that I believe is true for Denver and Colorado as well. He talked about the idea that shared experiences help create a sense of community, and he encouraged each of us to find “our scenes,” or niches. By creating those spaces and places where we fit – and where others want to be as well – the true power of community, collaboration and success will happen.

We all left ready to come back to Denver and not only find our “scenes,” but to be active and contributing members of those scenes. With that thought in mind, we’d love to hear from you – and, while I rarely talk in terms of scenes (‘cause that’s just weird), we do want you to keep letting us know what matters to you. So, keep sending issues and ideas our way about what is top of mind for you.

Kelly J. Brough is the current president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. She previously served as the chief of staff and deputy chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. She also served as a personnel analyst and a legislative analyst for the City and County of Denver. Kelly has served on a number of boards and commissions, including the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation board. She has a bachelor's degree in sociology and criminal justice from Montana State University and an MBA from the University of Colorado at Denver.

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Readers Respond

And I'd put Austin's live music calendar up against any city in the world. For a town its size, there's more happening in Austin than anywhere else in the world. It's not just government. It's not simply policy. It's not just the social profile. It's not just UT. And it's not simply the business climate. It's not just Barton Springs. It's all of the above that makes Central Texas a wonderful place to live/work/play/love. By miguel zavala on 2012 10 10
I spent the first 24 years of my life in Austin, TX; graduating from UTAustin. I am now a 12+ year entreprenuer of multiple multinational startups. First, people in Austin are referred to as "Austinites". Second, the culture that keeps Austin weird is a special mix of progressive thought, government (or lack thereof), and a world-class university that churns out thousands of fresh minds each year. This created a critical creative mass in the community in the '60s and Austin has carefully maintained this mix today. Locals are fiercely local in consumer choices--and are active in the music/art communities. There's few TVs flickering in Austin living rooms as Austinites tend to gather at public events, restaurants, and gatherings. The local information channels (the Chronicle and KUT are my fav) burst with daily event calendars. By miguel zavala on 2012 10 10
The biggest problem Denver has is thats striving too hard to be like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, etc. That in itself is the main problem with Denver, it lacks an identify. If it wasn't for the mountains, Denver would have nothing to offer. Austin has no mountains, ski resorts, ghost towns, mining towns, and the like. Therein lies our identify, we need to embrace our western history. Case in point, I thought it would have been unique for RTD to requst that the trains in Denver look like old locomotives (smaller and electric of course). Each line with it's own color. Instead we have what every other big city has, run of the mill, plain Jane, subway looking transport. As a Colorado native, and sixrty years old, we need to be ourselves, cultivate our history, and the other big cities be damned! Thats why Austin is sucessful because they're not afraid to be "who they are!!!" By Leo Segura on 2012 10 10
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