Everything You Wanted to Know About Your Chamber (and some things you didn’t)

Amanda Ellis

When you think ‘Chamber of Commerce,’ maybe you think about meetings complete with handshakes and fueled by coffee. But wait, we’re so much more. While our Chattanooga Chamber celebrates its 130th birthday this year, we’re not celebrating our past – we’re far too focused on celebrating our future.

What exactly is a Chamber of Commerce? It is a business membership organization often combined with economic development efforts, convention and tourism services and additional initiatives, depending on the unique needs of a particular business community.

In Chattanooga and Hamilton County that means we champion our member businesses and promote economic growth every day. We focus our efforts on attracting new businesses while helping existing businesses expand. We strive to build a strong, ready workforce – which requires efforts to assist in building better schools. We dedicate our work to delivering value to our Chamber members.

Here, you’ll learn about our key staff and our plans to stay future-focused for a few more centuries. This involves more than handshakes and coffee, but don’t worry – we still like those things.

Bill Kilbride, Chamber President and CEO, on the Workforce of the Future

Trend: How does our work as a Chamber change lives?
Because business drives the economy, when we support existing businesses and those who want to grow and locate here, we strengthen the economic base of our community, changing lives through jobs.

We champion our member businesses in many ways, but a major effort to that end right now is connecting the pathway between education and our local workforce needs. If we can help our young people focus on preparing for specific career and educational paths so they can pursue these opportunities – that is a huge win, and we haven’t had quite that laser focus in the past.

Within the context of the years I’ve been here, Chattanooga 2.0 is in part a product of the business reality of how important it is to train our future workforce for future jobs.

That takes time, but has an incredible ability to change the lives not just of young people but people of all ages.

Did you know? The Chamber helped establish the Chattanooga 2.0 education and workforce initiative focusing on the cradle to career continuum. Learn more at!

Trend: What surprised you the most in your Chamber role?
Kilbride: The broad, community-wide need for a trained workforce surprised me even though I was a large employer in my former life.  This is a challenge in communities across the nation right now and Tennessee’s workforce needs have grown quickly and with new and different needs. 

I didn’t realize from the supply side of labor that workforce and schools weren’t a focus for so many of our great companies. Healthcare, automotive, financial services and other industries – we weren’t connecting the jobs with people who live here and the skills they need for those jobs.

Trend: If you knew then what you know now, would you take this job and why?
Kilbride: Oh sure. My family and I have lived here more than 25 years. I thoroughly enjoyed what I did in the business world, and I’m grateful to have this opportunity here working with our local businesses.

I hope I’m giving something back to the community that’s been good to me and my family for almost three decades.

I also feel obligated to the emerging workforce to present opportunity – no matter if they’re coming out of high school, community college or have a 4-year degree. 

The Chamber is playing a large role in that equation, and that’s something that gets you into work every single day to see what you can solve today that had you pondering a solution yesterday.

Did you know? Chamber job fairs connected more than 1,000 job seekers with 75 employers last year.

Trend: What do you love about Chattanooga?
Kilbride: The Chattanooga Way – everybody, regardless of what they do, where they’re from, what their employment is, what their personal interests are – pitching in to solve a problem and get something done.

I’ve lived in 5 different states, and cities like New York and Chicago, and places smaller than those — and I haven’t found this collaboration anywhere else. I think if you’ve been here your whole life you may not recognize how important that is and how much that’s contributed to who and what we are.

Whether it’s nonprofits, faith-based organizations, our businesses and community members — there are an infinite number of pathways that make it rewarding to be part of this community.

Trend: Do you see that as Chattanooga’s secret to success?
Kilbride: Well, you have to convene everyone who wants to have input or be part of a solution to a problem or opportunity. The Chattanooga Way has shifted in that way. It used to be a handful of people with huge influence coming together, and it’s grown to include anyone who personally wants to be part of our progress – even if they’ve only lived here a year or so, but they like what they’re seeing and want to be part of it.

The Chamber convenes people. When we say, “Let’s get together and talk about this,” people show up. We encourage that, and we need to engage young people especially so the Chattanooga Way will still be around for years to come.

This is what we do – we roll up our sleeves, whether it’s a social issue, an economic issue, a how we live issue, and we encourage everyone to be part of solving it.

Did you know? The Chamber presents work readiness programs to nearly 15,000 students a year in our public schools. These sessions cover everything from interviewing skills, resume building and postsecondary education options to budgeting.

Trend: 90% of our Chamber members are small businesses – what are the challenges of serving both these and our larger members?
Kilbride: For small businesses, we want to be supportive in every way – generally through one-on-one relationships and our 12 Chamber Councils, we inform them about what’s happening in our business community and make them aware of the value we’re here to deliver.

If you’re a small business, to leave your business for even a two-hour event is a huge commitment – when you’re away from your job, emails and tasks are stacking up, and we understand that.

In our Chamber value model, we strive to make it as easy as possible for small businesses to see what we’re doing and engage in the business community with us and through us.

