CTC Speaks With New Fellow, Brian McGowan

The California Technology Council is pleased to welcome Brian McGowan as a Fellow. McGowan is currently the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, one of the largest super-regional business organizations in the nation. In previous roles, he was appointed by President Barack Obama as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce, and by Governor Schwarzenegger as Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Commerce. From these senior roles in public service, Brian also brings his perspectives on public sector leadership and public-private partnerships to his role as a Fellow. The CTC asked Brian about how his experience in California and national service continues to inspire him today.

CTC: You have a long career in economic development in California. How did that prepare you for serving in the Obama Administration?

BM: I think people who have careers in the federal government sometimes lose connection with how the results of their decisions or work they do affect individuals at the local level. One of President Obama’s principles was to “build it from the bottom up” to make sure that we had the end in mind as we were doing our work – meaning how will our policy and decision effect individual Americans. I had the opportunity to work for most of my career at the local government level and in very different places. I believe those jobs helped guide me as we were developing new initiatives to help our country out of the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression.

CTC: What was your favorite part about your tenure at the Department of Commerce?

BM: I had the opportunity to work alongside some incredibly talented and passionate Americans who cared deeply about making sure that America maintained its competitive edge. They were willing to take chances and do things that were extraordinarily difficult. Many sacrificed time with their families and took huge reductions in pay to serve in these roles. In particular, I enjoyed working in the White House on the BP oil spill. As an economic advisor leading an inter-agency economic solutions team, I got to see "behind the scenes" and how our government was able to mobilize and deal with a very complicated national crisis.

CTC: You were the creative force behind California's iHub program. What was your inspiration for that?

BM: At the time, our country was headed downwards into a deep recession and the federal government was finally beginning to mobilize and focus on passing economic stimulus packages through Congress. I was also seeing information coming out of White House economic councils focusing on how important innovation and entrepreneurship was to national competitiveness. Knowing that California is the most innovative and creative place on earth, I knew that we needed to mobilize and organize our efforts to ensure that our state would get its fair share of this funding. We also knew that we had to do something despite the fact that the state had a $20 billion budget hole and the legislature was gridlocked. I began to look at what other states were doing to stimulate start-ups and found that Pennsylvania and Ohio had innovation zone programs that seemed to be working.

The other inspiration came from the fact that although we all know the importance of collaboration. Although it is extremely difficult, organizations often need a “cause” or a reason to come together to rally around a goal or objective. Additionally, governments and non-profits were all struggling with reduced budgets - which made collaboration even more critical. We felt the competitive nature of the iHub application process and the end result of a designation by the state would motivate people to come together and combine resources.

CTC: How have those experiences propelled you in your capacity at the Metro Atlanta Chamber?

BM: The Atlanta region is the 10th largest economy in the country and has emerged from the recession more powerful, more diverse and more resilient than it was before. We rank 3rd in the country for Fortune 500 headquarters, have the busiest airport in the world and 290,000 students enrolled in our colleges and universities. That’s on top of the fact that Georgia is ranked as the number one state in the United States to do business. Atlanta is an economic powerhouse driving the southeastern United States. Our region makes up 72% of the state's economy and the Metro Atlanta Chamber is only regional economic growth organization.

I believe that my experiences working at all levels of government and in different parts of the country give me a unique perspective to help Atlanta continue to be the economic center of the southeastern United States and a critical node connecting the global economy.

CTC: With such household names as members, what do you see as the role of innovation in the Atlanta regional economy?

BM: Atlanta is an extremely innovative city, but unfortunately, we are not known for that. In fact, Atlanta has been innovating for over 100 years. It had to completely rebuild itself following the civil war and created industry changing companies such as Coca Cola, Delta, The Home Depot, CNN, Turner Broadcasting, Tyler Perry Studios and Spanx - to name a few. Atlanta is also a global leader in social innovation - we were the cradle of civil rights movement and are home to Habitat for Humanity, CARE International, the American Cancer Society and the American Arthritis Foundation. In fact, we just opened the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

And now, we are seeing a tremendous amount of activity around technology start-ups and large corporations locating innovation centers in Atlanta. I believe we are in the midst of an historic change in the nature of the economy in the southeast and it will be driven by innovation.

CTC: Global businesses such as Coca-Cola and UPS are active in every corner of the world. How do these trade links define Atlanta's business community?

BM: Mayor Reed often talks about how lucky we are as a region because Coca-Cola and Delta serve as our ambassadors and embassies around the world. Additionally, with CNN, our airport and the fact that the Olympics were held here in 1996, Atlanta is a globally famous city. We also have had famous residents including President Carter, Ambassador Young and Martin Luther King. All have spread the message around the world that Atlanta is a special place and only beginning its ascendency.

CTC: Does Atlanta see challenges the same as many leading regional business hubs in access to capital and the talent pipeline?

BM: Access to capital is definitely one of our greatest challenges as we see our entrepreneurial ecosystem develop and we virtually have a zero percent unemployment rate in tech jobs. Those are both huge restrictors for us as our economy evolves.

CTC: How have you stayed connected to California over the past five years?

BM: My parents and brothers and sisters still live in California and I have two sons who are at universities there. So I get back home as often as possible to see them and as well as my friends. I also serve on the Advisory Board for the U.C. Riverside School of Public Policy. While I was in the Obama Administration and for the first few years I was in Atlanta – I would often come to California for speaking engagements and to meet with government and private sector leaders. I now see lots of potential connections we can and should build between our two states. Too often we see other places as competitors but I believe we should have a greater focus on things we can do and build together.