Although she feels she has some big shoes to fill at the helm of the Mississippi Economic Development Council, Mary Martha Henson brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the position she assumed less than two years ago. She serves as the executive director and chief operating officer of the statewide organization of economic development professionals.
“Carole (Hardwick, former MEDC executive director) left some big shoes to fill. She laid the foundation that allows me to take it to the next level,” Henson said. “We’re providing robust programs for members and have brought in site selectors and Fortune 500 CEOs from all over the U.S.”
Henson’s background includes serving on the staff of former Rep. Chip Pickering for eight years in Washington, D.C., where she worked with public policy on health care issues. “It was a great training ground,” she says of her time in the nation’s capital.
The daughter of John and Elsie Cooper Dixon, Henson grew up in West Point and graduated from Mississippi State University with a business degree. She spent 10 years working with the Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District in Natchez. There she mainly worked on the funding side of economic development and dealt with work force issues.
Henson says the state is on the right path in investing in work force development. “I want to see that continue; it’s so important to recruiting projects and retaining them,” she said. “I have the most passion for that because I know that’s what is driving our development on the corporate level. Additionally, we have a lot of great things going on – including cultural tourism – and must keep things on a positive track.”
MEDC doesn’t recruit industries for the state but does work closely with the Mississippi Development Authority in that agency’s recruiting efforts. “MEDC is responsible for the professional development of economic developers across the state,” Henson said. “I always encourage people in the profession to keep up because the profession changes and we must stay up with trends to remain competitive. By making sure our members stay current that ultimately makes their communities more competitive.”
As part of setting the bar high for MEDC members, the organization brings in top-level CEOs for conferences. Henson is excited about the group’s winter conference planned for Feb.4-6 at the Hilton Hotel in Jackson. With the theme Corporate Landscapes: The C-Level View, the conference will feature Fortune 500 CEOs on their first visits to Mississippi. “We want to make sure they have positive experiences here,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of time making sure we’re not just having social events at these conferences. We usually have the summer conference on the Coast and have other sessions throughout the state to involve the whole state.”
The winter conference will include three sets of visitors: advanced automotive manufacturers not currently located in the state, corporate tax professionals with lots of expertise, and site consultants who work in international markets. “It’s a big event, and our winter conference sold out last year,” Henson said.
Henson, 38, loves to travel. She did some backpacking in Europe, studied in Italy and was a Rotary Fellow in Brazil. She and husband Brian Henson enjoy traveling together and were recently in Israel. “I enjoy learning about other places and cultures,” she said. “I feel fortunate to have lived and worked all over Mississippi, and I share positive things about the state when I travel. I feel blessed to have been exposed to so much and am thankful for all I’ve experienced.”
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