Molly Cox, President & CEO of SA2020. Screenshot from Choose SA Video.

Ask your average millennial living elsewhere in the nation what they know about San Antonio and the response may be disappointingly limited. In two recent focus groups I conducted at Trinity University and University of the Incarnate Word, I asked a mix of students from Texas and beyond what they knew about San Antonio before moving here for school.

One international student said he knew nothing about San Antonio other than that it was in Texas. A student from Louisiana knew only about the Spurs. The students from Texas were unanimous: they knew about the River Walk and SeaWorld, and that was about it.

Nearly all of the students remembered feeling anxious about first moving to San Antonio. They were excited about college but found it very hard to imagine being in a city they knew so little about.

To a striking degree, what I learned from my interactions with the students resonated with what I’d heard from some corporate recruiters. When job seekers are faced with similar job offers in different cities, the decision is no longer purely rational or economic. When salary, benefits, and career opportunities are roughly equivalent, applicants will decide which offer to accept based on other considerations. They will gravitate towards cities they already know a lot about; in those cities, they can maintain the lifestyle that they have come to expect for themselves and their families.

Kevin Peckham. Photo by Jessica Giesey.
Kevin Peckham. Photo by Jessica Giesey.

Too often, a job offer in San Antonio is the easy one to cross out of consideration. Not because San Antonio has left a bad impression for that job seeker, but because San Antonio has failed to leave an impression at all.

Simply put, if individuals are not already drawn on an emotional level to live in San Antonio, then every attempt to lure talented individuals here to start a business – or grow a business, or take a job, or enroll in a school program – will be an uphill battle.

Earlier this year I co-founded Choose San Antonio with local business leader, Tech Bloc board member, and Think SA founder Eric Bell. Choose San Antonio is a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting San Antonio to the world. Through cultural storytelling, event marketing, advertising, media partnerships, and other modern promotional tactics, we hope to accelerate a national and international awakening to San Antonio. We believe that San Antonio is the best-kept secret in North America as a city of opportunity, diversity, culture, and lifestyle. It is our mission to make sure San Antonio doesn’t stay a secret any longer.

If Fiesta is a celebration of San Antonio at home, then our mission is a celebration of San Antonio to the world. It is a chance to reach hearts and minds with true stories and facts about life in San Antonio and glimpses into what makes living, playing, making art, and doing business here so great.

We begin our outreach work with a massive engagement at South by Southwest Interactive 2016. SXSW Interactive is a world’s fair of creative, technological, and entrepreneurial talent that comes together once a year, just 80 miles away in Austin. The statistics and demographics are impressive. In 2015 the festival drew over 33,000 participants from 85 countries. 23% of attendees were management-level professionals, and 20% listed themselves as the ultimate decision maker for their companies. All of this and the average attendee was only 25-34 years old, according to SXSW.

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2015 SXstyle session with Eva Chen and Michelle Phan Credit: Shelley Neuman.

In addition to foundational organization support provided by Group 42 and Lightning Jar, we’ve created a coalition of partners to help us with our activation at SXSW. That coalition includes the City of San Antonio Economic Development Department, Bexar County Economic Development, Tech Bloc, Geekdom,  Department for Cultural and Community DevelopmentWhataburger, Trinity University, the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Busted Sandal Brewing Company, Cybersecurity San Antonio, Freeflow Research, Think SA, Grok Interactive, Mobile Om, Smart Barre, and many more.

Our goal is to create the first-ever official presence for the City of San Antonio at SXSW. We want to educate participants at the festival about life in San Antonio, what it is like to work and play here in one of the most unique but under-celebrated cities in the world.

Our presence will include more than just a booth at the SXSW trade show. We’re hosting a San Antonio cultural embassy “Casa San Antonio” at the corner of Trinity and 6th Street in Austin that will be the official home of over 40 events during the festival including networking events, speakers, panels, food tastings, yoga classes and VIP receptions.

A big part of our SXSW activation will be hosting Startup Friday, a series of events celebrating the startup community in San Antonio, and culminating with a Geekdom party on Friday March, 11th. We will also host Cybersecurity Sunday, a program bringing together cybersecurity experts and business leaders from around the world to learn about and celebrate the rise of San Antonio as a leading city for cybersecurity.

We’re also working with our sponsors to organize free shuttles back and forth to Austin during SXSW Interactive to make it easier for the San Antonio community to get involved.

One of our programming goals is to pair San Antonio thought leaders and culture creators with some of the brightest minds from around the country and the world, to demonstrate our message that San Antonio is a world-class city. One example of our programming is the “Tech vs. Craft” panel moderated by Alex Vallis from Food & Wine Magazine which will feature a debate over the impact and value of technology in the fine food and beverage industries. The panelists are San Antonio restaurateur and chef Michael Sohocki, California winemaker Ian Brand, and Darren Case, a former technologist turned craft-spirit-entrepreneur and founder of Round Turn Distilling.

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Diego Galicia, Chef and Restaurateur, Restaurant Mixtli. Photo by Josh Huskin

SXSW is just the first step in a journey that we hope will take our message about San Antonio around the world to technology conferences and culture festivals like CES, World Maker Faire, and Sundance here in the US and IBC, Web Summit, and the Turing Festival overseas.

It will be a lot of work and it will take a sustained commitment of resources and support from our partners, but the good news is this, that we can make a difference and we can influence national and international perceptions of San Antonio.

In October 2015, the Huffington Post listed San Antonio as one of 5 ‘secretly cool’ cities in the US. In 2014, Forbes reported that San Antonio is outpacing other US cities in millennial population growth. Increasingly, our cultural creators are also attracting the national spotlight, as in the recent New York Times Magazine feature “Feast in the Heart of Texas.”

The slight acceleration and change in tone of national media coverage about San Antonio is one of many early signs that what we are trying to do is already starting to happen; the world is beginning to wake up to San Antonio. My dream is that we harness this moment of awakening to accelerate demand for young, creative, entrepreneurial, artistic, and technological talent to live in San Antonio.

I predict a time not too far in the future when young people migrate here not just because of an opportunity that has fallen in their lap and pulled them here, but because they want to move to San Antonio – because this city represents the lifestyle they want to have.

Now, more than any other time in modern history, cities are competing for talent. And talent is the differentiating factor that grows economies and turns cities into centers of industry and flourishing epicenters of artistic and cultural endeavor.

As economist Richard Florida argues the migration of highly educated and ‘creative individuals’ greatly affects the rise and fall of cities. By his calculation, 66% of the total US payroll goes to creative class salaries — those jobs in science and technology, arts, culture and entertainment, healthcare, law and management, and others whose occupations are based on mental or creative labor.

There are many great organizations and talented individuals working incredibly hard right now to improve San Antonio. I applaud each and every one of these people and value their efforts, but I ask us all to remember and celebrate the fact that San Antonio, is already a great place to live, work, and play.

We are not a second-class city, we don’t have to hide our faces and we don’t have to wait for a later time or a later date to tell our story on an international stage, to get people excited about San Antonio, or to begin to take our rightful place on the global map of leading cities.

*Top image: Molly Cox, President & CEO of SA2020. Screenshot from Choose SA Video.

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Kevin Peckham

Kevin Peckham is executive director and co-founder of Choose San Antonio, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting San Antonio to the world. Kevin is also Chief Brand Strategist at Lightning Jar,...