A Love for Waco

By Kevin Tankersley

A conversation with Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce Chair Loren Schwartz

Pictured: Photo by Lindsey Wachsmann

If you’re going to make a list of the Waco-area nonprofits with which Loren Schwartz has been involved, it might be easier just to name those she hasn’t worked with. In her 27 years in Waco, Schwartz has served on the boards of the Baylor-Waco Foundation, Baylor Club and Teen Leadership Waco. She’s past president of the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society, the Vanguard College Preparatory School Parent Organization and the St. Paul’s Episcopal School board. She’s also been chair of the American Heart Association board and led three consecutive sold-out Go Red for Women events.

She’s a certified financial planner and senior financial adviser at Merrill Lynch and has worked in the finance and insurance industries for 28 years. Also for 28 years, she’s been married to Waco native Martin Schwartz, and they have two grown sons, Jake and Joe.

Schwartz has recently taken on another volunteer role: chair of the board of directors of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, an organization she has been involved with since she moved to Waco in 1992.

After much juggling of schedules, Schwartz and Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met recently in the Jim and Nell Hawkins Meeting Room at the chamber offices.

WACOAN: You said your week has been crazy. What does your typical week look like, especially since you’ve taken on this role with the chamber?

Schwartz: I get up every day at 5:30 [a.m.] I go work out at WRS [Athletic Club] at 6 o’clock every day, until about 7:15. Come home, shower, get to work about 8:30-ish, 8:45. I’m a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch. That’s a typical morning. And then a typical day would include usually a lunch meeting, either client- or chamber-related.

I serve on a lot of committees as the chamber representative. For example, the Waco Leadership Forum, or there’s a Waco Industrial Foundation meeting or the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corporation has a meeting, and I sit in on those meetings as the chamber chair, as the representative to the membership. So a lot of committees I have become a part of just by the fact that I’m in the chamber leadership role.

The [stock] market closes at 3 [p.m.] I’m normally doing wrap-up until 4 or 4:30, and then I may have another meeting or it’s an opportunity when I can meet with various chamber programs — and there are so many, so it might be a Total Resource Campaign meeting or it might be to talk about the Freedom Ball or to talk about what’s coming up at the next meeting.

One of the things that’s in our windshield coming up is our strategic plan. Every five years for the last 15, we have had a strategic plan that’s a five-year plan to make sure we’re on track doing what we should be doing as a chamber with the right priorities. That plan that we’re under now expires in 2020, so we’re starting now to develop the framework for strategic planning sessions.

We’re going to bring in a facilitator from the outside, an outside pair of eyes and ears, to assist us in that process. And we’ll involve our chamber membership, our chamber leadership, our board of directors, our chamber alliance — which is a group of McLennan County city representatives, cities that are in the county who are invited to be a part of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce — the county and city leadership, which would include the city council members, the mayor, city manager, assistant city manager, commissioners court, county judge, county leadership also. So when we formulate a new plan for 2020 through 2025, we have a lot of input on what do you want to see in the greater Waco area from a business perspective, because that’s what we do. We are the chamber of commerce.

We can’t address every other issue in Waco. There are a lot of organizations that do it and do it well, but what are the priorities for economic development and making sure we’re rolling in that direction? I’ll give you an example. Our initiatives for the past five years through 2020 are workforce and talent, public relations and strategic partners, image building, downtown riverfront development, innovation entrepreneurship, and economic development.

Those were our areas of priority, and not in any particular order. But those are the areas where our resources, our energies are spent, with obviously the overriding primary focus being economic development. And the news is good. Waco is on a roll. It is a terrific time to be a chamber of commerce chairperson. These are great times in Waco. Obviously, the Magnolia Effect, as it’s been dubbed, is tremendous because the visitorship has put Waco in a category of where people want to visit versus, ‘Oh yeah. I heard something about Waco,’ and maybe there was some negative connotations to that.

WACOAN: We couldn’t get over one thing until something else happened.

Schwartz: Exactly. So now when you travel — and I travel extensively, even internationally — I haven’t been on a single trip where someone hasn’t said, ‘Oh, you’re from Waco. Do you know Chip and Joanna Gaines?’ I do know Chip and Joanna Gaines. They’re acquaintances. They’re not my best friends. I wish they were, but they’re wonderful people and they have brought such great pride and interest to Waco.

WACOAN: Jennifer Lopez and Ellen DeGeneres were talking about Waco and Chip and Joanna on Ellen’s show a couple of weeks ago.

Schwartz: It’s tremendous. You stand up straighter when people say, ‘Oh, you’re from Waco,’ and they have a smile on their face. The geographic proximity that Waco has in the middle of two major metropolitan areas, growing areas in Texas, Austin and Dallas, we’re postured for huge growth, and I think that’s very fortunate. And young people are interested in staying in Waco. We’re keeping our own.

