Nashville’s LGBT Chamber announced in August that it had selected its next CEO, as Lisa Howe departed the role. Joe Woolley, a recent past-president of the Chamber is taking the reins and will be returning to help the organization continue down the path set by a board he recently led.
I caught up with Joe shortly after the announcement, and we discussed his past involvement in Nashville’s LGBT community, what he’s most proud of in his previous leadership of the Chamber, and the vision for the future he presented to the committee that selected him as the new CEO of the organization.
Prior to working with the Chamber, Woolley got his feet wet in local advocacy in the founding of the Tennessee Equality Project. “From there,” he added, “I’ve always been very active, whether it’s in political endorsements of LGBT candidates or just organizing and helping the community out. We are involved in HRC, of course Victory Fund…”
“When I was asked to be on the Chamber and the Chamber Board,” he said, laughing, “I didn’t realize I was actually being asked to be on the Chamber Board. I didn’t have a lot of experience or work with it, and I just dove in and expected a lot from an organization that I didn’t really know about. I really pushed us to go higher. Maybe a little too hard…”
“I think that is one of my things that I learned with Lisa,” he said, expanding on this. “I needed to respect how far they had already come and that I needed to get her the training and bring in the experience and direction to help us chart the path…”
Woolley joined the board in 2014, serving as marketing chair, and then became vice president in 2015, before serving as president for 2016 and 2017. “My first big change that I pushed through,” he said, “was rebranding Taste, developing Taste into what it is now, which is just a pure tasting and networking event…”
Woolley views organizational changes as one of the ways he had the most impact on the Chamber and its operations. Finding Howe and other leaders overwhelmed by the sheer volume of email and other communications, Woolley let the implementation of Basecamp, a project management software that gave the “a clear, concise way to communicate and work on projects as a big organization, where committees are doing so much work, allowing the CEO and other leaders to coordinate work without tripping over one another.”
Woolley also spearheaded the update of the membership directory and website. When he came on board, he found that the membership database wasn’t editable by users and so all change requests and additions filtered through Howe as a middle man, leading to long delays for updates. “It might be months before your membership status showed up or you were able to point to the website and say I’m a member.” Woolley led the implementation of ChamberMaster, another project management tool, to alleviate these issues.
When asked about growth opportunities for the Chamber and his vision for the future, Woolley was quick to point out, “Again the board makes the decision in the direction for the organization and the CEO implements so where they choose to go is where I will take it.”
“However,” he continued, “there are many possible growth areas that I kind of identified as I pitched to the board…” One of the key places Woolley intends to stay the course is in seeking more diversity on the Chamber. “As president, I stood on stage with the seven other past white gay men that have led the Chamber and fully realized how that looked and have since that point non-stop pushed for diversity, diversity of our membership people because if we don’t have a diverse board then we’re never going to be able to have more diverse leadership of the board and the organization.”
This is a goal that current Chamber president Ron Snitker affirms. “I am committed to expanding our board and membership diversity,” Snitker said. “This year we extended that focus by forming an inclusion committee, which is led by Kanitha Pope, a Chamber board member. The committee will have special inclusion activities for the transgender and African-American community and women. We had our first event, The Connector, to listen to the needs of the African-American business community. We are excited to continue the ideas attendees shared with us through that event.”
What else does Woolley envision (pending Board direction of course)? “I could easily see us, in five years, being a statewide Chamber of Commerce with affiliate chapters in other cities. Memphis and Chattanooga have already expressed interest in having Chambers but they don’t have the infrastructure. So you create a statewide chamber. You give them the infrastructure, the Web site, the programming, the booklet on how to do it.”
This gives the Chamber a bigger voice. “All of the organizations and the companies and members join at the statewide level and that increases our strength across the state,” Woolley said. “No longer can legislators look at you and say it’s the little blue bubble of Nashville that wants to effect this change. No, it is members and businesses all across the state. I’d love to see a member in all 99 counties and use that to advocate at the state level on the discriminatory policies that we push back against.”
“We also want to focus more on educational opportunities for all levels of our membership,” Woolley explained. “We do a lot of corporate education and networking activities. The (Employee Resource Group) ERGs from the corporations mingle with one another once a quarter and talk about best practices and what they’re doing. We do the power lunches and those have kind of a scattershot of who we’re educating with those.”
Woolley would like to see multiple tracks of programming to more consistently provide educational opportunities to all sizes of business. “Let’s face it, HCA is a member of our chamber to get a different education from us then the average small business. Those small businesses are more concerned with questions like, ‘How do I find insurance for my five employees? What’s the tax structure that best suits my company of 12 people?’ Those are the things that I think we can offer our mid- or small-business members.”
Woolley is enthusiastic to embark on this new role. “I’m so passionate and love our community so much and that started at a young age, with me learning how to advocate and be involved and be a part of a community like we have. I had friends take me under their wing and introduce me to this great community of Nashville and the LGBT community that we have there.”
“I grew up in small-town Idaho. I still have my suicide note from high school because I was one of those bullied kids and I hid who I was for so long. But, when I moved here, I thought that you can be who you want to be, and it does get better and you live the life that you always dreamed. And that’s why I do the volunteer work that I’ve done and why I’m just so honored to be able to now do this as a profession—to be able to live every day fully in the world of LGBT advocacy.”