DEI in action: How South Jersey Chamber quickly evolved into group that better represents its community

CEO Renna and leadership team have made inclusivity a priority – and it shows in their membership, their leadership and their programming

The Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey – which will celebrate its 150th year in 2023 – has long been a strong advocate for businesses and business leaders in its region.

But which ones?

When the chamber did a deep dive of the organization during a leadership change in 2019 – when Christina Renna was elevated to CEO – it realized it was not as inclusive as it could be.

The numbers, Renna said, spoke loud and clear.

Christina Renna.

“In 2019, when we looked at how we could make an already strong organization even stronger – what were our weaknesses and where were the opportunities for us to evolve – the answer came at us fast and furiously as we evaluated our current membership and leadership composition.”

The membership makeup was predominantly white men. As was the makeup of the chamber’s directors, executive committee – and the panels at the more than 125 events the chamber sponsored every year.

This, from an organization that always has been ahead of the curve when it comes to female leadership.

Renna and the CCSNJ team, including board chair Ron Masciantonio (general counsel at Five Below) and executive VP Meredith Lorrilliere, quickly went to work.

There was a revamped mission, vision and new core values that focused on the chamber becoming a more inclusive and community-focused organization, Renna said.

This new direction, which was supported and approved by the Board in September of 2019, helped pave the way for new programs and initiatives, including the chamber’s first-ever Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Strategic Plan.

The DEI plan was approved in March – but it wasn’t publicized. CCSNJ leadership wanted to show that they were about more than just talk.

“The chamber team was adamant that he wanted to get work on the actual items in the plan and start to see progress before making any kind of announcements about its passage,” Masciantonio said.

“In other words, the chamber wanted to start walking the walk, instead of talking the talk.”

Renna said it was all about evolving.

“We did it with the acknowledgment that there is still plenty more to be done,” she said. “So, instead of touting it, we went to work.

“We felt strongly that once we had a good story to tell about the organization’s progress, we would share it with our members.”

That time has come.

Adventure Aquarium in Camden, during CCSNJ’s annual meeting and holiday party,

Thursday night at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, during CCSNJ’s annual meeting and holiday party, the chamber approved Deborah Hays (partner at Archer & Greiner) as incoming chair of the board. She will be just the third female board chair in 150 years.

It also approved Robin Walton (SVP of government affairs at Inspira Health) as vice chair. She is the first person of color to be a vice chair and – two years from now – she will be the first person of color to serve as chair.

The efforts to diversify can be seen throughout. Consider:

· The board of directors in 2023 (62 spots) will be predominately female and/or ethnically diverse for the first time (52 percent). It was just one in three five years ago;

· The executive committee (13 members) also will be the most diverse in history, with women and/or people of color taking nearly 70 percent of the spots.

· The overall membership, which tracked diversity for the first time in 2021, has seen a 15 percent increase since then. More than one in five members is now a woman and/or a person of color.

· The makeup of the panelists at the chamber’s numerous events is dramatically different, too, as 42 percent of the chamber’s 2022 event speakers were female, and 26 percent were ethnically diverse.

This doesn’t happen by accident – and it doesn’t happen by merely making a few statements or drafting a mission statement.

Damien Ghee (regional VP, TD Bank), co-chair of the chamber’s DEI and Belonging Advisory Board, said it’s a product of intentionality.

“It comes down to doing it day in and day out – connecting with the right people, looking for diverse talent, making sure you’re reaching out to your network to make that change so the chamber reflects the community,” he said.

And making it a 24/7/365 point of emphasis, Ghee said.

“Christina has been intentional, not just looking for women and people of color, but looking at our diversity efforts and asking, ‘How do we measure success?’ and holding us accountable – and holding herself accountable,” he said.

The effort is just beginning.

Members turn out for CCSNJ’s 2022 annual meeting and holiday party,

Renna said she was delighted to see a membership that more closely resembles the business community it represents. She made it clear, however, that there is more work to be done.

“As we turn the page to 2023, I am proud of our inclusive growth that assures every Chamber member feels a sense of belonging when they walk into an event, that women and people of color feel seen and heard by our Chamber and its members, and that diverse member companies are being given every opportunity to do business with others in the region,” she said.

“More than that, I am excited for what is next and continuing to achieve our diversity and inclusion goals because the work will not, nor should it ever, stop.”