Home » All Start Local Episodes » Advocating for Local Businesses and Organizations with Laura Manion
Advocating for Local Businesses and Organizations with Laura Manion

Podcast published: September 22, 2023

We spend time with Laura Manion, the President and CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry. We speak with Laura about her advocacy work at the CCCBI and how she and her colleagues work on behalf of businesses and organizations in and around Chester County. We also go into detail about the challenges of affordable childcare and housing, particularly as they affect local employers and employees.


Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry

Childcare Advocacy

Housing Advocacy

Additional Links

 Intro: Welcome to Start Local, where we talk with business owners, leaders of nonprofits, and other members of our community focused on doing business in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. Each episode will provide insight into the local business scene and tell you about opportunities to connect with and support businesses and nonprofits in your local area.

Liam Dempsey: Welcome to Start Local, where we connect with local leaders to support local businesses and non profits in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. I’m Liam Dempsey, and I’m lucky to be here with my co-host, Erik Gudmandson. Erik, how are you?

Erik Gudmundson:  I’m doing well, Liam. How are you today?

Liam Dempsey: I am very well. Although it’s taking me about four times to get the intro to the show going. But, enough about that.

A couple of episodes ago, we heard the CEO of the Chester County Food Bank talk about how wonderfully the local chambers of commerce collaborate with each other to support and advocate for area businesses. So today, we are excited to have Laura Manion with us. Laura is the CEO and President of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry. Welcome, Laura. Thanks for joining us. 

Laura Manion: Thank you for having me, Liam. And do not worry, I trip over CCCBI quite often. it is a mouthful. 

Liam Dempsey: Well, you’re very kind to say that, but I’m going to go ahead and mute myself for a second and let Erik jump in with the first question for you. 

Erik Gudmundson: Well, one of the facts that surprises many local business people in Chester County is that it’s home to several different chambers of commerce. I think BASTA checked the number is around nine. And so I want to know, as you work together with other chambers through the Chamber Alliance,  how would you explain that collaboration and how would you differentiate your own chamber from the others? 

Laura Manion: Sure. So, yes. There are a lot of chambers in Chester County. And I actually come, my previous employer was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the largest trade association in the country. so I am very used to working with many, many chambers. I had six states, actually when I worked for the U.S. chamber, that’s a lot of chambers within those six states. 

So, very well versed. But the Chester County Chamber Alliance is a great organization. It’s all of our chambers together. And actually, all nine chambers are run by women, which is incredible. So, we’ve got a great group. We meet once a month, and just sort of go over what we’re all working on, what events are coming up, you know, future collaboration. And the way in which we collaborate oftentimes is through joint networking events.

So, a big part of your chamber membership, you are looking to network with other businesses, like minded individuals, employees and employers. So, it’s a great way when we do these joint events, luncheons, happy hours, breakfasts, or educational events to meet people that you might not meet otherwise at a chamber event, because now you’re pulling from various parts of the county. Our  chamber’s very regional, so you might even be meeting people from outside of Chester County. 

And, you know, we’re trying to really come together and think of topics that affect all types of businesses across various industries, small, medi and large. And I think that’s a great way that our collaboration really shines is through these joint networking and educational events. 

What differentiates our chamber? We are countywide. So we are the largest chamber in the county. As I mentioned, we are very regional. So, we pull a lot of companies from Philadelphia Delaware County, the main line. We have some members, you know, all the way in Lancaster and Harrisburg. So, we are bringing people, you know, from various industries, various backgrounds together, pretty much in the entire Philadelphia region.

And a large part of what we do in addition to the networking, in addition to the marketing, the events is advocacy. And that’s what our chamber’s sort of been known for historically. We just celebrated our 30th year last year as a chamber. And we really work hard to advocate for businesses on policy matters on the local state and federal level. And that’s working with our elected officials .You know, talking about policy, writing op eds, setting up meetings, writing letters of support. And that’s sort of how we really differentiate ourselves. 

Liam Dempsey: That’s great. And that’s a great overview on what your chamber does. So, thank you for that. So we understand that the Chester County Chamber has a history of being politically active while other chambers have chosen to remain more neutral. You’ve endorsed candidates running for office. You’ve written op ed columns, as you just mentioned, and you’re active in Harrisburg, the state capitol. Tell us a little bit about the process that your chamber uses to decide its political positions. How does that come together? 

