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Catherine Holt: Finding a better way to be influential

What does it mean to be influential? At the Chamber, we recently rewrote our vision statement to set a goal of being “the most diverse and influential business association in the region.

What does it mean to be influential? At the Chamber, we recently rewrote our vision statement to set a goal of being “the most diverse and influential business association in the region.”

For our board and staff, this means we are actively looking for members who reflect the diversity of our community — big and small businesses, established firms and startups, every industry and any sector. We want to connect with organizations led by people from many cultural backgrounds, any gender and all ages. If we’re diverse, we’re in a great position to be influential.

However, I had a lightbulb moment while moderating a panel at the Inclusion Project, a conference held at Royal Roads University on March 30. The event is the brainchild of Ruth Mojeed, a recent grad from RRU’s master of arts in intercultural and international communication, who arrived in Victoria from Nigeria in 2015.

The goal is to start a dialogue that will result in a greater diversity of people included in the success of Greater Victoria. The room was packed with 170 people from an impressive array of backgrounds. Gender, race and age were the themes of the day, and we had a heartfelt and energetic conversation about improving inclusion.

It struck me that, for many people, diversity does not translate into influence in the way we think of it at the Chamber.

If you’re a newcomer to the community, or your definition of gender is outside the mainstream, or you’re seen as “too young” or “too old,” you will too often feel the opposite of influence, which is powerlessness.

To think of it another way, having influence is similar to having information. For some, that means holding it close so only you can wield it. You use information to have power over others.

We see this in fields where acronyms and jargon are understood only by an inner circle — the military, engineering, accounting, IT, medicine and science come to mind. Information as a tool of exclusion. You have to be inside the echo chamber to know what’s going on.

For others, information has to be shared in order to have power over public opinion or political choices, or global trends, or just your friends and family and co-workers. Being seen as a source of beneficial information can be powerful. It is the mindset of people, like me, who were trained as journalists. Information enables inclusion.

Influence is kind of the same. You can claim to be influential because you are part of a small group that talks only among itself, and only helps each other make connections to those with the power to make decisions.

Or you can be influential because you have a vast and varied network of connections. You always know someone who knows someone who knows whatever you need to find out or are trying to get to happen. And you can influence things through sheer numbers, volume of voices or impact of votes. The more people you know, and the more diverse those people are, the more influence you have.

It seems blatantly obvious that influence by inclusion is a more rational approach than influence by exclusion.

But that is not the lesson of history.

I realized with concern, when the Chamber says it wants to be the most influential business association in the region, many people attending the Inclusion Project might take this to mean we are an old-style echo chamber for insiders.

I was at the Inclusion Project to try to demonstrate the opposite. Our board and our membership are very clear that the Chamber works best when you walk into one of our events and feel a connection to like-minded people while also getting the sense you are about to expand your network and point of view by meeting someone different.

As our director of operations says, the Chamber didn’t get to be 156 years old without changing with the times. Inclusion is the change happening now.

By 2034, 100 per cent of population growth in Canada will be from immigration. Our top 10 source countries in Victoria in the last census period were the Philippines, China, U.S., U.K., India, South Korea, Mexico, Iran, Germany and South Africa. And we need them to fill the 150,000 job vacancies expected on Vancouver Island in the next 10 years — mostly due to retirements.

Canada has a history of absorbing waves of immigrants under one big tent. Being inclusive is not without its challenges, but it will be our global strength if we manage it well while other countries struggle to insulate their echo chambers.

The Chamber has a pretty diverse board and membership now. Of course, we can always do better. We want to be a big tent, too.

Tell your friends.

Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.