Lester W. Brown III, 34, is one of the young, business- and civic-minded folks that ChamberRVA is trusting to help guide its future in a time of change.
“A couple of decades ago, we were the source for business networking in Richmond and the region,” Brown said about the chamber.
“And it was the same anywhere else in the country — you went to the chamber of commerce to learn how to connect to other businesses. Now, there’s a multitude of other resources out there. Everybody is looking for that way to try to differentiate themselves and what brings value for a person,” said Brown, who is chairman of a ChamberRVA initiative called HYPE, short for Helping Young Professionals Engage.
As ChamberRVA marks its 150th anniversary, the business group also is looking at how to maintain its relevance for the next decade — as well as for another 100 years.
Young professionals such as Brown and Austin Kitchen, 27, ChamberRVA’s manager of leadership and engagement, bring a future-focused vibe to the chamber.
For decades, chambers of commerce were the domain of older, wealthy business owners — community movers and shakers — who gathered in exclusive country clubs and on golf courses to made decisions and deals.
Chambers have evolved. The leadership is more diverse. Membership is more inclusive.
“What the chamber is going to look like in a couple of decades, I think it’s going to be driven by how we are able to find value for businesses in the community,” said Brown, who got involved in the local chamber through his job as a senior researcher at packaging giant WestRock Co.
“We’re taking steps on it right now.”
Those steps include a Future RVA capital campaign aimed at gaining community support around two major themes: advocacy, and workforce and talent development.
Chambers of commerce across the country are in the same boat — facing changing demographics, including more diverse communities made up of people who traditionally have not been part of the chamber and who question the value of a chamber membership, which can be pricey.
Annual memberships in ChamberRVA range from $480 for a “core” membership for a business to $16,500 for a “partner” membership that includes direct access to the movers and shakers in the region through exclusive networking opportunities.
ChamberRVA has about 825 member-companies. That’s down from a decade ago when membership was about 1,970.
Along with demographic changes, the nature of how and why people gather is shifting and that is affecting chambers, said Mick Fleming, president and CEO of the Alexandria-based Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, an organization representing 1,200 local, state and regional chambers of commerce.
Chambers have traditionally measured organizational success and relevance by the size of the crowds that show up for chamber events, what Fleming and others call the “butts in seats” yardstick.
“Just throwing networking parties and hoping that meaningful connection is formed is not enough” going forward, Fleming said. Chambers have to be more intentional and outcome-oriented.
“The chamber has to play the role of putting people together who need to be together and/or need to work on projects together or who can help each other business-wise. ... There is more intentional work related to gatherings. The line I use, is that I could see a meeting planner 10 years from now at a chamber, their biggest job will be to get the right five people in a room and let them figure out what to talk about, rather than run a ‘here’s how to be a good leader’ event,” Fleming said.
Fleming’s association two years ago released a report that looked at factors affecting chambers over the next decade. The factors include communications and technology developments, global activity and political and social fragmentation, among others.
Since the report was released, Fleming said another factor was added — limitations of government. It’s not alluding to any particular politician or specific jurisdiction, he said, but to all the inherent inefficiencies and inadequacies of government.
“There are structures, processes, traditions, gerrymandering, primary systems, permitting, home rule versus collective decision making, commonwealths versus states — there are just so many cumbersome things about government that are probably going to be an influence on chambers in the future,” Fleming said.
A piece of good news — young professionals still want to make the sort of connections that chambers have traditionally facilitated.
“Millennials have a lot of things going for them in terms of their ... value for chambers,” Fleming said. “They do get involved in causes. And they do like to associate. Those two things sound almost like the definition of chamber. The question is the how.”
HYPE and other ChamberRVA initiatives are aimed at the how of getting them engaged.
“Our mission is really to connect young professionals through networking, community engagement and professional development,” Kitchen said.
A current HYPE initiative called the RVA Neighborhood series is bringing members together to talk about area neighborhoods. The next series starts Thursday, and the topic is the Jackson Ward neighborhood. A previous session focused on the Fulton neighborhood.
“We are kicking off an innovation series in a few months that will focus on innovation in the workplace,” Kitchen said.
Other chamber programs aimed at getting young professionals involved include Mentor Richmond, RVA Leadership Lab and YRichmond.
As HYPE chairman, Brown automatically has a seat on the chamber’s executive committee. He also has been nominated for a regular seat on the board of directors, so when his term as HYPE chairman ends in a few weeks, he hopes to remain on the board as a regular member.
“The work we are doing now is going to really help cement the future of the chamber moving forward; 150 years is a milestone,” Brown said.