Historic shift: 3 women in row to head Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce
By Zachary S. Fagenson
Since its founding as the Miami Board of Trade in 1907, a mere four women have chaired what is now the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
But June 5 at its goals conference, sitting chamber chairman Bruce Jay Colan, a partner at Holland & Knight, will pass the top spot to Maria Alonso, senior vice president and market development manager for Miami-Dade for Bank of America.
As the first of a trio of women who will lead the chamber straight into 2013, she's to be succeeded by Blue Cross Blue Shield South Florida Market President Penny Shaffer, who's to be followed by Baptist Health South Florida Corporate Vice President of Government and Community Relations Phillis Oeters.
Ms. Oeters was officially named first vice chairman May 5 by chamber directors.
Thirty-three years ago, Jeanne Bellamy of Sun Bank became the first woman to take the gavel of the area's largest business association.
Ten years passed before the next, Executive Vice President of Intercap Investments Inc. Dorothy Weaver, took the reins in 1987.
Attorney Susan Potter Norton became the third woman chair in 1994. And most recently, Iberia Tiles CEO Rosa Sugrañes held the top spot for 2005-2006.
"I think the big change came in the 1980s," said Miami historian and author Arva Moore Parks on when women began assuming top roles in business and community work. But "when boards and groups really started looking for women they would find some woman and then they would tend to use the same woman.
"What we're seeing now as enough years have passed and as they have been in leadership positions… there's a wide range of women that are available for high positions."
And that growing talent pool is showing its strength.
"I think when you look at what level you needed to be in a company in order to be a leader [of an organization like the chamber], maybe it's spelling that women are finally breaking through to leadership levels in their" companies, said Ms. Shaffer.
Other large business associations here have recently tapped female executives for leadership roles, she noted.
Blanca Commercial Real Estate founder Tere Blanca chaired the Beacon Council's board during 2008 and 2009. She passed the seat to Alexandra Villoch, senior vice president of advertising and marketing at the Miami Herald.
"If you look at some of the largest civic organizations in our community they're being led by women, whether currently at the Beacon Council or by Phillis Oeters who [last year] led the Orange Bowl" Committee, said Ms. Alonso. "I think it is reflective of a larger trend in our corporate boardrooms."
And while many theories have been floated on how women and men manage differently, a key skill widely attributed to women is also important when it comes to leading Miami's business community and its hundreds of small businesses.
"I hate to put it to a specific gender because it's making a broad generalization [but] I think in many cases women are consensus builders," Ms. Shaffer said. "If you look at the chamber in some of its best years, it's because there was a consensus builder at the helm."