Q & A with Barbara B. Lang
President & CEO, D.C. Chamber of Commerce
TRINITY: In your inspiring Commencement remarks to the 2007 graduates, you recollected earning your business degree from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida. Do you remember what you aspired to be when you graduated?
BBL: My aspirations were very elementary: to get a job and make some money. There was no grandiose plan when I finished school. In fact, back at that time, there really wasn’t anyone like me to model myself after. The opportunities available to minority women were extremely limited: school teacher, postal worker, and various professional vocations which catered exclusively to minorities. So I took an entry level position at IBM, with hopes that eventually I’d move up despite the racial and gender bias. I was fortunate in that I stumbled upon a successful path after I’d already begun the journey.
TRINITY: You also spoke at Commencement about integrity in making decisions. As a business leader, what is your view of the recent corporate scandals?
BBL: I’m appalled at the things that have happened in corporate America. It’s an example of power and greed run amok. Power has a way of blurring the line between right and wrong. Our challenge in the business community is to clearly delineate the difference. I’d bet that nearly every CEO involved in a scandal truly believed he was doing nothing wrong, and in fact was working in the best interest of his company; they rationalized their actions to alleviate the moral conflict. I don’t believe that more government regulation is necessarily the answer, and I’d hope that businesses could self-regulate themselves. But the temptation to pad profits will always be there, and there is no easy fix.
TRINITY: You have overseen the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce since 2002. Why did you take this position in the Chamber?
BBL: Actually, I was contemplating retirement before joining the Chamber. I’d just completed a successful tenure at Fannie Mae, and I was looking for a new challenge. I realized that the only challenge that held any real interest for me anymore was to become the CEO of a nonprofit or small business. In that capacity, my company’s fortune would solely rely on my leadership skills and business acumen. Working at the D.C. Chamber embodied that opportunity, and the timing was perfect.
TRINITY: The D.C. Chamber has grown significantly under your leadership, while most area chambers of commerce are losing members. What differentiates the D.C. Chamber from area chambers, and why are the membership trends so different?
BBL: In a nutshell: knowing your membership, recognizing their needs and wants and devising programs that specifically met those needs. For example, we launched Chamber Connections last year, dividing our programming into five distinct tracks that provided unique benefits to our various members, whether small, medium or large businesses. As a membership association, we recognize that one size doesn’t fit all. So to remain relevant, we had to tailor our programs accordingly.
TRINITY: What difficult decisions have you made or unpopular risks have you taken at the Chamber?
BBL: The hardest decisions have typically revolved around the Chamber’s opposition to various initiatives and legislation favored by the Mayor or the D.C. Council. In our role as advocates for the District’s business community, we must on occasion take a stand against the wishes of our elected leaders who choose to follow a course that’s not in the best interest of our members. The risk is alienating ourselves from the government, and getting locked-out of future issues. But sometimes you have to take that risk.
TRINITY: As a D.C. resident, can you talk about the challenges of affordable housing and reasonable commute time as it relates to not only quality of life of D.C. residents, but also to doing better business?
BBL: Cost of housing is clearly an important issue. Honestly, if I had to buy my house in today’s market, I couldn’t afford it! It’s a challenge in the District because people like to be within a reasonable distance to work such that they’re not commuting for hours every day. From a business perspective, I’d like to see as many local residents employed as possible within the District because it expands our tax base and strengthens our economy. The District of Columbia is the only city in America working under a Congressional mandate that prohibits the taxation of income where it’s earned; so workers from Maryland and Virginia who commute to D.C. do not have to pay local taxes. If it stayed in D.C., that extra revenue would ultimately result in a stronger city with a better infrastructure and more benefits to residents.
TRINITY: What kind of business climate does the Chamber expect to face under the District’s new mayor, Adrian Fenty?
BBL: We’re very hopeful and optimistic. It’s still early in Mayor Fenty’s administration, but we’ve already seen some very encouraging signs. Case in point, the Mayor spoke at the D.C. Chamber’s Executive Committee meeting last month, and he assured our Board that the fate of the city is intertwined with the fate of our business community. We have to foster and encourage that cooperative dynamic.
TRINITY: The Chamber just released a new State of the Business Report for 2007. What are some of the key issues the report identifies?
BBL: More than anything else, the 2007 State of the Business Report identified a serious risk to our local economy. According to information taken straight from the District’s Chief Financial Officer’s own Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), the revenue stream for our city is overly dependent on a disproportionately small percentage of businesses and residents. Further, any disruption to this sector could seriously compromise the economic health of the District of Columbia. It’s the Chamber’s position that District officials must take proactive measures to safeguard and invigorate our economy before it’s too late.
TRINITY: Tell me about your vision for the Center for Smart Business Policy.
BBL: We want this to be a research arm, providing data for a holistic approach to public policy making in the District of Columbia. We want it to assist both our executive and legislative branches to recognize the economic consequences of decisions being made today, not just on the current budget, but on the long-term economic model.
TRINITY: Do you have any final thoughts?
BBL: The District of Columbia is a great city, but it has the potential to be even better. We must all work together, both in the public and private sectors, to continue our climb towards world-class status.