Newly Renamed Chamber Has a New Role for Suzanne Wheeler
The Mid-America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce officially launched its new name at a reception on Sept. 12. It will now be known as the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
On May 31, 2012, the Mid-America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce started with a party in Kansas City. Its founder was Dan Nilsen, CEO of Bishop-McCann and president of the MAGLCC. Michael Lintecum, president of Lintecum & Associates, was its executive director.
In another change for the chamber, Lintecum will be stepping down from the role that he’s had for eight years – seven years as executive director and one previous year planning the chamber with Nilsen, the founder.
Longtime MAGLCC member Suzanne Wheeler is the new executive director. Camp first profiled her in our MAGLCC Spotlight column in March 2018.
We recently met with Wheeler to talk about her new role. We started out discussing the Gay Softball World Series that was hosted in Kansas City the first week of September, a large and exciting LGBTQ event for the city.
“I think it’s great that Kansas City was able to bring in a conference like this. Especially for both sides of the state line,” Wheeler said.
To land the World Series, it took two years of courting the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) by a local committee led by Scott Switzer, with the assistance of VisitKC. The result was a week of competitions and social events that was predicted to have an economic impact of $10 million for Kansas City. The World Series also was a fundraiser for the AIDS Service Foundation of Kansas City.
Wheeler also noted that the bi-annual National Conference for PFLAG in Kansas City, which will be Oct. 25-27, is another testimony to the city being a great host for LGBTQ events.
“It’s definitely a team approach to being able to bring in these things,” Wheeler said. She pointed out that VisitKC, the mayor, and all the chambers of commerce in the metro area played a role.
From her travels outside the metro area, Wheeler says, her perception has been that people from other parts of the country consider Kansas City to be a “flyover city.”
“Even at the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce meeting that we had at the beginning of the month, when I start talking about the things that Kansas City has worked for in our community, people are surprised. They have this idea that we are in the center of the Bible Belt and there is just nothing going on in Kansas City.”
Wheeler said that it’s important to work with other regional chambers of commerce not only in attracting national conferences, but also in leveraging business connections for the LGBT chamber.
“I think it really takes invitations from our allied community leaders to get folks here and to do that outreach. It’s also a part of why the chamber has been doing a fantastic job for us. Michael … obviously … has great connections throughout the entire city and we’re still leveraging those connections.”
The Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce decided not to hold the one-day B2B (Business to Business) educational conference this year that it’s done annually. Instead, the chamber plans an annual B2B luncheon.
The chamber hosts monthly B2B networking evening receptions at various member locations and monthly “Coffee Connections” morning meetings. It also hosts programs such as Chamber 101, MasterMinds, Metzler Mentor Program, Barnes Leadership Program, Young Leadership, and certification as an LGBTQ-owned business. This chapter is affiliated with the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
Among her many goals, Wheeler said, a top priority is to increase the value of the chamber to members.
“Really my biggest goal right now is to be able to build on the foundation led by Michael [Lintecum], Josh [Strodtman], Dan [Nilsen], all the previous board members, to be able to continue to take that board and start to focus more on what we can do for our business membership organizations. That’s what we are and how we can take it to the next level and give them a lot of value added for what they’re paying to be in the chamber. If you’re a small business, you know, that $295 or $495 can be a big chunk of change to join a chamber.”
Wheeler also talked about the partnership with corporate sponsors and individual members.
“If you’re just starting out and if you’re a corporation, you want to be getting something great for those thousands that you’re giving. So how do we meld those two? And there are a lot of processes to be able to do that. … In my entire tenure, if I could walk out and say that we’ve put the programming in place to be able to do that, then I know that I’ve done what I originally set out to do.”
Wheeler said that only 11 businesses in the chamber now are LGBT-certified and that they intend to have more. Lintecum, who joined us for part of the interview, agreed and said, “The sky’s the limit.”
Lintecum also agreed that being certified with the National LGBT Chamber is confusing for some. The procedure for certifying LGBT-owned businesses is explained on their website (www.midamericalgbt.org), and the chamber also educates members about it when they join. A key requirement for certification is for a company to be 51% or more LGBT-owned.
Wheeler said about LGBT certification: “The good news is that national is very willing to work with businesses and understands that not everything fits that one particular mold. So they’re willing to work with businesses to figure out how they fit in that mold. But they also honestly looked at it to protect the program, too, because you just can’t let anybody walk in the program.”
After 32 years in the Army, Wheeler left military service for the corporate world, where she worked in public health positions. At the rank of colonel, she was the highest-ranking transgender officer in the military at the time of her retirement.
She lives in Kansas and has four kids, ranging in age from 27 to 16. Her partner is Marsha Riley. “We’ve been together almost four years. She was originally my best friend, and then we’ve just kind of grown together.”
Wheeler is the chamber’s only full-time staff member. At this time, she will work from home, but she knows her role in outreach to the area covered by the chamber will be an important part of her job.
Personally, she said, she “would love to see chambers start up in other smaller cities. They could have their own smaller chamber, and our chamber could do a lot of the administrative work. That’s kind of a model that’s happening in Texas right now. The Texas chamber of commerce is doing a lot of administration for Houston, San Antonio and Austin and keeping that off their plate so the executive directors can really be focused on [serving] the members of the organization.”
Whether to pursue a plan like that, she said, would be a decision of the board.
Wheeler talked about her first experience in going to a chamber B2B event.
“That’s a funny story,” she said. “I first came into the chamber almost five years ago. My first B2B was in 2014, not long after I had just come out to my leadership in the military and realized that I was going to go into the civilian world. And as somebody with trans experience, I didn’t know what that was going to hold for me in the transition from military life to civilian life. I was also going through a divorce.
“So I had that transition and I was starting my physical journey and I did not know what the civilian world was going to look like. And I was terrified because I had this perception as I was going to come out, I was going to be unhireable, no matter what my qualifications were. Nobody would hire me because I was transgender.
“One B2B, and I walked out and I knew it was going to be OK. I knew at that point I was going to be OK. I was going to be able to find a job.”
For more information on the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce, go to www.midamericalgbt.org.