Growing and thriving
in a post COVID-19 world
That’s how North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce President Tony Vedda describes the organization’s journey through the pandemic and into the future. While 2020 and 2021 left the Chamber and its members trying a variety of new programs and approaches to survive during the pandemic, he said this year is all about taking what we learned and using that information to make plans for the future.
“With COVID in the rearview mirror, we are back to the business of business,” Vedda said. “Now, more than ever, we need to embrace and advance our mission to foster an inclusive business community that promotes economic vitality, connects members, and advocates on their behalf. Or as I usually say, working to achieve equality through business.”
When the pandemic prevented in-person gatherings, the Chamber, like other organizations had to reassess, calculating the logistics of how to keep members connected during quarantine periods. Some events were put on hold. Others became virtual meet-ups. Chamber staff also addressed which programs still served the needs of members and whether there was a need for new ones.
“People laughed,” Vedda said, “when we closed the office for two days so Lisa Howe, VP Membership & Programs, and I could hold a ‘staff retreat,’ but it was incredibly productive and allowed us to map-out our programs and events for 2022 as well as our statewide programming with the Texas LGBTQ Chambers of Commerce.”
One success found in 2021 was the development of the Texas LGBTQ+ Workplace Alliance. Formed as a partnership between the North Texas, Greater Houston, Austin, and San Antonio LGBT Chambers, the Workplace Alliance is designed to connect employee resource group leaders across the state.
“The LGBTQ+ Workplace Alliance provides an opportunity for Business/Employee Resource Groups (B/ERG) to share best practices and learn new skills. It also creates a forum for ERG executive sponsors to do the same,” Howe said.
Employee resource groups can impact diversity and inclusion efforts inside and out of the workplace. ERG leaders have influence with policies and culture, large audiences, executives, supplier diversity, DEI, legislative affairs, and budgets. Engaging these leaders, as well as executive sponsors, creates a strong network of support for LGBTQ people and organizations across the state.
In 2023, the Texas LGBTQ+ Workplace Alliance Summit will be held in conjunction with the North Texas Chamber’s annual Texas Diversity Equity & Inclusion Conference. The Summit will bring together employee resource group representatives from across the state for an in-person day of learning and networking.
The Chamber Foundation took on the Chamber’s annual Gala as the Scholars’ Gala, an event to support the Chamber Foundation Scholarship Fund. The Foundation scholarship program has been supporting the educational needs of LGBTQ+ and ally students across Texas. Since 2011, the Foundation has granted more than $110,000 in scholarships to more than 50 students. https://lgbtqchamber.net/Gala22
The other program that will change is the annual Texas Diversity Equity & Inclusion Conference. Prior to 2020, the conference was a one-day, in-person event. “The pandemic forced us to go virtual, with much success,” Vedda noted. For 2022, the Chamber Foundation is doing both an in-person day (hosted by Southwest Airlines) and two virtual days immediately after. https://lgbtqchamber.net/DEI22
Of course, the Chamber is a business. And navigating the pandemic resulted in some smart administrative changes. “For the past 17 years, the Chamber’s membership renewals occurred on what is called ‘rolling 12-months,’ Vedda said, which means if a member joins in June, renewal will be 12 months later. “During the pandemic, we took advantage of the situation and pro-rated everyone’s 2021 membership renewals to match the calendar year. In January, all members received their renewal notice and 90 days to pay.” While this change appears minor, he noted, the increased efficiency will save hundreds of hours in administrative work. It also makes the answer to, “when does my membership renew?” a lot easier.
Also in the vein of business growth is the Chamber’s ongoing partnership with Visit Dallas. While most chambers and destination management organizations do not generally work together, Visit Dallas and the North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce have worked together since the Chamber’s launch in 2005.
“Promoting Dallas as a preferred destination for LGBTQ+ travelers and meetings, is something we pioneered,” Vedda said. “With the first publication of the Chamber’s Community Resource & Visitors’ Guide – now we just call it the Guide – we have been the official visitors guide of Visit Dallas for the LGBTQ+ community. In the past we have traveled to conference and tradeshows with Visit Dallas and worked to bring major LGBTQ+ meetings and events, along with their economic impact, to Dallas.”
Meetings like Creating Change (National LGBTQ Task Force), Workplace Summit (Out & Equal), and the International LGBT Business & Leadership Conference (NGLCC) all came to Dallas because of the Visit Dallas/LGBT Chamber partnership.
In August of this year, Dallas will host the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance Softball World Series https://www.dallasgsws.org. More than 250 teams from 47 cities will descend on North Texas in late August. Along with spouses and fans, more than 5,000 guests will be welcomed to Dallas. 2022 will be Dallas’ third time to host the world series since 2004.
