Minority chambers turn to collaboration

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The late 1980s and early 1990s were watershed years for minority chambers in Colorado Springs.

Those were the years when Hispanic, black and women business leaders set out to establish their own independent chambers.

The Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber felt that women needed more networking and business-training opportunities specifically aimed at advancing women-owned businesses. Black Chamber founders wanted to nurture and support their member companies as well as help them land contracting opportunities. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was founded along the same lines.

The downturn, as it turned out, was not kind to any of them. They’ve suffered financial hardship and drooping or stagnating memberships. The Hispanic chamber is now closed, having shuttered its doors July 1.

While they haven’t given up on the idea of independence, a renewed emphasis on collaboration is now playing out.

All three organizations — or their remnants, in the case of the Hispanic chamber — have expressed interest in or have already joined the recently formed 11-member Southern Colorado Business Partnership.

And both the black and women’s chambers spend time and money on collaborative initiatives with the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Down and out, for now

The Hispanic Chamber of Colorado Springs, which had more than 200 members at its peak in the mid-2000s, is now dormant.

After suffering three years of declining membership and finances, the 22-year-old organization lost its national charter and closed on July 1.

The chamber was one of the founding members of the Pikes Peak Business Partnership, which has now become the Southern Colorado Business Partnership, according to Springs chamber Vice President Jennifer Furda.

Moving back into that fold appears to be the best route for the chamber, at least as an interim step.

“We’re already in discussions with a few of their members about how to bring them back,” she said.

For years, the organization drew not only Hispanic-owned companies but large numbers of non-minority business members eager to build relationships with the Pikes Peak region’s fastest-growing minority sector.

Founded in 1988, its membership ranks swelled during the first half of the decade, due in part to growth in the number of Hispanics calling this area home.

Today Hispanics represent the area’s largest minority, accounting for about 15 percent of the total population.

El Pomar Vice President of Facilities George Guerrero was a past member of the Hispanic Chamber. He witnessed both the organization’s good and not-so-good days.

He expects it to take three to five years or more for a new Hispanic chamber to get back on its feet. By that time, the group will have suffered tremendous loss of momentum, he said.

In order to move things forward more quickly, he plans to meet with Furda, SCBP Executive Director Randy Scott and others to discuss an alternative organizational structure.

Furda said the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber is open to a number of options, including formation of a “Hispanic caucus” within its own ranks.

“We’re just in the beginning stages of what we can do for them,” she said. “They’re too big to leave out of the equation.”

Scott, who heads the 11-member SCBP regional chamber and economic development consortium, likewise, is ready to help the group get back on its feet.

“Though there’s nothing conclusive at this point, if resurrected, we would embrace it (the Hispanic Chamber),” he said.

It’s all about nurturing

Like other minority chambers, the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce established itself to address needs that its founders felt were not being met by other, existing business organizations.

That never meant it did everything alone.

Rather, the organization has all along worked in close collaboration with other area chambers, nonprofit foundations and economic development organizations.

Blacks comprise about 7 percent of the Colorado Springs’ total workforce, according to the Pikes Peak Workforce Center.

The chamber’s mission is three-pronged: to provide assistance to black-owned startup businesses; to support existing enterprises and, to provide proactive “nurturing” for mature companies.

“We believe the well-informed, progressive businessperson is most likely to become more successful. That’s why the chamber provides seminars and workshops designed for every level of business person — from the new entrepreneurs to the seasoned CEO,” Black Chamber President Jim Stewart said.

“Young people starting out in business don’t know who to talk to — lawyers, bankers, accountants,” he continued. “And when they do find someone, they have to ask, ‘Are they working in my best interest or just trying to make a buck?’”

Today, membership stands at 60, off from about 100 a few years ago, Stewart said.

Financially, the Black Chamber continues to do a lot with limited resources. It has, however, always enjoyed community and corporate support.

Dr. Pamela Shipp from the Center for Creative Leadership along with El Pomar Vice President Theo Gregory and CEO Bill Hybl of the El Pomar Foundation, for example, all helped to provide the facilities, funding and program support for more than a decade of Black Leadership Forum events.

Today’s key business education supporters and sponsors include the City of Colorado Springs Purchasing Department, Colorado Springs Utilities, Ent Federal Credit Union, Agilent, USAA, El Paso Gas Co. and the El Pomar Foundation.

“Their help has been vital to providing our young people with information on how to start and run a successful business,” Stewart said.

Not just for women

More than 120 women attended the first meeting of the Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce in 1993.

Membership is now at its peak, with 150 paid individuals or companies, says Executive Director Linda Mojer.

But the chamber hopes to swell its ranks.

Elizabeth Kelly, who recently assumed the presidency of the group, said her first priority is to build membership.  “Once we add them (members), we can then look at developing new programs and additional  services – especially for our largest member groups,” she said.

Like the Black Chamber, the women’s chamber relies on partnerships with other groups to help it along.

It encourages its members to attend events hosted by the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and collaborates regularly with the group.

“They (the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce) co-sponsor our annual “Evening in Tuscany” social and networking reception. They also offer several women’s programs and welcome our members,” Mojer said.

She said her chamber works to stay connected to other organizations to serve as a “feeder system” for working women, especially those looking for new jobs.

After a layoff, some members have been forced to start over. They need help, she said, with the basics: learning how to network in their field or finding alternate career opportunities.

“We offer a place to land, start over, practice skills and make connections. Then (they) can learn to fly again,” she said.

The chamber, she said, reaches nearly 4,000 people annually in some way. And some of those are men.