Edmonton Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 chair is Elan MacDonald and she’s perfectly poised, thanks to being a visionary with a wealth of in-depth business experience, to help the Chamber evolve to embrace a rapidly changing world.
With more than 130 years of service, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce is one of the oldest business organizations of its kind in Canada. It represents more than 1,900 members who, in turn, employ more than 100,000 people across all industry sectors. The Chamber’s mandate is to help businesses grow through advocacy, education, and connections.
The foundations of what the Chamber stands for have remained firm over time but, as MacDonald knows and is taking head-on as a challenge during her time as chair, those very foundations could impede future growth. She’s not going to let that happen.
MacDonald began her career in government and spent the first 15 years advising cabinet ministers, two premiers and shaping public policy direction.
“What struck me all along was the need for translation,” she says, “as I met with private sector companies and other organizations trying to explain to the government what they were looking for, be it policy change, funding, etc. I spent time advising them on how to be successful in aligning their requests with governments’ goals.”
Realizing the need for this service, she decided to start her own company, IMPACT Consulting.
“I started at home in my basement, pregnant and a mother to toddler twins,” she smiles. “We grew quickly year over year, a fact of which I’m very proud. We had a diversity of clients from not-for-profit, to the health sector, energy companies and those in the post secondary sphere. I grew familiar with their challenges, their work, and their issues.”
This work with post secondary institutions would later play a big role in a massive career opportunity, but before that opportunity came along, she sold her firm.
“I sold IMPACT Consulting two years later to Global Public Affairs,” says MacDonald, who would go on to work with the organization as the senior vice president, national client development. “The industry evolved and clients’ needs were becoming increasingly complex, often requiring a national approach. My choice was to grow my firm or join a well-established firm with an existing national footprint that shared my values. So, my team at IMPACT joined Global Public Affairs, where I worked to grow our Alberta presence and lead national business development. I greatly enjoyed the challenge and as throughout my career, I loved the direct interaction with my clients.”
Then she was approached about the University of Alberta (U of A) who was looking for a new vice president of external affairs.
“I wasn’t looking for a new role but when I was approached about the U of A position, I was intrigued,” admits MacDonald. I am impressed by the vision of President Bill Flanagan for the University of Tomorrow and the U of A’s desire and commitment to transformation that will fundamentally change the way the university operates. It will be leaner, more student focussed and connected to the community and industry. I found the challenge to be incredibly exciting. To be a part of this type of change… these opportunities don’t come along that often. I thought, ‘I can help and this is something I want to contribute to!’”
Throughout her career trajectory, from employee to employer and now as the U of A’s vice president of external relations, there has been one factor that underscored it all: the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.
“I was drawn to the Edmonton Chamber because of my ongoing desire to help businesses,” says MacDonald. “I feel like I have done that my whole career from inside government or with my own firm. From being an entrepreneur and building my own company, I understand how hard it is to build a brand through good and challenging times. I had a lot of mentors along the way and a lot of people that helped me. I also made my share of mistakes. I wanted to share those experiences with others, and this is what the Chamber enables. It provides a community to share ideas and advocate for the right conditions for job creation and business growth. I bring business experience, but I also bring political acumen and knowledge of how policies are developed to the table.”
MacDonald sat on the Edmonton Chamber’s policy and government relations committees. “There is a strong connection between the two, so it made sense for me be on both,” she explains. “There is often a direct tie between policies that can help or hinder business and the levels of government that creates them. Understanding this and how to navigate government is part of the value I bring to the Chamber.”
Although the Edmonton Chamber has been helping grow businesses for more than a century, MacDonald knows that in order to continue its important work, its time for things to change.
“During my role as board chair, my biggest challenge will be helping the Chamber maintain relevancy. We are watching our business community evolve rapidly, in response to the triple whammy of the economic downturn, drop in energy prices, and the pandemic. Everyone has had to evolve and change; the ability of the Chamber to meet members where they are now is the challenge. How do we connect with this newest generation of business leaders and what makes them feel connected to an organization like ours? What can we do to ensure we are interesting and relevant to them; for example, for those companies in our region’s rapidly emerging industries such as artificial intelligence and machine learning? Edmonton has a competitive advantage; how do we as a Chamber help to capitalize on it?
