Q&A: Austin Chamber CEO Laura Huffman Shares Insight After Two Years on the Job

Laura Huffman’s first two years as president and CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce have been a rollercoaster.

The Covid-19 pandemic put a notable halt to daily life and business, but Huffman watched alongside city and state leaders as Central Texas saw a wave of major investments in the region from Samsung, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla and others industry giants. The region also saw the addition of many small and medium-sized businesses, ranging in industry from technology to manufacturing to financial services. Now, even bigger things may be on the horizon, such as several new factories from Samsung.

Amid all this excitement, the Austin Business Journal sat down with Huffman to reflect on her first two years with the membership organization dedicated to economic development, education and innovation.

What made you want to serve as the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive?

I’m a native Austinite, and this is the place that I care about most in the world. I think we are at a real pivotal moment that matters for our future. Coming to the chamber of commerce, as the president, represented an opportunity to engage with the business community on the most important issues facing Austin.

You have been chamber president for about two years now, how has it been going so far?

If you reflect on the past two years, it’s almost unimaginable to think about the fact that we experienced a global pandemic. At the same time, we experienced two of the most successful economic development years in this region’s history. When I started at the chamber, we were working from our homes. We were trying to make sure that people had enough connectivity to conduct business in a way they had never had before.

I will forever be grateful to 2020 Chair Justice Craig Enoch and incoming chair Nikki Graham for really helping to make me feel welcome and for showing me the ropes at a time of great uncertainty.

Right at the beginning of my tenure was when the business community came together. We had over 100 businesses and business leaders represented on a task force every week really talking about what the issues people were facing. We conducted a survey that the University of Houston did, to dig deeply into the issues, challenges and concerns that were emerging.

What is your proudest accomplishment with the chamber so far?

I would say that the chamber team is stronger than it’s ever been. Wherever you look, our economic development team, our policy team, our customer service team and our communications team; we have an incredibly strong, committed team.

I would also say that our board has worked really hard to put in place the strongest relationships I think we’ve ever had with the education community. Whether that’s the school districts, ACC, or other educational institutions in Austin, ranging from Huston-Tillotson University to the University of Texas. The reason why we have been so laser-focused on that is that we really do understand that making sure that this region is seen as a mecca for talent is extremely important.

What do you think is the chamber and the city’s greatest challenge in the months and years ahead?

I think affordability is the greatest challenge of this time. We’re going to have to work together as a business community and as a full community and region in order to find ways to make sure that this area continues to be a place that people can come to and stay.

I always think that getting laser-focused on the challenges as a community is really important because my experience with Austin is that when we focus on an issue and get really determined on solving it, then the best and the brightest in this community will come forward with the ideas.

I would say the second big issue is talent, and making sure that we continue to attract and retain people who are building their lives and their careers. Then the third area, I would say, is making sure that the tremendous investment that’s occurring in infrastructure happens and happens well. In that, I would include airport expansion, Project Connect, I-35 and a myriad of other major infrastructure projects.

With the Lone Star State home to some of the largest investment projects in the nation, transforming the economic landscape of the region, what do you think lays ahead for Austin and Central Texas?

I do believe that our best days are ahead of us. I think that we have proven to ourselves, and to a world that is watching us, that we know how to grow a dynamic, future-oriented economy. The companies that are either coming to Austin or expanding in Austin are part of the future of our economy and so we’re investing forward. For the first time in history, we have infrastructure investment at a scale that we haven’t seen before so I think managing all of that is the future.

Earlier this year, chamber board Chair Fred Heldenfels called for the creation of a joint super-regional partnership between the eight-county San Antonio region and our five-county Austin region. Is that starting to shape?

We’ve had lots of activity and have made lots of connections with leadership in San Antonio. That will be culminating sometime later this year with some pretty detailed conversations about what are those things that we need to focus on in the short, medium and long term. Certainly, he recognized that with two of the largest cities in the country so close together, we needed to be focused on super regional, in addition to the focus that we have on the five regional areas around Austin.

As the city is in the midst of a tremendous wave of economic growth and prosperity, what do you think makes Austin so special?

I think it’s a couple of things. One, the people. Austin just attracts people that have an energy, a creativity and a sense of possibility. That’s just palpable when you’re living in this town and I think that’s part of what businesses are attracted to when they’re looking at Austin as an option to locate or expand in.

I think that Austin is just a very special place in terms of quality of life. You might be someone that wants to run around town to Lady Bird Lake in the morning. You might be someone who wants to dive into the music scene or you might be someone who wants to explore food trucks.

There are just a lot of different ways to live in Austin. I hear it all the time from people that are coming to Austin. Looking at it from a business perspective, they’re just struck by the energy and the creativity and the innovation. That just is very present in this community.

What else would like to share with us about your experience of leading the chamber for these past two years?

I think one of the things that’s been remarkable about the last few years, from my point of view, are partnerships all over this community that we have forged, partly out of need during Covid but partly because it’s just the right and smart way to move forward. One highlight for me has been the other chambers that are in Austin. It just so happens that when I started, all of the presidents of the Austin chambers were women. That allowed us to forge immediate and strong relationships. I just think it’s a sign that there’s just a lot of energy, there is a lot of excitement about what is happening. Even while we were going through the first global pandemic, there was innovation that was happening along the way, because this community was determined to not let that undermine its success.

Read the original article here.