Chattanooga Chamber President & CEO Christy Gillenwater sat down with Trend to chat about her love for Chattanooga, what she’s excited about in her new role and her past accomplishments.
Trend: You’ve talked about how welcoming Chattanooga is. What else makes us special?
Gillenwater: When I presented the Chamber of the Year Award to Chattanooga, I felt so much energy, not only for the Chamber but also for the members and community. When I visited and I’d ask servers, hotel employees or people sitting by us at dinner, ‘Are you from here? What do you think of this community?’ — there was an outpouring of excitement and statements such as, ‘You need to move here and here’s why.’ That’s without saying what I was in town for or that I was even considering moving here. Each person with whom I spoke was very positive about Chattanooga and Hamilton County.
Residents raved about the community, the outdoor activities, culminating with pride over Outdoor Magazine’s rankings for Chattanooga. As a former sprint triathlete, that hit home, and with two young children, I wanted a rewarding, eclectic, vibrant place… and Chattanooga is the perfect fit for our active family.
Trend: What are you most excited about in your new role?
Gillenwater: Joining a dynamic Chamber team, one that just won Chamber of the Year and received 5-Star Accreditation, is fantastic. Building on Bill Kilbride’s tremendous work and being part of the numerous individuals and organizations who are involved in advancing our region, county and city.
When my family considered moving here, one of the things we were drawn to, beyond this amazing, award-winning chamber, was the Literally Perfect campaign. To me, the videos represent a community that has been focused on branding for a long time. I valued not only the message, but the craftiness, funkiness and inclusionary tone of it. I’ve watched those videos so many times, and being part of a community that so many are proud to say they’re from, it really drew me in.
I feel like I’ve heard different messages about Chattanooga, different taglines, if you will, which in a way is beautiful as each person puts their own authentic spin on what Chattanooga means to them. It’s important for community organizations to be on the same page, so I look forward to partnering with other organizations to ensure we are reflecting the evolving Chattanooga story. I’m intrigued by the opportunity to better understand our message here.
Trend: What efforts from your career make you proud?
Gillenwater: There are a number of highlights along my journey, but successful team (staff and volunteers) building has been exhilarating. I also enjoy coalition building to provide solutions for major opportunities and challenges. I’m passionate about workforce development or, as I like to refer to it, talent pipeline development. It’s integral, because nationally we’re facing an all-out challenge – not only in talent recruitment – but talent retention.
I was fortunate to be selected as a participant in ACCE’s (Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives) Education Attainment Division’s Fellowship this year, which is funded by a series of national foundations so all expenses associated with it are covered. We have access through this fellowship to national experts, not only in talent development initiatives and collective impact approaches to this work, but also to national funders.
My fellowship project had been about implementing a talent infusion coalition in Indiana, a collective impact approach for nine counties to implement talent development around the full education spectrum – early childhood to postsecondary, geared to specific industries based on data and projected job openings. For us, the industries were healthcare and manufacturing, which meant aligning our education system around pathways to skills in those industries.
Trend: What other initiatives are important to you?
Gillenwater: I was particularly involved in inclusion efforts around building the Latino Chamber Alliance to help not only Latino-owned enterprises prosper, but also Latino professionals feel assimilated into the community. We translated (into Spanish) a number of the Chamber’s small business services materials as well. Chambers serve as key connectors for inclusion activities.
I also worked closely with a small leadership team to assist people with disabilities by building a more inclusive place for all people of all abilities. Much of that rests in making sure HR departments are aware of the challenges facing our disability population, making sure there’s another door for someone who may not be able to fill out an application in the way I might. The disability population often has a high unemployment rate – in Evansville, it was 24 percent. So thinking through inclusionary roles is important. We learned first-hand about the fruits of such efforts by visiting a Walgreens distribution center in South Carolina.
From an economic development and sustainability standpoint, I serve on the Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy advisory board, a national group that shares information and supports chambers in clean energy initiatives and sustainable development. Continuing to grow jobs and create equity and opportunity for all our citizens is important, and we want to be at the cutting edge of technology and business development in our country.
I’m passionate about public policy work too and think it’s critical for chambers to be proactive, not only advocating for businesses and their members, but also for their community. I think we have a real opportunity to advocate more strongly for Chattanooga, Hamilton County and our region at the state level and I’m excited to explore how we can build relationships so that Chattanooga is seen as a great place to invest precious state dollars.
Trend: The majority of our members are small businesses. How is serving them important?
Gillenwater: Small businesses are the bread and butter of any community. So it’s imperative that we not only think about our larger members, but our smaller businesses who rely heavily upon us for guidance, for counsel, for making connections not only for their business but for them as individuals. Whether it’s growing their business, seeking advisors to help strengthen their business, finding business partners for them, or vendors, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we’re providing programming and services that are relevant to our small businesses.
Our large businesses care about the success of our small businesses. They also sometimes have additional resources to attribute to significant initiatives such as Chattanooga 2.0 or our economic development efforts. But our small businesses shouldn’t be overlooked because they absolutely understand the relevancy of bringing in new businesses and new talent, making sure young people have access to strong, solid education and opportunities to work for them some day.
I’m married to an entrepreneur and I’m the daughter of an entrepreneur, and I deeply value the importance of small business. My husband owns a couple of small businesses in real estate and the restaurant industry and so I understand that a sign ordinance, for example, can really impact how businesses attract customers.
I understand that dealing with family-owned elements of your business can be dynamic, whether you’re a fifth generation owned business or the first or a combination of a few families. We have firsthand experience in multiple variations of family-owned businesses.
I think it’s incumbent upon us to help businesses navigate uncharted waters and help make connections to people who have gone through something already. That’s what I love about the influence chambers can have — that ability to put two people in a room who can work together and help solve one another’s problems. Not only are we connectors, but we’re problem solvers and solution seekers.
Trend: How did you get into chamber work and what do you love about it?
Gillenwater: I was a senior in college, not sure what my next chapter would be, when my dad suggested I look into a career in the chamber of commerce and economic development world. At that time he was president of a company that was expanding into several states. As such, he had spent time with chamber and economic development leaders in various cities and felt I was made for this work.
I then had a nonprofit management course and as an assignment, we could either write a 20-page essay or intern and journal about the experience.
So I went to the Bloomington Chamber — I attended Indiana University — and asked if I could intern there for free and work on a special project. I worked for their president, and I actually served in that role myself later in my career. That’s why I always tell interns, ‘You never know…’
From that internship, I became enthralled with chamber work.
Trend: What’s your best career advice?
Gillenwater: Really understand who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are, then be authentic. Be authentically you, yet never afraid to grow and learn, and you will find the right fit.
I’ve also learned as much, if not more, from my mistakes than my wins, and that’s okay. I’m personally a risk taker, so if I fall down I learn the hard way. But I don’t have a problem saying ‘I learned my lesson and moving forward will think differently.’
Trend: Anything else you’d like to say to the community and our members?
Gillenwater: The Chattanooga Area Chamber has a 130 year history of being a key influencer in our community with numerous businesses investing in us. We’re thrilled to have dedicated members who understand the value of a chamber of commerce. We equally value our elected officials who believe in us, our other nonprofits and community organizations who partner with us, so that collectively, we continue to make Chattanooga, Hamilton County and our region the best they can be.