With the upward trajectory of growth for Gardendale, the position of Executive Director of the Gardendale Chamber of Commerce is not one to be taken lightly. How can you find a person with unbridled drive, passion for the city and the right skill-set to grow the chamber and move it forward? And that also never stops learning and working to get better?
Sometimes you just pray and ask God to bring the right person for the job. He did…meet Heather Lebischak.
Heather is definitely one of the Herald’s “People to Know” in North Jefferson.
Tell us a little about you and your journey to becoming Executive Director of the Chamber?
I was happily plugging along as a legal assistant/paralegal when a friend asked me to help her start a public speaking business. It gave me the opportunity to work from home, so it was not an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up with a young, active child. I worked there for a few years and actually started doing some public speaking of my own, which prompted me to join the Gardendale Chamber of Commerce.
I also started pursuing my master’s degree at this point in communications with a focus on organizational leadership. Little did I know at the time what my future held, and that this degree would be for a totally different reason than I had planned. Clearly, God knew though.
After a year in the chamber, I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors. After a few short months, I was hired as the Assistant Director of the Chamber, probably making myself the shortest tenured board member ever. After about a year and a half of being the Assistant Director, I transitioned to the Executive Director position.
Finally, last May, I graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree perfectly suited for my role as the Executive Director the Chamber.
What were some of your challenges when coming aboard and how did you approach tackling them in your position?
Just a few short weeks after becoming the Assistant Director, I attended a state chamber executive conference. I left the conference thinking I had to do everything they told me. I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and completely inadequate for the job I had accepted. However, through talking with other chamber executives and the support of a completely amazing Board of Directors, I realized that I need to set limits and reasonable goals.
At that point, I was not going to be able to do the same things as a 500-member chamber with 7 full-time staff. I learned to set goals that were challenging but still attainable given the size of our chamber and staff. My board is extremely respectful of my time and is always reminding me to value my time and not put too much on my plate—something I am still working on.
The chamber world is an extremely unique one and only those in it really get it. So, I learned to stay in constant contact with others in my industry, especially those with more knowledge and experience than I had, which was virtually everyone at that point. I feel like I am finally reaching a point where I can return the favor and pour into newer chamber executives, but it is only because of the dozens who poured first into me.
The trajectory and growth of the Chamber under your leadership has been impressive. What plans do you have moving forward and what role do you see the Chamber taking as Gardendale continues to grow?
Our Board of Directors met in February to do some strategic planning for the 2023 year. In this planning we set five goals:
- 100 new Members in 2023
- Obtain Alabama Accredited Chamber Certification
- Start a Junior Ambassador Program
- Route visitors from Bill Noble Park to Gardendale
- Create a successful workforce development program
We are well on our way to obtaining these goals. Regarding our membership goal, we have added 27 members to date and will be doing a membership drive in June during which we will target 200 potential members in our community.
Just a few weeks ago, our Chamber was recognized at the state chamber executive conference as an accredited chamber, thus achieving goal #2. This was the same conference that less than 3 short years ago I left feeling completely inadequate and overwhelmed.
Our newest employee, Roz Jackson (who is totally amazing), will be launching our junior ambassador program this summer (applications will go live soon). This program will give high schoolers in the area the chance to give back to their community in multiple ways (Goal #3).
We got a little creative in reaching Goal #4. The Chamber purchased a huge maroon Adirondack chair (you’ve probably seen it in your social media feed) for Bill Noble Park. The chair as well as ten additional signs posted throughout the park have a QR code that visitors are encouraged to scan for information about Gardendale. This code takes them to a website welcoming them to the city, ads from local businesses, a map of the ballpark, a map of the city, and events happening in the area.
Our last and loftiest goal was a successful workforce development program. We just announced that we will be teaching high school homeschoolers and Bragg Middle School 8th graders a life skills class during the 2023-24 school year. Things like healthy eating, conflict resolution, understanding non-verbals, budgeting, and managing emotions are just a few examples of what this curriculum will cover. In addition to the curriculum taught, we will also be bringing in various chamber members to talk about the industry in which they work to provide career options to the students and potential future employees to the members/employers.
We just announced this week that we would be moving into our own temporary space while we raise capital funds to purchase our own building. The City of Gardendale has been extremely generous to us and continues to support us in so many ways. They poured into us so much that we have outgrown the space that they lovingly have allowed us to use for years. I jokingly told someone today that they’ve probably needed the space for years but are just way too kind to kick us out. That’s just the kind of leadership we have.
Ideally, our new space will have multiple offices, a storage closet (if you have seen my office at Christmas, you know this is needed), and a classroom. The classroom would allow us to do some of our life skills classes along with countless others in-house. We hope to offer summer classes for public school students taught by our members on things like basic electrical skills, life skills, basic car safety, and so much more.
We also hope to have classes for potential entrepreneurs where we can educate them on starting and running a successful business. This could even include a partnership that could provide an incubator setting for these new businesses. We look forward to the ways that we will be able to serve our community even better in our new space.