Trial by fire

As the new head of WEDC, Missy Hughes discusses challenges and “awesome” opportunities ahead.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Five months after being appointed secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), Melissa “Missy” Hughes faced a COVID-19 global pandemic that shut down a strong economy almost overnight.

“This [COVID-19] moment is revealing those very important parts of our state — the farmers, small businesses, restaurants, and cafes — woven into our communities,” Hughes says, having just spent months crisscrossing the state to meet with chambers and businesses. “It’s like the mist is clearing and we’re able to see what’s really important. Foxconn is one side of the spectrum, but there’s a whole other side that we need to look at.”

Hughes is a New York state native who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Georgetown University and a law degree from the University of Wyoming. After relocating to Wisconsin in 2003, she served 16 years as general counsel and later chief mission officer at Organic Valley, a farmer-owned, independent cooperative in La Farge. Her husband remains an executive there, and the family, including their three grown children, calls Viroqua home.

We found Hughes in late April working remotely from home after a busy week in Madison.

Talk about trial by fire! In your first six months, what has made you particularly proud?

It’s pretty hard to remember pre-COVID-19, honestly, but I’m very proud that as a part of WEDC’s team, we’ve flexed to continue to do our business and our work while pivoting quickly to help small businesses in Wisconsin with our SB 2020 program. We’ve also been active in helping businesses statewide determine if they’re essential or nonessential.

As a public official, are there specific challenges that you find most troublesome?

Balancing public health with the economic damage that we’re seeing. With businesses failing and workers unemployed, this will have an ongoing impact.

So many businesses are struggling, but the human element in particular is tough; knowing that there are health care procedures that have been postponed — mammograms, colonoscopies, cancer treatments — because of the focus on COVID-19.

The other difficult piece is that those procedures generate a lot of revenue for hospitals. If hospitals can’t build or expand, that in turn could impact other industries like manufacturing and construction. Meanwhile, health care workers are furloughed, and physicians are taking pay cuts. It’s very hard.

I think we’re trying to protect ourselves by focusing on the short term because the length of this seems so daunting.

What have you learned about Wisconsin businesses?

That they are very innovative, proactive, and flexible. They’re developing protocols for how to stay safe and how to keep their employees and customers safe. When they jump in, they do it with both feet.

Looking into to the future, what do you see on the post COVID-19 horizon?

My hope is that as a state we recognize all our communities because they’re all equally important — rural and urban, manufacturing, small and large businesses, workers, and consumers. We must support vulnerable communities and farmers for their stewardship of the land, their role in protecting waterways and biodiversity, and recognize them all for the value they bring.

Is there a silver lining in any of this?

Actually, I see this as an awesome opportunity for Wisconsin to move to the next phase. What will we do to innovate? What can we be leaders in? What are the opportunities offered by this?

As a state, we have great communities and people working together, and when we need to, we roll up our sleeves. I’m an eternal optimist. We’ll get there.

But right now, my best advice is to simply be kind to each other in this time of high anxiety. You never know what someone else is going through.

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