Chelsea McCullough has made a career out of bringing people together for the social good. So it seemed perfectly fitting that we met at Center 61, a collaborative workspace dedicated to social entrepreneurs. There she is among her tribe.
Charming and eloquent, Chelsea carries a youthful energy alongside a wise and grounded confidence. Her work spans the areas of entrepreneurship, social impact, technology and communications. It’s a broad umbrella, but underneath it she specializes in engaging people to create powerful ideas and meaningful partnerships.
Chelsea currently serves as Executive Director of Texans for Economic Progress (TEP), a statewide technology coalition. She has participated in the launch of several entrepreneurial companies and served as founding Program Director for RISE, an annual conference dedicated to connecting and inspiring entrepreneurs.
Chelsea has served various community groups, include DiscoverHope, the UT Food Lab, LifeWorks and SetonCove. She was a finalist in the 2013 Austin Under Forty Awards and that same year earned Leadership Austin’s Ascendent Award.
Born in Houston and raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, Chelsea came to Austin in 1994 to attend the University of Texas and earned both a bachelor and masters degree in advertising.
She spent the first years of her career in El Paso and then Las Vegas, suffering from what she calls mountain disease. “I would see a huge mountain, climb it, then realize it was the wrong mountain. So I would start all over.”
She came back to Austin in 2002 to find the right mountain.
How did you first hear about Leadership Austin?
It was in 2006 and I had done an entrepreneurs’ conference called RISE. I was in grad school and working full-time at MPOWER Labs. And I was everywhere trying to find the next spot. I felt like I was just a hamster on a wheel trying to figure it all out… who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, what was the impact I wanted to have, and how did I want to make it happen. And my friend Geronimo Rodriguez (current board chair of Leadership Austin) suggested I do a professional development program to survey everything that’s out there and make some smart decisions.
I wanted to lead a life of purpose but wanted to do it very purposefully, not in this crazy, frenetic way.
So I applied for the 2009 Essential class, but I didn’t get in that year. I was told that lots of people get rejected the first year. But you know, Type A personalities aren’t used to being rejected….we’re used to A pluses and gold stars. But it was interesting because we were all told at the opening retreat that “You find the class you need.” It’s not just about the numbers but it’s really about the mix of people and who is really right for that class. And I got in the perfect year for me, which was Essential 2010. So now if I nominate people and they don’t get in, I say the same thing that Geronimo said to me, “Just not your year–try again!”
Tell me about your Leadership Austin experience…
I was so impressed by all the people in the room. It took me a while to figure out that “Oh wow, I’m one of the people in this room.” These highly accomplished, incredibly intelligent, huge-hearted people, and I just wanted to sit there and soak up all that goodness. Just seeing how purposeful everyone was. The ones who were seeking were very purposefully seeking and I identified with that crew.
It was everything from being around people in the class to having the feeling of acceptance. You’re part of the cohort and this cohort is your support system. That was really important to me.
What has stuck with you from Leadership Austin?
Realizing how diverse people are but how they cluster together in their diversity. I think people who grow up in big families are better at this. They understand different types of people, how different types of people work, and how you can help them work together. I didn’t quite have that wisdom, and Leadership Austin helped me figure that out–to focus on the issues and intuitively bring people together as opposed to putting the most powerful people in the room. I remember at one of the sessions or retreats someone said, “It’s not about having ‘the right people’ in the room, it’s about having the right people in the room.” I learned it’s more about asking, ‘Who is coming from the community? Who is going to be a really strong personality? Who’s going to drive something forward? Who’s going to be the important background thinker? And is everyone aligned from a values perspective? It’s not just ‘check the boxes’ are they a big name?
Tell me about Texans for Economic Progress…
We act as a translating service between the capitol and the tech industry. My job in the tech community is to help the tech community understand that policy is important and that policy affects them. When entrepreneurs say “I’m just busy trying to build my business and get to this level of revenue, or hire more employees, or pay myself for the first time.” I tell them you can either get involved on the front end or it affects you on the back end.
Our job is to make sure everybody gets in a room. We’re not going to push for one side or another. We’re non profit, we’re non partisan. Our push is for economic development policy related to tech.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I love it when I can get people together who normally wouldn’t be in a room together, and they can find common ground on issues they never thought they would work together on.
Any advice for emerging leaders?
I’m really impressed with the young leaders right now. They are further along on their path than I was. But if I can go back and talk to my younger self, I would give the advice to just be bold. In the Deep South you are taught that there’s a pecking order and you shouldn’t be too aggressive. But some of the best ideas come from those with the least amount of experience. I would tell the up and coming leaders to really value your intuition and your ideas, and to be bold in sharing them.
Advice for established leaders?
Don’t be afraid of change. Everything is evolving so fast right now. Millennials are coming up and there’s this great surge of energy and everyone is kind of freaked out. But as long as the values piece of it is strong…as long as the why is solid, the how can be just as radical as it needs to be.
Describe your perfect Austin, technology wise?
Fiber everywhere! Lots of high-speed Internet and lots of companies competing to provide it. Also, I think it would be great if employers would embrace dispersed workplace models. Traffic is always an issue in Austin. There are lots of great solutions coming up, but if people can work from home or work through collaborative working spaces, then work can feel more integrated and purpose-based.
What gadget can’t you live without?
It’s a three-part answer: my phone, my really thin MacBook Air because I’m lugging it everywhere, and a HotSpot. So if I’m driving down the road and need to respond to something that requires an Internet connection then I just pull off the side of the road and I can send it from anywhere.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Casual and intuitive. It’s important for me that people are enjoying the process of whatever the project is. That it’s not contentious. There’s not different sides fighting against each other, but instead finding enough common ground that everyone feels bought into the process and wants to move it forward and can learn something at the same time.
How do you think a good leader facilitates that positive collaboration?
It’s about really understanding who people are and what motivates them, and then how to put them together in a way that they all want to work together. They don’t necessarily have to be on the same side, but if there’s that core strength, that core value system, and everyone is coming from a good place, then even with two different perspectives, you can find enough overlap to move it all forward.
What do you love about Austin?
The energy of creation. You can create anything you want in this city. It’s unbelievable. It’s really different from other places in the U.S., and I took that for granted. We are such an entrepreneurial city and a creative city and such a caring city. We have all these big brains, big hearts and this “can do” moxie spirit.
It’s really lovely to see this new surge of energy with new folks coming to town. The city is growing so quickly and it’s helping everybody grow up. So now everyone is going to come together…It’s like everybody has been in beta and now it’s going to get to the next level.
Upcoming Impact Profile: Ed Kargbo