Q&A With Indy Chamber Deputy Director Susanna Taft

A woman with her hand on her hip smiling
Indy Chamber deputy director Susanna Taft

I imagine the usually staid work of economic development has been more intense lately. What’s your typical workday like?

Most of my day involves working with companies looking to relocate to Indy. If the business is a good fit, I can connect them to resources, real estate, and incentives like tax abatements. We thought this might be a slow year for that, but it’s just booming. It’s like COVID-19 caused a clog in the pipeline, and now it has been cleared.

Why did you decide to get involved in this sort of work?

Both of my parents have been involved in community development and the arts here for a long time. They inspired me to be an active participant in the community. And I realized that the opportunities at Indy Chamber were a perfect fit for my interests, which were a little different.

What are some things that you were doing last year, during the peak of the pandemic, that you’re doing differently now?

Last year, I think we were in a direct response mode, coping with a crisis where we had to act very quickly. We organized a business loan fund through the Paycheck Protection Program, but we lacked the technology to handle what became an avalanche of interest. We had to develop an automated system and train more than 40 employees to use it. We had to do the best that we could with the resources we had at the time, not knowing what things were going to look like in three months. But now I think we’re shifting to a place where our responses are more strategic. There’s more planning. We’re still trying to figure out what things will look like in a year, but I think we have a more solid idea than we did this time last year.

What lessons did you and the Chamber learn from the pandemic?

We realized what we can accomplish when we push a lot of things aside and really focus on our main priorities. As a nonprofit, you can be spread very thin if you say yes to everything. I think we’re learning how to say yes to the things that are most strategic for us. We’re now focusing on a few programs that give the most benefit to the community.

Did your mom, Harrison Center executive director Joanna Taft, offer any advice in the midst of all this?

There were many, many late nights, and she told me to keep my head down, keep doing good work, and make sure I was being collaborative and asking for help when I needed it.

How big of an adjustment was working at home?

I live with three roommates, and all of them were working downstairs at the kitchen table. But I was so stressed that I didn’t have the capacity to be distracted by other people working. So I set up a table in my bedroom and spent most days working from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. I kept several sticky notes on my desk with different lists of things that needed to be done. I did one thing at a time and tried to put out fires as they came up.

What’s the latest call you ever got?

I had people calling me at 3 a.m. I didn’t answer the ones that were that late because I didn’t want to encourage it. But I do know that my phone was ringing late in the night.

So you were getting nonstop calls from business owners asking for advice on everything from loans to how to balance their books?

Yes. My phone rang off the hook for a year. But we were all just trying to help each other through that extraordinary moment. I think one thing we weren’t prepared for was that a lot of businesses had never applied for a grant or a loan before. Their accounting systems weren’t set up to be shareable with others, or their business documents weren’t very organized. Once, we got a profit and loss statement written on a sticky note. That’s how the majority of microbusinesses operate, because they never needed to operate beyond that. So I would be struggling with technology issues on the phone with someone who has never used a computer before. They might fill out documents and send them to me over their phone because they didn’t have a laptop.

You own a house downtown, right next to a house your brother owns. How did that happen?

My brother, Michael, and I both have a love for old homes and the downtown urban core, and it happened that there were two houses available next door to each other that were owned by the same seller. So we got a good deal by purchasing them at the same time.

Why all the roommates?

A lot of people ask me that, and sometimes I ask myself that as well. But we have a lot of fun. My brother and I wanted to create a space where people could come hang out on the porch just about any time. A lot of people don’t have a sense of community because they don’t have a place to hang out without feeling like a burden.

For years, you didn’t own a car. Why did you break down and buy one?

I caved when the pandemic hit. I thought, If I’m going to survive this, I’m going to need some wheels to get around. It was also due to Blue Indy shutting down. I had leaned on that a lot for some of my longer treks. So I got a Honda Fit. My coworkers make fun of me because it’s the most non-car car there is. It looks like something that should be on a golf course.