[Ref: “A farewell tribute to GSDBA,” Vol. 9, Issue 13, or online at bit.ly/farewell-gsdba]
It’s Pride month in San Diego and hundreds of LGBTQ and ally organizations, businesses, politicians and supporters are deciding on last-minute touches to parade floats and festival booths.
We see more and more rainbow flags flying in front of businesses and houses. The spirit of Stonewall is in the air and the pulse of 1969 is rising in our community. Has it really been almost 50 years? So much progress has been achieved, and yet not enough. This year, San Diego LGBT Pride calls on our community to “Persist with Pride.” San Diego’s LGBTQ & Ally Chamber of Commerce is ready to answer that call.
Almost exactly one decade after the Stonewall riots, in June 1979, 21 business owners founded an organization in which everyone was welcome and encouraged to be themselves without risking the failure of their businesses because they were gay or lesbian. In 1979, there was no “LGBTQ” and if there was, it would not have been wise to add the acronym to the new organization’s name. The founders and early members wanted a safe place for gay and lesbian business owners to meet, socialize and network. Born in a closet, they named the organization the nondescriptive “Greater San Diego Business Association” (GSDBA) to keep the members and their businesses safe.
These early founders, and those who followed, accomplished quite a bit in the organization’s first 30 years. Much of that success can be attributed to the vision, dedication and hard work of Dr. Joyce Marieb, who joined the organization as its CEO in 2000. In the early years of the new millennium, Dr. Marieb attracted a series of strong and engaged board members to begin to GSDBA’s growth and she knew exactly how to do it. According to a 2009 article in San Diego Uptown News, “The phrase ‘money is power’ was an ideal she held close to her heart. And she felt this idiom could be used to improve the clout of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community.” Dr. Marieb unceasingly worked to build an increasingly better GSDBA until her retirement in 2009. When she turned the keys over to her successor, GSDBA had approximately 800 business representatives on record and close to $600,000 in financial reserves.
A change in leadership is a sensitive time for most organizations. GSDBA’s internal reorganization, after Dr. Marieb’s retirement, was challenging as it surreptitiously occurred during a series of events that changed GSDBA’s environment. Innovations in mobile communications, the start of a global recession and positive progress in LGBTQ civil rights changed the chamber of commerce playing field. First, the mass use of the new “smartphone” in 2008 expanded networking and advertising opportunities for businesses. But the 2009 recession hit small businesses hard and U.S. Chambers of Commerce collectively saw their membership numbers drop. Lastly, the cumulative effects of the social and political progress made by the LGBTQ community and the news that, as consumers, we spent over $750 million in 2009 generated new interest among corporate marketers who began to pour millions of dollars into advertising focused on the LGBTQ consumer.
Unfortunately, Dr. Marieb’s successor and his board of directors did not anticipate these innovations and events, nor the ramifications to GSDBA’s future. The organization was ill-prepared to professionally assess the chamber of commerce environment and develop a strategic plan to move GSDBA towards the future. Consequently, in 2009, GSDBA membership decreased consistently for several years and the organization suffered annual losses of between $60,000 and $80,000 from 2010-2014.
Given that the decline of the organization continued for four years with no solution proposed, the board asked the CEO to resign from the organization. Just prior to this request, the board chair had resigned. With tension building among the board, a previous board member was asked to serve as a temporary chair and he hired a former board member to serve as the organization’s general manager while the search for a new CEO was underway. However, following the selection of a new CEO, the temporary chair of the board was asked to resign. The sudden and continuing back-to-back change in CEO and board leadership made it clear that GSDBA was in a tenuous, transitionary period and the remaining board members understood that change was imperative if the organization was to remain open.
