When the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce tapped Zach Brandon to be their new president less than a month ago, they knew they were getting somebody with entrepreneurial expertise, community knowledge, and depth of experience in the public and private sectors. But they were also getting somebody who simply has an intense passion for Madison.
“I am excited about what Madison can be. Madison can be something even more amazing than it is now. We have the willpower and the intellect here — and the civic engagement — to solve big, grand challenges that we have today or we will have in 10 years. That’s the goal,” Brandon tells the The Madison Times in an interview at Ancora Coffee in downtown Madison. “We need to be innovative in how we treat the challenges that we do have and not to say that it can’t be done because nobody else is doing it.”
Brandon is succeeding Jennifer Alexander, who led the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce [GMCC] for nearly nine years. The first couple weeks as president, Brandon has spent rolling out his vision for the chamber and for the region. He’s been engaing the community and getting out to talk to the people and the businesses and the organizations. Brandon recognizes that the nation on a whole — and Madison, in particular — is getting more and more diverse. And now, more than ever, the diverse populations need to be embraced.
“The final stage of the job interview [for GMCC president] included a 30-minute presentation of my vision and one of the pillars of my vision was economic inclusion,” Brandon remembers. “Not as a talking point, but as a real actionable, tangible item. There are great people doing phenomenal work in Madison already, and I want to make sure that we are plugged in and helpful and not recreating an infrastructure and wheels when it already has been created. We also want to be lending the voice of the business community to be solving some of our grand challenges.”
Brandon has already bumped into The Madison Times at major minority events — the Latino Chamber of Commerce Annual Gala and the ULGM Educate To Elevate Educational Summit — within a week of becoming president.
“What a great success story for the Latino Chamber [of Commerce] has been and we heard it that night. We heard the history of how it got started and the enthusiasm for its potential to grow,” Brandon says. “What really excites me about the work that the Latino community is doing in general is that entrepreneurship as a way of life has always taken root in the Latino community. They understand it at a visceral level.”
Madison is hearing more and more stories of the “Latinopreneur,” as Brandon calls it. “This is a [Latino] community that understands risk and understands reward and is willing to accept risk every single time to advance themselves and advance their community,” he says.
“There’s the art of entrepreneurship — the risk of saying ‘Can I stomach this? Can I do this? Am I willing to put it all on the line? Is this a way for me to create equity in my community and to have some ownership of my community?’” Brandon continues. “[Latinos] answer that call every single time [with a] ‘Yes,’” Brandon says. “But there’s also the science of entrepreneurship — how do you do it right? There’s the genome of a start-up. You have to know what works and what doesn’t. And instead of having Latino entrepreneurs doing it by trial and error, one of the places [the GMCC] can be helpful is in partnering with the Latino Chamber to assist these companies be not only successful in the Latino communities, but in the wider communities, too.”
Brandon wants to help to open the market so that all minority communities can do better. “The same thing can happen in the black community and the Hmong community,” Brandon says. “There are exciting ways that we will grow our economy and I’m looking for ways to integrate the good work organizations are already doing and how we can partner with them. If we elevate entrepreneurs in any part of the community, it is a win for the entire community.”
Making Madison a hub
Brandon’s goal is to make Madison an innovative and entrepreneurial hub that's the envy of the nation.
“I think when people talk about innovation, they talk about Boston and Austin and Shanghai and New York and San Francisco,” Brandon says. “To me, there’s no reason why we’re not on that short list of places. Having an innovation hub creates opportunities for job ladders for people to think about advancing themselves and [to] do more with the opportunities that are in front of them.
“The wealth creation changes the community. Look at the buying power of the 6,000 people at Epic [Systems],” he adds. “If you want to start a restaurant, grocery store, dry cleaner, house cleaning, or anything service or retail related, it will succeed because the wealth of the community grows.”
Brandon contends that Madison is currently an underperforming city and he wants to help fix that.
“People will look at me sometimes when I say that and say, ‘That’s crazy!’ We’ve got low unemployment and a great business infrastructure. We’ve still got great schools, even if there are challenges. We have a world-class university. We have natural beauty. How can you say that Madison is an underperforming city?’
