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Chamber president: Equality is economic 'pebble in the water'

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Debra McClain is president and CEO of Central Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
Debra McClain is president and CEO of Central Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. - (Photo / )

Companies have a vested interest in the equal treatment of their employees, and ultimately that will create a ripple effect that grows business, said Debra McClain, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Central Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

On July 18, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce named the midstate affiliate its Chamber of the Year for 2013. In addition, McClain says, membership continues to grow alongside the number of people attending its events.

Support among the general business community is growing, too, with the chamber garnering three corporate investors — Members 1st Federal Credit Union, The Hershey Co., and Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Co. — since the beginning of the year.

The support comes at a time when equality for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people is a prominent national and state issue. That includes anti-discrimination laws in Pennsylvania, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.

McClain recently spoke to the Business Journal about the chamber's accolades, its work in the Central Pennsylvania business community and the benefit of equality in the state.

Q: What does it mean to be recognized as the national chamber of the year?

A: It really brings validity to us here in this region for the work we are doing and for the people who always wondered what difference do we make in this world. ... And to be recognized for the change that we are making in our region and for businesses, and growth for the economic development here, and with employee resource groups, and just try to empower (companies) to empower their people to bring their best self to work every day. And they can when they walk without fear in their lives.

And if we can help make a difference in any single way, and being recognized for it, is amazing.

You have three corporate investors. Why are they important to the chamber?

Number one, they believe in inclusion for their employees. And when a big corporation like them partners with us, a diverse chamber, it really supports their core value to support their employees by saying it in more than just a statement online. ... When (employees) have a good idea, they feel free to share that. ... (The companies are) walking the walk, not just talking the talk, and that's so important. ... Those allied business relationships are so strong because this world continues to change and people are being more accepting.

Why is it important to have a separate chamber for the gay and lesbian community?

We're getting overlooked time and time again. ... It kind of flabbergasts me still to this day when you have a huge employer that did not want to partner with us in this region because they were afraid if their conservative client base found out that they partnered with us in any way, even being a key provider, a vendor for us, they thought that they would lose their customers.

It's still happening today, and that was recently. I will not name the organization. But they said, "We're not discriminating against you. We still want all your business, but we can't let it be publicly known that we partnered with you on this."

So, I'm not partnering with those people. I said, "I hear you. I hear what you're saying, but it truly still is discrimination." ...

So we are very much needed to continue the message that inclusion is really needed. It's building wealth. It's not pushing wealth aside. It's building wealth, because the spending in our community is very loyal.

What are the most important issues to gay and lesbian business owners?

Their challenge is there are lots of opportunities, but they aren't quite sure how to go after them. (We're) helping them crack the code to corporate procurement, even if it's a vendorship with a large regional company like Members 1st.

What are the chamber and Equality Pennsylvania trying to achieve together?

When anything is going on with marriage equality ... or (anti-discrimination, state) House Bill 300, what does all of that really mean?

They want us to come in from a business perspective. So when they're out talking to legislators, the business message isn't lost. ... If someone is at work every day walking in fear, they're not going to be as productive as they could be. They're not going to come up with those creative ideas that are the next multimillion-dollar idea or transformation for that company. And do you think they're going to stay? No.

It costs more money for someone to bring in a new hire than to make the employees they do have happy, to make it a great experience. ... Removing the discrimination here in Pennsylvania, the morale is going to boost. When people feel elevated as who they are as human beings, it will elevate them in every realm of their life. It's going to echo out, like you're dropping a pebble in the water.

About Debra L. McClain

McClain, 52, is a commercial account manager for property and casualty insurance with Members 1st Insurance Services and an investment consultant with Members 1st Investment Services. Both are divisions of Cumberland County-based Members 1st Federal Credit Union.

She is the second youngest of five children from a Western Pennsylvania military family that moved often. When her father retired, the family settled in Mechanicsburg. In 2012, McClain and her band, Three Twelve, released an original album called "Something Begun." She also enjoys sewing, jewelry making and gardening.

McClain lives in Harrisburg with her fiancée, Linda Rutherford. McClain has two grown children, a son and daughter.

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