GSDBA’s main mission and objective always was, and continues to be, the business success of our members — today’s and future LGBTQ businesses — but how could we reverse GSDBA’s downward spiral? Revenues were down. Membership was down. Member engagement was down. New members, seeing little value in membership, joined and left after only a year or two. In February 2014, five years after Dr. Marieb’s departure, the membership database showed 693 member representatives and reserves were less than six figures. At the beginning of 2015, after we installed a new member management system, the initial cleanup of member records and deleted members with unrecorded past due accounts resulted in membership of just 505 representatives. A significant difference from the 800-plus being touted by the previous GSDBA administration at the helm from 2009-2014.
In 2015, with the new CEO in place, the board of directors conducted a thorough analysis of the chamber’s operations and programs. First, we looked at how other chambers were responding to the decline in membership. The predominant thinking among many business and chamber scholars is that “the future success of a Chamber of Commerce will be determined by its strategic development into a major, respected, dynamic center of community influence focusing not just on traditional business issues but on the overall financial health and well-being of the community.” Today’s chamber of commerce, LGBTQ or otherwise, needs to serve as an economic pillar in its community. This was our starting point; at the core of our strategic plan would be the expansion of GSDBA’s mission to include not only supporting LGBTQ business owners to reach prosperity but also LGBTQ consumer awareness and activism, a perfect means by which our businesses could reach more customers. Naturally, this plan required that we have a good understanding of the LGBTQ consumer. Again, we did our research and what we learned was amazing and very surprising! Experts estimated the LGBTQ buying power in the U.S. in 2015 was $917 billion. That is roughly equal to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the entire state of Florida and more than the GDP of every other state, except California, New York and Texas!
The board also sought feedback from, and had conversations with, both current and former members and asked them to reflect on GSDBA’s current state and its relevancy, given the economic, political and social environment. The message we received was clear: It was time for a major change. So, we got to work. We modernized the best of the organization’s 40-year’s worth of programs and initiated several new programs to take advantage of new communications technology. When it was all said and done, this would not be the same GSDBA anymore!
The new LGBTQ & Ally Chamber of Commerce boasts two robust websites with a new integrated membership management system. We recently launched two mobile apps: a business-to-business app for members only and a business-to-consumer app, BuyLGBTQ, a mobile version of the old business directory, which is available to the public anytime from anywhere. In fall 2018, we begin a series of new member-only programs including “Chamber to Chamber Networking” events that will expand our business-to-business reach throughout San Diego County and “Fun-Network-Prosper” events for small groups of members who enjoy similar activities. We developed and launched the LGBTQ Job Board, San Diego’s first and only job-posting site that exclusively promotes LGBTQ-friendly and safe work environments. We developed and launched the LGBTQ Health & Wellness Referral Network (HWRN), the first program of its kind in the entire country to mandate training as a component of inclusion in the network. HWRN will serve as a major resource to the LGBTQ community looking for providers who understand our need for a safe, culturally competent and inclusive environment to optimize our community’s health and well-being. We have also started to invest in our community’s economic future with the Aspiring Business Leaders & Entrepreneurs (ABLE) program, designed to assist and mentor LGBTQ youth on how to make their dream of business ownership a sustainable reality.
Finally, there was the name change to San Diego Equality Business Association (SDEBA) — the pinnacle of the strategic plan. As we considered a new name, we asked ourselves, “What binds our member businesses together?” When we thought about other chambers, such as the National City Chamber of Commerce or the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, it was clear what bound them. For one, it is the sidewalks, the street lights and parking. For the other, it is a lifetime of shared culture. For our members, it is their values: equality, diversity and inclusion. When we took into account the increasing number of ally SDEBA business members, the name organically presented itself to us: San Diego Equality Business Association! Representing much more than a name change, SDEBA represents an exciting organizational evolution that was three years in the making.
Upon her retirement, Dr. Marieb stated in the 2009 San Diego Uptown News article, “We are the business arm of the equality movement … This is business with a cause. It is business to help LGBT people be competitive in this society … The GSDBA is the umbrella organization that allows the LGBT business community to have a larger venue for getting information, networking and building relationships … I think money is power,” she said. “Power used for the good results in equality.”
We couldn’t agree more, Dr. Marieb! SDEBA will build prosperity and power.
—SDEBA board of directors