Jessica Walker has made a career out of making our city a better place. Upon graduation from college, she moved to the Bronx and quickly found a niche within the political world.
As the new president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, she enters the role with the experience that comes with having worked for influential nonprofits around Manhattan such as United Neighborhood Houses, New York Academy of Medicine and Partnership for New York City.
Walker replaces Nancy Ploeger, who served as Chamber president for 21 years. The two briefly overlapped and Walker calls her a “godsend” in helping with the transition. Although she only began her tenure on Feb. 22, Walker already has ambitious goals for the organization, including assisting young entrepreneurs in starting businesses. A believer in the importance of face-to-face networking, she outlined the mission of the Chamber of Commerce, which is to advocate for, connect and educate the businesses in Manhattan. “So really the goal is to make sure that Manhattan remains a great place to start and grow a business,” she explained.
How did you begin your career in the nonprofit sector?When I first graduated from college, I actually was setting myself up for a career in public relations, but I decided I didn’t really like it very quickly. [Laughs] I was just a lot more interested in politics, so I started to move into that world. I got hired by the United Neighborhood Houses, which represents all of the community centers and settlement houses in the city. The first thing I was hired to do was to be a policy analyst, and I was working on a host of issues that were helpful to community centers.
You grew up on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Do you use any of what you saw there in your job today?My parents are hippies, I would say. I was actually born in Detroit and when I was eight years old, they had an epiphany that they wanted to move to a Native American reservation even though we’re not Native American. The Navajo people are a really beautiful people and have a certain way of viewing the world and a very positive way of seeing things and I think I definitely learned that and carry that.
You’ve been at the Chamber of Commerce for two weeks now. What’s one of the first things you did there?We’ve done some really great events since I started. That’s a big part of what the Chamber does, bring people together for networking and educational purposes. We had some really good speakers who I was happy to see and help present, including Maisha Walker who is an Internet guru and was sharing ideas for honing your digital strategy. We had the founder of Shoptiques present to a lot of young women, which was really neat. Just to see the impact we can make has been the big lesson in my first two weeks.
Describe what a typical day has been like for you so far. What’s your job description?It’s about four pages long. [Laughs] But essentially, a lot of it is being the spokesperson for the organization, and also trying to really come up with some innovative ways to help our members start and grow their companies. It’s really trying to think through what events would be of value and what can really help businesses. And some of it is advocacy; I’ll be testifying before the City Council on different issues and doing some lobbying. But also just really trying to meet the members and figure out what their needs are and try to help them. That’s what it’s all about.
What are some things you hope to accomplish in this role?Well I definitely want to ramp up our advocacy efforts. That’s one of my passions obviously, in my background. There are certain issues that we definitely want to take on, such as eliminating the commercial rent tax, which only affects businesses in Manhattan. It’s a tax on commercial rental properties below 96th Street and it’s sort of a double taxation and a hardship, essentially, for a lot of businesses in Manhattan. I also want to do a lot to help young professionals and entrepreneurs. It’s a very complex city in terms of learning the rules and regulations you have to follow to start a business. So we want to do a lot there to clarify that and make it easier for people to follow their passions.
Tell us about some of the nonprofits you worked for and your proudest accomplishments.If you look at my resume, it doesn’t seem clear, but it is to me in terms of the fact that the common thread is focused on making New York a better place. The nonprofits I’ve worked for are some of the biggest institutions here in the city, including United Neighborhood Houses and the New York Academy of Medicine, which is all about public health in the city and at the Partnership for New York City, which represents the city’s businesses. The first part of my career was focused on trying to make the city a better place for its oldest residents. And I’m really proud of some of the things we did, such as shining the spotlight on social isolation, which is a huge issue, actually. We did a report that was very influential. It caused former Mayor Bloomberg to act on the issue and it garnered a lot of attention and it’s now one of the biggest issues that the AARP Foundation is focused on. I’m proud of that. I think we did a lot of good to help people, starting with that report.
At the New York Academy of Medicine, you worked on an initiative called Age-Friendly New York City. It’s sort of revolutionary in that we actually went out and talked to people about what they wanted instead of sitting in the office and making it up. We contacted 15,000 older adults in the city and asked them what they liked, what they didn’t like and what they wanted to see change. Nothing crazy, but we got a lot of valuable information that led to 59 policy improvements in New York City.
Going forward, what do you think the challenges will be in your job?I think, right now, it’s an interesting times for chambers in general because there’s so much networking that can happen digitally. Part of it is going to be how we are going to maximize that for people. But also, I think there is still a significant importance on face-to-face networking and connecting and making sure you’re getting the information from a credible source. So, making sure that we are visible and people understand that we’re a resource even though there’s all this information and other stuff happening out there.
You live in Harlem. What are some of the business you support there? How have you seen the neighborhood change?I’ve been here for a little over four years. It’s just a great place. I like an Italian restaurant called Babbalucci … and Chez Lucienne. There’s a lot of great restaurants in Harlem right now and I try to frequent them as much as possible. There are a lot of changes happening. Right around the corner from where I live, there’s a Whole Foods that’s about to open. It used to be a huge vacant lot. Also just the number or bars and restaurants that have opened. It’s been a very rapid change.