Business Monday

Q&A with Eric Knowles, president of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce

In May, Gordon “Eric” Knowles became the fourth president the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce has had in its 40-year history.

He brings broad experience in the public and private sectors to the post: After a brief stint as the director of marketing in the Caribbean for American Airlines, he had various roles with the Dolphins and Sun Life Stadium, including senior director of guest services and community relations and the senior director of government affairs. He also has worked for both the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation and the Coconut Grove Family and Youth Intervention Center on affordable housing and development projects.

Knowles, who spent his childhood and teenage years between South Florida and New York City, had a brief modeling and acting career in New York before eventually returning to Miami and earning a degree in apparel management and merchandising from Florida International University.

Although Knowles has operated in the business world for years, and has not returned to his modeling and acting career, he is still often sharply dressed in tailored suits offset with a bow tie or a pocket square.

We asked him about his plans for the Chamber and about his views on the state of black business in Miami-Dade County:

Q: What do you hope to do differently in your tenure than your predecessors?

A: I wouldn’t start this answer with what I hope to do differently. I think that it is important to recognize the shoulders that I now stand on — in particular, the founders of the Chamber, who realized that there was a void and no voice for the black business community. The Chamber was founded because the black business community was either not allowed or accepted into the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce [in the 1950s and 1960s].

It is my desire to build on the groundwork that has been laid by my predecessors — Bill Diggs, Dorothy Baker and those who came before them. It is important that I create a legacy that builds on the importance of the Chamber, an importance that speaks of the relevancy of the black business community throughout the African diaspora and the entire South Florida community. I will continue to build on the relationships that were forged before me and to create new relationships as we move forward.

If there is one thing that I would say that I would like to do differently, it would be to create sustainability, something that all Chambers struggle with. Some do a better job than others; some have the infrastructure that allows for natural sustainability to occur, having a viable economically engaged membership base.

My desire is to own a building that can do two things: house our office and create a revenue stream for the Chamber. This can be done through creating a mixed-use facility that will include housing and rental office space. Or we can create what is happening now all over — the “new wave” entrepreneurial space. We need to think into the future; we cannot sit and expect membership and sponsorship to keep our doors open.

In addition, it is important that we create a master plan for our urban core — the true urban core, not what we are now calling the urban core Brickell/Downtown — Richmond Heights, Coconut Grove (the black Grove, the hole in the doughnut), Liberty City, Little Haiti, Opa-locka and Miami Gardens.

Q: Chambers of commerce vary in their success throughout Miami-Dade County. What do you think leads to both their successes and failures?

A: When you have a viable business community, such as Coral Gables, or Miami Beach, Greater Miami, you have the ability to create sustainability. We are the Chamber that focuses on the black business community and women’s businesses. In particular, when you look at the black business community, we are disenfranchised.

People do not like to have this conversation, but it is a conversation that must be had. Integration destroyed the black business community, period. When you didn’t have a choice, when you couldn’t go outside of your pre-subscribed boundaries, you had to depend on the store down the street, you had to go to the black doctor, the black dentist, the black plumber, or car repair shop (shade tree mechanic). There was a black economy, and we realized we had to support one another.

The other side of that equation is that we as a community (black business community) have to understand the relevance and the “why” of a Chamber. Chambers are not put in place to wave a magic wand and bring business to you once you write the check to become a member. Chambers are a place for like-minded individuals and businesses to come together and exchange ideas, to create opportunities amongst one another and to create commerce. You have to become engaged, you have to join a committee, you have to invest your time; not everyone has that luxury because you have to run your business. But you can become a part of a business community that will help you move your business forward. The analogy that I use is this: You know the type, those who join a gym, pay their membership expect results after going for the first week, but never go again — money thrown down the drain. And we have to remain relevant.

Q: Do you think the chamber has been successful in bringing young minority businesses to the forefront in developments in areas like Downtown Miami, the Biscayne Corridor and Midtown?

A: No. I am beginning to have a dialogue with our young professionals to determine how we can be relevant to their needs while speaking to them of the importance of the relevance of the Chamber.

Q: How do you hope to reach out to, and find, young African American professionals to partner with the Chamber?

