Amber Gunst Steers the Austin Technology Council Forward
The Forrest Files: September 24, 2020
As CEO of Austin Technology Council (ATC), Amber Gunst provides more than 250 member companies with the insights, resources and connections they need to grow and thrive.
A Michigan native, she is an expert in member association sales and services and spent four years at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, where she was the top sales and retention leader in the State of Texas and ranked in the Top 7 nationally in sales of chambers with revenue over $1.5M.
Gunst joined ATC originally in the role of Head of Sales and Member Services and crafted a new vision for member engagement and growth which resulted in the doubling of membership in less than a year and increasing retention by 18%.
Asked about her favorite recent book, she replies: “I just finished ‘Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World’ by Melinda Gates. It is a must read!”
What benefits does a local tech company gain from becoming involved with ATC?
The most important benefit any company gains from joining ATC is becoming part of our community. As our focus is specifically on post-product launch and post-customer acquisition companies, and the majority of our members have north of $10M in revenue, we bring significant thought leadership and mentorship to companies and their leadership.
In 2019 I did over 300 member introductions just by myself, the vast majority being one executive looking to reach out to another to discuss a problem or idea they had. Our members truly want to see each other succeed and will do what they can to support each other. I can’t think of a single ATC event where I haven’t heard someone say “rising tide lifts all ships” as to why they are so eager to help. We call it a community because that is what we have become to each other, and we are always looking for more to become part of our community.
How has COVID impacted day-to-day activities at the Austin Technology Council?
The most profound impact is that we haven’t physically seen our members since early March. Prior to COVID, there wasn’t a week I can recall where I didn’t meet several members or prospective members at events or over coffee. Our energy is solely focused on our member companies and their employees, so not seeing them in person has created a significant loss for our team.
What upcoming ATC virtual events are you most excited about?
We are launching a few new programs. The first is called “Meet the Team” where we will have breakout rooms where attendees can meet senior leaders of our sponsor company to network and receive mentoring. We are also kicking off a “CEO Discussion” which was designed as a virtual fireside chat between two C-Suite executives sharing best practices. We are in the planning process for a few other great virtual options, so keep on the lookout.
What younger tech companies within the ATC membership excite you the most?
ALTR is doing some great work in data and cyber security. T’so Chinese Delivery is creating incredible tech to run a full scale restaurant delivery service out of a ghost kitchen. SourceDay is doing some exciting work in the not exciting, but necessary industry of global supply chain management.
What more mature tech companies within the ATC membership excite you the most?
Looking at our heavy hitters like SailPoint, NetSpend, Intel, and Google are always easy to point out growth and adaptation to new climates, each has proven so this past year to pivot in both workforce needs and client needs. BigCommerce had an outstanding IPO and will continue to grow from that. Companies that don’t get a lot of headlines but are building great product include UnaliWear and Boxx Technologies on the hardware side of things, on the software side, watching Tiff’s Treats use tech to expand into new markets is exciting and BP3 is making strides in automation that will continue to help companies become more efficient in building their tech.
What growth sectors within the Austin technology ecosystem are you most bullish on at present?
I am always bullish on cyber and data security. I am currently reading “The Perfect Weapon” by David E. Sanger about global cyber terrorism. This is an area we should always be focused on and investing in. With the pandemic, both fintech and ecommerce are areas of major focus for me. I haven’t used cash since early March and have done almost all of my purchasing through apps since COVID, and most of my family and friends are doing the same. BigCommerce and RetailMeNot make everything easier for retailers who are trying to get online and in front of consumers. Companies like NetSpend and WorldPay ensure that we have multiple options of accessing our money without visiting ATMs or mailing checks, which is especially important as most banks are not able to accommodate walk-in traffic.
There have also been some smaller companies that are not quite ready for ATC who have seen growth during this time in e-commerce, and it is always great to see these founders succeed through meeting the needs of others.
Tech startups and more established tech companies will probably have an easier time recovering from the pandemic than the older creative industries (such as live music) that traditionally made Austin such an exciting city. How can the tech industry help restore / preserve these traditional staples of the Central Texas ecosystem?
I live downtown, and the main reason is the activity with live music venues and great local restaurants, so it has been especially hard to see favorite spots close down temporarily or permanently.
