Leigh Christie Explains Why Startups Should Apply for Austin A-LIST
Leigh Christie is the Senior Vice President of Global Technology & Innovation at the Austin Chamber. She leads the development and execution on Opportunity Austin initiatives that support and highlight local businesses in our tech and innovation ecosystems. She also travels internationally to attract international capital to the Austin Region. Her current travel focuses on Singapore, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Israel.
She also oversees the A-LIST Awards, which coming into its 9th year continues to identify some of the region’s most outstanding startups and promising entrepreneurs and companies. The self-nomination process for the 2020 edition of this competition is open through Friday, August 28. New for this year’s event is the opportunity to nominate an outstanding team and an entrepreneur who should be recognized for his/her entrepreneurial mindset and community-minded spirit. SXSW is proud to partner with the Austin Chamber on these A-List Awards.
The Austin Business Journal named Christie as a 2019 Profiles in Power & Women of Influence Winner, and through her work and personal commitments she has established herself as a Global speaker, TEDx speaker, and a 2019 Eisenhower Fellowship Finalist. Over the past year, she has taken the stage to talk tech and innovation with leaders in Dubai, Chengdu (China), Cairo and Tokyo.
Prior to joining the Chamber, Christie was the Executive Director of the Entrepreneurs Foundation where for more than eight years she worked with Austin tech CEOs and companies on entrepreneurial and community focused projects. She is an attorney by trade and licensed to practice in Washington State, where she practiced law for more than four years at a large, Philadelphia-based law firm in Seattle, Washington.
Born and raised in Austin, her favorite restaurant is Chez Nous on Neches Street: “My husband Charles and I have been going there together since we first started dating, more than 25 years ago.”
Christie is also an avid runner, witness the photo above of her finish at the 2018 New York City Marathon. She has also completed the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco and the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii. You can often find her on Austin’s Hike and Bike Trail, which was the focus of her nine-minute 2019 TEDxBartonSpringsWomen talk.
You were trained as a lawyer, but you have now spent more than a decade within the Austin entrepreneurial ecosystem. How did that transition occur? What makes founders so much fun to work with?
I was practicing law for a large Philadelphia based firm in Seattle when our first daughter was born. Wanting to be closer to family, we returned to Austin. When in Austin, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work closely with Pike Powers and many wonderful partners at Fulbright, and my work concentrated on client development and recruiting. I left Fulbright after my second daughter was born, and I later helped launch Lemonade Day Austin, which was a youth program of the Entrepreneurs Foundation. I loved the momentum and challenges of crafting and launching an entrepreneurial youth program when the concept was truly new. I then grew from that role into the Director and then Executive Director of the Entrepreneurs Foundation where I had the privilege of working with Austin tech CEOs and their teams on building partnerships with non-profits in our communities. I’m now fortunate to continue to my growth at the Austin Chamber and work internationally and locally to help build and support our growing and thriving tech and innovation hubs. I am comfortable with trying new ways and things, pivoting along the way and being metrics focused. I respect hard work, challenges and the need to be highly focused and impactful. Working with entrepreneurs is energizing, encouraging and in my blood
What is Austin’s competitive advantage for startups?
Opportunity, collaboration, mentorship and tech talent. And this competitive advantage continues to grow as we fold in new leaders, investors, entrepreneurs and talent.
Why should startups apply to be part of the 2020 Austin A-LIST Awards?
A-LIST is a celebration of entrepreneurship, founders, teams and companies who are excelling in their industries. A-LIST nominees represent a community of creative and innovative technologies, thinkers and doers. A-LIST nominees become part of a unique network of founders and teams who have access to year-round programming and networking opportunities with investors, community and business leaders and fellow entrepreneurs and founders.
Do A-LIST companies continue to excel following their spotlight at the annual event?
A-LIST companies represent some of our top tech and innovation leaders in Austin. These leaders and companies continue to grow and thrive in our communities. A handful of A-LIST companies we’ve had the pleasure to watch soar include: Acessa Health, Better Bites Bakery, CherryCircle Software, CognitiveScale, data.world, Double A Labs, EverlyWell, OJO Labs, RigUp, Rocket Dollar, and SchooLinks.
What will the 2020 Austin A-LIST ceremony look like?
