A few days before taking the job as the head of Albuquerque’s Economic Development Department in late 2013, Gary Oppedahl told a friend in a text, “I’d never go into government.”
He was worried about the slow pace of government bureaucracy, something he had never encountered before.
While Oppedahl had no experience as a bureaucrat, he had plenty of experience running a business. He calls himself a “serial entrepreneur,” having founded multiple companies. Most recently, Oppedahl helped create FootPrints Home Care, a company dedicated to providing in-home care to clients in Albuquerque.
“It’s pretty amazing that we have a serial entrepreneur that comes from the high tech world who is now the head of economic development for the city,” said Bill Bice, chairman and president of ABQid, a city-funded business accelerator. “As far as I know, [it] has never happened before.”
Bice now works closely with Oppedahl. He says Oppedahl’s passion and expertise in entrepreneurship has allowed the city to focus more on business startups. According to Bice cities usually focus on encouraging existing businesses to move to the area with tax breaks and other incentives instead of encouraging new businesses. But he says with an entrepreneur at the helm, Albuquerque has also begun to focus on “homegrown businesses” by implementing a number of new programs, such as business accelerators like ABQid and Creative Startups.
“I just love entrepreneurs,” Oppedahl said. “These are the people who are passionate about what they’re doing…They make a dent in the universe.”
Eric Renz-Whitmore, an independent contractor who works with the city on entrepreneurial outreach and community building, said Oppedahl is “a champion of doers and people who make things happen.”
Oppedahl said he supports these “doers” by thinking a little differently. He was originally an electrical engineer and says he still utilizes the thought processes that made him successful in that field.
“We’re told to really clearly define the problem,” he says of his training. “A lot of problems are easy to solve once you define what the problem really is.”
Oppedahl says he believes in careful analysis of situations, and that getting others involved is key.
“Gary’s absolutely full of energy,” Bice said. “He’s very good at getting people to join in and make things happen.”
Bice credits Oppedahl’s approach to leadership as one of his strengths. “Gary’s approach is not trying to control; it’s just trying to be a catalyst to help make things happen.”
Renz-Whitmore says that instead of giving team members a step by step guide on how he wants things done, Oppedahl gives them the end goal and asks them to help decide how it should be done.
“It’s pretty visionary leadership to be honest,” Renz-Whitmore said. He adds that Oppedahl doesn’t have a lot of time for “just complainers.” As he puts it, if someone wants to discuss processes or goals, Oppedahl is all ears, but his love of “doers” leads to a strong dislike of anyone who wants to criticize without offering solutions.
“Don’t even talk to me about our failing schools if you’re not mentoring a child,” Oppedahl said. Studies have found that adult mentorship directly influences a child’s academic performance, and Oppedahl himself mentored an Albuquerque student through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program.
Despite his initial aversion to working in government, Oppedahl now says his fears were unfounded.
“I’m thrilled,” he says of the progress he’s made. “If you told me we would get this much done in the first year and nine months (when I first started,) I would have said ‘you’re crazy.’”
Renz-Whitmore says he assumes that Oppedahl occasionally gets frustrated by the slower pace of government work, but credits Oppedahl’s success to his personality and approach to business.
“I think the energy and the different perspective of somebody who’s really got more of an engineering and entrepreneurial background is great to have in that position,” he says. “It really is just a huge difference in the way that we, as a whole community, are thinking about entrepreneurship and economic development in general.”
Oppedahl’s long term vision for Albuquerque is to make it the most entrepreneurial region in the country. Oppedahl admits, though, that his objective could be difficult to achieve. Still, he said he feels driven to make it happen.
“I’ve got five grandkids now…,” he said. “And I want them all to be able to live, play, have careers and create here and have success, whatever they deem that is, and not have to move away. That’s my motivation.”
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Director of Economic Development, City of Albuquerque
What do you think is the most interesting part of the innovation economy in ABQ?
“The amazing collaboration between business, government, academia, and philanthropies.”
If you weren’t doing this job what would you be doing?
“Creating jobs in Albuquerque some other way.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]