Laura Manion: Sure. So historically, yes, the chamber has been very politically active. And depending on who you ask, it’ll be one side or the other. But when I came in, you know, my mission was to truly be bipartisan and talk about good business policy. And so I mentioned I came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We used to have a saying especially during the infrastructure bill passage throughout 2020 and 2021 was there’s no republican ridge bridge or democrat road. There’s just a need for an infrastructure bill. And I sort of live my you know, that’s sort of how I guide myself in this position is what is good business policy? What is good policy for our community? How do we better our community through that type of policy?

So when I first came on, I worked very hard with our government affairs consultant and our government affairs committee to put together a list of policy initiatives that were important to the chamber. And that ranges anywhere from, you know, keeping taxes low to energy investment, responsible development, all the way down to housing education child care. 

So, first thing we did was put that together. Send that out to our elected officials and say, you know, this is really our guiding principles, our North star. And when we do come down, it’s time for endorsements. We will be looking at how you handle these types of issues. Also, do you meet with members? What’s your interaction with the chamber? Do you come to chamber events? So, it’s a very holistic approach to the endorsement and our government affairs committee is made up of small medium and large business non-profit. We’ve got representatives from the county, TMAC (Transportation Management Association of Chester County). So we have a great subset at microcosm of our membership, really involved in that government affairs committee. And then they make the decisions, should we sign on to this letter that we’ve been asked to do a sign on letter for drafting op eds that I recently have done on housing and childcare.

And so there’s a lot of group collaboration and a lot of discussion. We’re not always on the same team  you know, but it’s not the red team and the blue team. It’s what’s the best policy moving forward that’s going to help business not just in Chester County, but in the region and the state.  And you know, as I said, my guiding principle has always just been let’s do what’s best for our community. And sometimes that upsets one side and sometimes it upsets the other side. So, you just have to meet in the middle and keep forging on. And  i’ve been yelled at quite a few times in this job for positions we’ve taken,  but at the end of the day, I think people know that we are genuinely trying to do what we think is best for the business community here.

Erik Gudmundson: Well, I heard you mention the issue of childcare and we’ve heard you speak passionately and eloquently about the need to address affordable childcare. And I’d like you to briefly explain why you talk about affordable childcare as a business issue and offer some details on what the chamber or the Chester County Chamber of Business Industry is doing to address the issue of affordable childcare.

Laura Manion: Sure. So I first started hearing about the childcare crisis before I even had a child. When I worked at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce in 2020, 2021, they started to put out statistics on the amount of daycare centers that had closed during the pandemic. Many more operating at limited capacity, the, you know, the diminished accessibility and affordability of childcare across the nation and how that affects business. So, they were really talking about it from a business economic standpoint. So then when I was five months pregnant and I was touring daycares, and I was finding a year or two wait lists, and I had to go back to work after my son was born, I was like, “Oh my goodness! This is real. Now i’m living it”. And I took my son to work with me for an entire month. Pack and play in my office, you know, he was joining me in staff meetings and it was kind of a nightmare. And, you know, i’m in this new big job as CEO of this big active chamber and so I was like, okay, this is obviously an issue. I need to start talking about this because what i’ve learned T=the most from this entire saga of talking about childcare is that people just don’t know, unless you have a young child, you know, the 65 year old CEO might not know the issues that a 32 year old millennial mom employee is working through.

So, I started to talk about it in our board meeting. And the U.S. chambers data cites that 60% of parents cite, lack of child care is the reason they leave the workforce. And that there was 1 million women missing from the workforce post pandemic due to child care. So, I mean those are quite staggering numbers. And then when I started to really dig into it, it was, you know, the median salary for child care workers is about $14 an hour. Median cost to families can range anywhere from $10,000 – $50,000 a year for daycare depending on where you live in the country. In Chester County, our costs are about $18,000 for the year for infant care which is a 13% of the median income here. So, once you start coupling that with a mortgage and car payments and student loan payments, I mean, the costs are astronomical.

