Chambers of commerce push goals of diverse communities

Friday, October 5, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 40
By Joe Morris

From large-scale operations that cover the entire country to bare-bones outfits in smaller communities, chambers of commerce are a longstanding and familiar part of the American business landscape.

As shameless community boosters, they tout an area’s many pluses to existing and potential corporate residents and perform as economic-development arms for local governments. And, increasingly, they are an indicator of how a region’s population is evolving.

At least that’s the case here. Middle Tennessee’s population is becoming much more diverse in terms of culture and ethnic origin, a fact reflected in the area’s growing roster of chambers, which now count organizations that cater to the Hispanic, Chinese, African-American and GLBT communities among their number.

For these smaller, niche groups, the goal is Chamber 101: bring together a like-minded group of business owners so they can network, share contacts and land new work.

The chamber staffs also work externally to raise the visibility of their members, something that often involves collaboration with other chambers. First and foremost, however, is building a strong membership base, something each organization says is necessary in a region where minority groups often are at a disadvantage.

“It’s important to have a GLBT chamber of commerce because it’s important for our community to have a business organization that shares its values,” says Lisa Howe, executive director of the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce.

“Our members want to grow their businesses, but they also care about inclusive workplaces and other issues that may not be as high on the list of another group. They know that we share the same values.”

That was the thinking behind the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has grown in both regional and national stature in the decade since its founding.

The organization most recently was named one of four pilot organizations for a new program being rolled out by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The program’s goal is to work with Hispanic business owners and entrepreneurs, as well as local lenders and business counseling agencies, to help grow the Hispanic business community and widen Hispanic participation in the SBA’s programs and services.

“The chamber was founded because the area was seeing a lot of Hispanic businesses open, but they didn’t have anyone who was focusing on their unique needs, and mentoring them,” says Yuri Cunza, president and CEO.

“We have created an organization where the members understand both the value of being a member in a chamber of commerce, and one that can also serve as a bridge to larger groups, such as the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, as these businesses grow and succeed.”

That model, where the smaller chamber serves as an incubator and then bridge to a larger, more diverse body, is one most minority chambers follow. The goal is to grow the membership and, as those companies integrate into the larger business community, keep them involved so they in turn can mentor start-ups and entrepreneurs, says Carolyn Wallace, interim president of the Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce.

“The chamber appealed to me because it provided more intimate networking opportunities,” says Wallace, who is a Realtor. “It gave me an opportunity to get involved with, and work with, minority companies in order to make them better relative to doing business in Nashville.

“But we also have many members who are members of the larger Nashville chamber, and so we work to form a stronger alliance with that body. In our outreach to them we can be an advocate for the smaller businesses in our chamber, and also educate the larger community about who our businesses are.”

The track is simple, she says.

“We have people who are just looking for the opportunity to do business. We work with them; help them learn how to put that business together. Then we prepare them to do business within our community, and then within the larger community throughout Middle Tennessee,” Wallace says. “We serve as both an incubator and a bridge.”

From the other side, the growth of minority chambers presents an opportunity for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to further its reach, says Michelle Lacewell, director of public relations and marketing.

“The role of the Nashville Area Chamber is regional in scope, and our efforts are focused on education, legislative advocacy, regional economic development and supporting the needs of our growing business community,” Lacewell says.

“As membership organizations each chamber offers a different set of values to the business communities they serve and we have a strong working relationship with the nearly 30 suburban chambers in the region and our work complements the work they do.”

All chambers in Middle Tennessee, regardless of size, preach the value of collaboration. That comes in many forms, from business expos that capitalize on economies of scale to times when they speak with one voice regarding legislative or other issues that affect the overall business community.

“Our organization works to support relocation and expansion in Middle Tennessee,” Lacewell says. “The resources we provide, whether it be people, research, relationships or industry expertise, are in harmony with the efforts of those in the surrounding organizations.

“No one group can accomplish these goals alone and we have developed strong partnerships to bring prosperity to our region.”

Those projects reflect his chamber’s core mission, which is to connect people, Cunza adds.

“It is very important to be on top of what is going on in our city,” he says. “We cannot just cultivate relationships with our members, but we must also do that with the mainstream business community.

“Our hope is that by doing that, we turn our small businesses into medium and large-sized businesses, and that in turn benefits the entire area. Growth is everybody’s business.”

“I want to take care of our chamber first, make sure that we are growing,” Howe adds. “In the long run, the more members you have, the better. That makes you a better partner for collaboration, and that’s how we grow both our organization and the larger business community that we are a part of.”