She said, she said: An interview with the women of EDPNC

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March is Women’s History Month. 

Many top economic development jobs in N.C. are held by women. The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the public-private group that powers business recruitment and growth, employs several dozen women. With help from EDPNC communications director Mary Wilson, we’ve compiled words of wisdom from some about their work and what led to their career choices. Intermingled are tales of an appreciation for the arts, a reason to read sports headlines, a little about Tucson and New Orleans, and something to do with  exporting kiwis out of New Zealand. 

Why did you choose this particular work?

Melissa Smith, EDPNC vice president of business recruitment and development: Economic development is part science and part art, in the sense that a company’s decision to establish a business in, or relocate a business to, North Carolina is based on a variety of factors like real estate, workforce, business costs/environment (the science) and effective salesmanship (the art).

A company needs a myriad of information in order to make an informed decision about establishing or relocating a business in a particular area. For specific candidate buildings and/or sites, company officials want to see such materials and information as street-level and aerial photographs, location maps, environmental reports, permitting and code details, demographic data, etc.  

Assembling that kind of data was my first job after college (by) supporting a team of local economic developers. I was the staffer tasked with doing the research, completing request-for proposals, and preparing documents for submission to the requesting company. It was a great learning experience.

In the years since that first job, and with the benefit of guidance from some excellent mentors, I have been able to grow into a journeyman practitioner of the “art” of economic development. Simply put, far beyond data, it’s sales skill that pushes a deal across the finish line. I’ve learned the value of listening to a client, reacting and responding to questions, doing whatever is necessary to allay any concerns and, along the way, developing trust. I believe those skills often help differentiate me from my competitors..

Liz Isley, EDPNC international trade manager: After receiving a fellowship in graduate school, I was tasked with working in economic development to help solve problems local municipalities and organizations faced. I fell in love with the work. Through a combination of hard work and networking, I was fortunate to secure a position as an international trade manager with the EDPNC. My current field is a far cry from what I thought I wanted to do when I was much younger, which was to be completely enmeshed in public policy for the arts, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Katy Parker, EDPNC business recruitment manager: I love helping people. Even more so, I love helping people help themselves. I like juggling tasks, spinning plates, and wearing different hats. And I like building excitement around shared goals. When I was laid off from a biofuels manufacturer in 2014, a colleague I had collaborated with from N.C. Air Awareness went out of her way to help me find a job. After a few interviews with no offers, she introduced me to John Loyack, vice president of global business services at the EDPNC. John learned my skill set, knew I spoke Spanish, and offered me an interview for the position of small business advisor. That was my entree into economic development. 

Mary Lesa Pegg, EDPNC business recruitment manager for the  processing industry: As a young professional, it was important to find a career that I could grow and develop in while still having a sense of service to my community. Before moving into economic development, I was heavily involved in the local community, specifically my local chamber of commerce. I saw the return for the community when large projects relocated. With the support of incredible mentors, I was able to learn more about this opportunity and ultimately make the jump from higher education.

Melanie O’Connell Underwood, EDPNC existing industry expansion manager, Southwest region: I fell in love with economic development when taking economic geography classes for my degrees in geography from East Carolina University. To see if this was the career for me, I interned at the N.C. Department of Commerce, followed up with an internship with the local economic development agency in Pitt County. 

Sarah Bernart, EDPNC existing industry expansion manager, Northeast region: Economic development chose me. I graduated from business school into the recession of 1990-91. I decided the only place I would not accept a job was New York City. Of course, that’s where my only job offer came from. I worked in the New Zealand Consulate for five years as a trade development consultant helping kiwi producing companies get their fruit into the U.S. market. I have been in economic development ever since.

Heidi Walters, EDPNC director of partner & industry relations, Visit North Carolina division:
Tourism chooses you! I got into this field indirectly. Started working at a hotel. You know pretty early on if this field is going to work for you. If it does, you have so many directions to take. Mine took me to destination marketing at the city/county level. From there I came to the state tourism office.

Marlise Taylor, EDPNC director of tourism research, Visit North Carolina division: I was halfway through an accounting degree at N.C. State University and decided accounting wasn’t for me. After a lot of soul searching, I came back to my roots. Having grown up in a tourism business in western North Carolina, I knew how important tourism was, and is, to small businesses throughout the state. I received my bachelor’s degree in parks, recreation and tourism management at N.C. State and stayed on afterward for my master’s degree. Here is where I started my tourism research career, actually working as a student research assistant on projects for the division of tourism through a contract with N.C. State. After graduate school, I lived in New Orleans for four years honing my tourism research skills and came back to North Carolina ready to make a difference in my own state.

