Five Questions For … Chelsea Collier, Smart Cities Advocate in Austin

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin—Call her the accidental innovator.

Chelsea Collier didn’t set out to be part of Austin’s innovation ecosystem, she says, adding that “it just sort of evolved over time through a sense of curiosity.”

After working in a variety of marketing roles, including a job with the Office of the Governor for the State of Texas, Collier served as executive director of Texas for Economic Progress until 2015. It was then that she became a co-founder of Impact Hub, an Austin-based branch of Impact Hub International, which is a social venture incubator and co-working space.

“Innovation and technology is just a way to optimize our current experience,” Collier explains. “We are at this time when technology can be leveraged to help humanity. It’s the people part that fuels my interest.”

Today, after having spent a year as an Eisenhower Fellow, Collier is involved in the Smart Cities movement. An effort she’s following is in Dallas, which is working on an intelligent light project that enables environmental sensors to measure pollutants, humidity, allergen levels, and other factors, among other projects.

Last spring, the Dallas Innovation Alliance launched a “Living Lab” in the city’s West End district along with telecom giant AT&T. The plan is that all of the data collected, which is owned by the city of Dallas, will be crunched to see how effectively the city operates.

“The more people that are innovating on top of the data that’s being derived from these sensors—will then come jobs, will then come investment, will then come an increase in GDP,” said Mike Zito, general manager of AT&T Smart Cities in a Dallas Business Journal article last March.

In this week’s “Five Questions For …,” Collier speaks about the importance of female role models in the professional world, her focus on optimizing rather than perfection, and the joy of running in the woods with friends. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: Tell me about your early influences.

Chelsea Collier: My early influences, the people that I really look to and sought examples from were women in the professional world—my mom being one of them; my aunt being one of them. I always looked around for other professional women. Unfortunately, a lot of the time where I found them was in the media, on TV. I watched very carefully how they represented themselves, how they created their own space, like Susan Dey in “LA Law.” I had no intention of being a lawyer but I looked at how she could command a space and said, ‘One day I want to do that.’

I don’t think it was a conscious choice [to seek out female role models.] I knew what I gravitated toward and what I thought was interesting. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to create something. Just being able to navigate your life and not have to follow rules set in places, by society or tradition. I certainly wasn’t a rebel, but is there another way other than just what I see everybody doing each day?

X: What’s your favorite book? Or maybe one you’ve read recently?

CC: My favorite book of all time is “Everything Belongs” by Richard Rohr. He’s a Catholic writer. The religious part isn’t really the important part for me. He’s very inclusive, and has an appreciation for all of the different religious traditions. It’s the personal development piece that’s interesting to me. There is no good or bad; it’s being able to appreciate the way that things are and understand they have a purpose and always something that can be learned or that you can teach others. It does a beautiful job making even painful things OK.

I’m just so conditioned to optimize things. I’m always looking at ways that I can improve something. It’s this notion of perfection either within ourselves or in the environment around us that can be a bit of a trap, the pursuit of making things idealized. We miss the best part, which is sometimes messy and sometimes difficult. We need to just understand that sometimes it’s the messiness that is really the beautiful part.

X: What’s your blind spot?

CC: In business, my blind spot is definitely finance. That to me is a language that I just never learned. My motto is, Do what you do best and then link to the rest. I’m always looking for folks who really enjoy finance and have that specialty and can help navigate that piece of things.

On the personal side, I am a very trusting person, and someone where I literally leap before I look in terms of diving into relationships. I’m wanting to be supportive and helpful without always understanding [that] sometimes it’s OK to go slow and honor the process.

X: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise?

CC: Trail running. I was introduced to trail running just a few years ago from my really dear friend, Robyn Metcalfe. It’s just the notion of running through the woods with your friends, even if it’s for many, many miles is just so liberating and so fun. You’re out in nature and exercising, and feeling strong and just seeing things you can’t see any other way other than on foot.

X: Where do you think your drive comes from?

CC: I think it just goes back to that need to optimize things. I certainly saw it and had a beautiful example from my mom, who is always creating a program or a partnership or some way to help others and create a healthier world. I’m certain that’s a huge part of it. Even though we exercise [that drive] in very different ways [she’s a psychotherapist], she’s a strong influence for me. The rest of it, I think, is just being a type A Scorpio with Irish blood and fire in the belly. That part of it is just in the DNA.