A difference-maker: Northampton chamber leader Vince Jackson receives a Black Excellence Award

  • Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vince Jackson. Photographed on Main Street on Monday, March 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vince Jackson. Photographed on Main Street on Monday, March 8, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vince Jackson was recently honored with a Black Excellence Award by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. He’s pictured on Main Street in Northampton on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

BU Statehouse Program
Published: 3/10/2021 3:43:16 PM

When Vince Jackson was named the first African American to serve as the executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the Hampshire County Regional Tourism Council in 2019, he knew it was an opportunity to make an impact.

Two years later, Jackson is doing just that, which is why he was on Beacon Hill last month to be recognized with a Black Excellence Award for contributions he’s made to communities of color in this region. The third annual Black Excellence on the Hill event, hosted by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, celebrates Black culture, excellence and achievement in the commonwealth.

“I’m the first African American leader of a 100-year-old organization, and what that means to me is that I have a unique opportunity to make a difference,” Jackson said. “If I, as an African American leader, can’t move the needle on diversity in a way that’s meaningful and relevant, then I can’t expect others to want to do the same work and do it.”

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, nominated Jackson for the award and said his leadership with racial equity has strengthened the Northampton region.

“I think it’s imperative that leaders in our community be as diverse as possible,” Comerford said. “Because perspective matters, identity matters, and in order to have systemic change, we need the greatest diversity of people leading the way.”

Under Jackson’s leadership, the Chamber has conducted a survey to identify businesses owned by Black, Indigenous and people of color. By creating and tracking this database, the Chamber hopes to encourage community members to support those businesses.

Additionally, he and the Chamber’s Nominations Committee diversified the board of directors to better reflect the Northampton community. People from the LGBTQ+ community, millennials, a Native American, a Latina and African Americans now serve on the board.

Chamber initiatives

At a time when small, minority-owned businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, Jackson spearheaded the Chamber’s Community Revitalization Fund to provide grants of up to $5,000 for eligible small businesses in the area. The grant program raised over $260,000 in three months with the help of about 12 volunteers, he said.

Last summer, the Chamber issued a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It laid out a plan for board members and staff to cultivate a local economy that benefits all people. The steps included elevating local tourist attractions that celebrate the cultural significance of Black people, expanding advocacy on legislative and economic issues and educating the community around issues of racial injustice and equity, according to its website.

The Chamber also increased virtual educational opportunities for its members, Jackson said. Experts volunteered their time to share tips on how to navigate the Paycheck Protection Program, build an e-commerce website and develop the best marketing and sales strategies.

People from employment agencies across Massachusetts offered guidance on applying for unemployment benefits and rehiring employees after furloughs and layoffs. Other sessions focused on mental health and networking with other business owners.

Jackson said the public was able to participate in these educational programs for free because of the generosity of the subject matter experts who offered their advice without a fee.

“I think this really speaks more to how committed and responsive and resilient our community is,” he said. “We couldn’t have achieved what we did without the support of so many different people.”

The Chamber partnered with diversity training firm, Human In Common, to offer a series of anti-racism trainings at a substantial discount. In the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, Jackson and three Chamber board members attended the session together. As a result, they revised the Chamber’s mission statement to include DEI and developed an action plan to diversify the Chamber’s board.

Jackson revamped the Chamber’s communication strategy to keep local owners up to date on the latest information. The weekly Community Connector email newsletter is free and includes upcoming seminars and workshops, COVID-19 restrictions and public health recommendations.

“Our role is to get information out to the community,” Jackson said. “And when we’re all informed and we’re all well trained and we are all on the same page, it just makes us all stronger together.”

The future

Looking toward next year, Jackson hopes to expand the Northampton Gift Card Program, which allows consumers to buy a gift card through the Chamber and use it at 60 local businesses. Jackson said he wants to use “breakthrough” marketing programs to promote the program and increase the number of businesses where the gift cards can be used. On average, the 15-year-old program pumps more than $330,000 into the local economy each year.

Jackson also wants to position the Chamber to be able to take advantage of grants, which may require enhancements to the Chamber’s infrastructure, such as establishing nonprofit foundation that will allow them host more charitable events and bring opportunities to everyday citizens in addition to continuing to support the small business community.

Prior to leading the Chamber, Jackson served as the president and CEO of a marketing firm for 19 years. Being a business owner from an underrepresented group prepared him to lead during the pandemic when Black and Hispanic business owners suffered the biggest blows.

“As a former business owner, I understand firsthand what it’s like to not be included in consideration for opportunities because of race,” he said. “I’ve been in situations where I knew I was qualified, had a strong record of past performance on similar projects, and was competitive on fees — but you’re not often considered or taken seriously or given the opportunity to deliver.”

Comerford said the hallmarks of Jackson’s leadership are inspiration, generosity, collegiality, patience and passion.

“Vince helping to shape this next generation of the chamber — and the fact that he is a powerful leader of color — increases the Chamber’s ability to do the most transformative work possible,” she said.

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