A-LIST 2020 will launch in the fall as a series of online award celebrations of tech and innovative companies and high-level conversations on current topics that matter most to these leaders.
Networking has always been one of the best aspects of the Austin A-LIST ceremony. How do you hope to duplicate that in the online world?
We’re hoping to increase the level of networking by continuing A-LIST through year-round programming for our A-LIST nominees. We will be creating ongoing opportunities and access to investors, thought leaders, business and community mentors and fellow entrepreneurs and founders.
How does the Chamber promote Austin A-LIST honorees?
In addition to highlighting A-LIST winner accomplishments year round, the Chamber will launch a campaign to highlight our 2020 A-LIST winners and honorees, including promotion of companies and founders through print and online channels.
What are some of your favorite A-LIST moments or memories from the past few years?
Some of my favorite memories over the last couple of years have included keynotes by Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, Laura Kilcrease and Mellie Price and, of course, seeing the endless number of amazing tech and innovative founders take the stage at A-LIST. The most memorable moment for me as a leader though is from last year’s A-LIST event when it became unbelievably clear that we had sincere work to do to launch a more inclusive and diverse A-LIST. Honest, raw and authentic conversations led to more intentionality in creating a 2020 A-LIST to be Austin’s List and representative of ALL founders in our community. Memorable, life changing and empowering to do better.
What specific steps has Austin A-List taken to make the 2020 program more diverse and inclusive?
At the beginning of this year, we hired Jones-Dilworth Inc to work with our internal planning team to take the A-List event back to its core purpose, which is to celebrate tech and innovation founders and companies. The goal was not to try to “fix” A-LIST but to truly reimagine what A-LIST could and should look like to truly celebrate tech and innovation founders and companies from all communities in Austin. So we started at the beginning, which was to launch a Steering Committee that represented all communities in Austin, including past A-LIST companies, community and business leaders and DEI experts to oversee and advise on the A-LIST nomination process. As a result, the nomination process was revised in order to include more applicants (i.e. the amount of funding does not exclude them from applying for A-LIST). We also revised the application process to ask all to share how they are working to be more inclusive in their c-suite and on their board. Lastly, our Judging Committee, which has typically been comprised of local investors, will increase in size to include more women, people of color and business and community leaders from different industries.
If you could improve one thing about the Austin startup ecosystem, what would it be?
We need to be more intentional on supporting and funding our diverse leaders and founders. It’s not enough to host events focused on diversity, it’s about bridging this gap in our day to day actions as leaders and organizations. When we build and showcase board and advisory members, panelists, leaders, founders, mentors and experts, we need to do the work to include men and women of color at every turn.
What is the special sauce that makes Austin Austin?
The special sauce is our willingness and ability to have hard conversations about what’s not working, explore how to move forward in a new way, and do the work to get there. My sincere hope is that this continues in a meaningful way.
In your role at the Chamber, you’ve traveled the globe spreading the gospel of the Central Texas innovation ecosystem. What does the outside world think of when they think about Austin?
Hands down one of the best parts of my job is traveling abroad and sharing more about the Austin Region and all that our tech and innovation ecosystem has to offer investors, founders and expanding companies and projects. It’s a rare occurrence when I need to introduce the Austin Region for the first time. More often than not it’s just diving into the details and sharing more about the incredible innovation and opportunities in our region. Investors, leaders and founders in the UAE, Egypt, UK, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel recognize the Austin Region as a thriving tech and innovation hub with high quality tech talent that is ripe for investment and expansion.
Over the last few months, travel has been greatly restricted because of COVID. How have you been able to market the Austin innovation ecosystem to the world without being able to engage in face-to-face meetings in the cities where you would traditionally visit?
We’ve been working hard to continue to foster our international relationships during this time. In addition to monthly Zoom calls to check in with one another on families, current developments in other countries and investment opportunities, we are launching a series of webinars “International Biz Advantage” to focus on relationships and opportunities with Israel, Canada and the UK. In the fall, we will begin sharing videos of updates and conversations with investors abroad to include the UAE, Singapore and Hong Kong. Lastly, I help coordinate our local consulate generals, honorary consulate generals, and business leaders who concentrate on international business to connect monthly for a virtual roundtable to ensure that our international outreach and relationships remain strong and impactful.
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.