A woman sitting in a chair writing in a notebook
Bay Area native Leah Toeniskoetter began her role as CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce in January. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The new leader of a once-powerful San Jose business group is determined to rebuild the organization after years of controversy.

Bay Area native Leah Toeniskoetter began her role as CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce in January. She is the third CEO in roughly three years — a result of the fallout from its checkered past. Her predecessor, Derrick Seaver, resigned last August for a high school teaching job in Oakland.

The chamber, renamed from the Silicon Valley Organization in 2021, dissolved its political action committee (PAC) in 2020 after backlash for racist political ads. The business group lost hundreds of members and its CEO resigned as a result.

Toeniskoetter is working to rebuild relationships with the community. Before coming to the chamber, Toeniskoetter was a senior manager and social impact activation lead at Deloitte, founding director of the San Jose branch of SPUR, an urban policy nonprofit, and a former real estate development manager at her family’s company, Toeniskoetter Development, Inc. She also volunteered with the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in the science-business program.

San José Spotlight sat down with Toeniskoetter to chat about her role. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CEO Leah Toeniskoetter wants the San Jose Chamber of Commerce to be the center for business in the South Bay.  Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

What led you to take on this role?

I definitely followed the chamber’s struggles over the last several years. I’m the third CEO in three years, two interims in between. That’s a lot of challenge for an organization. And I tend to be a person who doesn’t complain about something without offering some sort of help. I too was one of the people saying, “There’s not a voice of business. There’s not a support system for business. There’s not a center for business.” It should be the chamber and it’s not. It just hasn’t been able to catch itself.

What is your long-term vision for the chamber?

I want us to be the center for business in the South Bay so we’re seen as a resource to business, we have the information and the data about what business needs, we are providing what business asks for. Even the conversations that I had this morning were around access to capital if you’re a small business, finding out how we can be most helpful in that type of education.

I think farther down, if City Hall or others want to know how healthy business is in San Jose, I want us to be that source. So we’ll continue to do research, outreach, roundtables, forums. (We) really want to make sure that we know what different industries you’re struggling with.

San Jose’s businesses are still struggling post pandemic. What are your thoughts on how to turn this around?

San Jose’s downtown is its cultural center. I think serving as a central social district, a mix of housing and business is what makes it have activity where we are. The challenge with hybrid work has yet to be understood. Real estate is built for larger tenants.The footprint of buildings and parking (reflect a different) economy and the economy isn’t the same anymore. I think the question of “What is it going to turn into?” is still very open.

Some members of the community feel their relationship with the chamber is still damaged or healing after its racist past. How do you plan to address that?

That’s taken a few different forms, one of which is our business health and needs assessment survey. We knew we couldn’t do that accurately without translating it so it’s in Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin.

I think we all want business to succeed, no matter what the size is. We can’t be in all parts of San Jose. We have to work and we should be working with the nonprofits and the organizations that are already doing amazing work.

Will the chamber take on a political role?

We are not working on a PAC. My goal right now is to figure out how do we best help business. And perhaps that does move into a conversation about candidates and endorsements, but I’m mostly focused on policy right now.

I believe public policy is the invisible driver of how you live your life and how you own your business. One of the interesting ones that has come up has been, “What do (cities) incentivize?” So let’s say it’s downtown San Jose and we want to have sustainably built, high-density, community-integrated buildings. We would need to offer subsidies to do it, but then we would get this amazing building and more people in downtown.

It can’t happen on its own and right now development in San Jose is having a really hard time.

What’s something unexpected or surprising someone may not know about you?

I’m definitely not fluent, but I speak Spanish and Portuguese. If one of my favorite artists is playing in the background — Carlos Vives is my favorite — I will not be listening to you.

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply