The Desoto Chamber of Commerce for the first time has an all-black female leadership that is working to make a change. In an exclusive interview, I spoke to them about how they first started down their respective paths and the impact they hope to have on future generations.
Nina Threets, Desoto Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman on how she got her start
Nina Threets, a Leadership Southwest graduate, started in the DeSoto Chamber of Commerce when she first came to Desoto to work as a financial advisor. Currently, she operates as the chamber’s chairwoman, a position that has allowed her to keep her finger on the pulse of Desoto’s community. As for the legendary all-Black female leadership the chamber of commerce has to offer, Threets stated she feels what they have created is not only pivotal, but it also highlights the hard work being done in Desoto. Additionally, Threets believes their work can encourage women to be a part of cultivating solutions in their community. It sheds light on the importance of embracing your own power and of Black women working together.
“It’s important to step into your strengths and also realize that you can work collaboratively with other women who have respective strengths as well, which impacts the community as a whole.”
Threets stated that she wanted to find a way to roll up her sleeves, start doing community service and figure out how she could serve. Threets was initially recruited by Kenneth Govan, who she met in the Leadership Southwest Program (a cooperative effort by Desoto, Lancaster, Cedar Hill and Duncanville to advance leadership through civic and community affairs). She was then elected by immediate past chair Maurice Jones. Threets states that using State Representative Carl Sherman is how she became aware of the historical moment that was happening in the Chamber of Commerce.
“He started to ask, ”well, who is the President now and who is your chair? Who was it before? So he kind of started to survey [the diversity of the current leadership]. He [Sherman] was the one that brought it up to me,” Threets said.
As for what initially inspired her to become a part of the Chamber of Commerce, Threets stated that she wanted to share her resources in order to share her knowledge from working as a financial advisor with people that looked like her and her community.
Threets work as a financial advisor has impacted her role at the Desoto Chamber of Commerce; she was able to tighten up policies and processes for the chamber. She also started a group initiative, with POWher networking (which kicked off in February 2022), a program focused on women business owners and entrepreneurs, offering a platform for networking and resources, along with being able to add value to small businesses. Another initiative she spearheaded was their podcast, The Plug, where they share information about what’s happening in their community. When it comes to the day-to-day tasks, Threets likes to be hands-on with all her initiatives.
“I choose to be a lot more hands-on and really be involved in the day-to-day so I get a chance to talk to our small business owners, talk to our members and really have conversations with them about what it is they need,” Threets said.
Threets stated that while the chamber has had some great boards, their current one has greatly progressed in its own right.
“Now that we’ve had a new board, we have a new chair, we have a staff that’s passionate about our small businesses, we’ve actually made leap years with what we’re doing,” she said.
Threets also stated that the chamber itself is not just built on simply putting in their fair share and leaving.
“Our chamber is all about relationships. And so it’s not something where, you know, we’re like, pay your dues and that’s it. No, we truly have a relationship with all of our members. We really strive on relationships and having a strong camaraderie with each of our members,” she said.
The movement of female empowerment is valuable to Threets because it spotlights women walking hand in hand, and putting forth a joint effort to share resources effectively. Threets also feels this emphasizes the creative ideas from women who are not often given the spotlight.
“It highlights unique leadership skills and innovative ideas from women who are often underrepresented in the leadership space, and it reinforces the encouragement within women to know that they should step forward and serve,” Threets said.
Threets stated that the chamber, as it exists today is not just different than it previously was, it differs from any in the Southwest region. Because of its engaging and dynamic nature, and its exemplary staff, the chamber has successfully carved out its own path as a platform for the businesses in Desoto. Their business initiatives and procedures have also tightened so the chamber has become a valuable add on to members. The chamber is continuing to adapt and respond to members while being innovative in how they deliver information to society.
Vanessa Sterling, Chamber of Commerce President on her path to President and how the Chamber helped her
One of those fellow members and leaders is Vanessa Sterling, Desoto Chamber of Commerce President, who started working on the Board of Directors in 2016. Sterling is a Desoto transplant, first arriving in 2015. For Sterling, her experience in the Desoto Chamber of Commerce has been a transformative one. In first taking on the role as a board member she would show up to meetings and vote on what needed to be voted on, circling back and letting Methodist know if there was a sponsorship. With being chamber President, this role was quite different for her.
“Now you have businesses that have a need for resources, sponsorships and fundraising and all of that was very different from what I was doing,” Sterling said.
Historically for her, the relationships between Black women have not always been great. At times it was competitive, or an attempt to one up each other. What she likes about what’s happening now is that women are working together more than they ever have.
“Sometimes it’s better to have that kind of woman movement, so that you can have better choices, options and make better decisions in your personal and professional life, based on who you encounter or who empowers you. Sometimes, yes, we can encourage ourselves, but sometimes it’s hard to empower ourselves. Sometimes it takes that network, and that group of women to do that, and which is why I’m glad about how we work together,” Sterling said.
