“‘Innovation’ is kind of fluffy, right? So when it comes to innovation strategy, you’ve got to create this massive blend of diverse thinking, creative thinking, dynamic thinking, and then be accountable to results.”
Alex Gonzalez was on week one of his new position as Chief Innovation Officer at the Metro Atlanta Chamber (MAC) when he sat down with Hypepotamus to explain what that role really means. He had just finished up a fireside chat with Marc Gorlin, founder of logistics startup Roadie, at the Atlanta Corporate Innovation Summit.
Gonzalez had begun his tenure during perhaps the busiest time of year for Atlanta’s innovation and startup space. In one-week span, startup enthusiasts convened at Techstars Atlanta Demo Day, the Venture Atlanta conference, the aforementioned Summit, plus countless investor and entrepreneur receptions and showcases.
For Gonzalez, it was the ideal way to start a role that he says will largely be about connection and storytelling. These events, which drew founders, investors and leaders from not just Atlanta or the Southeast, but around the world, allowed him to dive into that and establish himself as a go-to for innovation content in Atlanta.
“For me, it’s not trying to copy somebody else. So everybody says we’re the Silicon Valley of the East… Atlanta is Atlanta because we have the things that we can be uniquely proud of,” he says. Gonzalez points to the elements of the ecosystem that are commonly cited as strengths: the large corporate community, creative elements, robust B2B industry and growing tech scene.
But, Gonzalez also says that part of his job, on both the connection and storytelling front, will be to find and support those pockets and layers of the ecosystem that are not necessarily already on the radar of the Chamber.
“I think, frankly, our tech startup scene has done an incredible job making its presence known. Now, how do we bring out our creative community? It could be a blend of design from people graduating from SCAD, folks in the entertainment community or agency scene. How do you bring that to the surface?” he asks.
Gonzalez envisions creating platforms or discussions where those in all of those communities — tech, startup, creative, entertainment — could come together in a purposeful, organic way.
It’s something he’s been doing for private organizations for a long time. Gonzalez spent two decades as a leader in the private sector at organizations like GE and Equifax.
He says his interest in innovation-building processes began during his time at GE, which intersected with recognized innovation leader Beth Comstock’s tenure as CMO and the company’s first woman vice chair.
“She was the first person that taught me that marketing is about strategy, it’s about innovation, it’s about leadership,” he says. Following his corporate career, Gonzalez spent years advising and coaching corporate leaders on building an innovation strategy, integrating it into their organizations, and “giving them, frankly, the corporate courage to be transformative.”
He believes strongly that innovation is not limited to technology teams or even to tech companies. He points to Roadie as an example — though clearly an innovative logistics play, the company has also famously put a stake in the ground with strong branding and an ear-catching spokesperson, rapper and investor Ludacris.
Gonzalez says innovation is also not limited to one group of people — in fact, he thinks that kind of thinking actually limits innovation.
“When someone says, how do I drive innovation at my company, it has to start with diversity — in every aspect possible. That’s gender, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, race, as well as the things we don’t normally talk about — the schools you go to, the upbringing you’ve had,” he says. Gonzalez himself grew up in a lower-income household and says he knows that “those elements shape how I think.”
“If anybody thinks that they can be innovative, in a sustainable way, without having diversity of thought within that process, they’re going to fail.”
To encourage diversity in talent, he’s planning to work very closely with local education leaders at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and the HBCU consortium at the Atlanta University Center.
It’s also about diversity in capital providers, Gonzalez points out. He says he was encouraged by the “new generation” of investors, both local and from out of town, that he spoke with at Venture Atlanta.
“You start with capital and then you move to talent and then you get into openly creating a cycle where you have diverse teams and they start bringing more people on board,” he says.
“Let’s make sure we’re diverse in an authentic way.”