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Field, as a whole, becoming better educated, more professional

Women driving changes in economic development

The world of economic development is changing as the field becomes better educated and more professional. It’s also evolving gender-wise with more women assuming leadership positions in what has traditionally been a man’s world.

There are a number of savvy women leading that charge in the Magnolia State.

In a series of recent interviews, a few of these women shared their experiences in this demanding field with the Mississippi Business Journal.

Falling in love

Kimberly Compton of Biloxi has worked in economic development since 1994, when she began with the Harrison County Development Commission after completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in economic development.

“I fell in love with the profession, particularly when I got to come back to Harrison County, my home,” she said. “It’s such a rewarding profession, and I felt it was a good use of my education.”
vCompton, 38, has concentrated on the industrial development side, helping businesses get up and running, and she feels she makes a difference. “Seeing results is a motivator,” she says. “We can help businesses with details that might hold them up — like getting deeds — and that can keep people from going to work.”

Now with the University of Southern Mississippi as director of the Economic Development Resource Center, Compton says women’s management styles are different from men.

“Men are more to the point with prospects. Women try to get a personal relationship and build trust. They’ll ask personal questions about family and quality of life,” she said. “There are a lot of challenges still. Most CEOs of companies are men. At the end of the day, I feel a little bit like an oddball when the men go on the golf course.”

Compton, who is one of the state’s four female certified economic developers, says the inclusion of women is changing as the profession becomes more technical and more defined. She sees a lot of women as site selection consultants and believes more will enter economic development.

A graduate of Millsaps and the University of Southern Mississippi, Compton says the development of the Biloxi Commerce Park that opened in 2001 was an incredible experience for her. “I lived and breathed it. That was my baby,” she said.

She also takes pride in her work with several local companies on expansions that now have large facilities and are growing.

New ways of doing things

Brenda Lathan, 48, came to the profession after working in manufacturing, office solutions and having her own small business. The victim of downsizing, she answered an advertisement at the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link for a clerical worker eight years ago and quickly worked her way up to stand toe to toe with the two male certified economic developers on staff.

She became certified in 2004 and credits those two males — Joe Higgins and Charleigh Ford — with encouraging her to attain that goal. “We work as a team and they taught me to work out of the box,” she said. “We have a progressive organization here and look for new ways to do things.”

Lathan, an Okolona native, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business education from Mississippi University for Women. She taught at the “W” for three years as an adjunct professor. Her title at the Link is director of research and business development. As a woman she brings a fresh outlook to the Link’s professional team and says she’s had no negative feedback.

“I attribute that to the guys I work for. They’ll let anyone who will listen know that I can do my job,” she said. “I’ve gained respect in this area. It’s a matter of your peers recognizing that you’re capable.”

Lathan also believes young people are in tune with women as economic developers because the field is changing rapidly and is not so male-dominated anymore. She says her philosophy is, “anything is achievable; all you have to do is want it.”

She is especially proud of working with the team of Ford and Higgins to help bring the SeverCorr project to the area. Involved from the beginning, Lathan did a lot of paperwork for a book of documents to get the megasite certified. Scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2007, SeverCorr will employ approximately 450 workers directly and 1,500 indirectly.

“It’s exciting and makes you feel good to work on something like this,” she said. “It’s like birthing a child and watching it grow. It’s a contribution to the community.”

Diverse background

Sue Wright is the executive director of the George County Economic Development Foundation and recently completed her professional certification, becoming one of only 325 certified women nationally. She is now pursuing a graduate degree in economic development at the University of Southern Mississippi.

The Lucedale resident formerly worked as a regional manager for Litton Office Products where she learned how to deal with corporate management and Navy command leaders. She also produced a local television show in Pascagoula dealing with local leaders and issues. After moving to Lucedale, she owned Wright Office Supply for five years.

“It puts everything in a different perspective when it’s your own money. Small business is such a big part of community development,” she said. “That background and working with a large corporation really helps in economic development.”

She was involved with the chamber and economic development in Jackson County, so it was natural to continue that involvement in George County. Her husband of 35 years, Adrian Wright, works for American Tank & Vessel, Lucedale’s largest industry.

Originally from Dallas, Wright met her husband while visiting her dad who was working on a job for Bechtel at the Chevron Pascagoula Refinery. It was love at first sight, and two weeks later the couple became engaged. The University of Arkansas co-ed transferred to Ole Miss where she graduated with a degree in business administration.

As trained developers, Wright feels men and women take similar approaches. However, with the economy now more knowledge based there’s an emphasis on nurturing and growing a community from within.

“Women traditionally excel at that. Women are good at that type of economic development,” she says. “The days of going out and chasing big industry are over. We’re encouraged to look at new things such as tourism, enhancing what we have and being more inclusive and diversified.”

These are areas where Wright feels there are advantages and strengths in being a woman. Still, she says the field is dominated by men as she points to the numbers in Mississippi.

“When you’re a good developer, it’s an advantage to be a woman,” she added. “Today, it’s a different dynamic with an emphasis on details, planning, collaboration and team work.”

Planning and meeting new opportunities are currently the challenges in George County with the impact of Hurricane Katrina. “Our economic development program is the same but we are definitely feeling the impact of the hurricane,” Wright said. “We have had many new inquiries and it has stimulated interest in our region. We see a lot of opportunities for people to build and start businesses.”

Teaching and leading

Patsy Gregory uses her experiences as a teacher and working in a family business to teach and lead the Okolona Area Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Program in economic development. The Baldwyn native wanted to help her adopted community and was involved as a board member before becoming the director.

“As a woman, I think I have more empathy. I feel more for the community and want to improve the quality of life for everyone,” she said. “That’s not saying a man wouldn’t, but women are good at empathizing.”

She says a lot of people want the area to become better — to move beyond the 9% unemployment rate and the designation as a distressed community through the Appalachian Regional Commission. “We must come together and cooperate; get away from negativism,” she said. “That’s our challenge.”

Gregory began that process by leading the town to look at their assets and see what can be drawn upon. One of those assets is the Civil War tourism that the area is not utilizing. The town’s rich history is becoming a force with the designation of a National Historic District comprised of 300 buildings and homes.

“I’m so proud of that designation,” she said. “We now have a driving tour and a walking tour.”

Gregory, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education, is also pleased with Okolona’s designation as a Main Street Community in 2000. Now she’s hoping for more business development downtown along with more education for the community and additional industrial property. The Okolona Development Foundation Charities purchased 270 acres toward that goal.

“I love the economic development side of what I do. Bringing jobs and sustaining jobs in a community is very important,” she said. “It’s still a man’s world, but I work really hard to be honest and above board; to build the trust of the community. I want to improve the overall quality of life for everyone here.”

In that regard, Gregory led local churches to establish a food pantry called Mission Okolona. She serves on the board of an educational program for parents of pre-schoolers that was started by the recently-retired national syndicated columnist William Raspberry, an Okolona native.

Gregory, who’s been married to farmer and land developer Robert Gregory for 26 years, completed certification as a business retention and expansion consultant through a national institute and completed the institute for organizational management from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

She is now in her second year of the New South Economic Development Course, a prerequisite for enrolling in the Oklahoma Institute of Economic Development. This professional training is possible for her through a scholarship from the Mississippi Economic Development Council (MEDC). “This MEDC scholarship is very helpful for a community this size,” Gregory said. “Before I came, our organization was not getting any money from the city and county.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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