Emma Schwartz is the only president and executive director the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation has had since it was established in 2009.
In that time, she and the foundation’s board have overseen the design, construction and operation of the $27 million Cardwell Collaborative building on what is now a 440-acre medical campus first envisioned 20 years ago.
With 60,000 square feet of space for research laboratories, biomedical research and a budding business incubator, it is the only place of its kind in a very large region.
It opened in June 2016 and with about 15 tenants today, the Cardwell Collaborative is 70 percent occupied.
For going above and beyond her job description to make El Paso a better place, Emma Schwartz is El Paso Inc.’s El Pasoan of the Year for 2017.
Schwartz, 41, is married to El Paso developer Douglas Schwartz and the mother of two small children who have spent a lot of time in her office because she believes babies and business are not incompatible.
These days, she’s also finding time to train for and participate in iron-man run, swim and bike triathlons.
But turning a vision into something concrete, steel and glass that’s filled with people and purpose while learning to be a leader wasn’t easy, either.
“Emma has really grown into the job,” said MCA Foundation board Chair Ralph Adame. “When she was hired, I don’t think she had an idea – and neither did the board – about what road we were heading down.
“For a long time, she was doing all of this with a total staff of maybe three.”
In 2014, Schwartz said, “Everything that could have gone wrong probably went wrong and, thank God, we had a strong board that came together a lot to talk about how we’re going to get through it.”
She worked without pay when necessary to keep things together and was ready to hand the keys over to a new leader earlier this year and move on. But when that didn’t work out for the MCA Foundation, she agreed to stay.
Adame credits her skills in navigating the tricky political waters with local governments and Texas Tech to reach MCA’s goals while Tech and other institutions pursued theirs in developing a medical campus that will drive education and this economy for decades to come.
There were also the very passionate concerns of neighbors who were worried about the impact that the expansion of the MCA campus would have on them. That issue helped end political careers at City Hall some years ago.
“Emma and Maria Elena Flood actually walked the entire neighborhood telling people not to be afraid,” Adame said. “I think that finally turned the sentiment around.
“So, yes, Emma has done a very admirable job.”
But all of that is not all.
The community involvement of this El Pasoan of the Year includes membership on more than a dozen boards and committees that show her participation continuing to the present.
Emma Schwartz’s presence here is an ongoing gift to this community.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: You have quite a resume, and now you have something new to add to it, El Pasoan of the Year.
Thank you all very much. The MCA has been a labor of love for a lot of people for a long time. It’s good publicity.
Q: You recently added 11 new tenants in the business accelerator space. So are you filled up yet?
Not completely. Some of the tenants take very little space. They’re app developers, so they just needed a small area. But we’ve got new companies knocking on the door, and we do have 11 new companies in our Innovation Center.
Q: It seems the direction of economic development in El Paso has changed because of the MCA campus with the medical and nursing schools, University Medical Center and El Paso Children’s Hospital.
Look at UTEP, too. It’s had nearly $300 million in new buildings go up since 2009 or so. But what were they? A historic mining and engineering school, right? Now, you have your biological sciences, chemistry and computer sciences, the college of health sciences and nursing. They did do a new engineering building, but they added a bioengineering annex.
It has been a major shift in focus for them because we need biomedical innovation – the Ph.D. in biology and chemistry and all those guys who are inventing cures. That’s what we’re working on now with this program. A lot of the companies that started up here are UTEP graduates starting up their own technology companies.
Q: Where do you see this in 10 years?
We are gaining momentum, not that it happens by itself. A lot of people are excited about it and invested in it. We’re going to continue to see tremendous growth. I think growth on this campus will outpace Downtown’s because the new institutions that come in are big. We’re going to bring in a new dental school. Imagine how many people it takes to bring in a dental school.
Q: Do you think the 440-acre medical campus will be filled out in 10 years?
Not in 10, but I think in 20 years you’re going to have a hard time finding space on this campus. Every new building that goes up on this campus is somewhere between $15 million and $90 million. They’re spaced out, and every four to eight years, you get another big, big building.
Q: It seems we’re seeing more women leaders in El Paso these days.
Yes, it’s exciting. To begin with, women have been in leadership a lot more in the home in the past. Because of the economy, you have to have two-parent working households, so women are getting more into the workforce and proving themselves. But it does take some culture shifting to have women in high-level leadership positions.
