by Anne Bruno, MP Mueller & Brittani Sonnenberg
Photography by Matt Conant, Robert Gomez, Jessica Pages & Hayden Spears
The spilling lavender, shocks of rosemary and sprawling peonies seem to revel in their unattendedness. But behind the scenes is a patient, nurturing gardener, giving each plant room to grow, devoting hours each day in the dirt to coax life, and joy, out of stubborn ground.
Austin, while decidedly not British, has something of the English garden in its deepest nature. From a distance, the city’s thriving creative culture, growing nonprofit and philanthropic presence, and innovative approaches to everything from healthcare to affordable housing looks like it bloomed on its own. But if you take a closer look, you’ll glimpse Austin’s quiet, behind-the-scenes gardeners — its city shapers — whose aims are not to create a sterile topiary but an irrepressible burst of colors. They’re the ones rising at dawn, working through the night and allowing themselves to stay tender and open to the garden’s evolving needs. They learned, long ago, that devoting themselves to the garden, tending to community, was to devote themselves to their own growth, too.
We’re lucky enough to spend our days in the garden. But learning their stories, and what first urged them to dig, and plant some seeds, might inspire you to pick up a shovel yourself, and discover what you were put here to plant.
What is a smart city? Like whispers in an art gallery alcove, we’ve heard the term wafting about. But not until our conversation with Chelsea Collier, did we feel like we could talk smart cities at a cocktail party without slurring words — not from inebriation but to keep others from guessing our spitballing on the topic might be more spit than ball.
Collier has a background and love of futuristic tech, policy, citizen engagement and social impact. She found and declared the smart cities cause after spending time in China this past fall as an Eisenhower Fellow, immersed in the topic. It’s all about how technology can be applied to a city to ultimately make it more efficient and connected for citizens and residents. At its heart, smart cities focus on gathering and sharing data in real time to yield better services, like sensors, beacons and cameras on streets to improve timing of traffic signals. And there’s the BigBelly project in development, solar powered trash bins with built-in sensors that let municipalities know when trash truly needs to be collected. This will save valuable resources and be gentler on our roads and environment.
Composed and speaking in perfect, illuminating and yet, unrehearsed sentences, Collier is the penultimate ambassador for a movement without an established home court. She is involved in a conference called Smart Cities Connect, and writes a blog dedicated to the topic, Digi.City. The blog showcases leaders in the space and a great resource for bringing people together for the cause.
As it’s still nascent, there is no central government or private sector group “in charge” yet. But according to Collier, both the public and private sectors are working furiously together on this initiative. “The motivation is to become very efficient with resources,” Collier explained. “Cities are being asked to do more with fewer resources.” But it takes great resources to get there. Like putting policies and investment in place to build bigger, fatter, faster pipes (think 5G), to transmit all the data needed to make these applications run. “There are currently an average of eight connected devices for every one person,” Collier shared. “By 2025 there will be 50 billion connected devices in the world. The beautiful part is that technology can implement solutions around really big challenges. But, you can’t just flip a switch and overnight you have a smart city… it takes a really intentional strategy.”
And Collier will likely be in the smart city center, helping that strategy gel. “At the end of the day, I love creating platforms that bring together passionate, committed people who want to change the world.
Anyone familiar with the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” will recall the village matchmaker Yente. She arranged marriages between two people for mutual good. Suzi Sosa is Yente’s younger, modern-day, business-world equivalent. Sosa is a co-founder of Verb, a company that focuses on growing greater good by matching businesses to social impact companies. She and Verb co-founder, Austin business heavyweight Tom Meredith, have forged alliances with household-name corporations — like Dell, Nike, Met Life and IBM — to provide valuable mentorship.
At a recent visit at Verb’s East Austin offices, Sosa preached the company’s beliefs with her soft-spoken cadence. “The biggest problems in the world will be solved by partnerships with big global brands, social entrepreneurs and the social sector. On the big brands’ side, more than 50% of the workforce now are millennials, and they are demanding a different work environment. They expect professional development, leadership opportunities and they want to feel like they are making a difference.” Verb brings these brands and their millennial employees together with social entrepreneurs all over the world. Since 2013, they’ve matched companies with 10,000 social entrepreneurs from 100 counties. “It’s win/win … employees get to know about startups, how to pitch ideas and social impact. On the other side, the entrepreneurs learn about financial planning, how to put together a great pitch deck, and project management.”