Did you know? Programming from the Chamber’s 12 area Councils drew more than 5,235 people last year.

Trend: What makes our Chamber special?
Kilbride: We operate as a very open organization and spend a lot of time making sure we understand what’s important to our business community.

It’s all about convening, and making sure our staff is accessible. Our desks are often empty because we’re out in the community.

Our work is to represent the agenda of our members. If you think about all the employees of our nearly 2,000 Chamber member businesses, we touch more than 80,000 individuals.

It’s important to listen to what they have to say, get them involved, be an organization of service – that’s who we are.

Trend: After 130 years of success as a Chamber, what’s your vision going forward?
Kilbride: It’s all about change, and preparing and placing yourself where you think things are going.

The world changes every single day and we have to do that as well. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. That attitude is how you continue to grow for 130 years.

I see great opportunities ahead – the challenge is making sure we’re as nimble as we can be so as things change, and change faster, we’re positioned to take advantage of these new opportunities.

Trend: What is your favorite movie?
: I love “The Notebook” — the acting and the story. The best thing about On Demand is that I can watch “Ben-Hur” over and over again. I also enjoy any of the “Jason Bourne” movies. So you’ve got a romance, a spy vs. spy, “Ben Hur” is some history — that’s a pretty broad answer.

Trend: What are you reading right now?
Thomas Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations.” We like knowing everything that’s going on around us, but we’re getting to a point where that’s impossible. This book addresses that and the fact that it’s okay to slow down and “be late” by pausing to reflect. 

Trend: Three dinner party guests dead or alive – who are they?
Thomas Friedman for his fascinating global perspective. Warren Buffett — I appreciate his views after my years on Wall Street. Eleanor Roosevelt. A radical in her time, certainly for women’s issues and social issues.

I don’t know that the three of them at dinner would have much to say to each other – but I’d enjoy talking to each of them.

Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates are others. So now my dinner table is up to 5; we’re getting full.

The Chamber’s staff of 37 drives a range of initiatives from workforce development and education efforts, to all kinds of events, to promoting our region at the national level. These efforts are led by:

Sandra Brewer, Vice President of Member-Investor Services

David Steele, Vice President of Policy and Education

Sybil Topel, Vice President of Marketing and Communications

Maria Noel, Director of Diversity and Inclusion

Charles Wood, Vice President of Economic Development

Cheryl Millsaps, Vice President of Finance and Administration

Here, they let you in about the impact their teams make in our community and what it’s like to work at the Chamber (spoiler alert: rewarding, fun, really busy).

Getting Started

Brewer: I was a Chamber volunteer for 12 years prior to coming on board as a staff member. During that time I used the Chamber to connect to the community, grow my business and develop leadership skills. I wanted to help others understand how they could benefit through the Chamber. I have to say, my husband wasn’t thrilled that I was leaving our family business, but he knows I’m passionate about this, so he decided it was best to support me.

Topel: My family enjoys the arts, music, theatre, hiking – and of course great food. Chattanooga’s got all of these and more. After living in Nashville and Atlanta, we considered a number of places – including places with mountains, like Denver, and places with beaches, like the Florida panhandle.

Ultimately, we found Chattanooga the perfect fit – mountains, nearby lakes and a river.

I like working alongside smart, strategic people who care about our region’s future. Oh – and my commute went from 45 minutes to 10 minutes – that sealed the deal. I’d rather hike or bike than spend my time in a car.

Noel: Basically to work my way out of a job (is my boss reading this?) What I mean by that is — embracing diverse businesses should be a natural progression and something we instinctively do. I’m a native of Chattanooga and I hope one day there will hopefully be no need for a diversity and inclusion department.  

Millsaps: I sometimes refer to myself as a reformed accountant. Years ago a very caring HR manager asked me how I could possibly be happy handling corporate taxation and financial analysis when it was obvious I have a love for working with people.  When I described all the volunteer activities that allowed me to satisfy that aspect of my personality, she asked, “You realize you could get paid for doing all of that, right?” A new career in human resources was born of that suggestion. 

At the Chamber my work in the finance area reassures our members, investors and partners that we are well-managed, operate with the highest level of integrity and are true to our mission and our word. Here I get to work with people in addition to numbers, and I’ve enjoyed having strategic input into initiatives such as the Principal Leadership Academy and Thrive 2055, efforts that impact our children and our future. 

We’re People-People

Steele: I love the variety of people I get to work with — from colleagues to Chamber members to educators and policymakers. People make it worthwhile.

Wood: While I am the official salesperson for Chattanooga, I have a chorus of people who are passionate about our community and tell Chattanooga’s story wherever they go. In economic development, nothing is more powerful than having business and community leaders focused on community building.

Topel: Working with creative people – volunteers and staff members – especially our marketing communications team of five. Several of us dedicate our spare time to creative endeavors – dance, design, music, photography and writing. I’ll let readers guess who does what. (Hint – I am not the dancing one.)

