How the New Chamber Chief Aims to Up Its ‘Cool’ Factor

Brooklyn's Hector Batista plans to attract younger members, create more essential programs—and boost fundraising

Batista in his chamber office: “I believe in the idea of being a servant leader. I support the people around me” (Photo by Rachyl Houterman)

Unlike so many Brooklynites who have made the borough their adoptive home, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s new leader is a proud local product. Hector Batista, the chamber’s president and CEO since October, grew up in the borough, where he saw firsthand the defining role of mom-and-pop businesses in Brooklyn’s character.

His father was a travel-agency owner in Sunset Park, and Batista remembers his parents talking about the challenges of small business at the dinner table. “At the heart of this city is the small business,” Batista says. “The vibrancy of our city, the vibrancy of the borough, is the diversity of the borough and our retail shopping strips.”

So Batista takes to heart his role as an advocate for small businesses, recognizing that in a booming borough they face new challenges ranging from high rents to new regulation. At the same time, he sees that much of the economic growth in the borough comes from new, tech-related industries that aren’t generally part of the century-old group’s traditional membership. For the chamber, it’s a pivot point.

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The chamber’s annual Brooklyn Bridge to Employment expo, which took place last year in Industry City (Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce)

As he neared the end of his first 100 days in office recently, Batista spoke with The Bridge about his goals for the chamber. Among them: reaching out to young entrepreneurs, developing technology to better connect the chamber with its members, having a broader mix of industry types represented on its board, and boosting the chamber’s fundraising efforts.

An ‘Economic Development Engine’

When he stepped into his role last October, succeeding Andrew Hoan, Batista said he told the chamber’s board that he would “spend the first 100 days really listening to our members, our stakeholders and our partners to understand what the value proposition of the chamber is.”

Batista decided that as the borough’s “economic development engine,” the chamber needs to develop a sharper focus. “What I said to the board recently was, ‘We do 15 things, and in a lot of cases we’re one layer deep in those things. I’d rather do five things and be 15 layers deep.’”

One such goal is to increase the chamber’s loans to small business. The organization recently became certified by the Treasury Department as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which permits it to give out small loans ranging from $500 to $5,000. Batista said he would like to raise this to $50,000. “Loans that in most cases banks cannot give because of their requirements, we’re now able to step in there,” Batista said.

Another focus is jobs. Batista wants to create a more robust employment service to match employers with prospective workers, as well as boosting the chamber’s workforce-development role. With the rise of tech-driven companies in Brooklyn hubs like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Brooklyn Army Terminal, new jobs call for a higher level of skills than some of the old manufacturing jobs did. Batista wants to work with educators and business leaders to fill those skill gaps, he said.

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The chamber’s inaugural Brooklyn Runs 5K race drew business teams to Prospect Park, including employees from Downtown Music/Songtrust (Photo by Steve Koepp)

Batista wants to think strategically, industry by industry, to see how the chamber can help them. Despite the decline of old-school manufacturing in the borough, hundreds of companies make products here, typically with increasing sophistication. Batista wants to help get those products sold across the U.S. and the globe.

The same line of thinking, he said, applies to a newer industry: tourism. Noting that the borough now has 55 hotels—the nightlife business is booming as well—Batista said the chamber is having conversations with local travel-industry proprietors this month to see what the chamber can do to bring even more tourists across the bridges from Manhattan.

Heritage and Family

Batista, whose ancestry is Dominican and Puerto Rican, graduated from Ft. Greene’s Bishop Loughlin Memorial, a Catholic college-prep high school, and attended college at another venerable Brooklyn school, St. Francis College, where he earned a BA in political science.

After college, he quickly dove into the field of economic development, serving in a succession of roles including director of development and finance for the Brooklyn borough president’s office. He stepped up to a city-wide role as chief operating officer of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

In many of his jobs, Batista notes, he has been “the first,” as in the first Hispanic to serve as executive vice president of the American Cancer Society’s New York region, the first as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, and now the first as CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber.