A: Our younger entrepreneurs from the African diaspora want to know: Why join the Chamber? What am I going to get out of it? The millennials are not from the old school of thinking. They are used to answers at the tip of their fingers, through their iPads, iPhones, Samsung. It is the microwave age of instant gratification. They are out there and they are creating their own space, but what I say to them is that the Chamber is the recognized organization that is the voice for black business, and that I need them to help me navigate through this maze in which we now live. They have to become a part of the solution of why join the Chamber, they have to join committees and create the agenda that speaks to their needs through their voice. Through the Young Professionals Network (YPN), and through a recent effort to bring young professionals on the board of directors, we will begin to address that very same issue.

Q: What challenges have you seen so far for the businesses that continue to partner with the Chamber?

A: Members who continue to partner with the Chamber want to see it being relevant to their needs. Opportunities have to be created, and the Chamber must advocate on behalf of its membership. They are looking for financial gain. If we are not showing them how they can become more economically viable, then we become irrelevant.

Q: What mistakes do you think the Chamber has made in its 40-year history, and how do you hope to remedy them?

A: Once again, to remain relevant, we have to do a better job of engaging our membership as a whole. We probably do a great job, or maybe a good job, of interfacing with certain segments of our membership — our corporate members and our members who are in the field of construction. Even there (construction), we have to move the needle. We have to do a better job of engagement, a better job of advocating. We are creating avenues for members to become educated, coalescing with organizations such as the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Businesses. Working with Leroy Jones and NANA (Neighbors and Neighbors Association). I am talking with Larry Williams over at the Beacon Council and looking to see how we can work together to truly make a difference. Currently I am talking with John Dixon at MDEAT (Miami-Dade Economic Advocacy Trust) to look at housing for our young professionals and entrepreneurs. Housing is an issue when it comes to the conversation about brain drain in our community. We have to engage our young professionals if we are going to survive. After all, when I am no longer in this seat, it will be up to them to move us to the next chapter.

Let me say this: The groundwork has been laid. It is now for me to connect the dots.

Q: How do you think your past experience, and working with a variety of elected officials, has prepared you for this position? Has there been a major difference so far?

A: Yes, it has made a difference. My experience began in the early 1980s working for David Alexander at the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation and the Family and Youth Intervention Center. That experience is what prepared me for today.

When David hired me, he told me my job was to win friends and influence people (Dale Carnegie), so that’s what I set out to do. During those years, I was mentored by Thelma Gibson, and today I still am. I serve as the Chairman of the Board of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative. Through Mrs. G and David, I met Commissioner Willie Gort, I met Jimmy Morales [now Miami Beach city manager], Mayor [Xavier] Suarez, etc., doing many community projects and building low-income housing in Coconut Grove and served as the business developer assisting the businesses along Grand Avenue with the City of Miami’s facade-rehab project. My responsibility was also to identify and bring businesses into that part of the Grove. As a matter of fact, Go Green printing company started by Glenn Diston in the Grove is one of the businesses David and I helped get started back then.

When I left and went to what was then Pro Player Stadium, that is when I guess I would say it all came together. As the director of community relations for the stadium, I had the opportunity to work closely with then [Miami-Dade County Commissioner Betty] Ferguson, and was very involved with the incorporation of Miami Gardens. Throughout my career with the stadium and the Miami Dolphins organization, I had the opportunity to work with both the Miami Gardens elected officials, along with the entire board of Dade County Commissioners, as well as state elected officials, and Congresswoman [Frederica] Wilson, and before her both Congresswoman [Carrie P. Meek] and Congressman [Kendrick] Meek.

In life they say it’s who you know and what you know; as Bruce Turkel said at a seminar during my tenure with the Dolphins, it’s also “who knows you.” It makes a difference when you not only have to call an elected official to meet with them, but it is just as important knowing their staff and them knowing you. Every day I advocate for the Chamber membership, and that is done throughout the various municipalities in Miami-Dade County.

Q: What do you think the future of the Chamber and chambers of commerce will be in the business world of the future?

A: Chambers will continue to play a vital role; it is where business meets opportunity. Chambers do business all over the globe. It is my desire for our membership to do business throughout the world.

Q: What major goal do you hope to accomplish within the next year?

A: The major goal that I hope to accomplish is to grow our membership, identify viable opportunities for our membership and to identify and create a sustainable infrastructure that can be realized in the next couple of years, and to mentor and grow our young professionals.

Q: Do you ever regretting giving up your modeling career?

A: I don’t think I ever gave it up. I love to dress — I just don’t get paid for it now.