Research has shown that companies with a purpose outperform those who lack one. But defining and baking in a purpose to a company’s culture is a time-consuming process that may get pushed to the back of the line as companies grow. Verb offers corporations a kind of plug and play purpose. And Verb supports social impact entrepreneurs with competitions that help them get prize money, media attention and mentors.
The ideas launched with Verb’s support thrill Sosa. Her eyes light up when she describes the portable sleeping bag incubator students from Stanford created. Now used by midwives in Africa and India, it rolls up to fit in a purse and is saving babies’ lives. Or Tevido, an Austin company that does 3-D printing of human tissue, creating nipples for women who have had mastectomies. Another winner is Jerry the Bear, an interactive device that helps children learn how to manage their diabetes, which has garnered national awards for health innovation.
Sosa says her draw to public service started early on. “I always asked myself when I was very young, ‘How can I make a difference in my short life?’” While she has many years ahead, we think she can pretty much check that box.
There’s an old auto repair shop just hightailing it distance from the historic Oakwood Cemetery in East Austin. Owen’s Garage used to keep cars road-worthy. These days, it’s the locus of Notley Ventures, a social impact company. Step inside and you can hear the engines of nonprofits and commerce running hard at their unique intersection.
Notley Ventures was started in 2015 by Dan and Lisa Graham. Dan, a native Austinite, founded the successful online company, Build-a-Sign, and a handful of other businesses. Lisa has a background in management consulting and public policy. When Build-A-Sign had an investment event two years ago, the couple ran, not walked, to plow their new resources into Notley. The company invests in entities, both for profit and nonprofit — they currently have 50 in their portfolio — who have a goal of community impact.
“There’s that expression, where your specific skill set, your passion and a need intersect, that’s where you should spend your time, and that applies to us,” Dan explained. “On the spectrum of for-profit and nonprofit, there is a drifting to the middle and a lot of interesting work to be done. Like helping nonprofits think about sustainability and scalability, being more entrepreneurial. And helping for-profits think about impact and integrate giving back into their business models.”
Weaning nonprofits from relying on donors is one of their goals. “There are a couple of ancient examples of nonprofits who have tapped other sources for funding, like Goodwill and Girl Scout [cookies],” Dan explained. They just helped fund College Forward, a company that provides education mentoring services to low-income students. “They thought about ‘who is our service benefitting, who are the stakeholders?’” Dan shared. The answer was universities who spend a lot of money making sure their students graduate. So College Forward revamped their business model, asking colleges if they could bring their services to them and get paid for doing so. Today, 60% of College Forward’s annual budget comes from earned revenue.
What’s up next for the couple? The companies Notley invests in are required them to set goals for impact. The Grahams have some goals of their own in that department. At the top of the list is to have Austin identified as a social innovation capital. Like a good business plan, Dan’s got action items to go with that goal. He and Lisa are building a campus called the Center for Social Innovation that will have everything a social innovation ecosystem needs. Slated to complete in a year, the 165,000 square-foot center in East Austin will have co-working, investor, education, event and outdoor community collaboration spaces. With its own coffee shop and bar, there’s no need for off-site gatherings. And, most certainly, no shortage of good things to toast.
There’s brutal honesty, and then there’s Wes Hurt. The founder of Clean Cause, maker of organic energy drinks and premium bottled waters, is also a recovering addict. Hurt employs extreme transparency as a strategy for staying clean. “For me, it’s a way of living every day (some days minute-by-minute) that has accountability built into it.” Take a look at Hurt’s Facebook posts and you’ll see what he means. Hurt said stories of addiction and painful consequences are not that unusual. His version includes multiple stints in rehab and one in a psych ward, jail time and being fired as CEO from his own company (the uber-successful Hey Cupcake!) His addiction took hostage of every meaningful relationship in his life, including his marriage, and the loss of trust is a rusty residual.
“I want more of everything,” Hurt said emphatically. “Whatever it is. It’s who I was then and I know it’s still who I am now. The truth is, if I could,” he added laughing, “I’d celebrate being clean by going on the biggest binge of my life! That extreme part about me, and most addicts who’ll tell you honestly, doesn’t change. Period.” What has changed are the life-affirming actions he’s taken and what he’s wanting more of. He started Clean Cause as a way to generate funds to cover rent in sobriety homes for people fresh out of rehab. The idea is to give someone who’s ready to get sober a real chance at building a recovery system and securing employment, two keys to long-term success.
