MISSION: COMMERCE: Voices for diversity: Niche chambers foster regional collaboration

October 26. 2012 3:00AM

Jason Scott

Niche implies different.

Central Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce held a mixer Oct. 11 at Hershey Lodge. Hershey Entertainment and Resorts hosted the event on National Coming Out Day. Photo submitted/Posh Studio

But for the small regional chambers that primarily advocate for minority-owned business development and growth, the missions are fairly identical to the larger and more traditional chambers of commerce.

These chambers exist not because there were no other opportunities within existing organizations for these business owners to network but rather to give them another channel to promote diversity.

For the Central Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the mission has been building business and creating community, said Debra McClain, who assumed the duties of president and CEO this year.

"I believe collaborating with one another helps us leverage success for sustainability," she said.

Founded in 2007, the regional affiliate of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce boasts a growing membership of about 180. It does a lot of outreach with other chambers across Central Pennsylvania to support lesbian-, gay-, bisexual- and transgender-owned and allied businesses within those communities.

"We can be the expert for the LGBT community for the other chambers," McClain said, citing requests to work with human resources professionals on more-inclusive work environments. "We want to be the voice for diversity to the other chambers."

The special-interest chamber was formerly known as the Business Association for Gays and Lesbians, a social networking group of Harrisburg's LGBT professionals.

With no paid staff, the chamber relies on its volunteer board members to coordinate events across its wide footprint. Its core service is a monthly mixer that gives member businesses the opportunity to showcase their facilities and respective offerings.

To further grow its membership, the chamber is encouraging businesses to become certified as LGBT business enterprises. The LGBTBE certification can give them access to the national chamber's database of corporations that take an interest in supplier diversity.

Those members can compete for those supplier diversity dollars.

"When we started in 2012, we had zero certified suppliers. Today we have eight," McClain said.

Like peer organizations, the local gay and lesbian chamber offers member discounts when doing business with other members. It also is a directory for people who are new to the area.

"(Many) people want to spend money with people they feel safe with," McClain said.

The LGBT community continues to run up against stereotypes, she said. But she has felt welcomed when attending other organizations' events.

"The difference is that it's a safe place to be out. This just feels like home," she said of why individuals and businesses join her chamber. "We want to make a difference, and we want more inclusion."

For the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania, the mission has been to change perceptions of minority businesses.

During its first two decades, the organization was led by the same person.

There was a leadership change last year, which led to a bit of membership rebuilding, President Leland Nelson said.

"We're about 35 members right now. It had a high of 150," he said, with most coming from construction-related fields.

Nelson and his volunteer board have focused on monthly "cash mob" events to promote local businesses and give members an opportunity to network.

The effort has centered on Harrisburg-area events, but there are efforts under way to get back into Lancaster and York counties, Nelson said.

Compared to the more traditional chambers, Nelson said, he sees the small niche organizations as the offensive and defensive linemen on a football team.

"They are focused on the bigger, (broader) issues. We're worried about blocking and tackling," he said, which might mean helping freshman entrepreneurs learn the basics of starting a business.

The small, specialized organizations are more about awareness, networking and education, he said.

"I think we're just more hands on. We can be. We're not big," he said. "We're small. We're nimble. We're hungry. We're trying to make a dollar out of a dime."

The African American chamber also is working to certify businesses as chamber certified, which adds a level of trust for the consumer.

"It says, 'We looked at these companies and they have done business,'" Nelson said.

Collectively, chambers are out to create an environment where people can live, work and play, Nelson said. In some cases, it just comes down to which chamber is the better fit, he said, which could come down to finances.

"People are looking to join organizations that have meaning to them," McClain said.

Niche chambers in Central Pa.

While there are diversity departments within several of the midstate's larger chambers of commerce, three niche chambers exist in Central Pennsylvania to serve minority-owned businesses.

African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania

Location: 1735 State St., Harrisburg, PA 17103

Year founded: 1991

What it does: The AACCCP encourages, empowers and promotes economic development and growth to the African-American, small, minority- and women-owned business community through entrepreneurship, business development, training and business partnerships throughout the Central Pennsylvania region.

President: Leland Nelson

Website: www.chamberforus.org

Contact information: 717-298-REAP (7327)

Email: aacccphasbenefits@gmail.com

Central Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce

Location: 3211 N. Front St., Suite 201, Harrisburg, PA 17110-1342

Year founded: 2007

What it does: The CPGLCC is committed to expanding the economic interests of lesbian-, gay-, bisexual- and transgender-owned and allied businesses through advocacy, education and partnerships with the local business community.

President/CEO: Debra McClain

Contact information: 717-213-5034

Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania

Location: 112 Market St., Suite 415, Harrisburg, PA 17101

Year founded: 2007

What it does: The mission of the HCCCP is to assist, support, promote and advocate on behalf of Hispanic businesses in Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, York and Perry counties. HCCCP seeks to encourage the growth and development of businesses owned and operated by entrepreneurs of Hispanic descent and to help these businesses to achieve their goals.

President: Paul Navarro

Contact information: 717-234-4704


www.cpbj.com