Leadership Breakfast with Brian McGowan

On Tuesday, September 20, the Center for Civic Innovation hosted Brian McGowan at our monthly Leadership Breakfast, an event series that highlights some of Atlanta’s best civic leaders. Currently, McGowan serves as a principal at Dentons, one of the largest law firm in the world. His role within the firm is to assist in the expansion of global economic initiatives that not only engage business leaders from all over, but also promote a healthy change in the climate of job growth. Prior to this, Brian served as the Economic Development Agency Administrator for San Bernardino County, was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a senior policy advisor for Economic Development and Commerce, and was the Deputy Assistant Secretary and COO for the U.S. Department of Commerce, appointed by President Barack Obama. His endeavors in Atlanta include serving as the President and CEO of Invest Atlanta appointed by Mayor Kasim Reed, as well as the Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President for the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Some may argue that resilience is the ultimate strategy to Brian’s success, but it is evident from his story that resilience is only a portion of his journey.

Brian comes from an Irish immigrant family from the Bronx, New York. By the time he reached high school, his family had moved from the Bronx to New Jersey to California where Brian found himself working in construction. It did not take long after a work injury for Brian to realize that he wanted more out of life and that construction was not his calling. He enrolled in community college and quickly discovered he wanted to pursue a career in governance.

He would later transfer to the University of California Riverside where he would find his mentor and then Mayor Ron Loveridge. During his time at UC Riverside, he interned with the local District Attorney’s office because of his plans to attend law school. However, like most plans, they were deferred when his mentor pointed him in the direction of interning for the City of Palm Springs. This moment was pivotal in Brian’s career because this is where he began his work in economic development. He began his new career working in San Bernardino County as the new economic development division administrator, including suddenly managing many more employees. “I went from having two employees to 300.”

After working on county and city levels, Brian eventually received a phone call from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with a request to expand his economic development policies to the rest of the state. His vision was to create an economic climate that mobilized transportation, housing and business resources within California’s budget while also monetizing the economic culture. During his time working for Governor Schwarzenegger, Brian was able to broadly influence economic development in the large, diverse state of California that he compares more like another country than a state, in terms of prestige and global influence. With this experience under his belt, Brian sought an opportunity to bring his talents to an even larger scale.

Much like his story of going for a degree when he knew that he could do more, Brian went after the position of Assistant Secretary of Commerce. While searching for anyone he knew who could help him, Brian received sound advice from a friends who said, 

the man has to find the job; the job does not find the man.

He did land that job with the Obama administration. In this role, Brian monitored domestic policy during the height of the recession. On top of that, the BP oil spill happened during his tenure in Washington D.C. If there was ever a time to implement new, innovative economic strategy, the time was then. His role in fixing the effects of the oil spill were more concrete and on the ground. He spent weeks on the ground in Louisiana and Florida, making sure that economic developers were in touch with and truly listening to the communities worst affected by this environmental disaster.

The cliché “sometimes it isn't what you know, but who you know” remains consistent in Brian’s journey to Atlanta. His reputation for powerful economic development led him to the Atlanta Development Authority, where he would fall under Mayor Kasim Reed spearheading Invest Atlanta. To his surprise, he soon realized that the $7 million deficit of his new agency was not the largest problem. The real problem was in communication and relationships, where Brian was also given the duties of laying off employees unless Atlanta City Council gave him sufficient funding to keep them.

Naturally, McGowan thought that he was in over his head, even to the point where he called his dad to express that he made a mistake by coming to Atlanta. His dad listened but deferred his worries by telling him, “You were hired to fix it, not flee.” But how could he fix such a distrustful culture? His route to a solution stemmed back to inequality in the city. Atlanta is the U.S. city in with the biggest inequality gap. Brian argues that Atlanta is not honest with itself about this and other troubles and that this dishonesty is an impediment to progress.

He noted that “the city's budget is a reflection of its priorities.” Mayor Reed is undeniably a powerful mayor with many projects under his belt, but it is important to pay attention to which projects he focuses on and funds. With an election a little more than a year away, Brian argues that the new mayor should create a task force for income mobility and reminds us that, if you have no hope of economic mobility, then there is not much to lose.

The emergence of new economic opportunity is beneficial on the surface level, Brian argued, but it is important to remember that they leave behind some people who are not included in the conversation. For example, the new $1.5 billion Falcons stadium lies between fancy downtown office towers and historic neighborhoods for preservation. The greatest risk for this stadium is that its arrival may shut down any hope of new economic opportunity for residents of nearby neighborhoods, such as Ashview Heights and Vine City, instead of spurring on progress for everyone.