Over 30 years at the staten island chamber of commerce, linda Baran has worked tirelessly on behalf of the borough’s small businesses, and isn’t about to slow down now
by JENNIFER VIKSE Photos BY Amessé Photography
In 1986, Linda Baran began her career as a bookkeeper with the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce. At the time, the young mom never could have imagined what the future held for her.
Three decades later, she’s at the helm of the organization—its first woman president and chief executive officer.
“It has gone fast,” confessed Baran. “I never anticipated that I would be president of the Chamber. I started bookkeeping when my daughter was just a year-old; she got married this year.”
Suffice it to say, during that time things have changed dramatically for Baran, the Chamber, and Staten Island.
The Chamber, a not-for-profit and the largest business organization on the Island, has been around since 1895. Put simply, its mission is to support small businesses and protect their interests by providing expertise on an wide range of issues, from controlling costs to increasing sales to human resources.
At its core, the Chamber is a resource for businesses for things that may be beyond their scope or too cumbersome for a small business to handle when its main concern is trying to stay afloat day by day.
“We offer many benefits,” Baran explained, detailing first its opportunities for networking. “We are good at bringing people together and fostering connections—here’s something for everyone. We host numerous events, and members can join one of our three business guilds or committees to develop relationships and grow their businesses.”
Advocacy is also a major role of the Chamber, which regularly visits Albany to lobby on issues important to its members. It was instrumental, for instance, in getting commercial tolls reduced for local businesses on the Verrazano Bridge. It also advocates for members on issues concerning wages, water bills, real estate taxes, and other issues.
“We work with businesses when they have matters with city agencies, crime, need help with utility companies—that’s where our Help Desk comes in,” said Baran. “A lot of people have very small staffs, so we become their staff to help them work through issues.”
The Chamber is also able to come through for the Island’s small businesses in the wake of tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. “After Sandy, we worked with National Grid to give out over $1 million in grants,” said Baran. “Without these grants, many businesses may have closed their doors. Vacant properties are still prevalent along the East Shore, and we continue our work to revitalize that area.”
The Chamber has taken on a variety of roles for business owners in the community over the years. “When I look back at my time with the Chamber, I think about all of the people I’ve met,” Baran noted. “I’ve developed relationships that have been very rewarding, and I can facilitate help for others because of those relationships. I hope by the time I retire I have made a difference in our community.”
To that end, she has focused particularly on the youth of the borough in hopes of preparing the workforce of the next generation. One of the programs Baran has started is the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which is unique to New York City. Launched four years ago, its mission is to develop and deliver experience-based entrepreneurship programs to young people who then, it is hoped, will turn their ideas into budding enterprises.
“I think the Chamber can play a great role in providing opportunity to our young adults,” Baran said from her office on South Avenue, a temporary spot while the Chamber’s St. George office is being refurbished after a fire. “Over the past year, we have been involved in the development of Youth WINS, a borough-wide workforce partnership for ‘out-ofschool, out-of-work’ youth. The goal is to create a workforce pipeline for struggling young people. We also collaborate on Career Con, an innovative career fair that introduces students to various career pathways. The program gives business owners and hiring managers an opportunity to foster partnerships that can develop into work-based learning opportunities, including career talks, job-shadowing programs, and internships.”
In addition to her focus on the workforce of tomorrow, Baran is excited to work with New York State on the East Shore LDC project, whose goal is to attract the right mix of businesses to the beachfront communities that dot Staten Island’s eastern shore.
“It amazes me that we live on an island where the waterfront is so underutilized,” she said. “We are working on a plan to bring the right businesses into the area—ones that are family-oriented, fun, and attract people of all ages. This way, people can enjoy a day at the beach on Staten Island without having to go to the Jersey Shore or the Hamptons.”
The reemerging North Shore is also on Baran’s mind these days.
“Interest in the borough has grown tremendously,” she said. “We’re seeing private investment along the North Shore never seen before. It is important that we plan appropriately for its success.
This means having the infrastructure in place to support the growth.
“Tourism is vital to the future of the borough,” she continued. “Drawing people to the island’s cultural attractions, restaurants, and recreational offerings will support a healthy business climate,” she said.
“We must leverage all of what’s happening,” added the president, whose organization was recently awarded state funding to market Staten Island on the world stage. The Chamber has also applied for one of the city’s Neighborhood 360 grants to revitalize the Bay Street corridor. “Improving the area to make it more welcoming and aesthetically pleasing will encourage people to visit our neighborhoods.”
The Chamber’s office— which is in the heart of the St. George section on Bay Street—will be complete by summer, a new state-of-theart facility that will be slightly larger than it was before the fire. “The new building will set the tone for building in the area,” noted Baran. “There will be a welcome center in the front for tourists.”
“I’m a native Staten Islander. I’ve seen so much change. In addition to mom-and-pops, we also see a lot of larger businesses interested in Staten Island, coming to the North and West Shores. I’m pleased to see that.”
And what will Staten Island look like in the future?
“There have been many times in the past where Staten Islanders have come together to help our community,” the president pointed out. “As the landscape of the borough changes, we need to seek out opportunities to improve the quality of life for our children and future generations. It’s not about one person or entity; it’s about all of us working together on a shared vision.”
On her to-do list? Baran wants to attract more minority owned and freelance businesses to the Chamber, continue to engage youth, and ramp up advocacy efforts for improved transportation on the North Shore, an effort that has frustrated her over the years.
“I’ve been advocating for years for North Shore transportation,” she explained. “I’d love to see that before I retire. It’s near and dear to my heart. It frustrates me that getting cars off the road and providing more transit options are not a priority.”
Internally, she has worked to build an even more robust team to serve the business community.
“Organizations change, and it is important that the Chamber changes with the times and remains relevant,” she said. “The Chamber Board and I take that very seriously, and I hope it shows in the investment we have made in our staff. Today, in a world of technology, it is easy to access information online, and people tend to shy away from joining organizations. This is a great resource and a trusted source—I always encourage businesses to join, and to ‘Call the Chamber’—and we strive to be innovative and helpful.”
Outside of her job responsibilities, Baran is a mother of three, sits on the board of Notre Dame Academy, and is an advisory board member for the Small Business Development Center at the College of Staten Island. She’s also a past president of the Staten Island Rotary Club, and year will become the 2017 Chairperson of the Chamber Alliance of New York State.
Although it’s been 30 years, Baran isn’t slowing down.
“Nothing is easy. Everyone has to work hard,” she said. “Some things we have worked hard on for years—and they haven’t always come to fruition, but we don’t give up. Many times we can effect change, and that makes it all worthwhile.”
Staten Island Chamber of Commerce / sichamber.com