New Austin Chamber of Commerce executive director Khalilah Johnson introduces herself during the chamber's June 20 event. Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

When Crystal Dyer, owner of Gone Again Travel & Tours travel agency, 5940 W. Chicago Ave., joined the Austin Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors in March 2021, the organization lost its city funding due to inactivity, the board was down to four members and one of the board members, Tina Augustus, was filling in as an interim executive director.

Since then, the chamber has expanded the board, hired a brand-new executive director, Khalilah Johnson, and is trying to get the city funding back. Chamber officials agree that the organization hasn’t been as active in the community as they should, and they want to try to do better.

They plan to do more regular networking events, improve marketing, help businesses apply for state grants and get certified as minority-owned businesses, which would open up contracting opportunities. Johnson said that she believes that, while the chamber alone can’t solve the structural issues affecting Austin businesses, she believes that supporting them and working with as many area organizations as possible would move the community forward.

Dyer said the chamber had not had a permanent executive director since Amara Enyia stepped down in 2019 after an unsuccessful campaign for mayor. By 2021, two board members had retired, leaving only three members: Dyer, Ed Coleman and Anthony Scott.

It was clear to them that something had to be done.

“The Austin chamber shouldn’t be just fluff, but really help the businesses grow” Dyer said. “And the chamber should be a catalyst for the community, so that there is a foundation for it to thrive.”

The board’s first priority was to bring on more board members who are “educated business leaders in their own fields.” In November 2021, they brought on eight board members, six of whom have stuck around. They include Brad Cummings, publisher of the Voice Newspapers.

After Augustus left the chamber in January to form her own organization, the Chicago West Side Chamber of Commerce, Johnson rose from a group of about five candidates as the person to replace Augustus. Johnson has master’s degrees in business and marketing, and has worked for Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Transit Authority as a program development specialist.

Johnson said she was asked to apply for the director position by members of the chamber. Her family owns DLV Printing Service, an Austin screen-printing company at 5825 W. Corcoran Place, so she’s no stranger to the neighborhood’s business community.

On June 20, the chamber held a “Launch and Learn” event at L May Creations, 5936 W. Chicago Ave., to give area businesspeople a chance to meet Johnson and network.

Catherine Okoroh, a vice president of mortgage lending for Guaranteed Rate, said she met Johnson a few years ago and was impressed with how much Johnson talked about how she wants to better Austin.

“You’re the perfect person [for the position], because you care so much and you have no other motive,” Okoroh told Johnson at the June 20 event.

Dyer said the chamber is currently in the process of trying to get some city funding back, which could happen by 2023. In the meantime, she said that they are trying to be more proactive in their assistance to Austin businesses.

“Right now, we are in full force, with the new board and the new executive director,” Dyer said. “We have two employees, navigators, who are fully trained to answer their questions and direct them to the resources they need.”

The chamber is working with the Illinois Department of Economic Development and West Side Forward to hold business development workshops.

“We want to give [businesses and entrepreneurs] actual tools, instead of being just another organization with meetings,” Dyer said. “We’re going to give them critical tools to be great.”

Johnson said that the organization has been reaching out to business owners to identify their most pressing challenges and have found that access to capital and the need for physical spaces to operate are major issues.

“Let’s put the needs of community, the needs of the business owners first, and everything else will follow,” Johnson said.

CONTACT: igor@growingcommunitymedia.org