The newly-minted San Jose Chamber of Commerce has big plans for diversifying its mostly white executive board and attracting more minority-owned businesses as members.
But some stakeholders are skeptical whether the chamber can match rhetoric with action following last year’s scandal over a racist advertisement that nearly tanked the organization.
Derrick Seaver, who took over as CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce in April, said the board of directors is meeting this fall to discuss creating a more inclusive nomination process for new directors. The chamber, which represents more than 1,000 companies, also made several changes to appeal to minority-owned businesses, including changing its membership fee system and providing in-demand services such as assistance with permitting.
The changes are in large part a response to public backlash that occurred when the Silicon Valley Organization—the previous name of the chamber—was implicated in a racist campaign ad against a political candidate, which itself was preceded by an image of Councilmember Sylvia Arenas with her skin darkened.
After an investigation, the board of directors dissolved the SVO’s political action committee and accepted the resignation of then-CEO Matt Mahood. Seaver said the chamber also incorporated diversity, equity and inclusion principles in its 2021 work plan and that the board will receive diversity training.
But some of the changes discussed for months—such as creating a more diverse board of directors—are lagging. Seaver said that in October of last year, 24% of board members were Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). Today, 34% identify as BIPOC. The board, which has 45 directors, has added seven new members since May, and only three are people of color.
Seaver told San José Spotlight it’s difficult to draw comparisons because the board lost 36% of its directors last year.
“While progress has, is and will continue to be made as we get into the fall, we are committed to that being ongoing work to have a board that fully reflects the diversity of our city and our city’s business community,” Seaver said.
‘For whom are they advocating?’
But not everyone is convinced.
Assemblymember Evan Low told San José Spotlight that the San Jose Chamber of Commerce needs to build upon its stated efforts to become more diverse and inclusive at the top of the organization.
“More than a third of San Jose residents identify as Asian American and Pacific Islanders, but I don’t see that reflected in their current board or executive ranks,” Low said in a statement. “The bench of leaders is deep in our region. And leaders are most effective when they share the lived experience of their communities.”
Seaver said boosting Asian-American representation on the board is an important part of the chamber’s broader goal to reflect the demographics of San Jose. Two Asian-American employees, Eddie Truong and former Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen, left the chamber earlier this year. Truong declined to comment, and Nguyen did not respond to requests for comment. Seaver said he currently has four employees, including himself, and two who are BIPOC.
Dennis King, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Silicon Valley and a board member of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, said he believes Seaver’s heart is in the right place and that he actively listened to his concerns. But he said the rebranding must be accompanied by swift action.
“The game has changed, and today, the community expects a lot more of them in order to regain being respected,” King said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added an extra layer of urgency as businesses turn to business associations for assistance. As an example, King noted how the pandemic has displaced numerous minority-owned businesses from San Jose.
“The nature of a chamber of commerce is about advocacy, so the question always remains, for whom are they advocating?” King said. “It’s not enough to simply say ‘we advocate for business.’”
Building a diverse membership
Glenn Perkins, chair of the chamber’s board of directors, told San José Spotlight the organization has encountered difficulties winning back leaders who are still bothered by the ad campaign. But he said the chamber’s strategy of broadening membership services, such as permitting assistance, legal help and access to marketing, is bringing in a greater number of minority-owned small businesses.
“The feedback has been positive,” Perkins said. “We have started to see the engagement that we need from some of the events that we are having as we focus on safe reopening in the community—so some of our networking and barbecuing events have been outstanding.”
Mauricio Mejia, owner of Punch King LLC and president of the California Labor Exchange, signed up with the San Jose Chamber of Commerce last week. He said he likes the organization’s rebranding, although it has more to do with the name itself than the SVO’s association with the racist ad.
“SVO, that to me was one of the blandest and just boring names,” Mejia told San José Spotlight. “It didn’t have the sizzle.”
King stressed that creating better representation on the board of directors is good, but it doesn’t address more serious equity issues. He said government agencies pour money into Santa Clara County on a wide variety of projects, but the number of minority-owned businesses that participate in this process is infinitesimal.
“It’s more than just the ethnic makeup or male-female ratio of who serves on the board,” King said. “The whole spirit of inclusiveness, which is supposed to be a factor for the makeup of the board, weighs in on so many other areas.”