His rationale for his business is as practical as he is extreme. “It’s this simple: there are basically only two ways I can choose to go,” Hurt said. “This is the one I’m picking. I really will say anything I have to, to get an addict or alcoholic to try just one day of being sober, then try one more day, each day after that.” Hurt said that sustainable change, for him, comes through some kind of intense drama, a spiritual intersection. “I find I’m purified through every experience I get to have with the people we’re trying to help.” That means those trying to get clean, as well as the people who care about them.
Clean Cause, he explained, is as much for people who suffer fierce collateral damage from their proximity to an addict. “People reach out to us all the time about the unbearable powerlessness they feel watching someone they love slowly kill themselves. Being able to take some tangible action — just spending a few bucks on an energy drink — can help. It feels like hope,” he shared. “And trust me, it may be self-serving, but giving hope is amazingly addictive.
Lolis Garcia Baab is known for her enthusiastic and direct communication style. When it comes to issues such as girl power, she revs up quickly, with the ease of someone who could lap this track in her sleep, but never, ever on cruise control. “I believe we have a real leadership crisis in our country and the answer is right in front of us: women and girls.”
Spend a little time with the former radio talk show host and political veteran, now director of marketing and communications for the Girl Scouts of Central Texas, and you’ll be ready to jump on the vehicle Baab’s been driving for years. Unleashing the untapped potential in every girl, she asserts, has the power to transform not only our country, but also our world.
“It’s a fact,” she says. “Look at how a country treats (and values) its women and girls and you’ll see a direct correlation to that country’s level of development — for better or worse.”
A native of Mexico City who met her husband, Mike Baab, a former NFL football player, while attending UT Austin, Garcia Baab brings an almost supernatural level of energy and tangible compassion to everything she does. “If I’m struggling with something, I’m totally sure there’s someone else out there facing the same problem! If you talk about it, you’ll always find others willing to take something on with you and create solutions.
Such was the case for Garcia Baab at the time one of her two daughters was being bullied at school. That problem, and Garcia Baab’s desire to start a wider dialogue about it, led to strategies that would ultimately go way beyond empowering just her own daughters. Diving into the complexities of how girls feel about themselves in the especially vulnerable preteen and teenage years, Garcia Baab reached out to anyone she could learn from and partner with. That included the Dove Self-Esteem Project. The response? So overwhelmingly positive that in 2008, she started the We Are Girls conference. It has since grown into an annual statewide event led by likeminded women, dedicated to giving girls the tools they need to believe in themselves — body, mind and soul.“Give girls these tools and you’re setting them on a course for success where everyone benefits. The women these girls grow into are capable of not only fulfilling their own potential, but of leading other people, organizations and governments, in doing the same.”
As to her own path, Garcia Baab laughs and reflects, “I haven’t had any kind of master plan, but I pursue opportunities that speak to me. Most important,” Garcia Baab says emphatically, “you have to pick something and go, start doing!”
When Beto Lopez and Stacey Chang, executive director and managing director of the Dell Medical School De-sign Institute for Health, sat down with a team of architects to plan the new outpatient center, the duo’s unorthodox approach swiftly became apparent.
“The architects showed us their suggestion for a waiting room,” says Chang. “And we said, ‘But isn’t a waiting room a failure of the process?’” In other words, a truly redesigned outpatient center shouldn’t need a waiting room. “It doesn’t matter how many fish tanks or TVs you throw in there,” says Chang. Sick people don’t want to be entertained sitting next to other sick people. They want to see their doctors.
“At that point,” chimes in Lopez, “the architects closed their books. And that’s when the real discussion began.”
Lopez and Chang came to Austin by way of IDEO, a Silicon Valley design firm notorious for inventing the computer mouse. They’re both thrilled at the chance to apply their design skills to community health in Austin. “It’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done,” says Lopez. “We’re surrounded by a mission-driven cohort,” adds Chang. Their to-do list? Make the health ecosystem more productive, offer new capabilities, and provide utility of design in a space that hasn’t benefited from it. Undergirding each task is a commitment to “human-centered design,” which starts from a place of deep empathy—not just with individual design elements, but in reshaping the system’s entire culture.
