Amanda Blackwood is the first woman to serve full-time as CEO of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in its 124-year history — and she was also only 35 years old when she took the helm in May 2018. Comstock’s recently spoke with Blackwood about new strategies for the longstanding chamber.
One of your first goals as CEO was to conduct a SWOT analysis of the Chamber — what key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats did you identify through that process?
How a chamber is viewed has just changed over time. It was very true that when you were getting your business license, the next thing you did was join your chamber of commerce. That was your business organization to get you networked, to help you understand the region, to get the landscape. With all of the technology, the way people are connecting with LinkedIn and with Meetup and with social media, your ability to network has totally changed. So [a chamber] really has to position itself as providing value in a really unique and specific way to its business members.
“The challenge of having a lengthy tenure in the community is you’re trying to be all things to all people all the time, and you just can’t. You’re not going to be effective in 50 different things.”
We have this 124-year-old history. The challenge of having a lengthy tenure in the community is you’re trying to be all things to all people all the time, and you just can’t. You’re not going to be effective in 50 different things. We just completed [a strategic planning] process, which has culminated in our ‘4-Point Business Promise’ that focuses on four strategic areas of strong business, connected region, ready workforce and vibrant community. So it’s really being able to holistically look at those four things and say: Is our effort aligned with those four things so we’re not all things to all people? That lens has been able to give us the platform to align all of our programming, all of our effort, all of our staff focus, all of our external relationships to these four key points, and to create momentum and impact within those areas, and get out of a space of doing things just because you’ve done them or because somebody wants that or the chambers traditionally have done that. Hey, if we’re not at our highest and best in [a particular] space, we need to make room for someone else to take that work.
Your chamber has 1,400 members across the six-county Sacramento region. How does your organization meet the needs of all its members, while also maintaining its focus?
It’s challenging because it is broad — and we have 600 members in our Metro EDGE young professionals program. We have our ‘4-Point Business Promise’ that is our guiding post to align to. If one of our rural partners is having a challenge and one of our urban partners is having a challenge, might we be able to vet it through this framework to say: What universal metrics are we trying to move by tackling this? It’s not the one-off, industry-by-industry-specific challenge — it’s collectively, what can we do that’s going to move everybody? For instance, we’ve got rural partners [who want] to use technology in their fields. We’ve got our downtown folks that are having conversations about autonomous vehicles. We’re hearing both these things and at the core of that is: This is a 5G issue. You don’t have access to the infrastructure you need to be able to solve the problems within your field. So if we advocate for the infrastructure, it is just as beneficial to our urban partners as it is to our suburban partners as it is to our rural partners, and we can universally create impact.
What do you foresee as the main policy items on the agenda for the 49th annual Cap-to-Cap in May?
It all goes back to our ‘4-Point Business Promise.’ Our board spent thousands of volunteer hours over this last year, and staff, [to] distill down, distill down, distill down, what are those core issues? We came to our four-point business plan. Then at our board retreat, we did a future experiment, where we imagined five years, 10 years, 20 years from now, what might the business environment look like if we had environmental change? If how we do business changes? If everything is now online and there are no more storefronts? If your infrastructure changes? And we vetted our four-point focus, and found in that exercise these are just as relevant in 20 years as they are right now.
The specific ask [at Cap-to-Cap] will change year over year — because it will be topically relevant and budget relevant and timeline relevant — but at the core these are our four areas of focus …. If you really understand that vibrant communities are essential to us, that inclusive economic development is an essential focus for us, that being able to bring everybody up together is essential for us, then we can start to have a different relationship in D.C. that is not so transactional and is more of a proactive partnership. The same is true at the state level.
I understand as the new CEO you hit the ground running with the 2018 Cap-to-Cap. Tell me about that experience.
I had a humbling, life-changing conversation with Sen. Feinstein. We’re having this conversation [with her staff] and you look around the room and you’ve got 10 or 12 folks and three of us were women and the rest were the guys. Sen. Feinstein comes in about 15 minutes into the conversation and she told us a story about how when she was mayor of San Francisco she walked into this board room at Wells Fargo and she looked across the sea of people and it was like 50 men and her. She said, you mean to tell me there is not a woman in this company that could have added any value to this conversation? She said, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to come back in a week and I expect this room to look different. So she addressed to our group — maybe think about that and ensure that the voices at the table are representative. You have incredible women in leadership in your region and I expect to see them at this table.
