BABE #188: KARI WHALEY, President & CEO, St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce
Kari is the first woman in 20 years to take on the title of president and CEO at the St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce. Day-to-day, she oversees all of the Chamber’s operations ranging from budgeting to marketing to engaging with her 600+ Chamber members. Her fresh perspectives, vigorous academic and professional background and devoted community involvement make her the perfect fit to lead a revamped, inclusive and diverse organization. Simply put, Kari is one hell of a hustlin’ babe and we are honored to be sharing a glimpse into her story.
Hometown: St. Cloud, Florida
Current city: St. Cloud, Florida
Alma mater: Florida State University; Columbia University in NYC; University of Central Florida
Degree: B.S., Social Sciences; M.A., Teaching of Social Studies; Ed.D. in Executive Leadership
Very first job: Answering constituent phone calls for U.S. Senator Mel Martinez as a staff assistant. Also, I worked in a sandwich shop in high school—I made paninis and coffee. The sandwich shop was called, St. Cloud Bites. Hah—that still makes me laugh.
Hustle: President & CEO, St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce
Babe you admire and why?
So many babes. Always Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her commitment to others and for using her voice with grace and power. Marie Curie for her innovation in a male-dominated field in a time when it was unheard of for women to be university professors and scientists. Dolley Madison for being a legit all-around babe. She was strategic and brave. She essentially created the role of the first lady in the United States as a key to diplomacy with foreign nations. Mary Bethune Cookeman, a fellow Floridian, who fought tirelessly for equal rights through education. She was instrumental in opening schools that allowed girls and African-Americans to get a high quality education. She got the ear of a president (FDR) to bring about change through influence. And she did all this hustling for her own funding, securing donors to provide opportunities for others.
How do you spend your free time?
I am currently spending my free time getting my 200RYT yoga teacher certification and being the team mom of my son Reyce’s baseball team.
Favorite app, website or blog?
Babes Who Hustle! [Editor's note: good answer.]
What is something you want to learn or master?
I want to be fluent in Spanish. I’ve been studying it for two years, and I still feel like I have so much improving to do.
Go-to news source?
Lots of local news. It’s important to know what is happening with your local governments.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Elizabeth Warren. Like, right now. Working through grad school as a mom—for part of it, a single mom—I looked to Elizabeth Warren’s story for inspiration and encouragement. She is so smart, and so impactful and she did all that through personal struggle and raising children.
What’s something not many people know about you?
I grew up on a cattle ranch.
Tell us about your hustle.
I oversee all operations at the St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce, to include the accounting and annual budget exceeding $500,000, marketing efforts, personnel and employee management, direct engagement with our nearly 600 businesses (chamber members) and government advocacy.
What does your typical workday look like?
I spend a lot of time in the community. I have the fortune of being asked to serve on a number of committees at the city, county and state level, as well as the committees within the chamber of commerce. In the morning I am usually in committee or community meetings. We also host ribbon cuttings most weeks for new businesses opening, and I meet one-on-one with business owners to find out how we can help them with an obstacle or how we can help them expand.
What inspired your involvement with the Chamber?
I am the first millennial in the role, and one of the first women. (There was another woman president in the early 1990s, but prior to my tenure with the Chamber there had not been a woman in the seat in 20 years.) It was challenging walking into a boardroom as a 28-year-old woman (when I first started) and gaining the respect of established business owners and community members. Every meeting in the first year contained a number of jokes about millennials or being frequently referred to as “girl” while presiding over meetings, despite being a woman, mother and doctor. I’ve learned though that those comments are not about me and do not reflect the work I am doing.
What are the most valuable leadership skills someone can possess?
There is the ideal world all babes want to live in, and then there’s the the world we actually live in. And the actual world may vary by community, but I have learned that as an executive, appearance matters. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dress like many of my peers from other generations—I wear bodysuits under my jackets, I revere the messy bun and I’m all about a light, no fuss, five-minute makeup regimen. I do understand though, that casual is not always appropriate in the settings I work in, there is much to be learned by those who came before me, and it's OK to be the new kid on the block and ask questions in meetings. On that last item, when I sit on a committee and I find there is language or concepts I’m not familiar with or don’t immediately understand, I’ve been most successful by asking someone I respect on the committee to coffee (and treating them to it) so I can ask them specific questions that I need clarification on.
What’s your advice for fellow babes looking to foster relationships with organizations in their community?
There is no replacement for face-to-face networking and connections. Every job I have had was because someone in my network was connected with the organization before I applied. Your network can help cut through red tape on projects when things seem out of your reach, they can recommend you for grants, funding or new opportunities, they can provide you with support when you feel overwhelmed and they can celebrate your successes with you. Join a networking group, go to a business after-hours event, build relationships in your community. I look at networking and new opportunities like six degrees of separation. If I see an opportunity I’m interested in, I start digging through my network to see who can connect me to it or connect me with one of their contacts so I can get my foot in the door and make that personal touch.
Tell us about the work you do as a professor at Valencia’s Peace and Justice Institute.
I care deeply about equality and civil rights, which was formerly cultivated during my time at Columbia. My master’s degree in teaching of social studies approached the coursework from a social justice perspective, and that is when I really, academically learned about the injustices groups face and how we have systematically closed doors to people. So, through the Peace and Justice Institute (PJI), I lead sessions and workshops called Conversations in Inclusiveness, where we explore topics of the multicultural self and how each of us can create inclusively excellent workplaces and communities. My work with PJI, which began before I started working at the chamber, pushed me to create an inclusively excellent workplace there. My staff is now representative of our community, with two bilingual staffers to connect directly with our spanish speaking business owners and members. Our board of directors has become more diverse, with directed efforts to identify and invite people who had not been represented on our board before to become part of our leadership. Inclusion cannot be passive. It must be active, and I believe we aren’t truly inclusive until we move beyond being diverse for diversity’s sake, but believing and understanding that our success is, in fact, based on our diverse backgrounds.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
Being a woman, and a mother even, has given me a unique perspective men do not have. It’s not a fault, it's the beauty of diverse experience and thought. I work harder, I juggle being a mom and executive, I confront stereotypes head-on. I find inspiration in books like “Lean In” that challenge me to keep pushing every day, when it feels like I have started at a disadvantage.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
Network every day. Say hello to people. Always have a business card on you. Follow up with hand-written notes whenever you can. Keep in touch with people, even if you don’t need their help or expertise at the time. Master the 30-minute coffee meeting to stay relevant with your network.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Finding balance as a young, working mom has been difficult. I have begun to embrace and accept that I need self-care, and that’s a good thing. Balance keeps me going.
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