Batista says that he brings a family approach to life and work. He still speaks with his mother on the phone every morning. (He and his wife have two grown children and a grandson.) “I believe in the idea of being a servant leader. I support the people around me,” he said.

“I always think that I’ve left every place better than I found it,” Batista added. “But you can’t do that by yourself. You have to build a team that helps you get that done.”

Drawing on His Previous Success

In leading Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, Batista doubled the number of children being served annually, to 6,000. On his watch, high-school graduation rates of participants rose eight percentage points, to 93%.

Among the tools he created was an app for the organization to help Bigs (the volunteers) and Littles (the youths) document their outings together. It also gave Bigs real-time data of how their Littles were doing in school. Batista believes a similar app could help the chamber connect better with its members, particularly young entrepreneurs.

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Batista speaking at one of his first events as the chamber’s new CEO (Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce)

Much of the growth in Brooklyn’s economy has come in new tech and information businesses, generally situated along the northern reaches of the borough, including Industry City, Downtown Brooklyn and Dumbo. “We have different types of businesses and we have to be able to react to all of them,” Batista said. “We haven’t been as successful as I would like in that space, and I’m committed to being more successful in that space. We have to be able to talk to them, in their language, in their interests.”

To make the chamber more appealing to a younger generation, he believes a rebranding is in order to make it “cooler,” with more relevant programming. Before the internet came along, Batista observed, the chamber was seen as a vital networking tool for local businesses. But with the arrival of search engines and social media, he believes the purpose of the chamber must become more all-encompassing. “We can’t just be the gatherer of people,” he said. “We have to be the provider of opportunities and commerce.”

Battling for Small Business Too

Small business is often whipsawed by the regulatory environment, Batista noted. Most recently, an apparent crackdown by the city’s Department of Buildings on non-conforming storefront signs created a potentially devastating burden on small business, but the outcry was so great that the City Council passed the Awnings Act to provide relief.

Batista said the chamber needs to be an advocate for small business when it’s threatened by overly burdensome regulations or legislation. “It seems to me from where I sit, the small business community is under siege right now,” he said. “A lot of legislation is being introduced that is really not helping small business.”

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At the chamber’s centennial gala last year, attendees cut loose on the dance floor as if they were at Studio 54 (Photo by Colin Clark)

One such piece of legislation he mentioned was the City Council’s proposed “right-to-disconnect” bill, which would prohibit private companies with more than 10 employees from requiring them to answer calls, texts, or emails after work hours. (The bill was sponsored by Brooklyn’s own Rafael Espinal.) Batista also pointed to Mayor de Blasio’s proposal that all businesses with five or more employees should be required to provide two weeks of paid vacation every year, which Batista said would strain small businesses even further and should be challenged.

“I think it is our responsibility—it is my responsibility—to do the analysis, to get input from all the different players, but then to take a position and represent our membership because I think that’s what our membership wants,” Batista said.

“I have a particular passion and interest in helping the small business and the medium-sized business because I understand that journey,” he said.

Diversifying Directors and Funding

Two other major goals of Batista’s are diversifying both the Chamber’s board of directors and its funding sources. He wants to bring representatives of more varied industries onto the board to stay current with a changing local economy. (Banks, colleges and real-estate firms are already well-represented.)

At the same time, the chamber needs a broader array of funding sources. Currently, the organization relies on the government for 60% to 65% of its funding, Batista said.

When the Chamber didn’t receive one of the government grants it needed, that created budget strains and an incentive to find alternative revenue options. Batista said he will need the support of the board and members to help boost fundraising, as well as more must-see programming to attract sponsors and participants.

A big event coming up for the chamber is its annual winter gala on Feb. 25, starting at 6 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge. Advance registration is required.

Rachyl Houterman is a reporting intern at The Bridge and attends school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. In her free time, she enjoys exploring national parks, hiking, and reading