There’s a new business sheriff in town, but one who has been a longtime volunteer for the Quad Cities Chamber.
At the organization’s annual meeting Aug. 11, LaDrina Wilson – formerly the chamber board chair, interim CEO and head of the national search for a new CEO – was herself named the next CEO, through January 2024.
“This commitment will provide the stability needed and ensure the good work of the chamber continues,” said Debbie Anselm, QC Chamber Board Chair and publisher of the Quad-City Times and Dispatch/Argus.
“It also provides us with a unique opportunity to develop a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the region and determine a strategic plan for the organization that aligns with the needs of the Quad Cities region.”
Of Wilson, 39, Anselm said this week: “She is uniquely qualified to guide our organization forward. She understands both the business and potential of our chamber. Most importantly, she is also visionary leader who is focused on creating a prosperous Quad Cities where all can thrive.”
The Chamber did conduct a national search for the new boss.
“We met many worthy and capable candidates and LaDrina measures toe-to-toe with each of them,” Anselm said. “In addition to that, she brings a diverse background to the chamber — which includes experience in higher education, entrepreneurship, consulting and community advocacy. Together with her knowledge of the Quad Cities and proven track record in leadership roles, she is perfectly positioned to take the reins at this time.
“LaDrina is a focused and purposeful leader,” she added. “She is a strategic thinker, an excellent facilitator and a master at execution — all of which are crucial skills as we set the priorities and future for this organization.”
Instead of an open-ended role, the board determined a 18-month-long commitment “will give us the stability needed to ensure that the work of the chamber will continue, our members will be served while providing us with the time needed to develop a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the region and determine a plan for the organization that aligns with the needs of the Quad Cities region,” Anselm said.
From Moline to Ph.D. in education
The chamber had been without a full-time leader since March 2022, when four-year CEO Paul Rumler left to become CEO and executive vice president of CCIM Institute, based in Chicago. The CCIM Institute is a global membership association serving the commercial real estate community.
“We all know what’s happening in the labor market now, and we made the wise decision to engage a consultant. The consultant did a fabulous job and we went through the process,” Wilson said Monday.
The chamber didn’t find the right candidate after initial interviews, she noted.
“One of the things that came up in the conversation with the consultant, they asked, ‘Would it be something you’d be interested in doing?’” Wilson recalled. “They said, we want someone like LaDrina. After giving it some thought and consideration, and having been in the role – working with staff for a few weeks, getting a sense of what the needs were – I wanted to be available to support this group of dedicated individuals.”
“I wanted to come along side them, to show them that support and stability,” she said. “There were some immediate needs that someone with the history, someone with local connections, could address. I don’t want to imply by any stretch of the imagination that we didn’t meet some phenomenal people.”
It just made sense for the chamber to stay closer to home for a new leader now, Wilson added.
A Moline High alum, Wilson earned her bachelor’s degree from Northern Arizona University; a master’s in education and interdisciplinary studies from Western Illinois University, and doctorate in educational leadership (in 2018) from Iowa State University.
Wilson was Vice President of Student Services at Black Hawk College, from 2019-21, and before that was Dean of Students for Scott Community College for five years.
“I don’t want our community to lose any momentum,” she said. “I’ve been part of that vision, providing service to the chamber for 12 years – as a thought leader and community volunteer. It just made sense.”
The first time she heard about the chamber was when her boss recommended connecting with the Young Professionals Network. That turned into being part of the group’s Leadership Council, and “pretty much every committee from there on,” Wilson said.
From consulting to business leader
She sees connections between educational and business leadership.
“We like to romanticize the idea of education as a public good, but it’s also a business, right?” Wilson said. “There are definitely transferable skills there. I spent most of my adult working career in education, and when COVID hit, we all had those moments when we had to decide how we wanted to live out our lives.”
Her work in community college leadership created opportunities to partner with various businesses in a variety of different industries to tackle community issues such as the achievement gap, skilled workforce challenges and talent attraction and retention.
