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SMALL BUSINESS | At Issue

Chambers of Commerce See Benefit in Expanding Opportunities

August 25, 1999|VICKI TORRES

Although diversity and outreach are out of political favor, a few chambers of commerce are discovering that they pay off in member enthusiasm, corporate sponsorships, better business and community connections and even new members.

Take the Torrance Chamber of Commerce, which four years ago began to reach out to the community and to the international companies and their employees who were moving into the South Bay. Now cultural events geared to the Chinese, Japanese and African American communities have made the chamber something of a model for other chambers.

"Fourteen years ago when I came here, we were a very traditional chamber of commerce with a primarily Caucasian business community," said Barbara Glennie, the chamber's executive vice president. "But a core group initially saw the vision and it's been the best thing that's ever happened to our organization."

Similarly, the Mid-Valley Chamber of Commerce in Van Nuys has had good results with its 3-year-old Latino Consumer Expo. The Pasadena Chamber of Commerce also intends to expand its outreach and partnerships.

It's a tactic that involves a subtle shift in thinking for chambers, many of them established decades ago when Southern California was a monochromatic Midwestern mecca.

Hundreds of chambers exist in Southern California's thriving entrepreneurial environment, but many have not been able to grow with the region. Instead, their ranks are declining, their membership is aging, and their meetings bring in few owners from neighborhoods bursting with Latino, Asian and African American businesses.

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Sometimes it's not for want of trying.

Debra Sakacs, new executive director of the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley, spent three years as head of the Universal City North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and was frustrated in her efforts to recruit Latino, Russian and Asian business owners.

"We had outreach meetings. We did a variety of different things. We worked with the mayor's office. We brought in legislative aides. We brought in everything we knew to do, but for some reason it was very difficult," she said.

Sometimes the obstacle to participation is the very thing that chambers pride themselves on: their history. The Pasadena Chamber of Commerce executive board used to meet in a dark, wood-paneled room with walls hung with portraits of previous presidents--a gallery of white, middle-aged male faces in suits and ties.

But with a change in meeting locale, the atmosphere has become more open. "The environment you meet in can set the tone and feel of the gathering," said Gerda Govine, chamber president-elect and the owner of G. Govine Consulting.

Similarly, chambers that assume that "business is business" and don't understand that other groups may have different attitudes and business cultures will often find themselves stymied in their recruitment efforts. Nancy Hoffman, chief executive of the Mid-Valley chamber, once had a staff member who formerly worked in Alhambra, with its large Chinese business community. Although the woman was white, she succeeded in recruiting many Chinese business owners in Van Nuys because she understood how they did business, Hoffman said.

"Even in Oklahoma they do business differently than we do in L.A.," she said. "You have to represent and integrate those differences into the market plan and have people on the membership committee who truly understand."

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But even atmosphere and understanding aren't enough. There has to be a real business benefit for everyone. Although ethnic businesses typically are small or family-run operations whose members can't spare the time to attend chamber meetings, even the most time- and money-strapped business owners will make an effort if there's something in it for them.

"We assumed in everything we tried to do that we had to get Latino businesses involved in the chamber," Hoffman said. But when the chamber created a Latino Outreach Committee, she said, the emphasis shifted to business opportunity in the Latino market for everyone.

The result was the Latino Consumer Expo, which attracts 6,000 attendees to the Panorama City Mall and focuses on the Latino market. It brings in as exhibitors both Latino business owners and non-Latino business owners who want to target that market, but more important, it provides business opportunity and exposure for all participating companies, Hoffman said.

Similarly, Glennie said the Torrance chamber's efforts are not designed to bring in minority business owners but instead are focused on business opportunities and connections available by marketing to different communities. The yearly events include the Dragon Circle Chinese New Year's celebration in January, the Black History Celebration in February and the Japan Business Partnership Reception. The events have a public, cultural aspect, and there are also business-oriented receptions and gatherings involving leaders from the other communities.

"I have corporations that invest in our projects that aren't even members of our chamber, but their values in the corporation are aligned with ours," she said. In addition, the chamber has seen its membership attrition rate fall dramatically as companies stay on board longer.

"It's all about business opportunity," agreed Govine of the Pasadena chamber, who hopes next year to create similar bridges to the diverse business interests in the San Gabriel Valley. "If people feel they can benefit by collaborating or joining a group, then they will do so."

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Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at (213) 237-6553 or at vicki.torres@latimes

.com.

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