Connecting the Community

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While Chambers of Commerce have been part of the fabric of business communities around the United States for over two centuries, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce is a fairly new entity, having been founded in 2004. Perhaps this is why it exhibits such a high level of innovation, creativity and flexibility.

Now the Chamber is even more freshly invigorated, having brought on a new leadership team at the beginning of this year. Leading that team is President and CEO Sandra Lindquist, who took over from her longtime predecessor Ben Johnson on January 1. Her elevation triggered several other promotions from within the organization, as well as some key outside hires.

Lindquist has been with the Chamber since February 2011, serving previously as Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer. While her responsibilities in that position were more internally focused – including managing personnel, finances and the office – like all Chamber staff she was outward-facing as well.

“We’re all out in the community, working with members and the public,” said Lindquist. “We’re always engaging people, looking for opportunities to collaborate.”

The demographics of business in New Orleans show a preponderance of smaller enterprises, and the Chamber membership reflects that. Of its approximately 1200 members, 92% are small businesses. However, a lot of key support for the organization comes from the Chamber’s Chairman’s Council, which Lindquist described as “the big guys.  I tell them they are supporting the backbone of our community, the smaller businesses.”

She also points out that the larger corporations rely on these smaller businesses for everything from office supplies to party catering, so it is in the big firms’ interest to help the Chamber provide programs and services for them.

With this type of focus, Lindquist is particularly excited that the Chamber is finally returning to in-person events. “A lot people are ready to start coming out and meeting face to face,” she observed. “People need that one-on-one engagement.”

The organization’s popular networking events include The Chamber After 5, where business owners mingle over food and beverages. To ensure that useful connections are made, Chamber staff is very proactive about asking members who they would specifically like to meet, working the room constantly to facilitate introductions.

Quarterly luncheons are another mainstay; the first quarter event will feature the city’s two Councilmembers-at-Large. “It’s important for the Chamber and its members to have relationships with the City Council and the Mayor’s Office,” said Lindquist.

Another event returning to the calendar this year is the Women’s Leadership Conference. First held in 2019, it was a major success, with some 500 attendees. The pandemic forced the 2020 version to go virtual, and while it was productive, losing the in-person conversation opportunities led the organization to cancel the 2021 event.

Now it is back in full force, taking place March 18 and with another 500 registrants already. “This is a regional collaboration,” explained Lindquist. “We partner with sixteen other women’s organizations from around the region, and each organization puts on one of the break-out sessions.

“We focus on topics that are really relevant for women,” she continued, “like how women handle conflict differently from men, women negotiate differently from men. These are things we need to discuss and understand.”

Additional aspects include keynote speakers and, of course, networking. While the first Conference was for women only, an example of the Chamber’s adaptability and innovation is that they realized that men needed to be there as well, to learn about these same topics.

The Chamber serves a resource in other ways, for both its members and the community as a whole. “During COVID, that’s where we really excelled,” recalled Lindquist. “We had a webinar almost every week, starting with how to use Zoom.”

This educational series continues regularly; a more recent example was after Hurricane Ida, when FEMA representatives informed business owners how to access resources for coping with losses from the storm.

In addition, the Chamber website is full of useful information for business owners and managers, and the organization produces an annual registry of local companies and nonprofits.

Connecting businesspeople with information is important, but connecting them with each other remains the core goal. “This is New Orleans,” said Lindquist. “We’re all about relationships and connections. You wind up doing business with people you’ve met.”



Categories: Neighborhood Biz