“But to me, performance is judged by potential,” he continues. “Compared to our potential, we underperform. It’s time for us to get to work and for us to stop thinking of Madison as a place that will succeed no matter what we do. Even if that is true — and I doubt that that is true — just think of all of the opportunity that you have lost by not going for what we are truly capable of — a shining example of economic development and world-class innovation hub.”
Brandon’s challenge to the business community is to live up to their potential and make sure the city does, too. “We can take that same message to our elementary school students, our middle school students, our high school students, and our college students and to our retirees,” he says. “We can take that message anywhere.”
Telling Madison’s story
Part of that is not being bashful, Brandon says, and highlighting its accomplishments and telling Madison's story internationally and domestically.
“Yesterday, The Scientist Magazine did the top-10 innovations of 2012 — two of them were products that were made here. Companies from Madison — Promega and Cellular Dynamics [International]. A third is a company that chose to put a location in Madison because there is so much opportunity and innovation going on. We want to continue to grow those next generations of companies here in Madison because that will create opportunities and jobs, economic activity, taxes, and everything else.
“We’re not good at telling our stories. We have great stories,” Brandon continues. “We get excited when such-and-such magazine rates us the second-greatest city in the United States to walk your dog,” he adds. “That’s nice, but that’s not the story we want being told. That’s not why people set up shop here. That’s not why they choose to move their families here.”
Prior to the GMCC, Brandon was the director of the Wisconsin Angel Network, an early stage investment organization focused on increasing equity investments in Wisconsin’s entrepreneurs. Brandon has also served as Deputy Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce where he advised the Governor, Commerce Secretary, and the Legislature on global trade and business development strategies with a heavy emphasis on investment and entrepreneurial development.
“What story is going to be told 10 years from now? How did Madison improve from the Chambers activity?” Brandon asks. “To me, it’s taking the innovation that is already here and making sure that it stays here and commercializes here. It’s about encouraging entrepreneurship — particularly in communities of color. It’s about solving some of the challenges we have around education. And it’s about maximizing our potential.”
Theory of economic development
Brandon’s theory of economic development goes well beyond business development, especially in a creative and innovative city like Madison.
“I think a lot of people think that economic development means business development. It is … but it is so many more things — infrastructure development, workforce development, education development — all of the things that make an economy run,” Brandon says. “We have to think about clusters of the right types of companies and the right kinds of businesses. We need to think about the general business climate. To me, it’s much bigger than just business development. That’s why you’ll see me at events around education and workforce.”
The GMCC is a powerful entity and has its stake in the community well-established. The CEOs of Madison major corporations make up its board of directors. “Because it’s an institution in this community, it does allow for the transfer of knowledge to those smaller entrepreneurs,” Brandon says. “That knowledge, for a small start-up, can be the difference between success and failure.
“There are multiple kinds of failure — market failure, execution failure, or technology/product failure. We can help people think through their strategy early on. When you burn money is when you constantly have to pivot and rethink your business,” Brandon continues. “If we can help them think things through and make sure that they are taking the right steps early on we can help make a difference. There’s a tremendous opportunity for us as a regional chamber to help these specific chambers expand their membership by adding programming that has value.
“I do believe that the true way to have equity or equality in the community is to own a piece of it,” Brandon adds. “That’s how it gets done. I want to be helpful to entrepreneurs in the community — entrepreneurs of color, in particular — so that when they’ve decided to take that risk and put it all on the line, that they make as few mistakes as possible.”
Brandon hopes to bring more diverse parties into the organization. He wants to continue to be the voice of the business community and to help some of the smaller voices get louder. “We want the business community to have a seat at the table in this town,” he says. “We want to continue to be advocates — political advocacy and also advocacy on behalf of people who can’t advocate for themselves.”
Brandon is looking at the Chamber’s brand identity as he looks to the future.
“I want the Chamber to be omnipresent. I want people to say, ‘Wow! The chamber is doing this and the Chamber is doing that! The chamber is in this community and that community. The Chamber is a national model for how to do innovative economic development. The chamber is working with Milwaukee and Chicago and the Twin Cities and is trying to grow our entire region,’” Brandon says.
“I want Madison to be that incredible success story. I want Madison to succeed but I don’t just want a part of Madison to succeed. I want all of Madison to succeed.”