Women Gain Ground in Economic Development Leadership

Richard Breen

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

When Karlisa Parker Dean retires as economic development director in Chester County at the end of December, she will have spent 25-plus years serving the county in multiple roles.

She will have also been one of a dozen different women to serve as economic development chiefs in South Carolina counties in 2019.

“When I started, there wasn’t that many women,” she said.

“That’s probably the most I can recall,” said Kathy Jo Lancaster, executive director of the Union County Development Board. “South Carolina might be leading the way.”

The year ends with a landscape much different than what Parker Dean viewed when she first started in economic development. Female consultants and economic development attorneys were also scarce.

“It was very noticeable when you went to large-scale meetings,” Parker Dean said.

Sandy Davis remembers going to her first economic development training session after joining the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. in 2013.

“There may have been seven females in the class out of 80,” she said.

Thessa Smith recalls “it used to be a man’s game – you had to be part of the boys’ club.” Smith became economic development director in McCormick County in 2015.

“When I was just starting out, people always thought I was the intern,” said Annie Caggiano, who started working in economic development in 2004. In November, she moved from the S.C. Department of Commerce to take over as director in Oconee County, succeeding Janet Hartman.

Given that South Carolina has 46 counties, “we’re still well underrepresented,” Caggiano points out, but “we’ve come a long way.”

Sarah Johnson, who took over as ED chief in Lexington County earlier this year, has noticed a change since she got her first taste of economic development with the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce in 2009.

“When I go to classes around the country, females are very widely represented – almost a 50/50 mix,” Johnson said.

Davis, who in 2018 became chief executive of MBREDC (which serves Horry County), agreed. She has even noticed more women at the table on trips abroad.

Heather Simmons Jones has been in economic development for 20 years, going back to when she served dual roles as county administrator and ED director in Allendale County. She’s now the chief in Greenwood County, where Japanese-owned Teijin Carbon Fibers Inc. plans to create 220 jobs in the coming years.

Jones noted that the president of Teijin’s U.S. holding company is a woman.

“Overall, I really just think it’s a sign of the times,” she said.

The S.C. Economic Developers Association offers a training institute, which Jones said has helped get more people of all persuasions into the professional pipeline. She also pointed to Nikki Haley’s tenure as governor of South Carolina from 2011-17.

“I do think it set a standard that women should be in leadership roles,” Jones said. “Not just ‘could be,’ but ‘should be.’ ”

Smith has also served as county administrator in Allendale. While in that role, she attended the SCEDA institute and got her economic development certification.

“I think people are now looking at your ability and not your sex or even your race,” Smith said.

“Do the job – that’s the way I look at things,” said Kim Burch, ED chief in Chesterfield County since 2014. “We all have a job to do, male or female. Just do it.”

Parker Dean said she’s now able to attend development sessions geared to female professionals.

“It’s been nice to see a lot of smart and savvy women come together,” she said. “I’m just excited to be a part of it.”

In 1989, Katherine O’Neill started work as a project manager in Darlington County’s economic development and planning department.

“South Carolina’s a relatively small state, so I’ve had the opportunity to cross paths with a lot of the women who were pioneers,” she said.

O’Neill, who eventually became county administrator in Lexington and Spartanburg counties and now heads the Spartanburg Economic Futures Group, lists several names. There’s Karen Calhoun, vice president of business development at McMillan Pazdan Smith and Nancy Whitworth, who is retiring after a long tenure as the city of Greenville’s economic development chief. Both O’Neill and Caggiano mention Jennifer Fletcher, deputy secretary at the Commerce Department and Peggy McLean, who was Kershaw County’s ED chief before recently moving to Commerce.

“I’m proud of the women I call friends in this field,” O’Neill said.

Along with the demographics, the job itself has changed for economic developers.

“Economic development is not a one-person job. It’s a community job,” Smith said. “We’re used to being nurturers and making sure everybody in the family is getting along.”

Marion County ED chief Dr. Julie Norman said the old perception of the job, which prioritized the pursuit of industrial clients, was “you have to know about big, heavy, dirty things. Traditionally, those have not been areas that women have flocked to.

“The days of ‘smokestack chasing,’ as we called it, have made way for high-tech, clean industries.”

In addition, county-level director jobs no longer stick to the specifics of showing sites and negotiating incentives.

“Community development, business development, that’s all been wrapped up in economic development,” Parker Dean said.

As a result, there isn’t one set path to becoming an economic developer.

“We’re usually doing something else that prepares us for this,” Lancaster said.

Both she and Norman come from workforce development backgrounds. Parker Dean worked in zoning and land use regulations. Johnson spent time in the nonprofit sector and was an intern in Lexington County when O’Neill was administrator there. Burch served in the General Assembly and for the S.C. Department of Social Services.

Davis has a background in finance and worked for a short line railroad before joining MBREDC.

“Everybody I talk to comes from a different background,” Davis said.

“In some cases, it finds you,” Jones said.

“Once you’re in it, it gets ahold of you,” Norman said. “For me, I’m still learning. Things are constantly changing in this business.”

Hartman, who preceded Caggianno in Oconee, had a banking background, spent seven years working in downtown development in Georgia and then led Oconee’s economic development and tourism marketing efforts. She said personality, knowledge and persistence are key attributes.

“For me, I had a passion for it,” she said. “You just have to have the confidence and desire.”

McLean started at the Commerce Department in the 1990s, doing research. She spent eight years heading Kershaw County’s efforts.

“I think it’s an exciting career choice for anyone,” she said. “I’ve been very fulfilled working in the economic development field.”

Since there’s no direct route to economic development, Johnson said it’s important to educate young people about opportunities.

“I want to be a positive role model, especially being a mom of two girls,” she said. “I want to show them what success looks like.”