Our creative explorations often lead to innovative marketing campaigns for the Chamber. 

Did you know? You can see all those creative endeavors combine via our award-winning Literally Perfect video series.

Noel: Since I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to meet businesses I didn’t know existed. I’ve met so many outstanding small business owners, and I get excited to make sure others know about those businesses and how much they contribute to our local economy.

Making a Difference

Wood: When we focus on economic development, we focus on companies that bring new money into the economy rather than just selling to customers inside the community. Each new salary can pay for building a house, buying a car, paying for medical expenses. When you see houses under construction or a hospital expanding, it’s because companies like Astec, MediTract and West Star Aviation choose to grow and hire people in our region.  

Did you know? In 2016-17, the Chamber worked with investors from the business community as well as city, county and state governments to bring more than 1,200 jobs and $241 million in capital investment to our region.

Topel: Our marketing communications campaigns include targeted outreach to business journalists. We expand the reach of Chattanooga businesses by reaching worldwide readers of the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and New York Times, to name a few – as well as listeners of the BBC and Bloomberg Radio.

With no national news wire service bureau here, it’s a challenge. Chattanooga and Hamilton County rely on news bureaus in other parts of the state to report our economic development news. This is stunning when you realize that more than 1 million people live in our 16-county region.

The work we do to increase our name and brand recognition goes a long way when our economic development teams recruit new business – those business leaders have to hear about us and visit to consider relocating here. Telling the Chattanooga success story also means working with businesses to increase their own worldwide reach.

Did you know? As a Chamber member, you can request our news media contact list for your own media outreach.

Noel: When I first came to the Chamber a few years ago, I sensed a trust issue between the Chamber and the diverse community. But that perception has really shifted, and people notice that the Chamber does what it says and is open to all. My program is a connection for diverse businesses, and we’ve seen many partner together to grow, increase revenue and even create jobs. We call our annual event Diversify because these businesses are diversifying the ways they do business and their portfolios as we build a business community that includes everyone.

What We’re Up To

Brewer: We offer more than 200 events a year, but our Small Business Awards Luncheon and EXPO Chattanooga events coming up March 29 are our largest.  

Wood: We have two major efforts underway: the Greater Chattanooga Economic Partnership, our regional marketing effort, and a new effort focused on helping second-stage, fast-growing companies attract high-skill talent by showcasing our great employment opportunities alongside our area’s vibrant outdoor culture.

Learn more about the Greater Chattanooga Economic Partnership at

Topel: We launched two new websites last year, so now we’re focused on:

  • measuring the reach of those sites
  • producing a new economic development video
  • improving our member smartphone app
  • advancing the missions of the Chamber Foundation through strategic marketing campaigns for Chamber programs – from Leadership Chattanooga to workforce development

We also promote more of our members in more places than ever – thanks to a huge uptick in social media engagement. We reach nearly 5,000 Twitter followers – up significantly from 800 in 2014.

Less than 15 months ago we launched – this responsive website has attracted more than 37,000 page views – great marketing for our member businesses. Most importantly, stats show people are staying longer on our sites – higher than the national average.

We take a thoughtful approach to ensuring our communications are both diverse and inclusive.

Did you know? Nearly half of our 2016 Business Trend articles (find them at featured or quoted women- and minority-owned diverse businesses.

Steele: The team I work with is heavily involved in government relations, education and workforce development and leadership programs.

Noel: I’m working to initiate a process or program that changes how, for instance, construction managers at corporations do business with small and diverse firms. I’ve been able to connect many of these businesses with purchasing officials, the gatekeepers. So we’re trying to implement a system to help these small firms become sustainable through new business, identify those that have potential to be multimillion dollar firms and help those that already are at that level to grow even more.

Millsaps: Our information systems are our lifeblood. Without membership rolls, accounting systems, websites and all the data we use to make decisions, we would be non-functional. Technology is changing so quickly that hardware and software become obsolete in record time and our storage demands increase exponentially as more records are kept digitally. We’re ramping up for a major network upgrade that will prepare us for the next 5 years. 

Changing Lives

Wood: During the recession, I watched someone I know lose their job. Unable to provide for their family, their mental state diminished and they fell into a state of depression. They have since taken a job at a company that the Chamber helped recruit to our area. This job saved the family from home foreclosure and helped revive a marriage that had been under significant stress.

At the end of the day, economic development comes down to growing jobs, and nothing can change a person’s outlook on life more than having a good job

Brewer: Almost every day I hear someone talk about making a connection through a Chamber function. All things being equal, people do business with those they know, like and trust.  

Recently a member hosted an After Hours networking event at their new office building. With more than 120 attendees, she rented out her entire building through connections she made that evening. 

At a recent dinner I attended, three of six couples met their spouse through a Chamber function (maybe we should add this as a member benefit).

We champion our member businesses and promote economic growth.

Find out more about your Chamber at, and follow us on social media.

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