When Rebecca Frank started her Los Angeles graphic design studio, Starfuzz, two years ago, she plunked down membership fees to join not just one, but two chamber of commerce locations. "I thought the chamber was the perfect place to start," says Frank, 35. But she chose not to renew either membership the following year. "The kinds of opportunities they offered, besides mixers, were very dull and uninteresting," she says. "They really need an overhaul."
Frank is one Gen X entrepreneur who's bypassed the local chamber of commerce for other networking groups perceived as hipper and more entrepreneur-focused. Consider the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (YEO), a 5,000-member peer-learning and networking organization for entrepreneurs under 40, which gained 1,266 new members between June 2002 and June 2003-a new record. "We're averaging 1,000 new members every year," says Brien Biondi, CEO of YEO.
More than a few of the 2,800 local chamber locations nationwide, meanwhile, have seen a falloff in membership over the past decade. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which focuses its efforts on lobbying Capitol Hill, leaves it up to local chamber locations to develop their programming, which seems to be missing the mark with younger entrepreneurs who don't see much programming aimed at them. At worst, they see chamber events as, well, a bit stodgy.
Some local chambers are updating their offerings to stay relevant to entrepreneurs under 40. When Jim Cunneen became president of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce in 2001, he inherited some "old thinking," along with a $400,000 deficit and a waning membership database. He quickly initiated a re-branding strategy to capture Gen Xers. This has meant focusing events on cutting-edge business topics, forging closer ties between well-known companies and start-ups, partnering with national brands such as FedEx and Office Depot, and offering attractive value-added membership packages geared to younger entrepreneurs.
An edgier, more progressive image-combined with a tangible value proposition-appears to be working: The San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber is profitable again, and it's gained nearly 1,000 new members since 2001. Civic boosterism, which has been a big part of the chamber's pitch for decades, "seems not to be enough for a younger generation," says Cunneen, 42. "We needed to take a value-based membership approach."
On the national level, the 91-year-old U.S. Chamber of Commerce is taking its benefits and marketing strategies online, posting thousands of "how-to" pages on its Web site that are aimed at tech-savvy entrepreneurs. The chamber of commerce has undergone a revolution in how it addresses issues and communicates with its members, says J.P. Moery, vice president of federation relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC. "We're going a lot more electronic with the information we're releasing and how we're marketing our organizations. It's not your daddy's chamber." The challenge will be making sure Gen X entrepreneurs think so, too.
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.