Allison Schult, EDPNC director of tourism marketing, Visit North Carolina division: I began my professional career as a broadcast journalist before embarking on a decade-long career in public policy and politics in Washington, D.C., working for three U.S. senators (Pennsylvania, Maine and Florida). After relocating to Arizona, I veered into unknown territory, the travel industry. For the last 17 years, I’ve worked exclusively in tourism ― from providing dynamic marketing solutions to state tourism offices and destination marketing organizations to serving as the vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Tucson. Most recently, I’ve teamed up with Visit North Carolina to consult and provide strategic marketing services and mentorship during a transformative time for the organization and the industry.

Holly Yanker, EDPNC director, Business Link North Carolina: I love working with people and helping them by providing some valuable information about the permitting and licensing requirements of starting a business in North Carolina. We want people to be compliant, although the most important part is for the person and business to be successful.

 

How does your department encourage economic development?

Melissa Smith: North Carolina has been recognized for years as an ideal location for businesses seeking to establish a presence in the Southeast. Among its many strengths are attractive location options near beaches and mountains, large city and small-town ambiance, great infrastructure, affordable business and personal tax structures, and the welcoming nature of Southern culture. We’ve got good genes.

The EDPNC works to aggressively recruit new businesses and relay to those prospective clients the totality of support that our state offers. We develop leads internationally as well as domestically, telling the North Carolina story across the world. We showcase to clients our talented and committed workforce, as well as the cutting edge at which our public and private institutions teach and conduct research. And with a network of professional economic development partners spanning such diverse areas of expertise as education, construction, environment, transportation and agriculture, to name a few, we develop the pitch and respond with answers to position North Carolina as the logical choice for their new or expanded operation.  

Liz Isley: I am part of the EDPNC International Trade Division and work to assist North Carolina companies — large and small — in entering global markets. Over 75% of the world’s purchasing power exists outside the U.S. and companies that export are more stable during economic downturns, tend to pay higher wages, and are key players in the creation of jobs. I am one part of a much larger team, located worldwide, which assists North Carolina businesses looking for guidance on a number of trade-related topics. I help companies understand and navigate government restrictions, complex trade regulations, policies and standards. I also assist companies in accessing market intelligence while making recommendations regarding product and pricing for specific countries. My most favorite part of the work is hosting companies at international trade shows. It’s always enjoyable to see companies succeed in a new market for the first time. 

Katy Parker: We work directly with companies and consultants to provide a single point of contact for information about state incentives, real estate searches, connections to local partners, and navigating N.C.’s regulatory environment. Our goal is to encourage economic investment and the creation of high-quality jobs for the residents of N.C. And we don’t do it alone. We work in lockstep with local partners, elected officials, utility providers, engineering firms, brokers, attorneys, you name it. Economic development is a true team sport.

Mary Lesa Pegg: My department works in partnership with consultants or company representatives, local economic development professionals, and state representatives to support the relocation or expansion of a company’s facilities to North Carolina. We understand that we may be competing with other states for large projects, so we want to ensure that we are putting forward our most competitive offer.

Melanie O’Connell Underwood: We support local industries that are already existing in North Carolina. Once a company announces its location in the state, we then begin to follow up with them to make sure they are utilizing the many free programs available to help a company grow ― such as international trade assistance, waste reduction, community college training and employee hiring assistance. If a company is growing, we guide the company through the state incentive request process.  

Sarah Bernart: My team of fellow existing industry expansion managers provides support to N.C. companies, particularly manufacturers, that are considering the expansion of their businesses. We establish and develop relationships with existing N.C. businesses and collaborate with them to support their growth needs and to enhance each region’s economic sustainability by retaining and adding jobs.

Heidi Walters: As the state tourism office, we market the state to potential visitors. Those visitors spend billions of dollars in the state each year, thus reducing resident taxes and creating jobs in hospitality, recreation, meetings, etc.

Marlise Taylor: Visit NC, under the umbrella of the EDPNC, works to market our beautiful state and each of its 100 counties to visitors across the nation and world. North Carolina is the sixth most-visited state in the country, and visitor spending supports more than 45,000 businesses statewide. These businesses, many of them small businesses include not only hotels and motels, but restaurants, attractions, retail stores and special events. Each one of them depend on spending by visitors to support their families and live their best lives.

