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Niche chambers zero in on member needs

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September 14, 2015

Niche chambers zero in on member needs

By: Rachel Abbey McCafferty 

Read on Crain's Cleveland

Different demographic groups have specific challenges that can be difficult to bring up in a mainstream chamber, says N. Michael Obi, chairman of the recently formed Presidents’ Council Business Chamber.

For African-American-owned businesses, that can include the challenges of becoming certified as a Minority Business Enterprise, or MBE. Obi, who also is chairman and CEO of business operations management firm Spectrum Global Solutions LLC, said the chamber will advocate for a more streamlined process from the current system, which requires companies to become certified at the city, county and state levels.

The Presidents’ Council’s new chamber joins a number of business groups in the region that focus on supporting individuals of a particular race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, these organizations turn their attention to issues specific to each group. And while they aren’t explicitly aimed at helping small businesses or entrepreneurs, the groups offer access to a host of resources and networking opportunities for them.

These niche organizations offer “safe spaces” to individuals who already have something in common, said Steve Millard, president and executive director of the Council of Smaller Enterprises. COSE doesn’t view them as competition, he said, but rather as different parts of a larger “ecosystem” that helps support small businesses.

Working with other groups is important, said Michelle Tomallo, board president of Plexus, an LGBT and allied chamber in Cleveland. Plexus officially formed as a chamber in 2006 and has about 125 members.

When working with small businesses or entrepreneurs, Plexus first has to find out what their needs are, said Tomallo, who also is president and co-founder of FIT Technologies, a managed IT services firm. Plexus can offer some of those services, but it also promotes resources from other groups.


“We’re not duplicating necessarily the exact same program or tapping the exact same resources,” she said. 

Instead, that frees up the groups to focus on their strengths. At Plexus, that’s cultural competency for businesses, LGBT business certification and working toward enacting more non-discrimination laws and policies. Small and midsize companies, in particular, tend to need the group’s non-discrimination practice and policy audit, as many companies have values that they haven’t put in ink, Tomallo said.


Taking responsibility

The Presidents’ Council chamber will take a similar approach. Obi said he doesn’t want to duplicate what groups like COSE already offer, and he’ll encourage members to join multiple chambers. Obi said the chamber, which supports African-American-run businesses, has decided to not disclose its number of members.

For the Northeast Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the focus is on total inclusion, said executive director Jenice Contreras, rather than focusing on a style of diversity that fails to consider people who are Hispanic, women, part of a particular religious background or members of the LGBT community.

“Northeast Ohio can be very black and white,” Contreras said.

The chamber has fewer than 300 members, but it doesn’t aspire to be much larger. The small size of the chamber allows for the group to pivot quickly if an issue of interest arises and for deeper relationships to be built.

Tomallo said the networking component of what she calls affinity chambers is part of why those groups have thrived in Cleveland. People want to do business with people they know, and members of an affinity chamber already have something important in common, she said.


The nonprofit WIN (Women in Networking) Cleveland was created in 1997 by a few women who were reentering the workforce after having children or going through divorces, said president Suzanne Carle. The women wanted a safe place to grow a professional network. The group typically serves entrepreneurs and women working a book of business of their own. Its 60 to 75 members support one another’s businesses and discuss issues that often hit home for women professionals, in particular, like balancing work and family. 

“Women still are the caregivers,” said Carle, who also is president of Suite Spot LLC, a consulting firm. “And these responsibilities still land on us.”

The Cleveland chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners also serves women, but it focuses on business owners of companies of all sizes.

Board president Megan Patton said that for small business owners and entrepreneurs, in particular, the group’s educational programs give professionals “solid tools” to succeed. And the networking is important, too, as members are accessible and giving of their time. The group, which has just under 75 members, has been in Cleveland for about 35 years and can draw on the expertise of the national organization.NAWBO also has been developing a new program to further support business leaders where small, committed groups of members will meet regularly and act like one another’s informal board of directors. Other NAWBO chapters have already been using these groups. One has been running locally for about a year-and-a-half as a pilot and has helped members launch new services and rebrand their businesses, said Patton, managing director of ODA Strategy, the new name, as of Sept. 14, for what had been known as O’Donnell & Associates.

Obi of the Presidents’ Council pointed out that helping entrepreneurs grow can help the community as jobs are created. African-American-owned businesses tend to hire more African-American individuals in their communities, he said.

Overall, Obi said networking can be vital to entrepreneurs, as it can take awhile for banks to invest in an idea. 

“Entrepreneurship can be a lonely place,” he said. “Entrepreneurs benefit when they can get together among themselves and share ideas and talk.”
Michelle Tomallo, Board President