New leader brings spark to Black Chamber: Membership doubles to 100, but some in community question whether a separate organization is needed

July 3, 2006

The walls of Turae Dabney's office at the Indianapolis Black Chamber of Commerce are covered in easel paper scribbled with enough notes to make an anal-retentive person dizzy.

Though garbled to visitors, the pages hold the key to her vision for the organization she assumed leadership of as executive director earlier this year.

"I do better if I visualize it," she said. "It looks like a mess, but I know exactly what everything means."

The message she is sending to members, through her energy and enthusiasm, is clear as well. That is to make the organization more attractive to potential members by partnering with other associations.

The black chamber opened for business in 1995, hoping to do for black entrepreneurs what the state and city chambers do for their members. But after just three years, officials realized they didn't have enough contacts or a solid fund-raising base.

In 1998, the board and then-executive director Jesse Moore completed a more detailed mission statement, expanded the board, and changed its role. At the time, Moore operated on a volunteer basis to help guide the organization through its transition.

Eight years later, the black chamber once again is undergoing a transformation. Charles Montgomery ultimately succeeded Moore in 2004. At 62 when he took the role, Montgomery stayed for two years to try to pump new life into the foundering group.

Dabney served on the board at the time of his departure. A fellow director suggested she seek the vacancy, and after much consideration, she took on the challenge.

Latricia Hill-Chandler, a board member and Indiana University's director of business diversity and compliance, said Dabney can move the chamber forward.

"There was a lack of momentum," Hill-Chandler said. "It was moving in a positive direction but at a slower pace than a lot of the new board members wanted to see."

Youthful exuberance

Part of Dabney's plan to grow the chamber by marketing it through other channels is showing early success. In the nearly six months since she took over at age 30, membership has doubled from 50 to 100. The annual budget has risen as well, from about $40,000, according to a 2004 IRS 990 form, to $100,000 this year.

The fact that she's basically working full time on a part-time salary should be a bargain for an organization that will also benefit from the connections she brings.

The Indianapolis native will finish her master's degree in public administration from the University of Evansville in December. She travels there once a week and is counting the days until she's finished making the long trip.

Dabney earned her bachelor's degree from U of E in 1999 and studied British politics at Harlaxton College in England during her fifth year. It was not her first trip overseas, however. Dabney traveled with the Indianapolis Children's Choir in 1989 during its first European tour.

As a child working at Conner Prairie, she assumed the role of Priscilla Brooks, a young black girl living in the year 1836.

Growing up with a father working at the former International Harvester plant (now Navistar International Corp.) and a mother at Allison Transmission, Dabney figured every kid's parents were a member of organized labor.

Her love of history and government blossomed as a student at Cardinal Ritter High School. As a senior, she was accepted to former Gov. Evan Bayh's internship program, an honor usually reserved for college students.

"I've always been the youngest in everything I do," said Dabney, referring to her current role as well.

That's OK with Moore, who remains active with the black chamber as a director. He currently is Purdue University's manager of supplier diversity development.

"Sometimes when folks get my age, they get a little tired," he said. "This was a good opportunity to bring someone on who is younger and understands the issues and the dynamics."

In 1998, before leaving for London, Dabney served as a summer intern for the Indiana Black Caucus. The experience helped her land a job as a legislative assistant for Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis.

Dabney later advocated for black businesses on a contractual basis while attending graduate school.

Advocate for change

Her background has helped her garner the support of a longtime critic of the organization. William Mays, president and CEO of Mays Chemical Co. Inc., backs the chamber through his membership but said the company receives little benefit.

To truly be effective, he said, the black chamber needs to be folded into the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Asian Alliance. The partnership could alleviate financial shortages while exposing business owners to the Greater Indianapolis Chamber's vast membership, thus creating more opportunities.

"I don't think there's any question that will happen," Mays said. "I just want it sooner rather than later."

One of the fears he's heard from smaller members is that they would get overlooked in a larger entity. Mays disagrees.

"That's like saying Mays Chemical won't do business with [Eli] Lilly because it's too big," he said.

The black chamber so far has secured a relationship with the Neighborhood Self Employment Initiative, a local not-forprofit that helps people get their enterprises off the ground.

Mays said there could be opportunities to partner with the Indiana Business Diversity Council as well. It helps black business owners get contracts with corporations.

Much of the black chamber's mission in fact is to help its members become successful, so they can hire more employees and contribute to the tax base, Dabney said.

So once again, the organization finds itself at a crossroads.

"The past administrations did a good job building it, but I don't think we were effectively communicating what we were doing," she said.

Dabney admitted she cannot find the answer alone. "I need to surround myself with the appropriate people and listen to their advice," she said. "I realize I don't know it all."

She may be young, but she's wise beyond her years.
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