Just because you want to be an executive doesn’t mean you don’t want to be a parent or a family person or that you don’t want to have a life and hobbies. The workplace, in general, is getting more understanding of that, which is great. The more women you have in leadership, the more you will see the workplace transformed to accommodate the fact that a woman can be a very productive and still maintain the lifestyle they want to maintain.
Q: What about men?
I think you’ll see more men starting to enjoy life a little bit more, understanding that a workplace can accommodate it. You’re hearing more about companies that are giving bonding leave to dads for, like, six weeks so they can help at home. So I don’t think it’s just women who want to have more balance in their life. People want more balance in their life.
It’s women, maybe, who demand it a little bit more. Given the change in our culture, women are less afraid to say those things. It’s less taboo for us to say, “I want to be a parent, and I can still be a very productive leader.”
Q: Where do you think El Paso is in that regard compared with other cities?
I would say men still dominate the high-level executive positions. So you might have a lot more women in the workforce, but men are still dominating. That’s where we need to break through. Boards are another place where the more women we have in high-level board leadership, the more you’ll see the work culture changing.
There have been some big transformations at different institutions. If you look at WestStar Bank, the number of women executives is very high compared to historical numbers. You also have El Paso Electric. You need companies like that paving the way.
Q: You have children, too, don’t you?
I had two babies while this whole MCA thing was going on. One of the things was breastfeeding. I was like just because I’m a professional, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to do that. It’s good for my kid.
But there were a number of unbelievably awkward places I had to lock myself up in to breastfeed. It was horrible. It takes a long time to do it, and you’re doing it every day for months and months. I couldn’t do it here in my office because we’ve got this big window here.
So we built a wellness room that has electrical plugs in the right places and a place to sit so you can breast feed and you can pump if you need to. Wellness in general is a beautiful thing that’s becoming much, much more evident in a lot of organizations – and appreciated by employees.
Q: Was there a time when you doubted the MCA was going to take off.
Absolutely. There were a couple of years when we had every disaster happen that could possibly happen to stop this building from being built. The fact that we got through a couple of years is amazing to me.
Q: What kind of obstacles?
We had a fourth floor planned for this building and 100 percent of the construction documents completed for the new city public health lab. We had signed letters of intent with the city and everything.
Then there was a leadership change that happens every four years in any city. Someone at the city said they were rescinding their letter of intent and wanted out.
So as a board we had to decide whether to build the building as designed – build the fourth floor and hope we find some amazing tenant to fill it up. Or do we redesign the building and take off an entire floor, which would cost a significant amount of money and time? That’s what we did; we took it out, which meant a major redesign.
Then at one point, we lost our financing. Rick Francis was on our board and on the Texas Tech Board of Regents and chairman of WestStar Bank. No bank wanted to finance this building because a lot of the funding comes from the city, and there’s a clause in the City Charter that says no City Council can commit a future council. So every year in September, we have to see if we’ll get appropriated again or not.
The big banks said that’s too much of a risk. So we had to go to the community banks, and WestStar Bank said they would finance it.
But Texas Tech told Rick Francis you’re a regent, you’re on the MCA board and you’re conflicted because we’re leasing an entire floor of that building from the MCA, so you have a personal financial interest in that loan. So you either have to tell us to cancel the lease with the MCA or cancel the loan.
Rick came to me and said which do you want more, the lease with Texas Tech or the financing? We said the lease with Texas Tech.
We were to the point of asking local wealthy individuals to personally lend us the money.
Q: Did they?
We were able to get Citizens Bank of Las Cruces, which wasn’t big enough to do the whole loan, but they put together a partnership of community banks and they loaned the money.
Q: When was all that happening?
Most of this craziness was happening in 2014 and 2015. Everything that could have gone wrong probably went wrong, and thank God we had a strong board.
So the day came in February 2015 when we signed everything in one day. It was a really big day for us. We opened in June 2016.
Q: What’s next?
Hopefully, we’ll find out if we build the VA central clinic here on the campus. We have a bid in to build a 30,000-square-foot, community-based outpatient clinic for the VA. If we win the bid, we already have the construction group in place.
The bid for the VA is crazy. You have to say in your bid who is your construction manager, who are all the subs and what is your pricing on the entire project and basic designs for everything. You have a month and a half to do all that, and then you have to sit and wait for almost a year to find out if you get it.
Q: And that’s what you’re waiting for now?
Yes, so hopefully we’ll get that. We worked very closely with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke on it, and this is one of the outcomes of that pilot project.
Q: What would that mean?
Having the VA on this campus would allow us to try to create more relationships with Texas Tech and UMC. It would be an important piece for us.