Experiencing Austin’s Homegrown Culture

By Candice Hahn, SVP, Managing Director of R/GA Austin

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about culture.

People may assume I’m referring to corporate culture. Certainly as an office lead for one node in a global network of companies, culture falls square within my remit. I think about that regularly because it’s where I spend most of my waking hours, and I personally want to enjoy it.

These days, I’ve been thinking about community culture. The culture of my specific neighborhood, and of the city of Austin. I’m approaching the 4.5 year mark in this fine city and can say unequivocally that there is something here that is truly unique and really quite special. It’s not something that can easily be described in a single word or even a set of words.

It’s not just that people are nice and welcoming. I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, a town of 5,000 people, the very place on which Thornton Wilder based his book, Our Town. A town where, to this day, you don’t have to pay at the local market, you can put it on your house account and pay later. People there were nice and it was common knowledge that everyone’s front door key was literally under the welcome mat.

It’s also not just that people are innovative and smart. Prior to Austin, I spent 15 years working in the heart of San Francisco. I had the unique experience of being a part of two dot-com booms (and busts), and was witness to the formation of some of the most powerful organizations today, Google and Facebook to name a few. Companies that many would agree have driven a fundamental shift in culture with a capital C. There are loads of smart people in San Francisco.

It’s also not just that people are generous. I experienced major life events in the bay area, a wedding, the birth of a child and multiple medical mishaps among them. Friends and coworkers alike reached out, made meals and helped out.

It’s something deeper. Something in the way people interact and connect. I’ve observed a level of selflessness, a genuine openness to helping others with no expectation for anything in return, a level of acceptance for people and whatever floats their boat, and far less of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ that one may expect in a city filled with smart, successful individuals.

I first noticed it on my third day in Austin. I was walking on a relatively quiet back road in the hill country when a car drove past, stopped, and then started backing up in my direction. I was still in city mode and my internal warning signals immediately went off. Turns out, it was a kind stranger who just wanted to let me know that my daughter had thrown a stuffed animal out of her stroller and it was laying on the side of the road. I remember being caught off guard, then amazed, then feeling guilty for assuming the worst.

Since then, this has manifested itself in hundreds of small acts and gestures on a daily basis.

This is exactly how I became associated with Culturati. A coworker made a mutual introduction, paths crossed again, and then I found myself at a dinner table with a set of distinguished and accomplished professionals from all walks of life, who had come together to share their experiences.

For a minute, I wondered how I got there, and then realized it was just one of many ways, the Austin culture was revealing itself to me.

Not long after my first Culturati dinner, I moderated a panel discussion during Austin Design Week. The panel examined how we leverage Austin’s growth to evolve the creative scene. It was made up of esteemed individuals from academia, government and the private sector. Two of the panelists I had never met prior to organizing the event. I had reached out to them on a somewhat blind recommendation, and they graciously accepted not knowing me from Adam….because its Austin and that is how this community works.

One panelist, Bijoy Goswami, founder of the Bootstrap Network, author, and a respected voice in the development of meaning models, articulated it in a way I’d not heard before. He said the DNA of Austin is to be yourself. This is different than other cities. In New York, it’s to be world class. In Los Angeles, it’s to be famous. As soon as he outlined this, it all clicked in my mind.

Being yourself is about the journey. The journey is about learning from, and with, others in a way that is open and authentic.

That is what makes this town different from others.

But, Austin is growing quickly. I watched the Bay Area change tremendously during my years there, in a way that wasn’t appealing to me personally. I had assumed it was because of the growth. I originally worried that something similar may happen here. Now, I know that wasn’t the only reason. Even so, I want the “je ne sais quois” that I so admire to remain long after the cranes have left downtown.

The DNA of Austin is in tact. It’s all about the little things.

Have an open mind. Don’t ask people what they do, ask them what they like to do. When someone reaches out for coffee or a meeting, meet them. Share connections. Explore some of the micro communities and currents flowing through the city. Stop and let cars in when they are trying to cross traffic. Step outside your comfort zone. Ignore the desire to honk your horn.

What then happens is that you feel something slowly creeping into your awareness, and eventually it impacts your own personal behavior. That, to me, is culture. I used to tell people, half in jest, that Austin has made me a nicer person. I think, to Bijoy’s point, I’m just being myself.

Candice Hahn

Candice Hahn is the SVP, Managing Director of R/GA Austin where she is responsible for the office’s growth, operations, new business development, and partnering with clients and staff to create full-service, award-winning work. A New Hampshire native, she has quickly adapted to the Austin lifestyle, and enjoys exploring the many outdoor activities the city offers with her husband and daughter.