Emcee Amber Smith, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber

Recently I was told there are some people who have 30 years of experience and others who have 30 experiences in a year. I am definitely the latter, accumulating 90 experiences over the past three years as president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber. These experiences created lessons learned that have contributed to the recent evolution of the Chamber. We faced many challenges and opportunities pre-COVID but then the pandemic further intensified both. 

In 2018, I embarked on a journey to reinvigorate the Tucson Metro Chamber. Not to say that the Chamber was out of date and stale, but any organization with the longevity of the Chamber—125 years young—requires strong self-evaluation and evolution to ensure it remains relevant. Our members, and indirectly the broader community, rely on our efforts because a strong business environment translates into a strong local economy. Repeatedly from day one, I discovered that the largest challenge the Chamber faces is the natural division created when evaluating policies and positions that best reflect pro-business values. This begins our Top 10 list of lessons learned. 

I’ve repeatedly tried to argue that being pro-business is not a display of partisanship. This became a naïve statement amongst some of the most turbulent political moments in modern times. The challenge is that often it becomes a conversation of political ideologies and a debate of wits versus a dedicated conversation about growing the tax base, creating a job-growth environment and building an atmosphere that encourages and supports small businesses while embracing corporate giants and their role in our community. Every time the Chamber takes a position, inevitably there is judgement, opposition and conflict regarding that position amongst fellow business owners, Chamber members, elected officials and/or individuals in the broader community. The definition of a Chamber win does not exist because it is different amongst the varying constituencies. Lesson number 9.

In trying to achieve shades of winning, how can the Chamber truly represent the diversity in thought among its members—that come in a variety of industry, size and people—when its leadership is merely a reflection of each other? It can’t. Lesson number 8. 

The hiring of its first woman CEO in 2018 symbolized the Chamber’s acknowledgement that diversity and inclusion should be more than an afterthought. Not to say that I was hired because I was a woman, but rather, the Board recognized that there was a pattern of commonalities amongst not only its former CEOs, but the board as well. We have been more mindful in creating diversity of thought both internally and externally to best reflect the variety of Chamber members. The Chamber Board diversity has significantly improved and includes an eclectic blend of men, women, races, nationalities, industries, political parties and company sizes. Our Public Policy Council that advises the Chamber on issues is also shifting to better reflect the extensive diversity of our members. There is more work to be done on this front, but the common denominator is that each of our appointed Public Policy Council Members and elected Board Members have diverse opinions and experience like our membership, but they are all business focused. 

In remaining focused on business issues, I learned lesson number 7. Local issues are a core priority of Chamber members. The Chamber has consistently maintained a presence at all three levels of government with the focus ebbing and flowing between levels based on resource allocation. Almost immediately from my hiring date, the decision was made to elevate our emphasis on local issues by bringing on a dedicated, executive position to manage these complex issues. Chamber member roundtable discussions and annual surveys highlighted lesson number 6: Members strongly agree that core services should be the priority of government that also allows the ability to conduct business without stumbling upon burdensome policies. While we have strong examples from the past few years successfully fighting for issues including public safety, infrastructure, development fee reduction and property tax reduction, the real work is behind the scenes that never sees the light of day. 

Much of our advocacy is behind closed doors, on the defense fighting ideas and issues that bubble up. Having the right level of expertise with the right relationships in place is key to success to maintain respectful, open dialogue while standing our ground on business issues. Lesson 5: Sometimes quietly engaging proves more effective than chest pounding in public forums. 

As we take our stances and fight for or against business policies, we have frequently been siloed in our efforts and even pitted against our business representative colleagues at times. Lesson 4 is that collaboration, coordination and cooperation with our fellow association colleagues remains the strongest tactic to engage, create and inspire a pro-business environment. Our strategic alliance with our partners over the past three years inside and outside of policy issues has created a broader umbrella of success clearly evident in our leadership through COVID-19, where our partners turned to the Chamber for our leadership in assisting businesses through the pandemic. 

Lesson 3 revealed itself through the aforementioned member surveys and roundtable conversations. Chamber members are not just interested in pro-business public policies. Concerns about talent pipelines and talent attraction remain at the forefront. For this reason, we have significantly invested in workforce development efforts that will be further revealed with our Workforce Development Blueprint that outlines five tactics with the greatest impact for our region. 

Big impacts require stability, sustainability and a strong foundation. Lesson 2 is that the Chamber could not expect to operate another 125 years operating under an antiquated, inefficient business model. We have now shifted internally to operate like success stories within the private sector. Increasing financial transparency, liquidating our assets, growing our reserves and right-sizing the organization has allowed the Chamber to operate much more efficiently internally, so we can best serve our members today and far into the future. Had we not made these significant changes the two years prior to the pandemic, the Chamber would not have been able to react so quickly to the needs of our business members when COVID-19 struck Tucson. The experiences from year one and two of my Chamber tenure created opportunity for change and growth. While change is hard, the decisions made over the last 36 months have allowed us to successfully navigate through the pandemic coming out stronger than ever.  

The 90 experiences over the past three years showcased the most important lesson learned. The Chamber and our successes and evolution are not the results of only me. The Chamber reflects a unified group of individuals and entities collectively working toward the same goals. Ultimately, the entire staff, Board of Directors, our engaged members and those investing in the organization drive the results we want from policy to workforce development to making those critical connections necessary in business. At 1400 members strong, the coalition of businesses within the Chamber is the true strength of the organization. It is not one person’s work and vision but rather everyone working collectively together. That is the true strength of the Chamber. Its members. Our businesses. Working together as one.