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The Power of the Six Chambers

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By Brianna Caleri, Tam Hawkins photo by Whitney Martin; Diana Maldonado photo by Korey Howell; mural photo by Carmen M. Fischer, courtesy of Visit Austin, all other photos provided by each respective chamber president.

The six women acting as presidents of Austin’s Chambers of Commerce are working from home, overseeing a new generation of pandemic-proof business in Austin.

This fall, Austinites begin emerging from isolation, back into an economy they kept afloat from their living rooms. The Austin Chambers of Commerce have been hard at work to ensure all that hustling from home made the greatest possible impact. There are six separate chambers that represent the city’s diverse workforces: one for Greater Austin and one each for Black, Hispanic, Asian, LGBT and young demographics. For the first time in Austin’s history, the presidents of all six chambers are women. Working together, they advocate for their respective communities on legislation, coach businesses and organize events and task forces on how to invite greater diversity. Austin Woman asked the presidents for their advice on coming out the other side of the pandemic as a stronger city-wide workforce.

Seeing Each Other’s Superpowers

What’s your community’s superpower in commerce?

Asian Austin: Diversity

“In Austin alone, there are about 20 different language and ethnic groups within the Asian community. We have to overcome a lot of language and cultural barriers to be mobilized. But the diversity also brings us a rich
cultural mindset and custom to flourish.”
– Fang Fang

Hispanic Austin: Work ethic

“The Hispanic community of Central Texas knows a strong work ethic. They are the footprint of our community and to some degree have been a quiet but definitely robust driving economic force that makes our communities and states and nation thrive well.”
– Diana Maldonado

LGBT Austin: Community

“When we would have our luncheons or our in-person events, it was like Thanksgiving every time. That sense of community is so important to who we are because so many in the LGBT community have family struggles. We embrace each other.”
– Tina Cannon

We offer an
incredible
range of
quality of life opportunities.

– Laura Huffman
Black Austin: Resilience

“They amaze me consistently, time after time after time, in how they’ve been able to overcome such huge obstacles in the face of tremendous adversity. They are hopeful, and they just bounce back. The way they look at it always continues to amaze and inspire me.”
– Tam Hawkins

Greater Austin: Opportunity

“There’s something for everyone here. If you look at the range of Top 10 lists that Austin appears on, it’s everything from a great place to start a business, to a great place to eat barbecue, to a great place to retire. We offer an incredible range of quality of life opportunities.”
– Laura Huffman

Young Austin: Refreshing perspective

“I think what makes us unique is that we bring a new vision to the city, and to business, and to leadership. As we’re going through so much change, I just think that refreshing perspective will be helpful to pave the way for the future of Austin.”
– Alyssia Palacios-Woods

Greater Austin Black Chamber President
Tam Hawkins

tam-hawkins-black-chamber-austin-woman (small)

When Tam Hawkins was 13, she had a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. Now her own 13-year-old brings up corporate sales at the dinner table. Business runs in her blood, so there’s already enough of that in the house. When Hawkins’ husband saw working from home was taking a toll on her, he suggested a job with the Black Chamber of Commerce. She loves variety and likes to say she can’t decide what she wants to be when she grows up.

Seeing Each Other’s Superpowers

How well do you know the other leaders in Austin commerce?

Which president would you hold accountable for your finances?

“I think that would be Tam Hawkins. I definitely think she brings a high level of accountability to everybody and really wants to move our community forward in a very positive way. So when it comes to personal savings and accountability, I think she’s your girl.”
– President Palacios-Woods

Which president would you take shopping?

“I would take Alyssia Palacios-Woods because she could probably give me some great fashion tips and make sure I’m up-to-date and modern. Whether it’s accessories or the modern fashion clothing. I lean on younger generations to keep me in place.”
– President Maldonado

If you were entry level again, which president would you like as your boss?

“It’s widely known that Laura Huffman is a genuine badass, and I enjoy working for women who not only have that sense of confidence and strength, but also exhibit that in their abilities. She’s a fantastic role model for young women.”
– President Cannon

With which president would you start a new business?

