Leadership Austin Fundraiser will Illuminate Community Leaders


If you speak with anyone involved with Leadership Austin, they’ll tell you the same thing: their program is one of the best in town, hands-down. They’ll also tell you how excited they are for their 12th annual fundraiser, aptly named “Best Party Ever.” This year’s theme is ‘illuminate,’ and there are seven hundred people on this year’s guest list, the biggest ever thrown in the program’s history. So, yeah, Leadership Austin is a big deal.

The organization offers classes for professionals at all points in their careers. According to Leadership Austin Board Chair Christopher Kennedy, the classes are tailor-made for people looking to take their professional development to the next level and build a stronger, better-connected, city-wide network.

But more about that party.

Hosted this year on Friday, June 14 at the W Hotel and sponsored by H-E-B, The Best Party Ever serves as both the social event of the year as well as the organization’s annual fundraiser. At the party, there will be live auctions, music and an awards ceremony.

“We’ve never been a chicken-dinner-type crowd; this is a stand-up happy hour. People want to kiss babies and shake hands and build relationships!” Kennedy explained, with a laugh. “This year will be the largest party we’ve ever had. It’s really, really exciting.”

As is traditional, Leadership Austin will honor—or illuminate—three of Central Texas’ unsung heroes for their impact on their communities. This year’s award-winners are are Gary Farmer, Susan Dawson and Chelsea McCullough. No one paragraph or two-minute speech could fully outline the good these three have done for their communities, but the Best Party Ever is going to try.

“The theme this year is illuminate because we’re trying to illuminate everybody, no matter where they choose to be a leader,” Kennedy explained. “It’s not about being the CEO or the elected official: those roles are important, and we hope that we can impact there, too, but it’s about everybody. That’s where we got  ‘illuminate.’”

The precision of the program is in its structure, without a doubt, but its true strength lies in its well-curated, hand-selected group of community leaders.

“Through Leadership Austin, you really get to know the city in a way that, in our individual silos, we don’t see it through the same perspective and lens. You get to do that through the eyes of your classmates, which is a really cool experience,” McCullough explained.

McCullough, who was selected for this year’s Ascendant Award, says she wouldn’t be the leader she is today if it hadn’t been for participating in the program’s Emerge class for young professionals.

“I’ll even be so bold as to say that it has changed my life. [Leadership Austin] has been that impactful for me,” she said.

“I don’t know if it was kind of ordained by a higher power, but Leadership Austin happened in my life exactly at the time that I was really ready for it on a personal level and on a professional level. I soaked it up like a sponge.”

Through Leadership Austin, McCullough found the courage and the confidence to transition from her job in the tech industry into founding her own consulting company. The program enabled her to become more aware of her own goals and ambitions as a growing young professional, just by tapping her into her own innate abilities. And this drastic career shift wasn’t a fluke: according to McCullough, about half of the members of her Emerge class made major career and life changes during their time in the program.

“I now work with incredible technology companies, inspired entrepreneurs, people who are really making a big difference in the world, and I don’t think I could have gotten there in the same way without the structure, knowledge, connections and confidence that Leadership Austin helped me develop. It’s just such an incredible program, and it really helps you understand who you are and how you can use that to impact the world,” McCullough said.

Farmer, Dawson and McCullough were all asked to select a friend or colleague to speak on their behalf at the Best Party Ever, someone who can explain the award-winners’ impact on the community. According to Kennedy, all three award-winners share the commonality of being shy, modest, even about their great achievements.

“All three of these honorees are quiet leaders: it’s never been about them, it’s been about their communities. They’re just not in it for those reasons,” Kennedy said.

Leadership Austin’s Best Party Ever will be a night to remember, to say the least; not because it’s an end-of-the-line award for the winners, but because it will inspire everyone in the room—Farmer, Dawson and McCullough included—to continue to grow as leaders in Austin.

“I kind of foolishly expected that once I finished the class, that that was the end,” McCullough said. “But the truth of the matter is that it was just the beginning. I mean, they call it the ‘ending retreat,’ but they really should call it the introduction to the rest of your life.”