First we can support the musicians and artists who can’t perform or showcase their work in person, this can be easily done through hiring a musician or band to play a private online concert for employees. It’s a way to bring employees together, while at the same time supporting artists we all love.
Second is that we know we will have events and happy hours again. This is a great time to pre-book for 2021 or even 2022. Working with the venues on flexibility is easy right now and the deposit you put down now for an event you know you will have in the future can make a huge impact on the venue staying open. If there are concerns about the venues being around for these dates, then come up with something like a whiskey tasting or mixology lesson for employees from a bartender at one of the venues. TABC rules allow for this and it is a great way to get some money into the venues and ensure that you are going to see the return, plus who doesn’t love a good understanding of why you should only drink whiskey over 18-years old and we could all probably use some new margarita recipes for winter.
“What the outside world doesn’t realize is that Austin is truly an established tech city. We need to start telling the story of our strong companies who were built here and have not only grown here, but changed the lives of their employees for the better.”
How did your previous role at the Austin Chamber prepare you for your current role at ATC?
My tenure with the Austin Chamber was from 2009–2013, during a time when there seemed to be a big announcement every few weeks. I was fortunate enough to work closely with Dave Porter, Charisse Bodisch, and Adriana Cruz on bringing a lot of the new companies like Facebook and HDI Global on board, but also with Susan Davenport to build strong relationships with companies like Rackspace and National Instruments (NI) who were not yet involved. Seeing how integral tech was to the growth of the city and how it supported growth in other industries drove my passion to pursue my role with ATC because I wasn’t pigeon holed into just selling memberships, but was encouraged by the four leaders in economic development to really understand the vision of what Austin could become through strategic growth.
How does Austin continue to embrace / encourage growth in the tech sector — and yet avoid the pitfalls that have befallen other regions that have experienced exponential growth via this industry?
This all goes back to the tech bust in the early 2000’s. You had brilliant people coming out of those companies who wanted to stay in Austin, but couldn’t find jobs, those people are now the Founders and C-Suite executives of our healthiest companies. They know about hard times, they specifically built fiscally conservative companies with lean teams, and every last one of them plan for pivots long before they need to pivot.
The other important key is that there isn’t a successful executive in this town who isn’t paying it forward every chance they get. If you need help our community will be there to lift you up. We walk the talk on that point every single day.
From your perspective at ATC, how does the outside tech world view Austin?
Most of the interviews I do with reporters outside of Austin refer to our city as filled with scrappy little start-ups. They truly believe we are a city of co-working spaces and teams of 2–10 people developing new technologies. We definitely have those and we are proud of them all, but what the outside world doesn’t realize is that Austin is truly an established tech city. We need to start telling the story of our strong companies who were built here and have not only grown here, but changed the lives of their employees for the better.
What Austin tech-related project / expansion / relocation are you most excited about?
There have been a lot of them, but Shell just announced an innovation lab here in Austin. The goal of the company is to look at options outside of traditional fossil fuels and how technology will advance that research. As our world is dealing with limited fuel resources and significant impacts of climate change, I think this is some of the most important work that could be done now and am excited to see it done in Austin.
So much of our collective attention over the last three months has focused on diversity and inclusion. How has ATC addressed this topic?
DEI is an area that tech has significant struggles in. Whether it is hiring, funding, or developing product for diverse consumers, it has not been easy to overcome. That is hard to admit since tech exists to solve problems. We are currently developing a new strategic plan and DEI is going to be a focus of this. In the meantime, we are asking questions and learning from those affected by the lack of representation before we make significant changes to what we do, so that these changes are meaningful and impactful. We also continue to promote our members like DivInc, AUTM, GirlStart, and AnitaB.org who have been consistently leaders in these areas for years.
From your perspective at ATC, what is the biggest challenge facing the Austin technology industry?
The biggest issue we have is our inability to put significant reform into DEI issues across the board. That is in large part because not everyone is involved in the conversation, so some just don’t see how big the problem is. That is something we need to fix before we can impact change.
What do you think the Austin technology ecosystem will look like in five years?
I see the opportunity for both IPO and M&A deals growing several companies past that $1B cap, but also see that due to our innovative and collaborative nature, that tech will expand into many industries that don’t seem as relevant today. My greatest hope is that our collaborative and supportive nature will expand into other industries lifting up and reviving all of the things we love dearly about our city.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.
He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.