New Chamber head excels at bringing people together

  • Natalie Blais, of Sunderland, is executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Natalie Blais is the new Executive Director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz


For the Gazette
Published: 9/3/2017 10:19:03 PM

GREENFIELD — If you’re set to fill the shoes of a 32-year veteran Chamber of Commerce executive director, it helps to have some serious street cred.

And Natalie Blais has got it, as she’s about to take the helm of Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

Blais worked as an aide to U.S. Reps. John Olver, Jim McGovern and Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and most recently was University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy’s assistant.

And then there is her years as assistant to Ben & Jerry. Yes, she responds — obviously, yet again — “The Ben and The Jerry.”

But seated recently in the Chamber’s Main Street offices, as she prepares for the new role, the Sunderland resident says, “This feels like home to me. When I had my interview, I felt I was in the right place.”

So did Ann Hamilton, outgoing Chamber director, who stepped down formally from the position last year.

“I’m thrilled with the choice,” Hamilton said. “She’s very community-minded. She knows what chambers do and she’ll have good ideas of her own.”

The 98-year-old chamber, with about 440 members, wants to shift gears away from “tired” events and strategies and use more technology to appeal to millennials who aren’t as comfortable with traditional membership organizations.

‘Very inclusive’

The 40-year-old former Vermonter, who’s lived here since 2005, says she plans to be “very inclusive,” reaching out for conversations with not only chamber members but also with former members, to see why they left the organization.

“Those will be difficult conversations, but they’re important to have,” she said. “People can expect to hear from me. We’re only as strong as our membership, and I want everyone to be a member because the more there are, the more momentum we’ll have and the more we can accomplish together.”

Bringing people together has been a key motivation for Blais, who interned for Sanders in Washington, D.C., after her sophomore year as a political science major at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

After returning from studying abroad the following year, the former Derby Line, Vermont, resident took a semester off to run her congressman’s statewide re-election campaign “because I really felt I wanted to help people and give a voice to people who didn’t have one. … He trusted me, allowing me to run his statewide field campaign. That was extraordinary.”

Eventually, Blais went to work for the Vermont state auditor, even though she hoped to earn a master’s degree in communication. When Emerson College offered her a full scholarship, two weeks after taking the job, she grabbed it, and drove from Montpelier to Boston once a week for three years.

After getting married, earning her master’s and unsure what she wanted to do next, Blais applied at a temp agency, which matched her with a job they’d had trouble filling — working for Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington.

It turned out they were looking for an assistant for Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who’d sold their homemade ice cream company in 2000. Blais interviewed the following morning at an office where they worked on pet projects, and by that afternoon she had the job.

“It was me in the middle, and Ben was over here in this office and Jerry in that office,” with Cohen working on, an early online advocacy organization helping people contact legislators via fax and Greenfield doing outreach for their foundation.

“It was a really extraordinary place to be,” she says. “They’re incredible human beings and still friends.”

After three years, when her husband, a soccer coach at Norwich College, got a job at Amherst College, she left her job, and its supply of free ice cream, and the family moved to Belchertown.

A blind classified ad in a newspaper after she’d settled in asked, “Do you want to help people? Would you like to make a difference?”

It turned out to be an ad from Congressman Olver, the Amherst Democrat who was looking for an aide.

“He wasn’t interested in political appointees; he was interested in a person who could do the job,” recalls Blais, who before long took on the role of Olver’s economic specialist for the Pioneer Valley.

At that time, when there were earmarks, she recalls, “we were able to work with communities in the valley, as well as nonprofits and businesses, on projects to help support economic development in those areas,” says Blais, who helped advance Northern Tier renewable-energy developments at Greenfield Community College and Wisdom Way Solar Village, among other projects.

“It wouldn’t work if it was a top-down approach. You had to have buy-in from the communities: their support and the collaboration. That’s my basis for economic development. You had to get involved at the community level and start there. The projects … take time. You have to be patient and have faith it’s going to happen.”

Blais, who went to work for McGovern after Olver’s retirement in 2013, and became Subbaswamy’s aide in 2015, said working collaboratively with chambers, town administrators, nonprofits and local businesses is experience that will come in handy in her new job – especially as the chamber strives to remain relevant.

“In order to do that, we need to change with the times, to evolve … to make sure we’re meeting the needs of our businesses. ... If I don’t have their support, it’s not going anywhere.”

Blais says, “I wouldn’t have applied for any other chamber position. I think this is a very special, unique place where the people who choose to live here make it what it is. We all chose to live here for a reason, and it’s those reasons that make this place so special.”

Looking ahead, she points to “an extraordinary opportunity to capitalize on Boston-to-Berkshire traffic” with “pit stops” to capitalize on the draw of Mass MOCA in North Adams, “so people will stop along the way and get that taste of Franklin County and want to come back.”

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