At 28, Joda Thongnopnua has already spent more than a decade working at startup businesses and analyzing local and public policy issues at a variety of think tanks and nonprofits.
The East Ridge native helped launch Metro Ideas Project, a nonpartisan public policy research organization helping to identify pressing issues facing American cities, and previously headed strategic initiatives at the Community Foundation. In that latter role, Thongnopnua met Tim Kelly when the future mayor served as Community Foundation chairman.
Thongnopnua said he was immediately impressed with Kelly and jumped at the chance to work for him after he was elected mayor in April.
"For all of our problems, Chattanooga is deeply optimistic about its capacity and potential for making things better, so it's a great town to live in and help work to make better," Thongnopnua says.
As senior policy advisor and interim chief of staff for the mayor, Thongnopnua is able to implement changes he has long advocated for in his previous jobs, which have ranged from a news reporter to a communications and public policy specialist.
"It's really fun to have the levers of change closer, but you have to also recognize that you don't get to spend as much time getting comfortable with each problem or getting as comfortable with the solution because you don't have that luxury of time, in many instances," he says.
But he still brings his passion for researching problems and trying to find better and fairer ways of doing things.
"America is a place for opportunity, but those opportunities seem to be unevenly distributed," he says. "What animates me and drives me to go to work every day is to know that we can work every day to slowly tilt those scales back in the direction of working families."
* Position: Chief policy officer and interim chief of staff to Mayor Tim Kelly
* Age: 28
* Education: Graduate of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and economics
* Career: Served as director of strategic initiatives and communications for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the executive director of the Metro Ideas Project, communications director at the Lamp Post Group, and one of the founders of @BreakingNews, a Twitter account and news organization that was acquired by MSNBC in 2010.
* Community roles: Recognized in Chatter Magazine’s 20 Under 40 list and is a graduate of Protégé Chattanooga and Leadership Tennessee Next. He serves on the board of the Tennessee Immigrants & Refugee Rights Coalition.
Thongnopnua's father emigrated from Thailand when he was 9 years old, and his mother's family came from Italy. His grandfather is a Southern Baptist preacher at Kingwood Baptist Church.
He graduated from Chattanooga Middle College. While in high school, Thongnopnua admits he didn't always go to class when he was working on a startup with a couple of his online friends known as Breaking News, a Twitter account that was ultimately sold to MSNBC after reaching 1.5 million followers.
Thongnopnua worked for the Lamp Post Group while attending UTC where he earned a bachelor's degree in public policy and economics in 2014. He worked with Tiffanie Robinson on Wayfavor, trying to recruit talent to Chattanooga, and then served as communications director at Lamp Post before starting Metro Ideas.