So thankfully, my son did get into a home care situation, so I was able to get back to work. And that led me to writing an op ed in one of the local papers earlier this year that’s, I believe, been viewed almost half a million times which for a local paper, that’s pretty viral. So I knew I had something people were reaching out from all over the country, pediatricians, nonprofits. And it sort of snowballed into working with our state legislators, especially here in Chester County. 

I went and testified in front of the house children and youth committee in the Pennsylvania house, and then from there, I worked with State Rep. Melissa Shusterman democrat from Chester County to speak on behalf of a bill that she put forth to expand the child care tax credit in front of the house finance committee. And then I was talking at press conferences, I was writing follow up pieces. And we now are actually working with the providers to talk about you know, what is it that you’re seeing on your end? I’m only seeing it as a parent. You know, now we’re working with the providers to really get the true issues of why the cost is so high. And there are so many different reasons that we need that the providers and the parents need our support. 

So, I basically talk in a circle every single day with our lobbyists on how to fix this issue. But at the end of the day, you know, we’re talking about how do we make this easier for parents and for those who are watching our kids because they are, that’s our next generation of leaders. You know, that’s our next workforce. So we’ve started to create sort of like a statewide elevated platform through various outreach to legislators and chambers across the state, led an effort that 55 chambers signed on to a letter to every member of the Pennsylvania house and senate imploring them to address the child care crisis. We have seen very positive feedback and results from that. So we know we’ve hit a nerve and we just have to continue talking about it and working with our legislators on what we can do to to fix some of the issues around the issue as a whole. 

Erik Gudmundson: That’s a very detailed answer. Thank you very much for that. And I like that you included some of the numbers, and I don’t have a brain for numbers. So you said something like 13k – 15k dollar, a year for child care in Chester County. And that’s a that’s an enormous amount of money, particularly for those that might be at the lower end of the salary spectrum. 

Laura Manion: Yeah.

Erik Gudmundson: That’s a lot. Before we go on to another question, I just want to flag up something that your organization did. And once you just share a little bit about it at a recent event, and I think it was an award dinner where that you just had, whereas part of the provision of the award dinner, the chamber provided free childcare for attendees. Can you talk a little bit about that? That’s so exciting to see. 

Laura Manion: Yes. And that was a very serendipitous situation because both my husband and my mom were on work trips when that event was taking place. So, I was like, “Uh-oh. I don’t have anyone”. My number one babysitter is gone. My partner’s gone. So, I was scrambling to figure out what I was going to do with my son because we did have an event for 200 people last Wednesday night. And I actually had a fellow mom say, you know, the venue you’re hosting the event actually has a kid zone and they provide child care during evening events for the wine. It’s actually the wine club at White Manor. And so I called the country club. I said, Hey, would you be able to extend this to our event? We do all this advocacy about child care. We need to put our money where our mouth is and provide child care to moms or dads working parents who want to attend. These type events, but it’s hard to find coverage or you know, I pay my babysitter $25 an hour. You know whether they don’t want to or they can’t afford to pay that for a three hour event.

So we worked with the club. We had five kids, five and under who were there for the evening. And what I learned is we had daycare covered 4-7 PM. The event was running about 20 minutes too late. So at 7:00, the babysitters dropped the kids right back off in the room. So, I finished out the event with my son which ended up being great because it showed the need for flexibility. 

So I brought my one year old back up to the stage with me at the end of the night for closing comments. And, I think I showed everyone in the room and in, you know, some of the largest employers in the region or in that room, they just have to be flexible and understand people are going to have hiccups in their life and they’re going to need support. And here we are. You can make this type of, you know, you can bounce the scales and make it work. My son was trying to eat the microphone as I was up there, but I think that added to the cuteness of the whole situation. But yeah, I mean, some days I have to take him to, I have a lot of early meetings, a lot of late nights, and I’ve got to take him with me because daycare drop off hours have condensed post pandemic or you have to pay a premium. So he’s pretty much a staple at chamber events. But I think it really helps with the messaging that we are, you know talking to these employers, small, medium and large that it’s 2023, and employees value a company culture that is really flexible and understanding. And as we see such high turnover, this is a way for your employees to see that you value them and are willing to stay and, you know, put the time into your company if you’re willing to put the investment into them as well.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. Thank you for that. I know that, you know, you’re laughing and you’re joking and you’re smiling and talking about your son coming to these events. But I know that is logistically difficult. It is a challenge. And I’m sure, you know, in addition to positive and supportive and welcoming comments, I’m sure you’re getting side glances, if not straight up mean comments. So, and invariably this issue affects women much more than it affects men. That’s a bigger topic than we could get into today. But, I really am grateful to you, and your colleagues within the chamber for leading on this issue. It’s very, very important. And, thank you for your own personal effort on this. I know it comes at a cost. 

