Keep Austin Weird

Our third city to visit during our International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) tour crisscrossing the US was Austin, Texas. None of us have been before so we were learning about the city together. With temperatures ranging 70-90 F, we were excited to shed our winter coats from Kansas and trade them in for sundresses and flip flops. Good thing too that we packed some as Monday turned out to be a record breaking 88F – the hottest day of the year – and it was only March 4th!

After inaugurating our arrival on Sunday afternoon with a meal of Tex Mex and margaritas at Iron Cactus Restaurant & Grill, we settled in for 4 days of meetings with friendly hospitality and southern drawl that Texans are well known for. Austin is the capital of the state and as we were reminded me several times is the little blue oasis ‘blue’ (aka liberal) in the large sea of ‘red’ (meaning the rest of the state of Texas is republican). Everyone we met reminded us that Austin was different than the rest of Texas…to the point that the phrase was coined Keep Austin Weird and they are constantly reminding you with bump stickers & T-shirts.

Weird or wonderful?

As I observed, there were many similarities between Austin & Ottawa (where I was born, raised & have chosen to establish my business). Both are cities with a small town feel. It is easy to know at least one other person when you walk into a networking function. Architecture is a mix of historic and modern buildings. Both government and high tech companies are the main employers. The cities have calendars full of festivals – the annual uber hip South by SouthWest (SXSW) had their kick off as when we departed. Rivers run through both cities & there are mazes of pathways for cyclists, walking & runners. Both have about 1 million residents, steady housing market, moderate cost of living and suburbs are expanding. And it is super easy to get around downtown walking, on a bike or with public transportation.

As our meetings came to a close, I often posed the question to our host – what makes Austin weird? Their responses were varied, but all had a common thread – Austin does things differently that people coming to the city might consider weird. To me, I think these reason are more wonderful than weird.

Here are a few of the things that Austin-ites think make their city weird:

• they collaborate rather than compete
• people smile or greet with a friendly ‘hello’ on the street
• they support local & independent businesses rather than chains & franchises
• business is sealed with a handshake rather than a signed contract
• people actually meet in person to collaborate & help each other to get things done
• only city where hippies and rednecks get along
• Austin is recognized is a creative city (interesting to note that Austin ranks 4th for registered patents)
• it is not who you know, but what you know
• everyone is in a band
• artists are everywhere
• people leave work behind them and go do something that they enjoy like hiking, biking, running or kayaking (we’d call that work-life balance)
• Small business are prolific in every industry

To me, I questioned whether these attributes were really weird or were they refreshing?

Our itinerary was dizzying with meetings of varying business associations, chambers of commerce, as well as officials from the Governor’s office, Department of Commerce and City of Austin. All reminded us of how Austin has grown from 250,000 to 1.4 million people in the past 30 years and their city is appealing to businesses primarily in California to relocate because of Austin’s moderate cost of living and access to a highly educated work force.

Small city with big name businesses…

Case in point, Google, Apple and Facebook want ‘in’. Dell was founded in Round Rock (burb of Austin). and IBM has large operations here and Whole Foods started in a small shopping mall and now has the world’s largest organic supermarket with their headquarters towering over the store located near downtown (while at Whole Foods, several of us picked up the book – Conscious Capitalism by Whole Food’s Founder & CEO John Mackey as it was highly recommended during our meeting with Trace High – CEO of The Banks Group Inc). During our meeting with 1st VP Texas Women In Business, she proudly stated that the top Fiat car dealership is in Austin and is owned by a woman. And being in Texas, of course these are countless oil, gas and petroleum companies located here too.

At our meeting with the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce were quick to point out that over 50% of start up businesses in their area are run by women. They shone the spotlight on Light Bohrd (a light accessory born out of a mother who had a son who would skateboard into the dark hours of the night). They started in the family’s garage and now house a manufacturing facility in Round Rock. Body Arts Forms business of nose rings, piercing and other body art accessories grew so fast that they built a unique technology that enabled quicker tracking of inventory by lighting the drawer in the warehouse where the small product was located. They now commercialize this technology for other businesses that have vast inventories of parts and small items.

Many of these start-ups were assisted by federal or state funding or are connected in some way to the numerous entrepreneurial networks – BiG Austin (BiG = Business Investment Growth), Texas Women in Business, Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Texas or even Rotary Club International. There are numerous conferences in town that support Austin’s ‘weird’ characteristic of sharing knowledge and resources (one that I was particularly interested in is Rise Global where 100s of seminars across the city attract engineers, techies and entrepreneurs to exchange & learn about technologies. And the conference is free of charge to anyone. ‘Rise’ as it is known has expanded from Austin (takes place this May) to include New York City too. And for an ongoing support, there are several incubators across the city like EGBI who offer training, coaching, certification and office space for new businesses. There is a great infrastructure of resources here…does that really make Austin weird?

Looking over my notes, web sites I jotted down that were of interest:

Texas Wide Open for Business.org
Women Impacting the Nation (WIN)
Tech Ranch Austin

Nothing weird about Austin’s food & wine scene…

We enjoyed fantastic Tex Mex meals where ever we went (and great margaritas too!). Iron Catcus had fine Tex Mex cuisine and a fun patio. At Krave Wine Bar in Round Rock I had my first taste of Texas wine – McPherson Viognier and Becker Vineyards Chardonnay. Both wines were crisp & dry and true to their grape variety characteristics with a distinctive mineral finish. Curious to learn about other wines from Texas, I stopped in at Twin Liquors (a highly successful wine retail chain in Austin run by a woman no less!) and found over 15 other wines on the store shelves made with typical grape varieties including Sangiovese (Italian style red), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Riesling. Next time I visit Texas, I will keep on exploring their wines.

We took a break from Tex Mex one evening and had an incredible meal at Wink Restaurant. Highly recommended by several people, this restaurant and wine bar was hidden in a shopping mall across from Whole Foods. With their farm to table approach of using as many locally grown ingredients in their menu and friendly staff along with a variety of Texas wines on the list, made for an enjoyable evening. We even considered going back for a second meal. Take it from me, if you are ever in Austin – this is a ‘must do’ restaurant.

Is Austin really so weird?

Throughout our visit in Austin, there were a few comments said that I think sum up the business culture in Austin:
‘You can start a business if you support a community’ – Claudia Conner, Outreach Director of BiGAustin
‘In Austin, there has always been an ability to do business on a handshake’ – Catherine Crago, President Diversity Interactive

Our trip continues with 5 days in Denver, Colorado…

Follow us on Twitter!

For in the moment tweets about our tour, follow our group on #IVLP and

  • @savvydebbie (Debbie Trenholm) – middle
  • @Halifax_Gateway (Nancy Phillips) – 2nd on left
  • @JenniferBrandle (Jennifer Brandle) – far right
  • @PillPak (Fiona Webster Mourant) – far left
  • @amigerba (Amina Gerba) – 2nd on right

Oh…and by the way, after our cowboy boot shopping, we counted that the combined total of  the 6 of us, is 38 pairs of shoes and boots…for 21 days! Only women readers will understand 🙂

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