WACOAN: How long have you been involved with the chamber?

Schwartz: Almost from the very start of moving to Waco in 1992. I married in ’91 and commuted back and forth from Houston. I was living in Houston, working in Houston until ’92, and almost from the get-go. I chose a career path as a female, and that was a little unusual for my group of friends and my husband’s group of friends. I was one of the very few wives who chose a career path. And from the very beginning I got involved in the chamber. I served on committees, and I would say I have been on and off the board as either an appointed or elected director somewhere well over 20 years, on and off for the last 20 years.

WACOAN: And your title now is …

Schwartz: Chairman of the board of directors of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. We have paid staff. We have a president. We have an economic development senior vice president, Kris Collins. Matt Meadors is our president, and a wonderful team of paid support staff. The board of directors are all volunteers. And the chairman of the board, we are volunteers.

WACOAN: The current five-year plan expiring in 2020, how has the chamber done in meeting its goals for this plan?

Schwartz: Thus far, so good. There was a goal to reach a certain fundraising amount, and it is just about there. And that’s our Build campaign, which is what fuels our ability to attract businesses, economic development and do the programming that the chamber is able to do.

WACOAN: Are you the first female chair?

Schwartz: I am the second female chair. Virginia DuPuy was the first female chair in 2000. And there hasn’t been one since.

WACOAN: Those are big shoes to fill.

Schwartz: Yes, they are.

WACOAN: Is there any added pressure on you being a female chair?

Schwartz: I don’t know that there’s necessarily added pressure. I think it is an example of Waco and McLennan County being more inclusive, more diverse.

It is big shoes to fill. Virginia was our Legacy Award recipient this year, honored for her amazing contribution to not only the business community but the entire community. And she was certainly more than deserving. I am honored. I am humbled to serve in this leadership position.

WACOAN: Is this a one-year commitment or multiple years?

Schwartz: The way leadership has gone in the past is you serve on the executive committee and it is a rotation of your fourth year, you would be slated to be chair, if approved by the membership. And then one year as immediate past president in charge of the nominating committee and often another major project, such as a capital campaign. In my instance I’m actually serving a year early. Originally the anticipation was 2020, and Alfred Solano was tapped by the [Cen-Tex] Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to take over their leadership as their president, which would conflict him from being also chairman of the [Greater Waco] Chamber. So he serves as a member, as an ex officio member, but he couldn’t be serving as the chair, so he stepped down from that leadership position. I slid up a year. So typically it’s a five-year rotation that’s now compressed for me into four.

WACOAN: Since you moved up a year, will you still serve one year as chair, or two?

Schwartz: One year. And we put a new member of the executive committee in place.

WACOAN: You’ve been involved in pretty much every organization in Waco. What keeps drawing you back?

Schwartz: To see the vibrance of the business community. That has excited me and energized me to continue to be a part of something positive. When I first came to Waco, I think the first major project I was involved in was the Cameron Park Zoo. And for me, knowing that I would eventually have children, a zoo, a great zoo, was very important to me. And it’s not that I’m such a conservationist or lover of animals — I do love animals — but it was that it’s a family place to gather, and those are important assets to a community. So that was my first major project when I got to Waco, with Nancy Lacy and Kay Olson.

I was part of a bond election for McLennan Community College, a successful bond election, which they needed to continue to expand and offer a two-year community college education to our community. To keep people in our community, you’ve got to educate them and then have jobs for them, and we’re doing that. So from a business perspective, I felt like the chamber would be that opportunity for me to be involved in a business manner versus just a wonderful not-for-profit.

I’ve been involved in the [American] Heart Association. That’s a personal passion. I’m kind of a fitness nut, and health and exercise are very important to me. I see the benefits of it in my own family. My dad’s almost 91 and still plays tennis and drives. And my mother’s 83 and more fit than most 25-year-olds. I see the benefits of healthy living. So I did get involved in the heart association.

My family was touched by Alzheimer’s. My husband’s father unfortunately lost a 10-year battle to it. And I’ve been involved in the Alzheimer’s Association because I realize it’s a great cause. And I have a lot of energy. I’m the kind of person that I’m happiest when I’m the busiest. I don’t like a lot of holes in my schedule.

When my children were in school — they were in private school — I was very involved in their schools, at both St. Paul’s [Episcopal School] and Vanguard [College Preparatory School], in a leadership capacity. That’s where I felt like I could encourage and influence in a positive manner, leading by example, walking the walk. If you’re going to have your children involved in something, you want it to be something good. And I felt like I could make it something good or make it something better.

And I couldn’t sit on the sidelines. I’m not a sidelines kind of gal. I want to be rowing. I want to be doing the lifting, not watching it done and complaining about it if I don’t like the results.

WACOAN: Where did you grow up?

