Community change and influence often occur best at the local level, as many employees at regional and state chambers can personally attest. Alex Breault, director of talent initiatives at the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce in Florida, wanted to find an opportunity to deepen her knowledge in education and workforce development for her community and immediately became interested in the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Business Leads Fellowship Program (Business Leads).
The program, which began in 2018, has trained over 225 fellows representing 47 states. The Business Leads Fellowship Program first trains fellows on their preferred interest areas, such as early childhood education, K –12 education, college and career readiness, post-secondary education, and workforce development for six months. Fellows then focus on project work in a local community for an additional six months.
Breault, who has worked for the Naples Chamber for four years, is passionate about finding opportunities for people in her area to thrive.
“When I was growing up, I struggled trying to find my career pathway,” Breault explained. “I wasn't exposed to too many careers when I was in high school, or K-12, so when this fellowship opportunity came about, I knew it was an amazing chance for me to give back to my community, to help students understand the career opportunities in their backyard before they went off to college or technical school, or whatever they wanted to do after high school.”
Beyond the chance to learn more about the historical context and current policies around education and workforce development, the fellowship offers a unique opportunity to network with other state or local chamber employees and those who work for a trade association or economic development agency.
“We were able to bounce ideas off of each other, learn best practices, and figure out how other communities were breaking down barriers and pushing boundaries and cultivating change in their own areas,” Breault said. “It helped me bring those things back to my community, back to my boss and say, ‘Hey, this is working in this community. Might not work here, but these are the pieces that we can bring in and help change our own community.’”
Currently, Breault is focused on expanding her chamber’s work-based learning efforts by coordinating with many of the local school districts and partnering with nonprofits in Naples. Through offering programming that enhances professional business components, she hopes to show students that viable career opportunities exist beyond what is directly in front of them, such as engineering and manufacturing, and tourism and hospitality.
“By bringing students into these manufacturing facilities and showing them that it’s not a dirty job, it’s actually a viable career that you can go, do a training for two years and make $80,000 driving that big, nice truck that you love to see driving down the road,” she said. “We’ve seen success in that, and we're trying to educate the students that that's a career option for them.”
On top of partnering with local schools, Breault also coordinated a certification program with Taste of Immokalee, a youth entrepreneurship program where teens learn to run a successful business to help alleviate poverty.
Immokalee, located near Naples, has a significant migrant population and agricultural industry in the area. It is the second poorest community in Florida, where nearly half of the people in Immokalee live below the poverty level.
Through a partnership with the Greater Naples Chamber, Taste of Immokalee, nonprofits, and the local school district, they established a work certification program where students can focus on critical thinking, presentation skills, and professional etiquette to better prepare them for the workforce. More than 60 students are currently enrolled in the program.
Chambers serve as a critical component in bringing industries together so businesses and communities can prosper.
“Because of these relationships that we build, we know the demands in our community,” Breault explained. “We’re just making sure that they have the right partners, employers, so when those students go through those programs, they're hired afterwards.”
In early March, the Business Leads Fellowship program hosted a retreat in Palm Springs for its fourth and fifth cohorts, after working together virtually in 2020 and 2021. Learn more about the Business Leads Fellowship Program.