This requires aligning practitioners around the people they serve, says Lopez. “There’s nothing like hearing someone’s story to drive empathy.” And that’s where the two began, when they first arrived in Austin last year: gathering stories. They spoke to a bus driver who suffered from back pain after 8-hour shifts, and who witnessed her riders’ daily aches. They talked to a 30-year veteran of the music scene who was often homeless. A single mother challenged by the social service system. A lawyer who had no idea how to handle hospital discharge papers. “From their stories, we looked at what gaps emerged,” says Chang. “What were they hoping for? We need to stop designing from a place of arrogance, and make it an act of humility. All too often the current health system stands in the way of humanity.”
Jack and Patsy Woods Martin aren’t just two of Austin’s biggest philanthropists; they’ve changed the very nature of philanthropy in Austin. But when asked about their efforts, they make it sound as natural and understated as their love of their North Texas ranch land, where both have sunk deep roots.
“I was raised to take care of what provides for you,” said Patsy.
Jack concurred: “In my family, you worked from sunup to sundown, and you left the land better than you found it. It went with a basic set of values: Be honest. Keep your word. Don’t overcomplicate things. We carry those roots.”
Today, Jack serves as the global executive chairman and chief executive officer of the global public relations firm Hill+Knowlton. Patsy is the executive director of Annie’s List, an organization that supports pro-choice women running for public office in Texas. Listing their volunteer and board work for other local and national charities and organizations would take up the rest of this article’s word count. This February, the couple will be honored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals as Outstanding Philanthropists. And the two approach their civic leadership roles with the same “roll-up-your-sleeves” attitudes they gleaned from their families’ farming backgrounds.
“Philanthropy is often stereotyped as a lot of rich people in tuxes giving money to each other’s charities,” said Jack. “That’s not what we’re about. Patsy founded I Live Here, I Give Here (an organization that puts on Amplify Austin Day) to get money to people who simply needed help in Austin. Her vision has been the foundation of our philanthropy work. I just follow along.”
“I’m going to push back on that a little,” Patsy interrupted, smiling. “It’s been a real partnership. I got the idea for I Live Here, I Give Here when I was working at United Way, and Public Strategies (Jack ’s former firm) was an equal pro-bono partner in research and PR.” She laughs. “Remember when I asked for TV spots for my birthday?”
A lot of wives would ask for spa certificates. Patsy wanted TV spots to promote the fledgling nonprofit. A lot of husbands might say no. Jack said yes.
Patsy credits thirty years in Austin, too, with inspiring their work. “This place has been good to us and to our kids. If we can give a little bit of that back, it’s incredibly gratifying.”
By the time John Henneberger turned 10, he had lived in a dozen places across the United States, thanks to his father’s military career. But it wasn’t until Henneberger was a UT student in the 70s that he discovered true community in the central Austin neighborhood of Clarksville. “There was a richness there that I had never seen before,” he says. “Neighbors deeply supported one another.” The then-largely African-American neighborhood was also a stark display of systemic prejudice and enforced poverty. “The western and northern edges of Clarksville were upper class. But when you got to 10th Street, the streets weren’t paved. You could literally cross the street to see physical manifestations of inequality.”
For Henneberger, co-director of Texas Housers, it was clear that Clarksville wasn’t a “black problem,” but a “white problem.” He struggled to find a role that would suit his outsider status in helping the community. He found his answer when he met a group of strong female leaders who became his mentors. “I could support them by researching information to give context to their causes. They would send me down to city hall, to find out why their streets hadn’t been paved. I wasn’t a spokesperson or a leader; I was able to find them sources of money or outline steps of a legal process. I felt useful, and the work was immensely satisfying.”
Advocating for low-income communities in the face of powerful business, political and cultural opposition can be daunting and exhausting work. But Henneberger seems energized by the challenges. “Humans are natural problem solvers,” he says. “It’s what fulfills us, whether we’re creating businesses, engaging politically, or shaping a child’s life.” In Henne-berger’s case, it’s redesigning hurricane relief systems in the Rio Grande Valley. Or advocating for fair housing and environmental justice in Corpus Christi. Or fighting “source of income” discrimination in Austin.
This advocacy has guided Henneberger’s work for more than forty years. His ongoing efforts were recognized with a Macarthur Genius Grant in 2014.
Henneberger insists that standing up for community doesn’t take much, and that it’s an organic desire we all have. “You can’t buy community the way you would a car,” he shared. “You don’t have to go to every barbecue or neighborhood association meeting. But you can get to know people, and decide together how you want to shape where you live.”
