Doris Carson WilliamsChair, Cleveland President and Chief Executive Officer African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Class C Director Current term ends December 31, 2023
When Doris Carson Williams was approached in 1998 about launching an African American chamber of commerce in Pittsburgh, she didn’t think she was the right person for the job.
Her experience had been in the corporate setting, and she had to be convinced to consider how that would translate to helping the area’s small businesses.
The more she considered what the job entailed and what it could do for local small businesses, the more convinced she became.
“This was an opportunity that would allow me to use every business tool and skill to help people that look like me increase their business acumen,” she remembers thinking at the time.
Although she had held multiple leadership positions in other organizations—Hartford Insurance, Control Data Corporation, Dollar Bank, Carnegie Museums—and was enrolled in the executive program at the Katz School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, she had never started an organization from the ground up. She also knew that this endeavor would attract some attention to her.
So, in 1998, armed with a box of color-coded file folders, she opened the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania (AACCWP). By herself.
One thing she knew—if this organization was truly going to work, it had to be inclusive. “It had to help all small businesses,” she says. “It just couldn’t be solely African American. That could be the emphasis, but it had to include all small business owners who work for green money, because they hire people from their neighborhoods. And it all helps to support our local economy.”
Seventy-eight percent of the group’s members are African American small business owners who are starting out. Supporting membership includes white, Latino, and Indian business owners.
“We support all small businesses in the economy to help them hire people,” she says.
After she secured office space, she went to work building the organization.
One of the first things to accomplish on her to-do list—get buy-in from the corporate sector. In a meeting with Tom Usher, chairman of US Steel at the time, Carson Williams and her chairman, Robert Agbede, gave a presentation about what was being launched and what they were hoping to accomplish with the new organization.
“You don’t just do this without the engagement of the corporate community on your side,” she says. “He caught the vision. He understood the value of what we were attempting to do.”
Usher was a true supporter of the organization. Shortly after that initial meeting, he wrote a letter to all of his peers explaining to them what this new chamber was about.
“I get goosebumps every time I think about how this happened,” she says. And in this letter, she continues to explain, he also encouraged all of his peers to donate annually to the chamber to support the ongoing operating costs. Equally important, the letter introduced Carson Williams to each company’s procurement officer encouraging each of them to obtain bids for work from the chamber’s small businesses.
Strength from support
“It’s amazing what happens when you’ve got a powerful chairman like that writing a letter,” she recalls. Money started coming in. Every day, a check would arrive from a large Pittsburgh corporation showing its support for the new organization.
Still solo, she crossed off other start-up responsibilities—creating a logo and then a public service announcement to raise awareness of the organization.
“I learned a valuable lesson from that,” Carson Williams admits. “I opened the office by myself; there was no staff. When you get public service announcements that connect with people, well, it started to generate 75 phone calls a day.”
A good place to be, but she needed help and she knew it. She convinced her mother to come out of retirement to help answer phones. A student from Manchester Bidwell, a local adult and youth organization helping underserved populations in Pittsburgh, arrived shortly thereafter and assisted.
And together they grew. Twenty-eight paid members joined the chamber that first year. In 15 months, that number reached 220. Today, the AACCWP is the second largest minority chamber in the country with more than 500 African American business owners and professionals.
Throughout the years and continuing today, members attend networking events like Power Breakfast Meetings and Members’ Mixers to meet corporate, government, and community leaders. Tapping its corporate sponsors, the Chamber’s Business Institute holds workshops on legal, finance and accounting, information technology, and marketing communications topics to help educate members on all facets of running a successful business.
Connecting the dots
Carson Williams is a well-known force in Pittsburgh, a city she loves. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland noticed her successes and thought she would be a good fit for its board of directors. She joined the Pittsburgh Branch board of directors in 2014, and served as board chair in 2016 and 2017. In January 2018, she was appointed to the Cleveland board.
She says her work at Dollar Bank earlier in her career gave her the background for understanding and an ongoing interest in monetary policy. Couple her experience and interest with her passion to speak up for small businesses, and her participation as a Fed director seems like a strong match.
At each monthly Cleveland Fed board meeting, she gives updates on what she’s seeing and hearing. “I solicit input from our membership on how their businesses are doing, or questions they pose to us,” she says. As the directors go around the table offering their input during board meetings, she shares what she is hearing about the ability for area small businesses to expand, secure new clients, and obtain loans.
And it all began to fit together. Carson Williams takes note of the news coming out of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington DC, and what the Fed Chair is saying, and ties it back to the information she gets from her members. “You start to connect the dots,” she adds. “There is a definite link.”
Not only is it satisfying to her to hear about the different industries represented at the Fed meetings, it is also very gratifying to serve an entity that has been a part of her career.
“I’m honored to do it,” she smiles.
In November 2002, the AACCWP invited Roger Ferguson, then vice chairman of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, to speak at one of the organization’s business briefing luncheons. It was a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and Ferguson talked about being the only member of the Board of Governors in Washington (others were traveling) on that day in 2001, Carson Williams recalls. He explained how he had to move quickly to assure bankers and investors that the Fed would provide the lending necessary to keep the economy going in the aftermath of the crisis.
“That was powerful,” she says.
Doris Carson Williams left Pittsburgh to go to school in Hartford, Connecticut, and remained there for her first job with Hartford Insurance. “Like so many Pittsburgh people, I got the itch to move back,” she says. She’s been home ever since.
When you call the AACCWP office, you are most likely to talk with Shawn Hicks, who joined the organization in 1999 as a temporary worker.
“All of a sudden, things started getting done,” Carson Williams says. She asked if Hicks would like to work with AACCWP full time. He replied, “I would love to.” She then asked if he would like to go to college. Again, she received a positive reply. Hicks worked full-time for the organization while going to school and earning his degree. He now serves as the director of membership and development.