Ronna-Renee Jackson from the Chattanooga Technology Council

ronna-renee

Welcome to "New Tech Cities" series at OSTraining.

In this series we're talking about cities that were rundown but are re-inventing themselves, as using technology to do so. We're trying to get to the bottom of the questions, "What does it take to turn around a struggling city?" and "Can technology help?"

Our initial focus is on the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see links to all the articles in this series.

In this first interview, Ronna-Renee Jackson argues that technology is important, but the spirit and energy in a city is even more crucial.

Welcome, Ronna-Renee. Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Ronna-Renee Jackson. My title is "Executive Director" for the Chattanooga Technology Council. Running a small (in size and budget) non-profit is "what" I do. I manage and coordinate all aspects of the organization including member/sponsor relationships, programming, development, events and various committees.

There are two full-time staff people (including me), so now you've met 50% of the CTC staff. With the assistance of our solid board of directors, who lend their expertise and resources, we produce a lot of value for our members.

Chattanooga appears to have rebuilt itself from, no offense intended, a rather run-down city. What changes have you experienced?

2002 – that is when I moved here. My husband grew up here. When we were dating and visited his family in the mid-late 90s, I would often say to him: "You'll never get me to live in this Podunk town."

We moved a couple of times between 1998-2002. During that time, the renaissance of Chattanooga really began. Of course, it all started with the aquarium and the waterfront, but the tech scene began to emerge too.

When we moved here, I became quite involved in the community. I was aware of the Technology Council and other organizations that were created to promote technology and innovation. When I left my previous job in 2011, I wanted to connect more directly to the vibrant scene that I was reading about almost daily.

The biggest change that I have observed was how the town's moxie grew. It reminded me of the "little engine that could". Chattanooga was saying "We think we can! We think we can!" And we did!

Help me understand what you mean …

Instead of thinking and acting small, companies started acting big and big things happened. There were some strong players in the mix – like EPB, who made us "Gig City". Several strong companies, such as Lamp Post Group, The Company Lab and other non-profits, were working together to redefine our future. Mayor Berke launched Chattanooga Forward. From that, a wellspring of ideas flowed and even more organizations sprouted or reimagined themselves to create a vibrant network.

So, to me, the biggest change has been in attitude and spirit – we were no longer "run-down."

Aerial Chattanooga

How has the Chattanooga Technology Council been involved in the city's transformation?

To be honest, probably tangentially at first. The Council started as a club-type resource for people to talk about what was happening in the tech space. It grew to be known for effective networking, but didn't really produce programming that contributed to the transformation.

That's not to say the programming wasn't good – it was and is, but that wasn't the focus of the council.

Today, the council continues to evolve, even as the city does. We work closely with Enterprise Center and other partners to help shape the creation of an Innovation Zone in Chattanooga. What that looks like and how everyone can engage is still developing.

True or False: Chattanooga is the coolest city in the South.

C'mon, you really have to ask? Of course TRUE.

Give us a few reasons why you believe that, please.

I've lived up and down the East Coast and traveled all over the world. There is something unique about Chattanooga. It goes back to the spirit or moxie that I mentioned earlier. Chattanoogans believe they can do whatever it takes. That spirit even has its own name: The Chattanooga Way.

This creates a town energy that is palpable in so many ways. Nashville has a lot going for it and uses its resources well. Chattanooga is edgier, trendier and still maintains a small-town vibe. Chattanooga has the perfect combination to make the city stand out among its other southern sisters.

chattanooga skyline

Atlanta has a nearby tech community that has grown significantly in recent years. What are start-ups missing by not coming to Chattanooga?

Well, said another way, what are they gaining by staying in Atlanta? Traffic! Atlanta doesn't have much to offer that we don't have here in Chattanooga.

We have:

  • great restaurants
  • a walk-able downtown
  • scenic parks and rec areas and
  • a community that is small enough that you can quickly make the connections you need and make things happen.  

It seems to me that Atlantans are missing out on a welcoming community that wants everyone to succeed.

What's next for Chattanooga and what would it take to achieve that hope?

Oh gosh! "What's next Chattanooga" was the theme for the recent TEDx event hosted by UTC, which the Tech Council helped sponsor. Many people don't even know what TED stands for – it's Technology, Entertainment and Design.

Conversations ranged from asking whether Chattanooga would put equity over optics; whether we could commit to improving education; transforming public space; and even changing the way software is designed.

One guy who spoke is Jackson Stone. He's a junior at UTC, and the Tech Council Scholarship recipient. His talk was so compelling that he had a job offer the very next week! That underscores exactly what makes Chattanooga special: people make things happen. It's the Chattanooga Way.

What's next for Chattanooga? We will continue to build our national reputation for a cool city, while maintaining our small-town roots. This will take vision, commitment and a willingness for everyone to work together. The "everyone" in that sense is broad: community leaders, elected officials, public and private entities, non-profits, gang members, neighborhood housing associations. Truly everyone, if we are to realize the dream of being the best mid-size city in America.

How will the Chattanooga Technology Council contribute to that achievement?

The Council has been evolving to:

  • diversify
  • drive member value
  • recruit members and
  • serve different constituencies.  

Earlier this year, we launched a Women In Technology special interest group. Maria Noel, who heads up the African-American Business sector of our chamber of commerce, asked me to give thought to starting a Minorities in Technology special interest group.

The Tech Council needs to grow. So do our local affiliates and the impact they have upon tech users everywhere. We Think We Can grow, in order to help our community fully embrace its vision as a technology-destination city for jobs and growth.

Any final words?

What gets me fired up is seeing how technology can be a tool to open access between all sorts of people. It creates opportunities and connects people. I'm all about people and relationships. The best part of any day is getting to meet someone new and learning something from them. Everyone has something to offer.

Anyone who would like to share our vision can contact me at Chattanoogatechnologycouncil.org.

Come visit Chattanooga and learn to live and work … The Chattanooga Way!

Here are all the articles published so far in our Chattanooga series

  1. Introduction
  2. Ronna-Renee Jackson from the Chattanooga Technology Council
  3. Alex Lavidge from Variable Inc.
  4. Andrew Rodgers from The Enterprise Center
  5. Travis Truett from Ambition.com
  6. Tia Capps from Company Lab and GIGTANK
  7. Dr. Leslie Jensen­-Inman from Center Centre
  8. Mike Bradshaw from Company Lab
  9. Jack Studer from the Lamp Post Group
  10. Beau Moffatt from Open Sky Web Studio
  11. Kim White from River City Company
  12. Cameroon Doody from Bellhops