Compared to her counterparts Mesa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Sally Harrison is willing to admit she’s the new kid on the block.
Well, she’s kind of new-ish, to be fair — she landed the full-time leadership role in February after spending the months prior serving in an interim position — and is learning the nuances of the role.
One thing she has going for her as she learns more and more about the position and what it entails is the ability to depend on her neighboring chamber presidents.
What makes the East Valley’s crop of business leaders particularly notable for Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Mesa — not to mention nearby Ahwatukee Foothills — is that, in a business traditionally skewed toward the masculine, all are headed by female leaders.
“We work closely, we really do. We have a great synergy,” said Chandler CEO Terri Kimble.
Gilbert Chamber president Kathy Tilque said the relationship among the women — including Harrison, Kimble, herself and Tempe CEO Mary Ann Miller — has a spirit of mentorship to it, due in part to the “girl-to-girl” friendship that continues to develop as the four become accustomed to one another. The person who receives much of the mentoring is Harrison, who admits she’s picked up a lot from spending time with her counterparts, particularly Tilque and Miller. “For me, I learn from the others,” Harrison said. “I feel like the newbie in the room.”
It makes sense given the tenure the two have — Miller has been in charge of the Tempe chamber since 1999, while Tilque has served in her position since 1996. Kimble leans closer to Harrison, having served as the Chandler CEO for two years after serving the same length in the same position in the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce (now headed by another woman, Anne Gill).
But the relationship isn’t a one-sided mentorship; rather, Tilque said the four chamber leaders all provide different areas of expertise within the chamber world — from public policy to growing membership — they pull from.
“Together, I think we can help each other grow,” Tilque said.
Kimble added the four will pool together to get lobbyists to advocate for the common interests — as she put it, “when one chamber is strong, that helps build business everywhere in Arizona.”
Adding to the camaraderie the group shares is just the nature of the job, as Tilque said there aren’t a lot of professions that are comparable to being the head of a chamber.
“Being a chamber CEO is not like any other career,” she said. “Any time you can get together and share the experience, because there’s no career like it, that’s helpful.”
Having women in leadership positions in chambers across the country has become more common than in years past, but the chamber world has, historically, been the province of men.
Miller saw that first hand when she first started with her chamber, when she said women were expected to take on “more male attributes” in order to succeed. In other words, she said they were supposed to adopt cutthroat personas and avoid letting their emotions or feelings block the march toward the bottom line.
Harrison’s experience was almost the exact opposite of that, as she said the vibes for meetings had men doing all the talking and women following the motto “seen and not heard.”
“When I started, I felt like it was almost a good ol’ boys network … the board had a lot more men, and everyone were friends, and that’s good,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s that good ol’ boys club … it has a more professional feeling because it’s not that good ol’ boys club.”
The problem hasn’t fully gone away — Harrison said she’ll still attend meetings where she’s the sole woman in the room — but she said things have gotten better in recent years. Miller added some of the stereotypes that have existed about women in business over the years have started to fade, but they are prevalent — although not across the board — in certain industries like construction.
On the other hand, Tilque said the fact that she’s a woman is immaterial to her duties as a chamber head, while Kimble said it really isn’t that big of an issue for her either.
“I don’t see it as a male/female issue, I see it as a business-leader issue,” Kimble said.
Regardless of the individual circumstances, the roles Harrison, Kimble, Miller, Tilque and Gill play in their respective organizations are indicative of a larger trend in which women are taking more leadership positions in chambers across the country.
Miller compared the rise in female chamber leaders to the notion that nonprofit organizations have historically been run by women. And in the chamber realm, women have long held leadership roles in the smaller, non-metropolitan areas, with Tilque adding those smaller chambers often pay less than comparable jobs. That’s actually one of the main reasons she became president of the Gilbert Chamber — the town’s economic boom started shortly after she took over, and she said she would have been far less likely to ascend to the position had it been anywhere near the size it is now.
A final major proponent of the move toward female-led chambers is a reflection of society itself, as the view of women’s role in business has changed in the last few decades. Miller said she thinks Arizona has been ahead of the curve a bit when it comes to embracing the trend, which she said is rooted in the state’s relative newness and inability to develop overly-dominant networks of men.
Attaining a leadership position in business isn’t as daunting as it used to be for women, although Miller said one of the main movements that presented many of the opportunities seen today is neglected or outright shunned by some in the modern generation.
“I’m a feminist from way back, and I’m of an age — I’m 55 years old — when I hear younger women talk about ‘well, I’m not a feminist,’ it’s troubling (in how they say it),” Miller said. “ … To me being a feminist means a woman can do what she wants, what she thinks is best for her situation.’
“If she wants to run a company, great, if she wants to stay at home with her kids, that’s great.”
• Brett Fera contributed to this report.
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