In 2005, Matt Curtis attended his first Austin Under 40 Awards ceremony as a nominee.
He thought that the hosts for AU40 — as it is cleverly called — immediately got down to the business of telling the audience about the charitable initiatives of the Young Men’s Business League and the Young Women’s Alliance, the two groups that bestow their laurels on relatively young achievers.
“Once the audience was quickly educated, the event pivoted to celebrating the finalists and the winners of each category,” recalls Curtis, once the spokesman for Mayors Will Wynn and Lee Leffingwell and now senior director of government relations for HomeAway, the online vacation rental service. “I walked away calling it the best event of the year. The education was quick and effective, the celebration of the honorees was eye-opening and thought-provoking, and the whole thing was just fun.”
AU40 returns Saturday to the JW Marriott Hotel to raise money for the Austin Sunshine Camps and the YWA Foundation.
Five finalists compete in each of 16 categories as varied as culinary arts, nonprofit services, social innovation and financial services.
The complete list of winners since 1998, when AU40 was created, is astounding. Many, like Curtis, who took home an award in 2011, went on to greater glories and sometimes complicated after-stories.
The 1998 list included Michael Dell, Lance Armstrong, Paul Carrozza, Richard Garriott, Mike Judge, MariBen Ramsey, Eugene Sepulveda and Rick Treviño. Two years later, future Mayor Wynn nabbed the first Austinite of the Year honor.
Curtis considers Carrozza and Wynn life role models.
“Mayor Wynn helped me — and many people in the city — understand that we had to think differently as we grew, or we would become an unsustainable city,” Curtis says. “He was a dedicated public servant and a very deliberate man who would do what he said and say what he meant. Now, Carrozza helped me understand that to be successfully healthy, you must share that healthy mindset with others.”
At the AU40 ceremony back in 2005, Curtis learned for the first time about many other local achievers and givers.
“As a civically engaged Austinite, I thought I already knew it all,” Curtis remembers. “I quickly learned I didn’t. There were finalists and winners from categories who had excelled in creating community-changing initiatives. There were winners from categories who had worked on issues that, while important to many people, weren’t on my radar. I learned about the needs of people both old and young in every corner of the city.”
That year, Curtis was nominated by someone he didn’t know, which is not unusual.
“Anyone can nominate someone who they believe is deserving of the recognition,” he says. “Once nominated, the process gets pretty grueling; there are a battery of judges from the community who review the applications and reference letters in an attempt to spotlight finalists who have excelled in their professional life as well as through community work.”
In 2011, Curtis followed in his mentor’s path by walking away with Austinite of the Year. After that, he strove to bring more young Austinites under the AU40 tent, and he urged past finalists and winners to stay involved. For two years after his honor, he hosted the awards along with KEYE news anchor Katie Stolp.
“Together, we worked to make the event a fun and memorable night,” he says. “We always wanted the night to focus on the finalists and winners, but we thought there should be a lot of memorable fun in between. It was goofy at times, including a few film parody videos, but we hoped to make the event as funny as it was serious.”
What does he tell young people these days about engaging in the AU40 process?
“Being involved is the greatest way for a young person to advance their relationship with the community,” Curtis says. “Nominees and finalists get to meet Austin’s best and brightest. Everyone is able to learn from the most interesting people in the community who are excelling in their profession and setting new standards for community volunteerism.”
There is no formal connection between AU40 and Leadership Austin, the group that helps train and educate the area’s emerging leaders. Yet some of the names that come up at Leadership Austin’s Best Party Ever — the next one is June 2 at Brazos Hall and honors Cookie Ruiz, Ron Kessler and Lydia Clay — are, not surprisingly, associated with AU40.
“What’s fascinating, however, is that a vast majority of the AU40 folks are not the product of other programs,” Curtis says. “It proves that Austin is generating leaders organically as well as through our successful leadership programs.”
Is there a complementary “Austin Over 40” group? Should there be?
“I’m still trying to hide this fact, but I’m now over 40,” Curtis says with a laugh. “Austin has a lot of groups that honor professional and community volunteer achievement, but nothing that is dedicated specifically to an over-40 crowd. If there was an AO40, I would get involved with it — when I finally admit to being over 40.”