While Chamber members benefit from making connections through networking and events, many may not realize the Chamber’s role in local government. The Chamber is an advocate for its members and the LGBTQ+ Community in local and state politics. It is an important link between business and government, with a voice on local and statewide issues.
“The purpose of every chamber of commerce, is to represent their business community.” Vedda said. “People see the Scholars’ Gala or Awards Luncheon and think the Chamber is all about parties and networking. While networking is important to many of our members, it is the advocacy work that impacts all businesses. Some may be surprised to learn our 2021 Legislative Agenda included health care, transportation, education, and of course, fighting against anti-LGBTQ legislation.”
Recently, Texas’ Lt. Governor made it clear that his attack on transgender children and their parents will be a priority in the next legislative session. “Along with his campaign against transgender children, he is also examining a “parents’ bill of rights” which, on the surface, sounds fairly innocuous. However, if we dig slightly deeper, we expect to see more bans on certain books, as well as a Texas version of Florida’s reprehensible, ‘Don’t say gay’ legislation.”
Vedda believes that such legislation is a diversion from the real issues at hand that need attention. “Nothing would make me happier than to work on important issues that impact the lives of every Texan, like health care and education,” he said. “But instead of addressing real issues, our elected officials would rather play in the theater of culture wars. It is shameful.”
Ultimately, Vedda said, all LGBT issues are business-related. Businesses are looking at our State Legislature and their anti-LGBT legislation when deciding if this a good place to move a business or start a business. The big question is, will they be able to recruit and retain employees in a state that is clearly not welcoming to all.
With the lessons learned from the pandemic, the Chamber and Chamber Foundation are creating a new three-year plan. “We are keeping our five pillars – membership engagement, financial sustainability, dynamic leadership, awareness/communication, and advocacy,” Vedda said. “Technology has driven so much change in the past eight to 10 years, we expect that to accelerate and the needs of our members and community to change as well. I expect we will see changes to programs and initiatives, as opposed to simply dropping old programs and starting new ones.”
In addition, the Chamber aims to be intentional about its programs and services, Vedda said. “We want to make certain we are not just doing something because we always have. Some programs, like the Business Exchange Network won’t change, but not everything is picking up where we left off.”
In 2021, the Chamber launched Inside Out, a quarterly magazine. Later in the year, when the Chamber would normally publish its annual Business Directory & Visitor Guide, the two publications were merged. “We are still publishing our award-winning Guide, except now, we are printing fewer copies, which is good for the environment, and making it available on a digital platform,” Vedda said. “The technology changed and we changed with it.”
DFW Pride Happy Hour, formerly High Tech Happy Hour, was adopted by the Chamber Foundation in 2019. For more than 20 years, the LGBT employee resource group at Texas Instruments managed what became an iconic program. “We feel a responsibility to honor its history, while adapting to the community’s current needs,” Vedda said. Under the Foundation’s stewardship, the “DFW’ was dropped from the name, and it will be held the third Wednesday of each month.
“This should not come as a surprise to anyone. We are gay all year long,” Vedda said. “Because we are LGBTQ+ 365 days a year, we are continually addressing the needs and concerns in the community. We work to support all LGBTQ- and ally-owned businesses as well as our corporate partners and their employee groups.”
One of the Chamber’s initiatives is part advocacy and part business growth, the LGBT Business Enterprise (LGBTBE®) certification through the National LGBT Chamber. The certification gives LGBT owned and controlled businesses a way to link up with more than 500 national and international companies that want to use LGBT-certified businesses. There is no federal or state requirement to use LGBT-certified businesses, but that hasn’t stopped corporate America from pushing ahead.
Organizations, like the North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce serve as the “pipeline” for the national and international business community, because members can seek out certification at no additional cost simply by maintaining their memberships in the local community.
The certification is designed to open the door for a small business to billions of dollars in contracts, from companies seeking products from diverse sources. Any business that is at least 51% LGBT owned and controlled could qualify to become a certified LGBTBE®. https://lgbtchamber.com/lgbt-business-certification/
“We can’t create new business for our members, what we can do is proved access to business opportunities that give our members a chance to shine,” Vedda said.
The Last Word
When people think of a chamber of commerce, they often envision a bunch of old guys sitting around a smoke-filled room making business deals. Sometimes that is correct, except for the smoke-filled rooms are gone. Most chambers have the same basic function, to support the economy of their members and communities. The North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce doesn’t stop with economic advancement. “We believe business is a vehicle to addressing issues of equality, equity, access, and more,” Vedda said. “Business has led the way on many diversity and inclusion issues, like nondiscrimination policies, domestic partner benefits, and supplier diversity. Until the government catches up, the Chamber will continue to march towards its mission to achieve equality through business.”