After all, Austin’s weirdness isn’t just about tattoos or backyard chickens. To Henneberger, the city’s beautiful weirdness thrives on diversity and acceptance, and it deserves to be cultivated and protected, like any other kind of wilderness.
Shuronda Robinson displays a megawatt smile and an affinity for us-ing the words inspiration, beauty and truth when talking about family and issues close to her heart, like the real meaning of democracy.
A restless optimist, passionate advocate and insightful strategist who’s “comfortable in the middle of conflict and confusion,” this second-generation entrepreneur seeks to make the biggest difference by making a way for others.
Robinson, a mother of three boys, comes by her aptitude for words and inclination to community service naturally. Her late father published an African-American weekly newspaper in Houston, was a volunteer baseball and football coach and served as a union organizer. Her mother, an educator, still acts as the paper’s publisher today. Graduating from Houston’s magnet high school for communications, Robinson first came to Austin to attend UT. Since 1995 she’s run her own consulting firm, Adisa Communications (named Small Business of the Year in 2015 by the Greater Black Austin Chamber of Commerce).
Robinson didn’t consider herself an activist when she first arrived in Austin. While at UT she witnessed blatant acts of injustice among the student body and found herself saying “what needed to be said and do-ing what needed to be done.” While at UT, she met Marian Wright Edel-man and served on the national board of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Black Community Crusade for Children. “We were young people serving young people; that period in college is when I really learned the meaning of servant leadership.”
Robinson’s record of involvement with groups including Austin Foundation for Architecture, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, ZACH Theatre, Six Square, Texas Coalition of Black Democrats and Capital Area Progressive Democrats, to name just a handful, is diverse, but reveals the common thread of her abiding passions for the arts, children and advocacy.
Her mother’s attitude that “service is the rent we pay for living on this earth” is something Robinson obviously inherited. “Growing up, I honestly didn’t know there was any other choice but to speak up and do your part — how else could any kind of community hold together? If something needs to be done, you do it and if there’s not already a way, you make one. The easy paths,” she adds, laughing wryly, “have already been taken. I like a challenge.”
Does this change-making optimist with the killer smile ever get discouraged, like the rest of us? “Every day! But I remember the tale about the good wolf and the bad wolf inside each of us — I keep feeding the good one and that gets me moving in the right direction again.
Given Karen and Ray Brimble’s influence and history of involvement in some of the most important initiatives around Austin, the word power couple comes to mind. But in truth, the joint and individual efforts of this very authentic duo reflect an ambition entirely different from power — impact couple is more like it.
An entrepreneur with global expertise, Ray started his first company at age 22. He’s a strategic thinker with an honest, informal style. He counts the boards of I Live Here, I Give Here, Interfaith Action of Central Texas and Conspirare as past volunteer experience; he currently serves on the KIPP Austin Public Schools and the Mueller Foundation boards, and as an advisory board chair for the McCombs School of Business’ Center for International Business Education and Research.
His teaching skills from his time as an adjunct professor are evident as he enthusiastically explains the concept of impact investing, something he believes is expanding the vision of philanthropy for the better. “Investing in for-profits set up to do social good has everything to do with long-term sustainability; it creates opportunities not readily available to traditional non-profits. That’s especially important to millennials, and will be vital in bringing the next generation of community builders into philanthropy.”
Karen, a prolific community volunteer since the time the couple’s two children started school, has been involved with National Charity League, Austin; A Legacy of Giving; Round Rock Health Clinic; Girlstart and Avance. In addition, Karen’s had a hand in the phenomenal growth of the Texas Book Festival, having been on its board for the past 10 years. She currently serves as its chair.
Typically poised and quietly insightful, but as she described the impact of Mindy Kaling’s appearance at 2016’s Texas Teen Book Festival, she exudes an awe matched by Kaling’s teenaged fans.
The Brimbles have an abiding passion for Austin and the willingness and energy to continue making it, as Ray says, “a world-class city.” The family’s One Skye Foundation has been a major supporter of the Barton Springs Conservancy; the Springs is a place of fond memories for each generation of their family.
“We’re incredibly lucky to live here. It’s important to both protect and project what’s best about Austin — its collective curiosity, collaborative nature and creative ideas — out into the world,” Ray says. “It feels great to be able to be a part of it.”
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2017