Though we both live in the same town, Danielle and I were connected through a YoPro we interviewed earlier this year, Whitney. Economic development is a job that most people stumble into, according to Danielle, but once you’re in, you can really excel. Danielle certainly has, which you can hear all about as we dive into everything from what this field looks like, why your first job is probably not your dream job, and how you can really use your college major ten plus years after graduation.
Give us a brief background on yourself.
My name is Danielle Besser, and I’m a public relations manager for the Upstate South Carolina Alliance. I’m originally from Central Florida and have managed to increasingly move north every four years. I’ve lived in Florida, then Savannah, Georgia, and now in the Upstate of South Carolina for the last four years.
How did you get your start in economic development?
Well, I’ll start from the beginning. I studied journalism at the University of Florida and have always really paid attention to the media. I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie and even studied the news as a child, which is a little atypical.
Studying journalism came naturally because it allowed for that lifelong pursuit of curiosity and driving and learning new things. My vision was to initially write for pop culture, like the Hollywood entertainment industry, and really do feature-style reporting. The reality was that I was offered a job as a full-time education and county government reporter in a small town in coastal Georgia called Hinesville. Through that role, I really watched a community develop from the front row. I could see who is a party to providing infrastructure, how deals came together, how you might gather consensus among your board of education or your county government, our county seat and how they can get all of those people on board to work toward a single project, and ultimately bringing it to fruition. So that was really neat. I learned a lot about government, state requirements, open records, and part of that also included covering the economic development community.
At that point, I was at this intersection of being a journalist, and recognized that just because one thing is public record doesn’t mean you should put it on blast. As a result, I had a strong working relationship with the economic development authority that I covered as a reporter. Making that decision really ended up playing out well for my career trajectory. After a couple of years of writing about what was going on in the community, I had the opportunity to join the team the Liberty County Development Authority in 2013 as a program coordinator.
Why did you choose economic development?
So one thing to know about economic development is it sounds incredibly technical in nature. There is a lot of talk about water and sewer capacity, and whether or not there’s Internet served at a site that a company might be looking to build on. During their open meetings, the development authority discussed things that are very scientific in nature and require a great deal of engineering. But what it’s really about is creating jobs and diversity to elevate an area’s quality of life.
That was something that I had kind of watched unfold for two years, and it’s certainly an intimidating arena if you’re not familiar with it. So, when I saw that job posting, I called and asked how technical the role really was. They laughed and said, “This role isn’t technical – that’s why we hire engineers.” I said, “OK, sign me up!”
What would you say to somebody who is interested in the economic development field?
There are so many facets of economic development that most people are already related in some fashion or another. Cities, counties, and states have staff members dedicated to building relationships with businesses to help them find new locations or resolve challenges. Education at all levels is a form of workforce development. Private companies, including engineers, architects, construction companies, human resources companies, lawyers, accountants; so many of these players are vital to the process, and there are a number of entry points. When you step back and look at it, it’s very much a relationship and knowledge-based profession where the learning curve is steep, but once you’re in the environment, you can really excel. Oftentimes economic developers serve as connection points. They know somebody with a need or a challenge, and they can connect them to a solution.
What does economic development look like today?
We’ve seen a lot of widening among economic development. Historically, it was geared toward getting a manufacturer or distributor to open shop in your community. Today, it can mean downtown development including food, drink, retail, office jobs, or fostering a startup ecosystem. There’s even a shift into recruiting talent, like the professionals or technical experts needed to help a business achieve its goals. Our organization launched a talent attraction and retention initiative this year called Move Up, which does exactly that. Economic development is the backbone of a community; if it’s going well, those impacts are visible and if it’s not going well, those impacts are also visible in a more negative way.
How did you find your current role?
When we moved here at first I was “fun-employed,” as I like to say, and continued to do contract work for my former employer. After about six months, I saw an opportunity with the Upstate SC Alliance. I jumped at it because I knew that I missed storytelling and economic development, and it just seemed like a perfect fit for my experience.
In a lot of ways, from the outside, it looked like my dream job. I saw the application and thought, “There’s no way I’ll get this, but I have to try.” The fact that I got the job and I’m so happy here after almost four years really is an amazing thing.
What does your day-to-day look like?
No two days look the same, which is really what I love about the job. I have a mix of recurring responsibilities, like managing our investor newsletter or products. We send a monthly regional recap email that collates news items of interest and upcoming events to keep our investors in the know. We send a similar type of board-level newsletter that has a personalized letter from our CEO that he and I typically write together. I manage our social media accounts, which is an ongoing process. You know social media never sleeps. Beyond that, we’ve really grown the way that we’re telling stories and using videos and anecdotal storytelling to prospect audiences, which has really impacted my day-to-day.
What has been the biggest struggle in your career and how did you grow from that experience?
I can’t necessarily identify any single struggle, but I’m still in awe at the fact that different people think so differently and have different ways that they want to be communicated with. I’m still refining that process of even getting to know my co-workers and whether I should approach them with all of the contextual information before I make an ask or whether I should just say, “Hey can we do this?” and wait for them to ask for more information. Thinking that way is a challenge for me, because I want to know everything. I want all of the context, and I need those nuances to make clear decisions. Some people feel like that bogs them down. So just recognizing that there are differences and trying to work within them is something that I think we all can benefit from. I’m definitely still working toward it.
What kinds of things do you do outside of the office that drive you and make you a balanced person (if there is balance)?
We have two dogs and so most of the time, we’re just playing with our dogs. My husband and I are very social, so we take any opportunity that we can to hang with our friends, whether it’s going to Greenville Drive games or meeting up for happy hours or trying to work in hikes or hit some breweries, we try to do it all. We are also very into traveling right now and have been lucky enough to go on several trips recently.
Are you a book person a podcast person? What’s your recommendation?
I love books, but podcasts are easier to incorporate into my life today. I love Guy Raz’s How I Built This. I also really enjoy listening to Marketplace and even Make Me Smart with Kai & Molly. Beyond that, I’m kind of a Bravo addict. I see so much thought-intensive stuff over the course of the day that I see that often as an escape.
What drives you?
I’m really driven to do work that I’m proud of, and work that other people will see and think “Wow this is impressive.” In addition, I hope my work changes how people see or understand the stories we tell. It might be helping them understand what economic development means in the community, or helping connect the dots between a global supply chain and a local company. I want to be able to connect those dots and do it in a way that people are impressed and think, “Wow, I haven’t thought of it that way before.”
Any last pieces of advice?
I think it’s a good thing to remind young professionals that they’re not going to get their dream job at day one. But it might happen at year six, or eight, or ten, and then all of those different experiences that they have are strengthening their skill sets and their perspectives, and then also helping them to identify what they do and don’t enjoy. I think it’s hard to know that until you’ve tried things.
The YoPro Know’s Takeaways:
– Economic development is the backbone of a community
– Economic developers serve as connection points
– Your first job is probably not your dream job
– How you can use your major in real life
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