Business dean tapped as chair of St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce Board

Dean Sri Sundaram is the first person from outside of the business community to be named chair of the Board of Governors for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

Dean Sri Sundaram is the first person from outside of the business community to be named chair of the Board of Governors for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce Board.

(Jan. 12, 2021) – Dean Sri Sundaram of the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance has been named chair of the Board of Governors for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. As chair for the next year, Sundaram will help guide the Chamber and the local business community through a historic pandemic that has impacted the economy, while also tightening the bonds between business and education in the city.

“The partnership between education and business is a natural one,” said Sundaram. “An education partner deeply understands the talent needs of business, and the operational side as we run like a business with targeted performance-based funding metrics.”

This is the first time someone from outside of the business community has been named chair of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce Board. It is also another community board led by USF St. Petersburg campus leadership. Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock has been president of the Innovation District Board since 2018.

“It speaks volumes to what the campus has done with the Chamber and other partners over the years to be given these responsibilities,” says Sundaram. “It is a recognition of the role education partners can play in the community.”

We sat down with Sundaram to hear about his new role, the biggest challenges and opportunities for the local business community in 2021 and how this partnership between USF’s St. Petersburg campus and the Chamber of Commerce can benefit both. The story has been edited for length.

For those who may not know, what is the purpose of a Chamber of Commerce?

Typically, it is set up as a membership-driven organization, with the members being from the business community. It is an umbrella organization that advocates for sound business policy. It also works to support the city’s regional economic development. For example, in St. Petersburg the Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in developing the Grow Smarter strategy (an economic development strategy with a focus on equity and the mission to reduce gaps due to race and place by creating equitable economic growth). Overall, chambers bring business organizations together and play a social role in connecting business community members.

What are your responsibilities in this new role as chair of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce Board?

Mainly I will play a support role and one of guidance. The Chamber has a very engaged executive board and the chair will play an important leadership role along with President & CEO Chris Steinocher. I will work with the president, the executive board and other leadership in guiding policy and strategy for the Chamber as a whole.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and obstacles to overcome for the business community in the coming year?

The pandemic has really impacted the business community in St. Petersburg and Florida in general. A major focus of the Chamber will be in devising ways we can help the business community recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic. We will also guide businesses on how to conduct business in a safe fashion during the ongoing pandemic.

Looking back to last year, the Chamber did a really good job of setting up a group of navigators to help small businesses when it came to accessing loans and other resources from the CARES Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which was passed by Congress in response to the economic impact from the pandemic). When the CARES Act was passed, big businesses were in a good position to get loans and resources they needed because they have the capacity and experience of working with such government aid packages, but for small businesses that isn’t always the case. The Chamber worked with smaller businesses and provided guidance and advice, making them aware of how they could take advantage of CARES Act funding and other programs sponsored by the state, county and city. With a new stimulus package passed by Congress late last year, I foresee the Chamber continuing to help our businesses when it comes to obtaining needed funding and resources that are available to them to operate safely and successfully.

What do you see as the greatest strengths for the business community in St. Pete in the coming year?

One of our greatest strengths is the strong foundation we have built over the years. Our focus as a Chamber is economic development, specifically development that is inclusive. What the Chamber has done is put a culture in place, saying, ‘We are going to grow, but we will grow together.’ Secondly, as a business community we have identified specific sectors where we envision tremendous business opportunity and growth locally, which include data analytics, financial services, marine sciences, life sciences and art. Providing this roadmap on economic development has been really helpful in channeling the business community’s energy and focus.

The next step we envision – and where the Chamber will play a key role – is in developing a community alliance around our Grow Smarter strategy. The Chamber and other community partners are doing a lot of overlapping things. What if we come together and provide support to one another, an alliance that can help strengthen business policies and practices.

Seems like it is a very fruitful partnership between the campus and the Chamber of Commerce. In addition to your role as chair, how can the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance support the Chamber of Commerce and local business and how can the Chamber enhance academics and the student experience at the St. Petersburg campus?

Any College of Business has to be integrated with regional economic development, not only in the traditional way of providing new talent, but through engagement and coordination. For example, the city’s Economic Development Corporation wanted to get further involved in data analytics and reached out to us for help. Our faculty are now working on a project to setup an interactive dashboard of data analytics with them. We also have a Consumer Insight Lab that works with local companies to provide focus groups and critical consumer information that comes out of those sessions. We are also building an entrepreneurial ecosystem. There are so many entrepreneurs in our city and we are working closely with city partners to launch a platform called Startup Space to bring everyone together for greater collaboration.

Business theory is being put into practice, which benefits our faculty, our students and our business partners. Whenever you can bring the business community, a civic partner and an education partner together, it tends to always turn out very successful for the community.

A year from now, what do you envision for the Chamber of Commerce in its role of creating a more vibrant St. Petersburg?

The definition of success for me is helping our community navigate through the recovery of the pandemic in a successful fashion. Secondly, if we move forward on implementing academic clusters (Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences, Technology and Sustainability; STEM Education; Visual and Performing Arts; Business; Health Sciences), I hope to see the Chamber play a role in working with business partners, nonprofits and the city to create those clusters and make us known for them.

Finally, with the consolidation to One USF, I would like to see us use our ability to leverage tremendous resources and human capital across all of the university for the benefit of the St. Petersburg community.