Ashley ferguson taylor gillings headshots

(L to R) Taylor Gillings and Ashley Ferguson

Thirteen months and over 150 visits later, the Greater Phoenix Chamber’s economic development team continues working tirelessly to propel Phoenix’s growth.

Phoenix Forward is a strategic economic development initiative that fosters a pro-business environment. The five-member team has gathered an assortment of industry intelligence, connected businesses to resources and promoted the region as an economic hub.

In addition to nourishing the business community, Phoenix Forward has served as a great professional development opportunity for business research analyst Ashley Ferguson and economic development specialist Taylor Gillings. Ferguson and Gillings are young professionals who have gained incredibly valuable experiences working on the team.

A huge component of the initiative involves meeting with business owners to discuss their needs and assess their industry.

“A big part of my job is meeting with and speaking to high-profile executives, which can be intimidating for anyone,” Gillings said. “The visits have also allowed me to become better connected to my community. I have a much greater appreciation for the various types of businesses and how we can all work together to find commonalities.”

After gathering industry information from visits, Ferguson works to organize and analyze the data.

“I am able to see where the industries might be divided in their options within their sector through their dialogue in the visits,” Ferguson said. “I can see where they might need some assistance and most importantly, I can see where we have helped.”

Visiting with businesses doesn’t only yield data, though; it helps form solid relationships, assists businesses in their area of need, and helps determines industry trends.

“It isn’t all just about collecting the data. It is about being able to paint a picture with it,” Ferguson explained.

In this Q&A, the first of two parts, Gillings and Ferguson answer a few questions about how they’ve grown professionally, what they’ve learned from visiting with Valley businesses, and share some advice for other young professionals.

Taylor Gillings, economic development specialist for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce

1. What has changed in your approach to visiting businesses since Phoenix Forward first launched?

If I boil it down to one word, that word would be confidence. I meet with executives of vastly different companies from the transportation sector to the financial, insurance and advanced business sectors. To sit with an industry leader of a Fortune 500 company as a young professional in my mid-20s, frankly, it’s intimidating. But over the past year I have been able to absorb enough information about a myriad of sectors to the point that I can speak with confidence about trends within the business community. I am now able to make connections with senior executives that I never thought I would be able to at this point in my career.

2. What’s your favorite part about the work you do?

The visits to businesses is high on the list and immediately comes to mind. It’s amazing when you are able to take a tour of a multi-million square foot warehouse that’s so technologically advanced that the company knows when a crate of soda has been damaged. It’s also a great learning experience to talk about current events in the markets, for example, with a wealth management firm. We can all hear the usual problems for business on the nightly news, but the reality is far from the media’s over-simplified version of events.

Second, the Chamber provides great opportunities through well-attended events and through policy committees to gauge the pulse of where the state is going with different topics.

Finally, I just enjoy the myriad of people that I am able to run into through Phoenix Forward. I always thought that I would be doing support analysis and not interacting with clients very often, but I’ve found I enjoy working directly with clients to help them solve their day-to-day problems.

3. How do you feel this work will move Phoenix forward?

I think we have a real chance to start moving the region forward in conjunction with other partners and collaborators in the area. The best way that I’ve heard to describe Phoenix is that the metropolitan area isn’t yet mature.

We are still diversifying our economy and we are just beginning to make the Valley a cool place to live. If we can build business-to-business bridges, business-to-government bridges, and bridges between business and educational institutions, we have a chance to build a great foundation for the future.

We are demonstrating that collaboration isn’t a bad word, but that it’s the wave of the future. We are only as strong as our weakest link, so if we can all work together, we can ensure a stronger region.

4. What are your feelings about the work you and the economic development team have done in just over a year?

Excitement! We have internal metrics and we have metrics that we need to meet as part of our relationships with our partners, and we have continuously blown through each brick wall. So it’s great to see the steady progress and what we’ve achieved. We beat our first goal by more than 20 visits, and for fiscal year 2015-2016, we have already beat our goal with three months to spare.

Fostering collaboration and honest dialogue in various sectors in the business community has resulted in some very positive outcomes. Groups that have historically not connected and worked together are listening to one another now. We have great relationships with our partners – the City of Phoenix, Maricopa County and the Arizona Commerce Authority – and we have developed fantastic relationships with community organizations that provide the best services for their respective companies.

Beating our metrics is great, but it is really rewarding to see the buy-in from the business community on display in our leadership councils. These individuals are donating their time to strengthen their communities. They participate in meetings, bring great ideas to the table and helping to drive this initiative. The Chamber’s economic development team is more than just the five members – it is the entire Chamber, the leadership councils and our partners. I am impressed in how we have been a part of bringing together so many disparate interests.

5. Do you have any advice for other young professionals?

First, for students: INTERNSHIPS. You need to reach out to as many companies as possible to see what you like and so you can gain valuable experience (such as soft skills). For young professionals, we need to find mentors. I have only recently started to delve into this topic, and I have found some great leaders that I feel I can rely on. Make sure that they have broad interests. I take bits and pieces from my mentors and from my visits. One person may be in my field of interest, while another person may do something that I do not have any interest in, but she has great advice and a great attitude towards a career.

Attend as many receptions as possible and as many lunch time seminars as possible. I don’t believe in networking for the sake of networking. Hone in on someone you want to meet and offer to take them to coffee or lunch. We need to remember small business etiquette functions to succeed in this world.

Networking with a person you want to talk to is great because you may gain a mentor and because they will help guide you down the correct path. Your mentor will know which events to go and how to connect you with the right people. Perhaps more importantly, they can provide recommendations to gain experience, knowledge and skills that will help you grow professionally.

Never be afraid of taking a chance. Ask that person to go to coffee. I handwrote a letter to someone I wanted to meet, and she has become one of my greatest mentors (whether she realizes it or not).

And lastly, always be respectful and dress for the job you want to have. Be hungry to learn more and be humble. In a city like Phoenix, anything is possible.

-Written by Carolina Lopez, digital marketing administrator. Q&A by Taylor Gillings, economic development specialist. This article was featured in the Valley Young Professionals newsletter. To learn more about Valley Young Professionals, click here.

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