Schwartz: I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and went to the University of Alabama. It’s easy to be an Alabama football fan. I worked for the athletic department as a student assistant for two of my four years at Alabama and three summers, and it was wonderful.

And then I went to Georgia State [University] to get my Master of Business [Administration], and then I moved out to Houston. I followed my sister who was in the investment banking business, and I followed her path to Houston, and through a mutual friend and a connection in sports, met my husband. It was very random, but that’s how we met. He was from Waco, with a family business in Waco, and there were strong, strong roots and ties to this community. So I knew that if I was marrying him, I was coming to Waco.

WACOAN: In a speech to the chamber a few weeks back, you said that you quickly gained a pride, passion and love for Waco. What inspired that pride, passion and love for Waco so quickly?

Schwartz: I would say probably the friendships that I immediately developed here were incredible. People really wanted to welcome me to the community in such an embracing supportive, manner, from not just the volunteer side but the business side. There weren’t a lot of women doing what I was trying to do. And — senior members of the community Bernard Rapaport, Lyndon Olson, Jim Hawkins — they gave me opportunities very early on, and I feel like that may not have happened in other places.

I was strictly in the insurance business at that time, and they gave me an opportunity to bid their insurance. And many times I was successful and there were times I wasn’t, and if I wasn’t, they were like, ‘Come back next year.’ It was an open door and a lot of mentorship and guidance.

WACOAN: Also in your speech, you said the chamber will work on workforce and talent, public policy and strategic partnerships, image building, downtown, uptown and riverfront development, innovation and entrepreneurship, and economic development. Is there one of those areas that’s most important to you?

Schwartz: Maybe not more important, but I do see the workforce and talent development retention [being] very important. So if we’re going to educate young members, older members of the community at Baylor and at MCC and at TSTC and [through MCC] Tarleton and Texas Tech, if we’re going to do that, then we want to have jobs for those graduates. And so one folds into the other and we do want an educated workforce. That trickles down to a strong public school system.

So if they’re going to get to the next level, they’re going to have to do well and have superior public education starting at a very young age. And that’s an area that isn’t necessarily the chamber’s focus, but it has to be a part of it, because if we don’t have an educated workforce, we’ve got a problem. So it matters. And the research that’s been done proves that early childhood development is what makes successful middle schoolers, successful high schoolers, and then they can go on to have various opportunities in trade and technical colleges, associate degrees, a four-year degree, higher-level degrees at Baylor. It’s part of it.

Public policy is also very important to us, and the way that governance happens is you’ve got to have a seat at the table. And the chamber has been very active in public policy. Jessica Attas is our staffer responsible for that arm, with David Lacy, chairing our public policy committee to make sure we have a seat at the table in Austin. And then our national governance matters, things like Interstate 35, water, all of those things are political in nature, so representation is important, and teaming with the city and the county as the business voice. We’ve done that.

And we will continue to advocate for our citizens and for our business community so that we have an attractive environment here [with] safe and clean water, good roads. I-35 is our heartbeat. It’s our vascular system. We have to have it. And it does involve a lot of traffic because of where we are in proximity to ports, to major cities. Waco is right in the middle. With that comes construction that needs to be done. There’s never a good time. It’s never convenient, but it’s going to happen.

WACOAN: Since you got here in ’92, what’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in Waco?

Schwartz: I would say the expansion and rebuilding of many parts of Baylor University and downtown and riverfront development. But with that comes the people, the different diverse population than we have ever had in the past. It’s exciting that people want to come here and maybe they’re from California or they’re from New Mexico or Las Vegas or Minnesota or South Dakota.

Just in my own personal business, I have had people who are now clients who moved to Waco because they saw ‘Fixer Upper’ and they thought, ‘What a lovely place to retire.’ They came and visited and literally packed up and left where they were from to retire here, or they had ties to Baylor University and decided, ‘Well, I want to be close to my alma mater, and we think Waco’s a lovely community with great housing and affordable real estate.’

WACOAN: You were named the 2017 outstanding volunteer fundraiser of the year by the Central Texas chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. With all the causes that you mentioned, for which you’ve done fundraising, do you have any idea how much money you’ve raised?

Schwartz: It is probably close to $100 million if I included all of the fundraising done for the zoo, for the bond elections that I’ve been part of, both MCC’s and the zoo’s bond elections. The American Heart Association. The Alzheimer’s Association. The chamber of commerce, because I’ve always been involved in the Total Resource campaign, which is our annual fundraiser through the membership, different from our capital campaign that I’ve also been involved in.

I raise money for a living. That’s what I do. I actually am a wealth manager, money manager, so I ask people for money on a regular basis to entrust me with their money. And some of it’s been for their own family wealth or their employees through 401(k) plans. But the rest of it has been to benefit a particular cause, and whether it was economic development through the chamber of commerce or the American Heart Association to provide defibrillators all over town or smoking cessation programs or initiatives for a healthier community. My God-given talent, if I have one, is I raised money well.

