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The North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce board has hired Cristina Aldrete as its president and CEO, chamber officials announced Friday morning. Aldrete is the first Latina to lead the chamber, one of the largest business advocacy organizations of its kind in the city.
Aldrete served as the chamber’s executive vice president of business development and government affairs since 2015 and will officially assume her new role on Aug. 1.
Paid executive positions at local chambers are largely held by men. The other two major chambers, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, have had men at their helms for at least the last decade.
“Most large organizations are very aware that diversifying their membership is an opportunity to realize potential from a different perspective,” Aldrete told the Rivard Report. “If you look at the make-up of most boards of directors in San Antonio today, you see a pretty good reflection of the state’s population. The North Chamber will continue to follow this trend as well.”
The North SA Chamber received applications from approximately 200 people across the United States, Board Chair Chris Thiel said, and one other finalist was a former congressman.
“We knew she was talented enough for the job [before launching the search], but wanted to validate that the right choice was being made,” he said. When the search did start, “it was amazing to me how many unsolicited recommendations Cristina got from other organization leaders.”
One of her priorities, she said, is to put the chamber and its membership out in the forefront of issues that negatively impact business in San Antonio such as the firefighter union’s charter amendments.
“For the remainder of 2018, we’ll be focusing on enhancing the programming tied to our top strategic initiatives of advocacy, leadership, and workforce development, and analyzing the services we offer to increase membership, engagement, and involvement in the North SA Chamber,” she said. “The North San Antonio Chamber will be working to address issues that directly affect local businesses’ ability to remain San Antonio’s primary economic generators and job creators.”
She replaces Duane Wilson, who served the chamber for 25 years and announced his retirement this summer. A Marine Corps veteran, Wilson worked at Southwestern Bell for 36 years and started several local businesses before joining the chamber as interim director. Finding that the chamber was in dire financial trouble, Wilson worked to strengthen its membership infrastructure and programs. Now it’s the only local chamber that owns its headquarters.
“At almost 76 [years old] I realize it’s time for that next generation of folks with a passion for chamber work … to come and take hold,” Wilson told the Rivard Report. His last day with the chamber is July 30. “[Aldrete] understands our need to be out in front and represent the business community as their advocate when it come to local, state, and federal issues.
“She’s already very well respected in the business community.”
Asked about the challenges that older business organizations face in attracting young entrepreneurs, Aldrete said the North Chamber is lucky to have a wealth of young business owners in its membership.
“I think most organizations are grappling with the challenge of reaching a younger demographic and figuring out what they can offer to engage and involve them,” she said. “The North SA Chamber is known for its younger, next generation of business owners who serve on our board of directors and are instrumental in ensuring our events and award-winning leadership programs are so successful.”
Founded in 1974, the chamber’s territory includes businesses from downtown to Loop 1604 north, and from the west at Highway 151 to the east at the City of Windcrest.
Aldrete brings to the North SA Chamber an array of experience acquired through her previous work in Austin, where she and her husband Eddie ran Aldrete Communications, a corporate communications and government affairs firm they co-founded in 1992, until their move to San Antonio in 2001.
Aldrete graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor of arts in economics, and has held executive roles at the Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau and McAllen Economic Development Corporation. Before joining the chamber, she served as director of institutional advancement at Palo Alto College for almost three years. Eddie is now senior vice president of IBC Bank.
She remains civically engaged and sits on various boards including Visit San Antonio’s.
“The biggest priority we have is continued advocacy,” Thiel said, “and right now there’s a lot of stuff happening at the City Council level that is detrimental to the business community.”
The Council’s recent controversies involving union-friendly airport concession contracts (which were ultimately changed) and declining to pursue the 2020 Republican National Convention are just two examples of when the chamber should have been in close contact with Council members, he said.”Not to change their minds, but to make sure thy have all [perspectives] on the issues.”
Both the San Antonio and Hispanic chambers have female board chairs who are unpaid: CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold Williams and H-E-B Director of Customer Insights Erika Prosper, respectively. Prosper is married to Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
As the search process began, Thiel said, the search and executive committees considered the importance of leadership diversity – namely age, race, and gender.
Out of the 200 applicants, 21 were granted phone interviews. When it came down to the six in-person interviews, however, those factors were given “no special consideration,” he said. “She got it on her merits.
“She was head and shoulders ahead of anybody,” he added.