As the President and CEO of the Downtown Memphis Commission, Jennifer Oswalt coordinates an expansive effort to make the core of the city a vibrant place. From hosting events that draw new visitors to incentivizing construction and renovation efforts to sponsoring public art, the DMC’s goal is to make Memphis aesthetically, socially and economically appealing. When Jennifer joined the organization as CFO, she approached the work from an accountant’s perspective, but when she was asked to take over as interim president (before eventually earning the position permanently), she was energized by the opportunity to have a broader impact. Meet this week’s city-shaping FACE of Memphis, Jennifer Oswalt!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born near Chicago in a little farming town. I moved here when I was 9. I had hard-working parents with Midwestern values. But we definitely embraced Memphis. My family is still here.
How did your career path begin?
I started in public accounting. I went with Ernst & Young in Atlanta out of college then transferred with them to Memphis. I left shortly thereafter to work at Sovereign Wealth Management, primarily because there was a focus on helping women in transition, either with a business or divorce or something like that, and that interested me a lot. I had all kinds of clients all over the country — baseball players, business owners. I did the family office services for Mike Rose, and it was a great opportunity to use my accounting in a way that helped a family. After that, I went to work at Contemporary Media as their CFO, and then became CFO at Downtown Memphis Commission.
What made you choose to come back and ultimately stay in Memphis?
I find Memphis very easy to live in. I also think it’s a city where you can get things done. Very early when I came back, I got involved with the Women’s Foundation, and I’ve served on that board since 2007, and I actually saw where we can make change. I think all of our elected officials are very open to helping people. I think you really can plug in and do things here, whereas, in a bigger city, you might not be able to do that.
Memphis is a geographically sprawling city. What does Downtown mean to Memphis?
Downtown is the heart of the city. It’s our main tourist attraction, and it does fuel a lot; even if you don’t want to live in the city, you want to live near a city. We have a lot of potential with some things that we haven’t focused on, including the Riverfront, which I think is one of our biggest opportunities. Also, our historic buildings that we’ve recently seen a lot of love for and renovation, starting with the pop-up at the Tennessee Brewery that really led to a big trend of people embracing buildings and bringing them back to life and creating cool spaces that don’t look like any other city.
Obviously, the key to our financial future for our city is creating more density rather than spreading people further east where one day we touch Jackson. Showing people that joy of having things near you and that vibrancy is great. We’re blessed to have a lot of millennials and empty nesters Downtown, so I think that’s key to continue to attract all kinds of people so we’re not losing people when they have a family. Downtown is for everyone.
You were asked to become interim president of the DMC shortly after accepting the CEO position at Contemporary Media. How did you navigate that transition period?
It was a very difficult time, for sure. I really had three jobs because I was also CFO here. But I enjoyed it — I had very flexible board members and staff who were very helpful, and I did get a little help with some day-to-day things here.
I had really enjoyed my time at Contemporary Media and felt I could do some good things there, but ultimately my desire to help Memphis overall just won out in my heart.
What things are on the horizon for Downtown that you’re most excited about?
I’m certainly excited about our convention center renovation and the hotel that we expect to come along with it. It includes the elimination of our tallest building, blight-wise, and it will make for a great walk from the new, shiny, glass-filled convention center all the way to Beale Street and even South Main. Also, I’m excited about a lot of the small projects, too, because they’re filling a lot of spaces.
We do have activity in all areas of Downtown, which is also encouraging. We’re blending our boundaries more with the improvements in South City and all the community around that work. South City and Downtown are going to be co-mingling, and I’m excited about that.
With the perspective of having grown up here and going away, how do you feel the sentiment toward Downtown has changed?
I think that we’re talking a lot about our issues now, whereas we did not before. People just ran away from them. I think that will only lead to positive things. There are a lot of people working to have conversations that will hopefully bring us together.
Where is the first place you take a visitor in Memphis?
Big River Crossing — I just think it’s a unique, beautiful view that most people never get to see.
How does your work with the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis intersect with your personal and professional goals?
I think it has given me a very good perspective for this job because I can think about how what we’re doing impacts people and how if our policy doesn’t include affordable housing then what that does to people, and Is the public space welcoming to all kinds of people? and Are we employing a diverse group of people and paying a living wage? and all these things. One hundred percent, it has informed and enabled me to do anything that I’ve done since I became involved. I’ve met great people, some really dedicated Memphians. People don’t really leave that board. The trustees’ group just gets bigger.
What is your best advice?
“This too shall pass,” which is what my mother always says when I’m freaking out about things. I tend to be a worrier, but I think keeping your eye on that is always important. You will get past it; it’s not forever.
What are three things you cannot live without?
Chocolate, sunshine and a sweatshirt, because I don’t like to be cold
Thank you so much, Jennifer, for your commitment to Memphis, and thank you to Laura Armstrong of NLA Projects for these beautiful photos.
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