Some people don’t like to ask for money. They’re afraid to do it. They don’t want to trade on friendship. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. They don’t want to pry. And I’ve never felt like it was invasive. If someone doesn’t want to give, that’s OK. I don’t take it as a personal affront or a judgment of my character or ability or education. I’ve never felt burdened by being asked to ask others to participate.

And I’ve participated both financially and sweat equity. I’ve done both. I can’t give as much as some have given with their money, but I can with time and talent, and all of those pieces are critical. Give your time, give your talent or give your money, or all three would be terrific. Any piece of that is, to me, important and as part of an organization, as part of certainly a nonprofit organization, those pieces are critical.

So it’s a lot of money. It could be even more than that if I really sat with a calculator. And believe me, I’m not alone in this community in having successfully raised money. It’s just I’m that next generation, and there’s hopefully a generation after me that will do the same thing.

WACOAN: How do you go about asking for a huge amount of money, whatever the cause?

Schwartz: Doing your research and knowing who you’re asking and figuring out what their hot buttons may be, what is important to them by projects they’ve been a part of in the past. I think that’s part of it. And the relationship — who is the right person to make that ask? Who is their tennis buddy? Who is their fishing partner or who is their lawyer [or] accountant? Who makes sense to do the ask, that’s important too. And knowing if the cause might be important to them because they were touched by a certain malady or they were blessed by developing a business here, growing it and being able to sell it. Maybe they feel a certain pride in someone else being able to do that someday.

WACOAN: What does Waco need?

Schwartz: I would tell you right now, if we could get this riverfront [development], if we could snap our fingers and drop down a full-service hotel, that would be terrific. That’s one of the things I think we need and we will have. It’s been slower coming than we would like.

More diversity and inclusion I think will happen, but we need it because the complexion of our country, of our cities, of our states, has changed. And with that change, there are benefits to being on the front-end of that curve, not the last one aboard. So leading in those areas of diversity and inclusion versus just following. And it’s purposeful, it is not accidental.

WACOAN: How has the growth in Waco had an impact on the chamber?

Schwartz: I would tell you that people are seeing the fruits of their labor and wanting to be a part of a vibrant business community and joining the chamber of commerce and going to the programs we offer. Whether it’s educational in nature or just for fun, it’s very valuable. It’s time well spent. It’s that business-to-business relationship. If you come here and you’re just opening a business and you want to meet other business owners and business leadership, joining the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce gives you immediate entry.

WACOAN: I believe you’ve been on several chamber retreats. What do you bring back from those?

Schwartz: We do the inner-city leadership visits to communities that might be similar to Waco in their proximity to a large water source. So there might be riverfront development. We’ve looked at cities that have done it well and brought back ideas for the arts, culture, innovation, co-working space.

That’s been the big bonus. Eight, nine years ago, didn’t even know such a thing [as a co-working space] existed. Incubator-type programming was going on that was community- or business- or city-sponsored. Now we can be a part of that with Startup Waco and Hustle that just opened to have a co-working space and to have an incubator for entrepreneurs to begin their platform, have a place to start and have an entry to members of our community who are interested in seeing opportunities for investment in a new business. The traditional funding mechanisms may not work for a startup. They don’t have the credit, they don’t have the people, they don’t have the place. That in particular in entrepreneurship has been huge for Waco to continue to move forward. We want those great minds staying here instead of feeling like they have to go to Austin or Dallas or Houston or California. We want to keep them right here in our backyard.

WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know?

Schwartz: I would tell you that one of the greatest aspects of the community, I cannot emphasize it enough, is the warm welcome, friendly people that live here. If you start a business here, you move to Waco, there are people who want to see you succeed, not fail. And I think that one of the neatest parts of our community is that people still have supper clubs and they entertain in their homes and they go out on the lake together. Maybe we don’t have a major league baseball team or a professional football team, but we have a lot of other things and we do have a collegiate sports [team] in a great conference to go watch. And even if you’re not a Baylor fan, you can see a lot of other teams compete or just go enjoy that camaraderie and that friendly competition.

WACOAN: The game-day atmosphere is a lot of fun.

Schwartz: And that has changed with the new stadium. The game day is terrific. Kim Mulkey puts an incredible product on the floor, as does Scott Drew, and Baylor’s baseball team and MCC’s baseball program. There’s lots of great things to watch, at all levels.

There are so many things to do in this community. You just have to open the newspaper or get on your phone, Google what’s going on in Waco and you’ll find five or six things to do every day and every weekend. And I love that. I mean that did not exist 28 years ago. And it just keeps on getting better. It’s a great time to be in Waco, and that’s something that makes it easy to live here.

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