“Probably Tina Cannon. I just love Tina’s tenacity, and the way she goes about things. She’s matter-of-fact in a way that resonates with me because I, too, am super matter-of-fact.”
– President Hawkins

How would you like to be known as a new president?

“I want to engage more with my community so that I understand their struggles, not only reading from the paper or phone call or survey, but really talk to every one of them. Our community as a minority must have plenty of stories to tell.”
– President Fang

Which president would give the best tour of Austin?

“I think Diana Maldonado would be fun to go on a tour of Austin with because as a former elected official, she’s thought about Austin in a lot of different ways. She’s heard from a huge range of people in Austin about what matters to them and what Austin has to offer.”
– President Huffman

Austin Chamber of Commerce President
Laura Huffman

laura-huffman-austin-chamber-austin-woman (small)

Laura Huffman was born at St. David’s Medical Center, and she’s been involved in the Austin community ever since. She has represented Austin and the state of Texas through years of city planning and conservation work. Now, in 2020, Huffman brings her trademark candor to the Austin Chamber hoping to address a turbulent job market and get the community back on track. Her position, she says, allows her to fix Austin’s current problems while looking forward to the future.

Seeing the Future

How the presidents interpret contemporary challenges in the workplace

A remote work-life balance:

“What are the important things in our lives? It’s self-care, it’s having one daily routine. It is about health, it is about family, it is about nature, and I can still do that by working remotely. I don’t have to get in traffic and create pollution. I can still deliver what I have to my organization
and grow in the areas in mind, body and soul.”
– President Maldonado

“When it comes to higher-education students emerging into the workforce, I think they’re going to be very affected by what’s happening now. We see a work-life balance shift, and how we look at working relationships and family relationships, and how those interact. It’s so common now
to see dogs in the background and children in the background. It’s really brought the fact that work is a part of life.”
– President Palacios-Woods

“Not that men aren’t affected as well, but a huge percentage of the more day-to-day aspect of children still falls on one end. I think it’s a really challenging time to be a mother who works not outside of the home, but inside the home. It’s crazy here. You’re going to hear everything. I found myself not necessarily apologizing for that anymore because my children deserve to have their space as well.”
– President Hawkins

I truly admire and
respect the resourcefulness that young people bring
to the table.

– Diana Maldonado
Keeping up with the pandemic tech carousel:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m aging out of the latest trends. I think it’s easy to feel like you’re behind, and I think that the rate at which information is exchanged now is so quick, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. We talk a lot about leaning into those pieces that are most important to you, cutting out noise. For those who feel like they’re not keeping up, like anything, it’s important to just find that one thing and stick with it and learn it really well.”
– President Palacios-Woods

Stick with your community, even when businesses close:

“The gay bars have a very unique space in our community because that’s from which rights sprung. That’s where the movement began, at Stonewall. In Austin we’re blessed that we don’t have a gay district that most cities have. We’re everywhere. We’ve all done everything that we can to be together digitally. The time that we would spend having a cocktail with each other or going to a show together, I hope that people are engaging with civil discourse and doing their part to move policy in what is the most important election of our lifetime.”
– President Cannon

“I think everything has its life cycle, including businesses and industries. Even dynasties. I come from China, and we had 3,000 years of dozens of dynasties. So we witnessed how a new regime flourished, and then went to the peak, and started to decline until it reached to the end. While you are in that cycle, definitely enjoy every bit when that happens, and then pivot. In China, ‘danger’ and ‘opportunities’ are the same word. So when you are being challenged, there is always opportunity hidden.”
– President Fang

Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber President
Diana Maldonado

diana-maldonado-hispanic-chamber-austin-woman (small)

Diana Maldonado executed a successful campaign for the House of Representatives as a single mom, constantly thinking about how to be resourceful and equitable. While in the House, she started researching wealth gaps and looking for ways to bridge them using her business and finance background. She’s extending her findings to the COVID-19 crisis, by making sure the services the Hispanic community depends on are still being delivered consistently.

