Photography by Jonathan Garza
“In 5 to 10 years, you will not recognize the San Antonio you are experiencing today.” Jenna Saucedo-Herrera made no effort to hide her enthusiasm for San Antonio’s future at an Enlightened Speaker Series event in San Antonio in December. The 30-year-old Saucedo-Herrera has been the president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) since July, 2016, and is making ambitious plans for the city’s economic growth.
Saucedo-Herrera graduated with a marketing degree from St. Mary’s University and went to work at CPS energy in their marketing department. In eight years, she worked her way up to Vice President of Public Affairs & Brand Management. During her time at CPS, she joined the Board of Directors of SAEDF and during the foundation’s search for new leadership, she resigned her board seat and applied for the position as President and CEO.
She likes to apply the old Texas boast, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true,” to San Antonio’s current position. The city, she says, is “growing exponentially,” it is “young and hip” (the youngest of the major cities in Texas), and it has a bi-lingual workforce that represents the future of not only Texas, but of North America. Saucedo-Herrera says the city has a solid economic base to build upon, with military, biosciences and financial services, as its core industries, and other assets as well. She points to the city’s triple-A credit rating, due in large part to two municipal utilities — CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) — and their contribution of a portion of their revenues to the city’s general fund. Add to those elements a competitive cost of living and beautiful weather, and San Antonio has a lot of positives.
So how does SAEDF convert those attributes to economic growth? She has three priorities for the organization: Build a culture of collaboration, do a better job of telling San Antonio’s story and develop the workforce. She admits it’s a challenge because of a decentralized economic development delivery system. Her organization must coordinate the efforts of a variety of groups, such as BioMed SA, Cybersecurity San Antonio, the Free Trade Alliance and industry groups like San Antonio Manufacturing Association, TechBloc and Geekdom, as well as 14 different chambers of commerce. “We pull together those partners to recruit new business in San Antonio, to grow new business and also to make sure we have the workforce our employers need,” she said.
The workforce is top on the list of economic development concerns in the city. Saucedo-Herrera says building an economic climate that will attract members of the “creative class” to San Antonio is paramount. Right now, she sees a “worker gap” in advanced manufacturing. While the sector is growing, the number of workers to fill those jobs is not. “We are bleeding in that space,” she said. “Toyota could open up another line if it had 160 advanced manufacturing technicians. We’re going to address that need.”
To do that, SAEDF is focused on what makes the city desirable. “We all know to attract that workforce of the future, you need the ‘quality of place,’ those workers want,” Saucedo-Herrera said. She said nowadays, young professionals choose the city where they want to live and work, and then look for a job. “That’s a different dynamic and we need to be that city they are looking for,” she added.
SAEDF is working to grow that kind of workforce with SA Works, an experiential learning program that pairs students with companies through internships and job shadow days. The idea is to determine what the economy of the future will need, then focus in those areas. SA Works has a goal of placing 20,000 students in internships. “That is an aggressive goal and we have a lot to do,” Saucedo-Herrera says. The program is only in its second year, and has filled 140 paid internships with such employers as Holt Cat, CPS Energy, Toyota, SWBC and the City of San Antonio. Another 1,700 students have participated in job shadow days.
While the SAEDF is still involved in recruiting employees for the city’s foundational industries, it is also interested in the emerging markets of cybersecurity, IT and jobs in the knowledge-based economy. Those are the kinds of creative class jobs Saucedo-Herrera wants to bring to San Antonio, and she likes the approach TechBloc is taking in its recruiting efforts. “Don’t hold them back,” she said. “Just let them run and figure it out. That’s the key to a vibrant economy, which is exactly what they are doing.”
But it’s not all about attracting new companies to town, as important as that is. “Eighty percent of jobs produced in local communities come from existing employers,” Saucedo-Herrera said. Retention and expansion of current businesses is getting more emphasis. That means a shift in how success is measured. Counting the number of jobs in the local economy will continue, but new metrics such as job growth by industry and longer-term indicators like median household income will be added. “If we’re doing the appropriate things, we should see these longer-term indicators improve over time,” she said.
Finally, she wants to do a better job of telling San Antonio’s story. If Austin is tech, Houston is energy and Dallas is financial, what is San Antonio? We must create a brand for the city, she said. SAEDF works with a group of 60 stakeholders to tell their stories outside of the city, and coordination is vital. First, she said, bring all the stakeholders together, and then identify the brand promise of San Antonio. Third, map the city’s assets, from energy, to water, gas, downtown and the airport. From there, figure out the message.
“What I’m looking for is not a tag line, but rather a brand promise for our community,” Saucedo-Herrera said. “What can we all rally behind?”