Allison Schult: Tourism is the rare industry that makes a positive impact on the state’s economy and quality of life in all 100 counties. Pre-pandemic figures reflect a record-breaking year for N.C.’s travel industry: with more than $26.7 billion in visitor spending, $5.9 million daily in visitor-related tax revenues, and more than 550,000 hospitality and tourism-related jobs in 2019.  To protect its envied position as the nation’s sixth most-visited state, Visit NC is soon launching a research-driven integrated marketing and advertising campaign to inspire travelers to Get Back to a Better Place by capitalizing on the state’s known strengths as a place to reconnect with friends and family in a setting of scenic beauty from the mountains to the sea.

Holly Yanker: Our team helps people start a small business in North Carolina or relocate one here. We focus on assistance with rules and regulations, although we love to share the resources our partners offer. They range from business education, peer mentoring, and nonprofit lending resources to programs that support minority-, women-, and military veteran-owned businesses as well as startups choosing a rural location. For example, we see more and more women starting businesses in areas that might be seen as nontraditional, including construction and remodeling or trucking. Our goal is to help all small businesses succeed.

 

What advice do you have for other women looking to pursue a similar role?

Melissa Smith: Starting from the ground up offers a great start in economic development. In my case, initially working in a supporting role gave me the opportunity to learn the science part of the work and has been the foundation on which I’ve honed my sales skills over the years.

Economic development is the perfect job for the quintessential extrovert ― or even mild introverts like me. The bottom line is enjoying the opportunity to surround yourself with smart, innovative leaders of industry ― no two days are ever the same. Beyond requisite interactions with clients, the practice of cultivating friendships with peers can expand your toolbox exponentially. What you’re encountering for the first time may be an issue with which a colleague has already dealt. Be ready for challenging exchanges with clients. Learn not to take difficult interactions personally and respond with professionalism.

Develop good habits: Do your homework. Practice attention to detail in every task you undertake. Take good notes during meetings. Answer every phone call and email you receive the same day those messages come in. Follow up on action items you’ve promised. Take every opportunity that’s offered to network; don’t wait for someone else to reach out to you first.

Liz Isley: Find a mentor. Read everything you can about trade-related issues. Make a point to have a firm grasp on geopolitical issues. Love what you do.  

Katy Parker: If you want the job, tell them you want the job. If there isn’t an open position, still tell them you want the job. Never stop educating yourself. Economic development is constantly changing. So whether it’s a refresher course, a webinar, seeking certification, or just picking the brain of a colleague, never stop learning how to be a good developer. It’s our duty to be our best for our fellow North Carolinians.

Mary Lesa Pegg: Network! Build your connections any way you can. This can be through LinkedIn, local networking events, or even through volunteer opportunities. Reach out to leaders for informational interviews if you have questions, but also come prepared with thoughtful questions and action steps.

Melanie O’Connell Underwood: A woman in our career must be open. Open to working with many different size companies from Fortune 50 to small startups, open to each day being different and not set on routine, and open to learning as your work with partners from government employees, utilities, workforce, funding agencies and more.

Sarah Bernart: I grew up in a house with four brothers. To be different, I refused to follow professional and college sports in order to stand out at our house. I’ve since learned to at least read the sports headlines so that I at least have a passing knowledge of whatever sports news is being discussed in the boardroom, elevator or networking dinner. This is ACC country after all.

Heidi Walters: Hospitality and tourism is a great career for women because there are so many fields included.  

Marlise Taylor: My best advice would be to never stop learning. With changes in technology, the way we use research to study tourism impact has changed drastically over the last several decades. While basic research methodology doesn’t change, the way we approach travelers and the way people seek travel information has changed. We must keep up with every nuance and improvement in technology to be able to best understand traveler behavior.

Allison Schult: We have lived in an experiential “connected” economy for some time. That is, experiences are sold like goods and services. We emphasize the effect and underscore their value they have on people’s lives. Experiential buying enhances social relations, plays a bigger role in defining our identities and passions, and helps us see the world with new eyes — especially when we expand our horizons via travel. Evoking strong emotional connections into the hearts and minds of contemporary, global travelers is rewarding; but producing genuine stakeholder excitement to the data-driven ROI metrics our industry generates is also exciting. If you’re interested in making a positive contribution to the quality of life of everyone in your community, tourism is the industry to consider. And N.C. has more than 45,000 small businesses employed in tourism that will be involved in the post-pandemic recovery of our state.

Holly Yanker: Most women want to help others with providing assistance in starting or expanding a career or project. So this field would be a good fit for many.

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