(Nov. 19, 2018) Catherine Read sits down with Jen Siciliano, Chairperson of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, along with recently hired Executive Director Julie Coons. Their wide-ranging discussion covers the makeup of the organization, the mission of the Chamber, and the wide variety of programming that the Chamber sponsors.
Jen Siciliano serves in a professional capacity as the Chief External Affairs Officer at INOVA, and has been active in the chamber for many years as a representative on the Healthcare committee. The Chamber has played a key role in her personal and professional development over the years. Her goal is to keep the organization relevant by meeting members where they are, and continuing to deliver a diverse set of programs and initiatives that support area businesses. One of the keys to the success of the Chamber is the ability to work collaboratively across industries and as a regional leader, while also cultivating the next generation of business leaders.
The Chamber hosts many successful annual programs that highlight the diversity of the Northern Virginia region. They recently hosted the Annual State of Healthcare Conference, where they brought together a panel of representatives from the insurance industry, medical professionals and hospitals to talk about the recently passed legislation that expanded Medicaid to low income Virginians. There are now significant changes in how healthcare will be delivered to thousands of Virginians, and this forum was a way to bring businesses together to better understand the nuances of the new system. Healthcare cuts across industry, and touches every business owner and employee, so the chamber was proud to sponsor this forum.
The Chamber also sponsors a variety of committees geared toward women in business, minority owned businesses, government contractors, and non-profits to just name a few. Each industry has their own set of issues and challenges, and it is important for business owners to be able to come together. The chamber also works hard to elevate the collective voice as a business community. They adopt legislative initiatives and advocate for policy positions at the local, state and federal level. One example of the success of the chamber was the Metro deal that they helped to negotiate in 2018. The investment in transit will benefit both employers and workers, and Siciliano is very proud of the hard work that went into negotiating that regional deal.
Jen also believes in the importance of cultivating the next generation of business leaders. The Next-Gen Council is designed to bring new people into the organization, and get them excited about having an impact on the business community. It also helps them better understand the benefits of professional networking that comes with chamber membership. Anyone can attend any of the chamber programs free of charge to see if it is a good “fit” for them. Jen notes that the chamber was instrumental in her professional success, and has a goal of bringing this value to the next generation of leaders.
In the second segment, Catherine speaks with newly hired Chamber CEO Julie Coons. Coons comes to the Chamber as former CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, and is excited to be a part of the regional leadership as she heads the NoVa Chamber. She recognizes that there are many moving parts to such a large organization, and looks forward to working with her staff of 10 people to plan, execute and deliver relevant programming to her members.
Many small business owners think that a large, regional chamber such as NoVA Chamber is only for the large Fortune 500 companies. Coons points out that 60% of the member organizations have fewer than 50 employees, and 25% of members have fewer than 4 employees. Membership in the chamber gives a local business access to unique networking events that can help grow a business, as well as elevate their voice when it comes to legislative initiatives. The collective voice of businesses can make a big impact.
At the beginning of her tenure, Coons ventured out on a listening tour around the region, in order to ensure that she heard from different constituencies. She believes it is important for her understand the needs of her members, and the obstacles that they face in their respective industries. She also wants to understand priorities and make sure that the programming that the chamber offers is relevant and meeting the needs of her members. Coons understands the importance of looking for emerging business opportunities, so she strongly supports business incubators to help grow new business and cultivate new industries. For many years, the region relied heavily on government work. When that started to dry up, it became more important than ever to think about new ways to grow the economy.
Coons is excited about the new Amazon Headquarters slated to open in Crystal City. The jobs will be welcomed, and the investment in resources such as schools and transportation will be a huge benefit. Another ancillary benefit will be the innovation campus slated to open adjacent to the Amazon headquarters. This will not only be a pipeline for workers at Amazon, but a boost to the local economy by encouraging new businesses to sprout from the research and development that will be sparked by this campus.
The NoVa Chamber has a great relationship with both Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University. The chamber is looking to further develop some apprenticeship programs that will help students who might not look at attending a 4-year university. This will help in a variety of industries where there are actually shortages of workers in good paying jobs.
One of the Chamber’s hallmark events is the upcoming 27th annual Economic Forum that will be held on January 31st. The theme is Focus on the Future and will look at the evolution of the regional economy. There will be a variety of panels and speakers, with the goal that each person who attends the conference will be able to take away highly credible information, along with actionable items. Coons hope that all who are interested can join for this very popular annual program.