Tracy Gray: Hawking L.A. 

Thursday, May 20 2010

Tracy Gray is impatient for success, which makes her the kind of person you'd want managing your indie-rock band, if you had one. She did that for a while, before she grew tired of waiting around for the Next Big Thing and got hooked into venture capital.

Gray liked the thrill of connecting ideas to money, the sense that she was making things happen behind the scenes. But she quickly realized that in that world, she was an outlier. None of the entrepreneurs she worked with were women or people of color. Where were they? she wondered. With all this money flying around, why wasn't some of it going to them?

That realization led her into politics, and ultimately to an office on the 13th floor of City Hall. For a member of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's job-creation team, impatience is a virtue.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

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"I want things to happen fast, and bigger, and better than they did before."

As a band manager in the 1990s, Gray grew frustrated with clients who seemed indifferent to the concept of profits and losses.

Salvation came from a music publisher who hired her to work for his venture-capital fund. The fund received 500 business plans a week.

Almost none of them came from minority communities — what the venture-capital world calls, somewhat condescendingly, the "domestic emerging markets." Gray's mercenary instincts were married to a newfound sense of social justice.

"I believe in making a social impact, but I also have no problem making a ton of money," she says.

After getting her feet wet in politics at the nonprofit Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Gray left to get her MBA. Her goal was to start a venture fund that would focus on women and minority-owned businesses. But just as she graduated, the recession hit, and by late summer of 2008 potential investors were backing away.

She put her venture-capital dreams on hold, and went to work as a consultant at City Hall.

In January, Villaraigosa hired Austin Beutner, a veteran of the equity-capital world, to be his jobs czar. Gray saw an opportunity and went to work for him.

Beutner came in with plans to change the culture of City Hall, to make it more friendly to business, and he has brought a private-equity partner's sense of urgency to the Mayor's Office. Whether it will work is an open question.

Gray says that part of her job is making five "cold calls" per week to L.A. businesses, asking if there's anything they need from City Hall.

"My job is to communicate to our customers that L.A. is a great place to do business," she says. "You can't not be here. You have to be in L.A. if you want to be a player on the global stage."

After 20 years in the City of Angels, she says, "I'm really falling in love with L.A."

Reach the writer at gmaddaus@laweekly.com

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