“I’ve long been an advocate in ensuring we are relevant in the startup and innovation space. A year ago, the Chamber put together a round table to talk to innovators in tech. I was invited to sit in on the meeting. There were about 12 people in the room. It was a mix of new entrepreneurs that hadn’t participated in this type of policy conversation and others were more established entrepreneurs. The interaction was incredible. What became clear to me is the incredible talent and entrepreneurial minds we have in this space in our region. In terms of outcomes, this was just one of many ongoing conversations. The opportunities and the barriers to growth this group identified have informed our meetings with cabinet ministers and the chambers policy positions.”
MacDonald continues, “New, established, and emerging industries are all facing a lot of uncertainty and the Chamber needs to support them with ideas and a voice that speaks to all levels of government. It’s going to be a challenging year ahead for the entire region; we need to come together and leverage all our partnerships and ideas.”
She is more than ready to meet the challenge and take the Chamber, and all its members, in a new, fresh, and positive direction. MacDonald knows her previous work with government and policy will be critical.
“Advocacy is one of the Chamber’s most important roles,” she points out. “The Chamber has the ability to be a single, strong voice with direct access to all three levels of government. We have strong partnerships there and we are very fortunate to have a great president and CEO in Janet Riopel who has the ability to put these collective thoughts forward to government in a clear and concise way.”
Despite the disruption by the pandemic, the Chamber has been working harder than ever on behalf of its members and the business community. During the summer of 2020, the Chamber called on a diverse group of 200 people representing businesses in all sectors, from new to established, tech to manufacturing, corporate to non-profit, and everything in between. The Chamber asked the group to identify their greatest strengths and challenges.
“We received some of our most widespread engagement to date,” says MacDonald. “A lot of businesses said they felt helpless and unheard, especially when faced with COVID-19 restrictions. From this interaction we developed recommendations for all levels of government. Our report and these recommendations are vitally important, and we need to push for them to be implemented. This is just one way that the Chamber will continue to assist the business community during, and after, COVID-19.”
MacDonald arrives as Chamber chair at a crucial point, not to mention a turning point in the history of how Edmontonians do business, and she can’t wait to make an impact.
“I’m excited to come in at a time when I think we are starting to see hope. I’m looking forward to helping businesses with the recovery process. It’s a critical time for Edmonton and our region. I will work with our board and the Chamber staff to support our members’ economic recovery with advocacy and policy. Our board will work to grow our membership and ensure the Chamber remains relevant for the new and emerging sectors. I will continue to support diversity and inclusion on our board and in the business community.”
In her personal and professional life MacDonald has always been a strong supporter of community initiatives; giving back is another value of the Chamber that aligns with her goals.
“Through COVID-19 the Chamber has made significant efforts to support any and every charity in the city because the Chamber recognises that non-profits have a high need, just like the businesses. We have programs planned to continue and enhance this support. I’m very proud of this.”
If MacDonald could tell the business community one thing, it would be this: “If you are a small business owner and stretched for resources, know that the Chamber is a resource. The Chamber has great insights, programs and networking, more than many people are aware of. The networking is not just about growing your business but being around other entrepreneurs and having peer support. We are really known for our advocacy but less known for the relationships we build. The Edmonton Chamber is part of the greater Edmonton Region Chambers of Commerce (GERCC). We are connected with all the regional Chambers so we can collaborate and advocate to the levels of government together. The more we can do together, the better.”
Becoming the Chamber chair is one step in a long and successful career, and MacDonald couldn’t be happier about her chance to continue to inspire lasting change in the Edmonton region.
“I came from rural Alberta but have lived in Edmonton longer than anywhere else. I moved here for my first real job at the Alberta legislature and I fell in love with the city. I married my husband who was born and raised here, and this is where we are bringing up our children. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I love the river valley, the culture, the entrepreneurial spirit and the sense of community. I love the community connections and the opportunities to give back.
“In terms of the Chamber, I enjoy continuing to evolve to meet businesses where they are. I understand and value the necessity of that. As our economy evolves, we need to understand how things are changing, and be there to meet new sectors and help them grow. As chair, my desire is to do this while continuing to strengthen relationships with other entities in the city like Edmonton Global, post secondary institutions, Invest Alberta, and the new Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.”
Few people have the chance to be at the forefront of a massive change, but MacDonald comes equipped, ready, and willing to lead the charge and boldly take the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce into a new era.