Laura Manion: Thank you. Yes. And because you said numbers, I mean, there are more women in the workforce now than ever before. It does disproportionately affect more women than it does men. My husband works at Vanguard. He can’t just bring a baby to Vanguard like that. Just, you know, he doesn’t have that type of flexibility that I do, but 60% of families with children under six have both parents in the workforce and by and large is the female, usually that takes that hit and has to make that sacrifice. So, we are trying very hard to just talk about this from an economic standpoint. You know, especially as we see retention and recruitment continue to be an issue time and time again, and disproportionately affecting women. So it’s one of those things I think, it lends nicely to a young woman being in charge of the chamber. But I do hear people say like, do you only talk about issues that affect your life? And it’s like, well, yeah. I’m going to use my platform to talk about an issue that I know, you know, I have Ivy league educated friends who are quitting their job because they can’t find or afford childcare. 

So, and actually 96% of childcare workers are women and they are making $14 an hour on average. So, it’s not just a women’s issue. It’s a societal issue, but we have to talk about it. You know, in these, there are very gender specific roles that we take on here, in this issue.

Liam Dempsey: Absolutely. I want to go in a slightly different direction if I can. So in advance of this show, we spoke about affordable housing as a big challenge for Chester County. In a previous episode, we heard Andrea Youndt, the CEO of the Chester County Food Bank, talk about it as a big issue. That’s Episode 32 for our listeners. So, and you even mentioned it earlier in our conversation now. Today, tell me about how affordable housing is an issue for local businesses and kind of the specifics if you can. And if I could go a little bit further, who does it impact most? Big business, small business?

Laura Manion: Sure. So, Chester County is not an affordable place to live for many. And I, similar to childcare, have talked about this policy issue as a business issue. So, as I mentioned earlier, you know, the the 60 year old CEO might not know the issues that his 22 to 40 year old employees are going through. Housing is obviously one of them. We have seen over the last couple years with interest rates, you know, hiked up from 2-3% to 6-7% housing prices going from 330,000 – 700,000. 

My husband and I bought our house in the summer of 2021. We saw 33 houses and put in eight offers. We were getting crushed. With 50,000, 100,000 cash over asking sight unseen. You know, we’d have an appointment at 10:00, the house would be sold by 9:59. Even though it went live at 10:00. So I, again, another issue that I’m just using my platform to talk about that’s affecting my life. But, I think certainly this affects businesses, large, small, everything in between this affects every industry. Right now, the average house price in Chester County is slightly over 500,000. So, at a 6 or 7% interest rate, you know, that is unattainable for so many in this county. And I believe the average list price is $575. The average house price is going for about $500, 000. So if you put that 6-7% interest rate, you need to make close to $150, 000 household income to be able to afford that type of house. Not many people are making that type of money. So our restaurant workers, our manufacturers, you know school bus drivers, teachers, nurses, police officers, you name it. There’s so many people out there in so many different industries that we need to talk about housing as a business issue. And I recently did write an op ed about how the business community needs to talk about housing and public transportation. We need to talk to our municipalities. We need to get more involved in zoning. You know, you walk down the street and you ask average citizen what is your zoning hearing board do? I would say many of them don’t know, but these are important. I mean, this is where people say all politics is local. This is so crucial. It affects your everyday life. 

We talk about responsible development, infrastructure, public transportation, housing costs, they are all tied together and they are all workforce issues. If your employees can’t afford to live here, they will likely move to another County where there’s more affordable housing. And when they don’t want to sit, you know, on 422 or 202 or 30 every day for an hour because the roads are so backed up, they likely go get another job somewhere else where they have more flexibility. They can work from home or something that’s closer to where they now live.