Checklist For a Supportive Workplace
Presidents Huffman and Cannon lay out what companies can
do to attract and support a more diverse workforce.

  • Avoid pandering to communities during times of celebration<
  • Be bold in your advertising
  • Set up employee resource groups (ERGs) and benefits
  • Start networking for resources and ideas
  • Pick up the phone and ask for advice from peers and mentors

Greater Austin Asian Chamber President
Fang Fang

fang-fang-asian-chamber-austin-woman-2 (small)

Fang Fang is always connecting the dots. Throughout her career, both in the US and in China, she placed dots in journalism, public relations and entrepreneurship. She learned how to gather information to tell stories, how to demystify a brand identity in order to strategize and how to spot trends to solve problems. Now she’s using all those skills to help Asian Austin better define itself in its community.

Seeing the Future

Being an Ally

To people of different ages:

“When I was in the legislature I leaned on a lot of young adults to run my office. I truly admire and respect the resourcefulness that young people bring to the table, because they’re so savvy, they’re quick and they really make business
work faster.”
– President Maldonado

By flipping social expectations:

“I attended a panel of professional Black men that were telling their experience as Black men walking through America, and they talked about their feelings. Then my panel was a group of Black women talking about policy that could help with some of the issues we’re facing. It was, to me, a really cool dynamic because oftentimes men are seen as being able to speak to policy, and not emotions. To have that switch, and to talk about women who quite honestly will be very much part of the process of helping Austin recover economically, just really warms my heart.”
– President Hawkins

To people you haven’t met yet:

“People want to work with the Asian community, but they don’t know who we are, they don’t know how to reach us and they don’t know what our reaction is. I wanted to build that bridge to send the message that we are here, we are interested; let us know how we can be more involved.”
– President Fang

Austin LGBT Chamber President
Tina Cannon

tina-cannon-lgbt-chamber-austin-woman (small)

Tina Cannon is catching her breath after a marathon of entrepreneurship. She generated multiple startups and worked in politics, government relations and even the Austin Chamber. The LGBT Chamber, which had been a volunteer organization for years, caught Cannon’s eye as a great candidate for elevation. She hopes the Chamber will be her last calling card.

Embrace the women you work with:

“We have had such a ball working together over the years. I believe in women, I love working with women. That’s not to say I don’t like working with men, but it’s different for me. Especially female leaders, they get a lot of our other challenges. You get to take a breath in a different manner.”
– President Hawkins

“What’s really exciting about these women who are in a leadership role with me is that we are so collaborative and that we do have open-minded communication and working relationships. We recognize that there are skills that each of our chambers, each of our members and each of us bring to the table. And that by working together we can accomplish so much more.”
– President Palacios-Woods

“We all work really well together. We talk to each other weekly, on various calls. So when we can be a unified voice, we really try to be, and it’s pretty exciting that it’s all women leading the Austin business voice. By nature, we are great multitaskers, so I expect 2021 should look out.”
– President Cannon

Austin Young Chamber President
Alyssia Palacios-Woods

alyssia-palacios-woods-young-chamber-austin-woman (small)

With a compact résumé, Alyssia Palacios-Woods stands out among the presidents. She prefers to see projects through to their fullest potential, giving seven years in her prior position where she estimates most people would spend two. That’s the kind of team loyalty you’d expect from the former NCAA athlete who fell in love with Austin while playing tennis and never left. She hopes to keep the volley going between professionals and their passions.

Community

In a word cloud generated by these six interviews, the largest word was “community.” The presidents share a strong bond, and each one who spoke about the joy of working with the others volunteered that enthusiasm when she ran out of questions to answer. To use Tam Hawkins’ word, Austinites need “levity” while addressing the pandemic, institutional inequity and natural disasters. The chamber presidents are tackling their roles with determination and applying a staggering wealth of combined business experience with gratitude and an unbeatable sense of humor. Business in Austin doesn’t happen in a vacuum–it happens in food trucks, under centuries-old oaks; it happens at home and it happens at the Chambers of Commerce.


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