Austin’s New Chief Innovation Officer

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

20140331_184617Kerry O’Connor, Austin’s new Chief Innovation Officer, defines innovation as “any project that is new to you and has an uncertain outcome.” Her job as innovation officer, she said, is “bringing smart people together to feel around in the dark.”

O’Connor spoke at a party to welcome her thrown by Google and Capital Factory Monday night. She has held several positions in Washington D.C. as well as several global consulates. She worked in Ghana and Morocco in various capacities for the U.S. Department of State, and was hired as “innovation catalyst” for the department in 2012. She also served as logistics coordinator for the Pittsburgh G20 Summit in 2009.

Her road to innovation was marked by global history, she said, such as the falling of the Berlin wall and 9/11 when the rules that had marked the parameters of U.S. relations with other countries all changed and innovation was inevitable. O’Connor has a bachelor’s in international affairs with a concentration on European studies and minors in economics, French and music. She has a master’s in international affairs from George Washington University. Her starting salary will be $130,000 annually.

A rock climber and improv player, O’Conner said she wanted to begin “a very grounded conversation. Buzzwords make me break into hives,” she said. “I want to figure out how to collaborate on the nitty gritty.”

A fan of alliteration, O’Connor said, she wants to focus on “What is, what if, what wows and what works.” In the next 90 days, she said, she plans to come out with a business model that will be Austin’s model.

Austin, she said, has claimed a creative freedom for itself and everybody wants a part of it. No one who learned she was coming to Austin was nonchalant about it. “Keep Austin weird, “ O’Connor said, “is money.” At the same time, she said, “Constraints are kind of cool. Constraints give you something to play with…they give us texture.”

She would like to see entrepreneurs talking to intrapreneurs about risk, about creating business models and figuring out how to inject that into ongoing operations. She wants to keep the ethnography of the city while drawing people closer together. She wants to support the strong community vibe behind the Keep it Local movement that seems stronger in Austin than in D.C. where so much of the population is transient.

She wasn’t, she said, prepared to speculate much on ideas yet, until she’s gotten a better sense of the city’s soul.

Several of the city’s top innovators, including Bob Metcalfe and Hugh Forrest attended the event, as did several startups.

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