And she turned to me and said, how do you see yourself? I’m trying to come up with something eloquent and she said, you need to understand that you are the first woman — particularly of your age — in this seat and there is a certain responsibility that comes with that and I want you to know if there’s anything I can do to support your success, let me know. It was a very specific moment I will always remember, and that [I have] a particular responsibility and it’s women like Sen. Feinstein in a position of authority that change the conversation. It was one of those beginning the position, meeting all these people, feeling very welcomed and encouraged, and then getting that specific moment of guidance that don’t you forget that you’ve been given a gift and you have a responsibility with that gift — I will never forget that. And then I went in the hallway, and was like, oh my gosh!
You’ve spoken about the need for increased diversity within the chamber — how do you propose the chamber creates a more inclusive environment?
We have to do that intentionally, that doesn’t happen by itself. Something I’m very excited and proud of is Nicole Howard, chief customer officer of SMUD, [is in] a new position on our executive committee that is vice chair of equity and inclusion. … As we create programming, [we have] to continue to bring the lens: Have we been inclusive in how we’re doing this? Does the room look representative, and if not, let’s address it. That in itself is going to help us never lose sight. So bringing in [Howard’s] expertise and leadership is a game changer. We also are very intentional in our staffing, and we’re making some new hires. So are the voices in the room internally bringing perspectives from all communities — from our nonprofits, from our large businesses, from our small businesses, from our rural, from our urban?
I’ve got a large board, which is great because I have a space to have diverse perspectives. But if we’re talking about the future of workforce, is the future of workforce in the conversation? Are they represented? If we’re talking about small business and innovation and supporting our startup entrepreneurial community, are they here? Because they need to be. If you get feedback that it’s just a big-business perspective, well, look at the table. Our large employers are essential to our region, but they’re not the only part of the conversation, so how are we actively elevating people into the roles so that we’ve got diverse perspectives weighing in on our policy perspectives, weighing in on what’s happening in the workforce, weighing in on what we’re feeling in our communities? I’m not saying we’ve solved all those problems. It’s going to be a culture change over time.
One of the big things the [Brookings Institute report in 2017] told us was our region is not particularly set up for resilience in the long term. One of the things you really need to look at is if you’re looking at macro-employment levels that’s great, but if you’ve got subsets of your community falling behind that’s not great. … My husband is born and raised in south Sacramento; he’s a middle school teacher in south Sacramento, he’s been there for almost 15 years, and it’s one of those temperature checks for me. It’s great that we have stuff going on downtown. It’s great that we have new restaurants. I’m going to brunch on Sunday, but his kids aren’t, and if they don’t feel any more excited about their future or feel any more woven into the fabric of the community then there’s something missing. If we have mistrust between certain communities and our folks in leadership, you’ve got to look at that. So we can’t just look at our economic indicators and say, oh well, unemployment is low and housing prices are going up and our equity is coming back, sure that’s a metric but it’s not the whole metric.
So to go back to our ‘4-Point Business Promise’ — you’ve got look at these metrics holistically. If we’ve got folks falling behind, while morally reprehensible there’s also an economic pitfall that comes for a section of your community not being able to live here, not being able to find work, being underemployed, and all of the mental health and trauma that comes along with not feeling fulfilled as a human being. All of that is part of the fabric of your economy and you have to look at that and really address it. There are specific things you can do from an economic standpoint to be more inclusive in your strategies. …
We very much believe that there are win-win outcomes that benefit the business community and that benefit the overall community to bring everyone along the way, so that can attract and retain talent. Talent comes from many neighborhoods and looks very different. If I’ve got kids that are my husband’s students with incredible potential that are not embraced in this community and don’t become the founder of their own small business or don’t see a place in the community for their success, the business community loses out on that talent and that’s not OK.
What workplace policies do you see as having the most value to women in the workforce, or what policies would you like to see evolve?
Something I philosophically believe as a manager of people — women or not — is that different people are at their best in different environments. If you want your organization to run at its highest and best, create the environment for your team to be at its highest and best. That may mean sometimes you work from home; that may mean you’re sitting at the coffee shop because you need the energy. The idea of a very traditional, you come in here at 8 o’clock and your butt better be in this seat and you stay here for eight hours, does not get you the best from people. Some people do their best work at 10 o’clock at night — that is fine. I don’t care where you are. I just want results. If you have enough self-awareness to know, hey, I’m a mom, I want to be able to engage with my kids in the morning. I want to be able to take them to school and then between 9 and 4, I am all yours, then I’m going to go pick them up, then I hop on my laptop at 8 o’clock after I put the kids to bed, great — because that’s real life. I would love to see employers embrace that philosophy more and it’s a particular interest to working mothers. To be able to create that balance is a beautiful thing, and I guarantee you, you will get more engagement and production from your staff if you do.
Hear more from Amanda Blackwood in this month’s article “The Voice of Capital Region Chambers Is Decidedly Female — Here’s What They Have to Say.”