So, I’ve actually had a lot of of different groups Chester County Housing partnership, a lot of our non profits have reached out and and said, we know this is a big issue and it’s something we need to address. And, you know, now it’s about getting the vanguards, but all the way down to the veterinarian and to, you know, the Wawa store and the coffee shop to talk about this as well. This is an issue that affects every industry of all sizes. And, you know, rent prices, I think my last rental before we bought our house, we were paying &2,500. And, you know, some of these new buildings that are going up in Exton and downtown, we’re seeing 1,200 square feet. Two bedrooms for over three thousand a month. That’s just not sustainable for so many people in the workforce.

Erik Gudmundson: You really hit the nail on the head there in terms of two very important issues that are impacting the workforce today in Chester County Child Care and housing and the affordability and availability of both. I’m wondering because obviously you have personal experience with it as you mentioned, but are you familiar with the Alice study from the united way and how the Alice poverty levels or I should say the poverty levels are significantly lower than what the Alice levels are for how much money you actually need to make to be a productive member of society here in Chester County? And have how has that influenced your policy positions there?

Laura Manion: The united way is a great community partner. I actually did just work with them on a child care issue. And I think even more so, we need to consider the cost of utilities are going up. Inflation at the grocery store. Yesterday I paid $12 for a pound of american cheese slices. I mean, these are serious issues that are affecting every tax bracket. But I think people think, well, Chester County, you know, that’s more high end, healthiest, wealthiest. We get all these awards type county, but there are still pockets of poverty all throughout the county. And even, you know, not even just poverty to good jobs, you know, in the manufacturing world or school bus driver and a teacher. I mean It’s just the days of the 300,000, three bed, two bath house, being affordable and being able to drive your car and gas isn’t $5. And the grocery bill isn’t $200 a week. It’s just, it’s an incredibly expensive time in society. And, you know, pay hasn’t kept up with inflation and, you know, myriad of factors of how we need to sort of readjust as a society to how we can all live cohesively and comfortably, you know, affordable housing has sort of become a negative term. So we try to workforce housing, attainable housing, quality housing. But Once you couple every other factor and you know that we’re dealing with with rising costs and inflation, It’s incredibly difficult to live, you know in a very well off area if you’re not making, you know, those six figure salaries.

Erik Gudmundson: You’re tackling some issues there that are much bigger than traditional chamber of commerce issues. However, they are absolutely critical to business. So i’m glad you’re doing it. I did want to keep this interview personal here a little bit and ask you: Did you always want to lead a Chamber of Commerce? and how did you find this role? and just as importantly, how did you land in Chester County for this role? 

Laura Manion: So, I am born and raised in Chester County. I grew up in Phoenix, Phil. and I’m a dual Pennsylvania educated. I went to Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster for my undergrad, and I have a master’s in public administration from West Chester. I married my high school sweetheart who went to Conestoga and grew up in Malvern. So I think if there was an award for Chester county pageantry, I might be crowned miss Chester county. But I actually have a very interesting career path. So I was a government major in college and that led me to political fundraising and event planning for about six years after I graduated. and then I Switch gears completely and went to work at Villanova university doing government and community relations. And that’s really when I learned even what a chamber of commerce was and their value to the community. so I worked with the Mainline Chamber of commerce, the Delaware county Chamber of Commerce and the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce in that role.

But I also worked with a lot of community groups, business development associations. I learned a lot about township issues. I spent a lot of nights at retner township building until one in the morning. I’m talking about Stormwater and Light pollution. So I learned, so I can’t give that job enough, kudos. I learned so much working at Villanova University, that sort of led me to where I am now. 

And ironically, when I was working at Villanova, the previous CEO of the chamber had asked me to moderate a panel for the Chester County Chamber. And my future boss from the U.S. chamber unknowingly was one of the panelists. And he came up to me after the panel and said I want you to come work for me. So in 2020, I made the switch to really just kind of a leap of faith because the office was in Chicago. The chamber was based out of DC and I was asked to move to Chicago. And I said, well, how about I do this job from Chester county and i’ll fly into the six states, and i’ll drive down to DC. And you know, I can really see all of these chambers, rural, urban, suburban, and just get out on the road often.

