The most powerful force for change is a well-paying job. I remember the first time that idea really struck me.
I was 20 years old running a group of small businesses in my hometown of Ozark, Missouri and realized that none of my friends who were away at college could come home; there simply weren’t any jobs available for them. If you left to attend college, there was little or no opportunity for you to return. I didn’t know what to do about it or who to blame, but I knew something had to change.
Around that time, I happened to read in my weekly hometown newspaper that there was a city council election coming up. I immediately marched myself down to city hall, got an application and headed straight to the Iron Skillet Café, where I secured the 21 signatures necessary to get my name on the ballot. I took it right back to city hall and turned it in before I had time to think about it or know what I was getting myself into. I won the election in a landslide – granted, no one else had signed up to run – but still, it was a big accomplishment for my 20-year-old self.
I had the opportunity to serve for six years as a city councilman, three of those years as mayor pro tem. During that time I found my passion for job creation. As a matter of fact, I can remember my banker sitting down with me and remarking that I cared more about creating jobs than making a profit. I’m sure he didn’t mean it as a compliment, but he was right; I do care more about jobs, but don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive.
I fell in love with the idea that creating jobs can change people’s lives. Every day I see people that self-define by their job whether good or bad. For families who have historically been unemployed, a good job reverses that poverty mentality. It gives the family a safety net for today and propels them to a much brighter future. A job truly is the most powerful force for change that we have control over.
At this point in my life, I made the decision to throw all my chips on the table. I sold my businesses to go to college majoring in public administration and became what I thought I needed to be to affect how cities invested in growing jobs, a city manager.
I quickly realized after a short time as a city manager that that’s not what I was hard-wired to do. I was an economic developer, although at the time, I didn’t even know that term existed. I wanted to be the bridge between businesses, philanthropy and government. That truly summarizes what economic development is for me and why I am here today. As far as I know, there is still no undergraduate course to be an economic developer. There is no true career path that you must take. It’s simply a business full of amazing men and women who are passionate about changing the lives of other people and leveraging a well-paying job to do just that.