Young leaders breathe new life into chamber of commerce

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Young leaders breathe new life into chamber of commerceAs the leadership team of the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce continues to refine its branding, programs and membership benefits, one driving goal is to reverse the national trend of declining membership.

Decades ago, local chambers of commerce were pillars of economic develop-

ment and networking — with membership one of the key ways leaders in business and industry could connect. With the proliferation of e-commerce and social media — and even studies that say entrepreneurialism is on the decline in our country — chambers and other organizations with similar missions have been shrinking, or even disbanding altogether.

Our local chamber has not been immune, with local membership being reduced to less than half within the last decade.

“One of my primary focuses over the last few months has been to review the chamber’s mission, vision and overall brand,” said Tim Smith, who was hired as the new executive director last May.

It started with a change in the main logo, as well as alterations in the logos of the Ambassador, Young Professionals Network and Leadership Ridgecrest programs that function under the chamber’s main umbrella.

What started as a way to create cohesion between the entities really developed into a deeper conversation about how each of those programs provide value to the community and engage with existing and up-and-coming leaders.

Smith noted that there are chamber members who have worked for decades to fulfill the many functions — many of which rely on volunteer efforts. As those established pillars of the community retired or even fell to the fatigue of burnout, the organization began to contract.

“I always want to say that we have many members and leaders of the chamber who have given a lot to help build us to where we were at our highest levels,” said Smith. “But it’s also clear that in order to survive, we need to be able to demonstrate how we add value to attract younger people.”

Some of those stories are reflected in the current program leaders. Bernie Mondragon, the current chair of the board, stumbled onto the chamber in 2015 when he attended one of the monthly luncheons.

“To be honest, I didn’t really know what the chamber was about at that time,” he said. But he joined based on the appeal of networking opportunities.

“I am so glad that I did. Having a way to associate with people who have been successful in business taught me a lot that I don’t know how I would have learned otherwise. It’s been good for me and my business.”

One of the newer programs is the Young Professionals Network, which offered a space for those just entering the landscape. The current chair is James Long, who attended his first meeting in April 2018.

“I continued to attend because I enjoyed the energy. It was refreshing to see something organized by people my age … it also made networking less intimidating and more fun for me.”

When the opportunity to get involved with the leadership team arose, “I knew I wanted to be part of this team,” said James Long, who now works with a core group that hosts monthly meetings at local businesses.

The current model is being re-evaluated to incorporate a service element and highlight more opportunities to socialize,” said Smith.

“YPN has an amazing team of diverse professionals full of exciting and creative ideas,” said Long. “I’m excited to see these ideas come to fruition. I encourage you all to check our Facebook page or contact the chamber if you have any questions.”

Long is also a graduate of the 2019 Leadership Ridgecrest cohort.

One of the 2018 graduates, Michelle Lemke, is in line to be the next chair of the chamber in 2020.

“It was my participation in Leadership Ridgecrest that facilitated my introduction to the chamber,” she said. When a member of the board resigned, she was recruited to take that seat.

“At that point I saw it as an opportunity not only to help guide our local chamber through what benefits we could provide to our business members, but also to find new ways to engage our up-and-coming leaders. And I knew that might mean thinking outside of how we had always done things.”

Both she and Mondragon said that they have seen some of those subtle changes encourage new membership.

“Our current chamber board has put a lot of work into looking at the value we offer all of our members. I realize these things take time, but I believe with the board’s commitment we have made good progress toward that goal,” said Lemke.

Mondragon said that as a young father and business owner, he understands the challenges of balancing multiple roles.

“Chris Hill is another graduate of Leadership Ridgecrest, and also sits on the chamber board,” said Mondragon. “It’s encouraging to me to see someone who knows how to balance work, family life and community leadership. I think he sets a good example to younger people who want to get involved — and demonstrates that it’s possible to maintain a healthy balance.”

One of the primary outreach programs for the chamber has been its Ambassadors, who host ribbon cuttings for new businesses and after-hours times at rotating locations. Smith noted that the Ambassadors program is another element of the chamber that has been held together by people who have been involved for 15 or 20 years or even longer.

“I’m happy to see that Ashley Keith from Hampton Inn and Suites has stepped up to help lead the group,” said Smith.

He noted that the board has held several retreat-style workshops to focus on challenges and programs that will help the chamber improve its relevance in the business community.

“I’m excited to shift my focus in the coming months to meet more of our members to hear their stories — why they joined, what they hope to get out of their membership and how we can engage them to continue their service in Ridgecrest,” said Smith.

For information, call the chamber at 760-375-8331.

Pictured: Bernie Mondragon, Michelle Lemke, Tim Smith, Ashley Keith and James Long (from left) have each taken on leadership positions at the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-09-27