And so they let me stay here, and it was a lot of time on regional airplanes, which are very small. And,  I really was able to learn so much about policy coming out of DC, and how it would affect those chambers within the six states I had. 

And I had, essentially, Pennsylvania to Illinois. So a lot of manufacturing, but then, you know, i’d go to an event at the mainline chamber fly to Toledo, Ohio, and then i’d be in Detroit down to Kentucky. So, similar to Chester County how we sort of have our, you know, we’ve got the city of coatesville. And then we’ve got our Southern end of the county with our horse farms and our agriculture. And then over to the Eastern Mainline. So I really was able to see chamber work from so many outlets and views that lended so well to this job. So when a board member called and asked if I would apply, it seemed like a no brainer, you know, I love this community. I’m so invested in, and it’s success, and i’ve grown. You know, it’s funny my husband, I actually bought our first house that we currently live in Phoenixville, and for my college thesis, I wrote about the revitalization of Phoenixville and interviewed the borough manager and the chamber of commerce and the historical society. And, you know, here we are 11 years later, I’m still in Phoenix Phil,  still talking about the revitalization and, you know, I just absolutely love this community and love what I do.

Erik Gudmundson: Well, I think that I’m curious to hear your thoughts on why a business should be a member of a chamber of commerce in general, in the sense that I talked to a lot of new members of chambers of commerce and expect to walk into an event and walk out with an arm full of purchase orders. And, you know, try to reset their expectation a little bit that no, it’s about relationships. It’s about community interaction. It’s about establishing yourself as a good steward of the community. So, what would you say is the biggest value that a member of a chamber of commerce could realize aside from all the general values and general help that you’re certainly offering right now?

Laura Manion: Sure. I think when you join a chamber, you get so much out of it. But based on what you put into it, you know, it’s so important to attend the events to read the emails, to follow the social media. We are lucky here. We, I have a wonderful team of five, and we host informative events. We host monthly networking, happy hours, lunch and learns coffee and conversation. So, there’s ample opportunity to network.  And like I said earlier, you’re networking County wide. So you might be talking to somebody from Kennett and then two minutes later, you’ll talk to someone from Coatsville and then from Berwyn. So you’re meeting so many people, so many businesses. And I think what you get out of this the most in terms of it’s never a business card exchange, but it’s hearing from others who might be going through something that you’re going through, you know, when you own your own business or an employee of a certain business. And sort of learning from them, understanding, and working towards, “Oh, I’ve gone through that too. Let me give you some pointers or, you know, I don’t know if I can help you there, but I might know somebody who can.

And I’ve really tried to maximize our networking and educational opportunities this year, while also strengthening our community partnerships. We have so many strategic partnerships. You mentioned the united way, the food bank, the economic development council city of coatesville, transportation managementf. We are bringing together so many in the community who again like me are so invested in the community. And I think when you join a chamber and you see that collaboration and that passion, you know, it’s inspiring. And, you know, beyond the social media, the marketing, like we are your cheerleader. We do as much as we can to get your message out there because we do have a full time marketing director We’re able to, you know, put out Linkedin posts, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and tell your story. I think that’s what, you know, people love about the chamber. It’s the camaraderie, and that’s really why I love what I do. When I walk into a room and I, and someone says, Oh, I just met, so and so, and they’re going to help me with this, you know, that is the best feeling in the world.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. That is a good feeling. You talked a lot about networking and helping businesses and organizations, and non profits connect with each other. Tell us more about one or two businesses or nonprofits that you think deserve more of a spotlight than they might be getting currently. Who else should we know about? So I’ll just go ahead. I’m going to cut you off just a second. I appreciate this is a loaded question. You’re the CEO of the chamber of commerce. So…

Laura Manion: So, because you sent this question ahead of time, Liam, I did have some time to think about it. And with 700 members, I was unsure of where to start. But I think for a nonprofit, one that I, that is so near and dear to my heart is SCORE of Chester and Delaware County. These services that they provide, mentoring and guidance for small business owners, especially to help launch their business, better their business, network their business, we honored them last year as our Community Partner Of The Year. I know they are looking for mentors right now. So I wanted to give a plug to score. They’re always looking for, it is completely volunteer run. They’re always looking for more mentors for, you know, younger generations, diverse generations, so that they can help the next generation of business owners and employees, and entrepreneurs get their start. So definitely want to give a big shout out to score for all they do. 