“I’ve really enjoyed the work I’ve been doing at Iman and I’m not ready to give that up,” Wilson said of the business she formed in December 2020, Iman Consulting. “My role is to put together an evaluation of what our needs are and help the board prioritize that, so we can be in a good position to have somebody to step in to this role.”
The community embraced her consulting work faster than she expected.
“I felt so supported and propped up,” Wilson said. “People I didn’t even know were allies and supporters, and I’d like to extend that work to be integrated into the community and make a bigger footprint. Taking the lessons I learned in higher education and the diverse demographics you work with, the lessons I learned as an entrepreneur and getting to more intimately know the needs of business leaders – and integrating that with work I’ve done as a community servant makes sense.”
As a consultant, she works with a variety of clients – from municipalities to nonprofits to corporations, across the country. During COVID, she could connect with almost anybody.
She named her business (Iman) for her 14-year-old daughter’s middle name. That girl has alopecia (hair loss), but she is bold and totally herself with or without hair, Wilson said.
“So the brand of Iman is really about helping people be exactly who they are, no matter what the circumstances and being bold and confident in that way,” she said.
She and her husband live in Davenport, with four daughters – 17, 14, 12, and 8. With her consulting business, she has a few contract employees who will continue working.
“That is not going anywhere. I want to make sure I do the best in this role,” Wilson said of the chamber. “But continue the legacy I was trying to build with Iman.”
Chamber at a critical point
The former interim CEO – Mike Oberhaus, who was Chief Strategy Officer – left the chamber this year and there hasn’t been a decision how to fill his role, Wilson said. She was named interim CEO in early July.
The group is at a critical point, in having to define who it is for a wide variety of stakeholders, she said.
“Until we can nail that down and create a revenue model for that, it’s going to be hard shoes for anybody to fill,” Wilson said.
She’s also volunteered for the boards of Regional Development Authority and the Quad Cities Community Foundation. At the chamber, Wilson will make decisions as any CEO would.
“The best way I could describe this is, I want to be the lighthouse,” she said. “I want to use my knowledge and business acumen and my connections in the community, as well as my years of board service, to be that person who takes all those pieces – and bring them together and say this is the direction we’re headed, and here’s the why.
“I was going to be part of that anyway as the board chair,” Wilson said. “In this capacity, I can have a deeper role in that. Also, use my skills to listen and facilitate conversations, to gain support for what that looks like.”
The chamber has an African American Leadership Council and a Women’s Business Council, both close to her heart.
“Once we find volunteers who step up, we keep asking and they keep showing up,” Wilson said, noting she’s more involved with the Black Business Council.
“We came together to identify where some of the challenges were and what we found, there are so many resources already right here that are just untapped.”
She credits the QC Empowerment Network for taking the lead on African-American business issues, and being a strong partner.
“What we need to do as a chamber is come alongside them, to prop up that work, so those resources are more readily available,” Wilson said.
The chamber has a responsibility to work with grassroots organizations, meeting a unique niche in the area, such as with the QC Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she said.
“It’s work we probably should have been doing,” Wilson said.
Not a role model
She doesn’t wake up every day trying to be a role model for Black girls and women.
“I recognize I represent a mirror of opportunity, not a window of opportunity, for other people,” she said. “When you haven’t seen someone who looks like you do it, it doesn’t always seem attainable.
“It’s not lost on me that I’m going to be that person for some people,” Wilson said. “I want to be that for other people. I just want to do good work.”
The importance of recruiting and hiring more people of color should be a priority not just of the chamber, but for everybody, she said.
“Our demographics are changing and we need to have an inclusive economy and workforce, period,” Wilson said. “I think we play a role in helping people understand the importance of that, but it’s all of our responsibility to step up and pay attention to what’s happening around us.”
She likely will lead a strategic planning process, for the next two or three years, depending on the board direction. There is no timetable yet for the 2024 CEO search process.
For more on the chamber, visit its website.