In September, the Arizona Association for Economic Development (AAED) selected Katie Hurst as its new executive director. AZRE magazine sat down with Hurst to learn more about her career path and plans for AAED.
The following responses have been edited for clarity and length.
AZRE: Tell me a bit about your background and how you ended up at AAED.
Katie Hurst: I spent two years teaching history as part of Teach For America, which sparked my interest in helping nonprofits. Even though I was a paid teacher, we did a lot with the organization to break down some of the systemic issues in education, and I realized I had a passion for wanting to help nonprofits tell their stories. So, I moved to Arizona in 2007 because I wanted to attend grad school at Arizona State University to learn how to do public relations and evangelize for nonprofits.
AZRE: That must’ve been a hard time to finish grad school and go out on the job hunt.
KH: It was. Once I graduated, it was the Great Recession and nonprofits weren’t doing well, and neither was public relations. But fortunately, there was a nonprofit coworking space in Chandler that I got connected to called Gangplank, and the founders Derek Neighbors and Jade Meskill were kind enough to take me on as a volunteer. I guess I was doing a good enough job that they brought me on as their first and only full-time hire at the time.
AZRE: Why was working at Gangplank impactful for your career?
KH: That job was important to me because we had a relationship with the City of Chandler. The city’s economic development team was tasked with attracting and fostering entrepreneurship, and it was Gangplank’s job to promote events and provide education. Back then, I was working with economic development powerhouses like Christine Mackay, Lori Collins and Jennifer Lindley, who’s now on the board of AAED.
That experience gave me respect for the economic development profession. I got to see how that profession impacts the local community early on in my career. I even briefly considered going into economic development, but it just wasn’t in the cards at the time.
AZRE: What came after your time at Gangplank?
KH: After working with startups, I wanted to work for startups. And that’s how I’ve spent the last decade — working with startup and enterprise businesses while honing my skills in operations, management and marketing. The reason AAED was particularly attractive to me is that after years of working in high growth and private equity, I wanted to return to my roots with nonprofits, and I felt that I had gained enough experience to bring something of value.
In addition to AAED being a nonprofit, it checks so many other boxes for me. It has a passionate and engaged membership base, the staff is fantastic and it’s an opportunity to impact my local community. I moved back to Arizona after being in the Pacific Northwest for four years, because there’s no place like here.
AZRE: Sometimes nonprofits have a reputation of being stuck doing things like they always have, whereas startups are known for a “move fast and break things” mentality. How do you think working with startups is going to help you in this role?
KH: First off, I’ll say that part of the reason I was drawn to AAED is that there isn’t that calcification, or the idea that “this is how we’ve always done and how we’ll always do it.” I’m already learning about the board’s new ideas on how to serve membership.
But I do feel like my experience in enterprise, private equity and startup businesses does allow me to see how we can build and scale in ways that nonprofits aren’t traditionally used to, and I think that does provide a lot of benefit. Sometimes it’s nice to come from an outside perspective of running a business in a different way.
AZRE: Are there any similarities between working with startups and with nonprofits such as AAED?
KH: There are a lot of parallels. For example, tackling the problems of communication between a board of directors and the committees trying to execute on their vision — that’s the same problem as the C-suite trying to communicate with the directors running their individual departments. Some aspects are different though, such as funding channels and how to involve a volunteer membership base versus a paid staff.
AZRE: There are lots of great economic development organizations, but AAED is unique in that it has a statewide focus — you’re working with folks in rural areas and in the fifth largest city in the U.S. How is that a different challenge than what some of the other regionally based associations face?
KH: I had the pleasure of working with Jeremy Babendure of the Arizona SciTech Festival way back when that was first getting started. I got to tag along and go to places like Florence to promote the festival, and that was my first taste of going to these Arizona towns and cities that I hadn’t lived in and didn’t know much about. Part of me taking on this role was about getting the chance to be more involved statewide. I’m an Arizonan to my core — I tell people this is my home state now.
But like you said, AAED is a statewide organization and we’re the voice of economic development professionals. We have the opportunity and obligation to make sure we’re providing a diverse set of perspectives from across the state. That’s something unique to us and a huge benefit for our organization.
To your point about the challenges, part of the reason why I think the board was interested in me is that I have a storytelling, communications and marketing background. I’ve worked with small stories and figured out ways to make them bigger and more impactful. That’s something I bring to the executive director position — taking accomplishments that might not seem like they would be top level news, finding the unique aspects of it and showing the impact to the rest of the state.
AZRE: That can be hard when Phoenix gets so much media attention, right?
KH: Phoenix is Phoenix, and it does dominate a lot of the conversation because of the people moving here, all these high rankings we’re getting, et cetera, but the things happening outside the city impact Phoenix as much as the growth in Phoenix impacts the rest of the state. Finding those connections between the various parts of Arizona and celebrating that message is the way to go, versus focusing on what’s just happening over in Chandler, then Tempe, then Tucson, then Flagstaff each in isolation. All those places have special and valuable profiles, but there’s lots of ways to find the connections between what’s happening in those various areas.
AZRE: What direction do you plan to take AAED as you settle into the executive director role?
KH: Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll talk generally about it. I’m really focused on reviewing and improving the foundational processes that support our members. The organization has done a tremendous job over the last couple of years to grow and expand. We have great education programs and we put on amazing events every year.
But there’s a lot of manual work that takes members’ and staff time that should be focused on evangelizing, messaging and focusing on how we can best help the state understand what economic development trends are out there.
We’re investing in tools and software to streamline and automate processes so our members and staff can devote more time to creating insightful content, delivering impactful events and providing professional education that shapes the future of the profession. We’re at a critical point of scale where the organization has a lot of potential, and my goal is to build the processes that help other teams succeed and elevate the message of AAED.
AZRE: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
KH: In terms of leadership style, I really believe in being a servant leader. I’m here to remove barriers and act as an ambassador for our membership base because they’re the one with the expertise that needs to be heard. That’s really my key goal in this role — find ways to empower this organization to be even more amazing than it already is.