Erik Gudmundson: That’s fantastic. I love when different organizations help other organizations, and  it’s so meaningful to hear. Specifically on that point, can you give me an example of how your chamber directly help one of your members? 

Laura Manion: Sure. So again, I’m going to give a broad answer here.

Erik Gudmundson: We can’t pin you down. You do have a history in politics, no doubt. 

Laura Manion: Yes. So last, so all this childcare advocacy, like I said, we’ve talked about it so much from a parent standpoint. So last week, we actually spent a couple weeks researching and outreach to every child care provider in Chester County. Actually, none of which were members. So this is a non-member story. But we reached out to them, you know, there was a budget impasse earlier this summer in Harrisburg. There was a lot of uncertainty about specific funding that child care providers would receive. So we wanted to keep them up to date, now that the budget’s been passed, now that our legislators are back in Harrisburg. 

What can we expect? What are we hoping for, and we want to hear from you? So, we reached out to like 200 daycare, and childcare providers, and we held a call with our contract lobbyist myself, and I would say, we got about 20 providers on the call from all around Chester County. And we sort of gave them an update and then said, tell us everything, you know, what are you seeing? What is keeping you up at night? You know, where are your blind spots that we could fill in? And we had like a two hour conversation. It was eye opening. And, you know, their struggles, their increased costs, closing classrooms, hiring woes, you know, anything you can imagine that owning and operating a business like this that is so regulated, but so important. And we had next steps, we had follow ups, we had meetings that we were scheduling, we had, you know, social media and op eds that we were planning. This is how our chamber works. This is why the advocacy we do is so important because now we can set up meetings with legislators. We can get them together with leadership so that they can hear directly about why this piece of regulatory piece might be too stringent. And we could probably relax a little or how do we help them with like the overhead that you know since utilities are going up and it’s so hard to find staff. So, we walked away from that thinking. Okay, none of these people are members, but here we are doing this service for the community because it matters. And maybe hopefully we get some members from this. 

And I think that’s where, you know people come to me all the time and say what chamber should I join? I always say you should join your local chamber in your community and you should join the county chamber. But if someone comes to me and says I have this great idea, and it doesn’t exactly fit what might work in our chamber but might be a great opportunity for another chamber that is completely focused in that industry or that area, I’m gonna always pass them off to those, you know to that chamber because I think it’s just important that we’re helping the business, the community, the individual, whatever.

And so, well, I couldn’t pick just one member to highlight. Although there are 700 I mean 70 of our membership is small business, but we are always writing letters of support for nonprofits for grant funding, you know, but this is an opportunity where I feel like we are really spotlighting these daycare centers and child care providers and how much they need our assistance. We call it public private partnership, like it needs to be the business community, needs to be our government, and it needs to be the providers themselves. And that’s one where I think it’s a really great success story on what we’re working on. So if any of them are listening, I hope you all join the chamber, but we will continue to fight for your rights.

Erik Gudmundson: It’s a perfectly acceptable, shameless plug. Go for it. And I’m sure everybody in Chester County listens to this podcast, so all half a million of us are listening. Particularly in the wake of the pandemic lockdowns, more people, businesses, nonprofits turn to social media to connect with colleagues and prospects and community members, how has your chamber changed over the last year, few years, and more broadly, how do you see chambers evolving to better serve members in the future?

Laura Manion: Great question. I think, you know, obviously we saw so much evolved with technology and the use of Zoom and, you know, we’re seeing you might not need to have that meeting in person and have all those people travel. We can just hop on a call. But I would say probably the feedback we’re getting the most is that people are ready to get back together again. And so, we see ourselves as sort of, you know, now that we’ve, you know, we had two years really of the pandemic. And then, this year was the year of, okay, I think I’m going to start getting back into it and going to networking events and, you know, reading our emails and seeing what we’re doing. And yeah, increase, I mean, social media, we are all day, every day, you know, it’s, I think there was a sort of negative drawback to the pandemic is that people are reacting right away always on the phone and expecting answers immediately. But now that we’ve sort of you know, we’ve readjusted, how do we continue to hold informative events and network with our folks where they might rather come and see people in person, you know, that face to face that water cooler discussion that will never be trumped, I think, by being on Zoom.

So, I think there was a lot of, you know, this could be an online meeting and we’ve sort of done a few of those. Bu, we’re backed in person, and how can we get people back together?

Erik Gudmundson: We appreciate that the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry works to help and support local businesses of all sizes. How can the local community, both businesses and non profits or otherwise, support you and your colleagues at the Chamber? I think I heard the answer is become a member, but is…

Laura Manion: I mean, I thinks always, if you know someone out there is doing, you know interesting and dynamic work and sort of flying under the radar, bring them to the next chamber event. Introduce them to staff here and maybe make that connection towards membership. But I think for us, we’re here for the business, nonprofit community as a liaison to our elected officials. As I mentioned, those strategic partnerships. And we’re always looking for new and existing businesses that are in the county that we can spotlight, cheerlead, champion. So, if there are others out there who are not members of the chamber, making sure you bring them around. And, like I said, we’re here to help just to make Chester County a great place to live, work, and raise a family and retire. So, whether they join or whether they come to an event, you know, we’ve got so many events throughout the year of so many different varieties, educational, fun, you know, informative, honoring, you know, so many members of our community for all the great work they do. 

So, that’s how you can support us by really just attending events, reading our emails, following us on social media. And, seeing the value that we bring to the community, and helping us champion that.

Liam Dempsey: We’ve talked a bit about hiring and retention today and how it’sreally a challenge. And we touched on some of the ancillary issues that affect hiring and retention. Let me ask you if the chamber is currently hiring or looking for new folks to join your team.

Laura Manion: We just hired a new membership director. Actually, we had not had a membership director since the pandemic started which for a membership organization is crazy. But we are fully staffed here with events marketing community partnerships, memberships and myself. So, we are currently not hiring. But, for those who are, we do have a spot on our website for members who post job postings. We share on LinkedIn, especially we see so many hits in the business community from LinkedIn. So we use that a lot to share whether a member is in need of employees. But, you know, I think I heard a statistic last week, you know, there’s like five or six different, you know, subsets of ages within the workforce right now. Gen Z to Boomer and beyond. And we all sort of speak different language and we’re all using technology differently. And it’s,  you know, for a 65 year old CEO to talk to a 22 year old Gen Z employee, there’s a lot of difference in, you know, from one to the other. 

So we’re actually hosting an event this week with the Westchester Chamber of Commerce about Gen Z in the workforce. And, you know, they talk differently, they work differently, they want more flexibility, more hours, more pay. This is, you know, Millennials and Gen Z are the the generations of debt, and student loans, credit card. So, there’s a lot that, you know of difference between Gen Z and the Boomers and Z and the Millennials. 

So, we’re here to sort of serve as a conduit and a pipeline for we run an incredible youth leadership program here where we actually take kids from local high schools around Chester county. It’s a 10 month program or once a month. They don’t have school that day and they come with us to a different business around Chester county. And, you know, they go to a manufacturer, they go to Wawa headquarters. They hear from non profits. They do an etiquette class for business development and financial literacy. So, we are working to be that talent pipeline management for many of our employers. We work very closely with the I.U. We actually have a new board member from a union. So we’re working with the trades. And, you know, as it’s the number one thing we hear from businesses of all size. I need workers. There’s still a workforce issue post pandemic. The chambers here. We’re here for…So we’re here. We’re helping. We’re here to listen. And, it’s one of those things where you just have to get involved and ask, and we can help make those connections. And again, I think that’s the power of the chamber.

Erik Gudmundson: Well, Laura Manion, thank you very much for sharing your views and your experiences, as well as the thoughts of your members of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry. Thank you very much for coming. 

Laura Manion: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to do this again whenever. I loved it. 

Erik Gudmundson: Wonderful. Well, thank you to also my co-host, Liam Dempsey, and all of our listeners. The Start Local podcast is published every two weeks. We invite you to subscribe. We also invite you to visit our Start Local website, which is [startlocal.co] for show notes, including links mentioned on this show and summaries of past episodes.

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