Previously, the Desoto chamber was predominantly White, something her and Threets changed by being the first Black president and chair in 60 years. As for what she has planned for the future of the chamber, Sterling wants to continue to add resources to the Desoto community.
“I want us to be able to continually add value and services to our members and our community by stimulating a business environment and the quality of life where businesses exist, and they will have an opportunity to grow, and new businesses will want to come to you,” she said.
The camaraderie around the chamber of commerce helped her learn the importance and power of networking.
“When you change your inner circle, and you have all these bosses powerful ladies, ladies that are in because [let’s be frank], women in leadership have come through in the last 20 years, 200%. Now we’re all in leadership positions, bosses, or running our own operations or whatever that looks like. You’re taking all of that experience. That’s something that can pour into you and to the chamber into each other,” Sterling said.
In terms of what she hopes will ultimately be the effects of the Black female leadership offered by their chamber, she stated that the level of intimacy offered by them will be something other chambers follow.
“What I love about our chamber is the intimacy because you still get hands-on. If you call, you’re gonna get me. You don’t have to go through five people, you don’t have to wait for me to call back, you’re gonna get an email from me,” Sterling said.
Sterling wants people to know about, both as President and as a chamber member,programs like the POWher network and its ability to help women looking to go into business. Not only in how it’s been able to help her set up a business and execute ideas, but also help her nail down her mental state to have a clearer mindset for her business. Sterling believes the chamber can do the same for others.
“We can reach women while younger, who are maybe just starting to figure all that out quicker. Now we are going to be an unstoppable, unstoppable force just creating a safe space in order for them to do it,” Sterling said.
“We can reach women while younger, who are maybe just starting out to figure all that out quicker. Now we are going to be an unstoppable, unstoppable force just creating a safe space in order for them to do it,” Sterling said.
Desoto City Mayor Rachel Proctor on her journey & the impact of the chamber
Desoto City Mayor Rachel Proctor started on the Desoto City Council with a prolific background in community service work. As for how that helped her understanding and approach in her current job as Mayor, she stated that it allowed her to know the importance of the ins and outs of Desoto.
“Being able to have a seat at the table as a city council member helped me to better understand the community itself, get familiar with the community but also get familiar with how things get done in terms of working together as a governing body,” Proctor said.
Proctor served as a member of city council for six years, and for three of them, she functioned as Mayor Pro Tem [serving as an acting mayor or vice mayor]. The first time she ran for mayor, she did not win. What she learned, she says, is the importance of knowing what level she can operate on.
“When the opportunity came around the second time, it was just like, okay, this is what I’m supposed to do. So I speak from a place of faith, there were things that God showed me in the Holy Spirit that led me to know that even though there was some uncertainty, there were still some steps that I was supposed to take forward,” Proctor said.
Proctor is a former member of the Desoto Chamber of Commerce herself, operating on the board of directors from 2012 to 2016. Since her time in the chamber passed, Proctor stated that she’s seen the chamber go through many changes. Something that she loves about the women in the chamber of commerce is the personable nature of President Vanessa Sterling and their work to connect with people to help them see the value of their business.
“We know that the chamber serves big business, middle-sized businesses and small businesses. I’ve seen her [Vanessa Sterling] heart for our small businesses, just with the way that she helps to support them [businesses]. All the ladies, they’re creating resources. Just events and ways for people to connect in their businesses here in DeSoto,” Proctor said.
Superintendent Dr. Usamah Rodgers, President DeAndrea Fleming talks passion for education and how they hope to make an impact
Desoto ISD Superintendent Usamah Rodgers stated that her passion for education began in her childhood with her desire to be a teacher. Her mother worked for the department of education office of civil rights. For her, becoming a teacher and witnessing what was or was not happening in the classroom piqued her interest about working on the campus level to have a greater impact.
“The trajectory continued from there, right, in terms of doors of opportunity opened up, and a greater space to serve,” she said.
For Desoto ISD Board President DeAndrea Fleming, her mother was also the one who ignited her journey into teaching. After Fleming graduated from college,her mother, who’d been a teacher for 41 years, suggested that she go into education. Fleming came back home to work for a year. She taught the sixth grade in self-contained classrooms [classes where a special education teacher is responsible for teaching all subjects] with students who had never passed state assessments before. Through her work with them, the students ended up passing both parts of their state assessment. Initially, what she thought was her backup plan became her first love.
“That’s when a light bulb went off for me. And I knew at that moment, for every social, emotional piece that I added value, for every academic piece, I added value for every love, every counselor, for every mom and dad, I had to be in that classroom. I did it. And I did it effortlessly, because I understood my why and my why was to make sure that children were successful,” Fleming said.
Dr. Rodgers stated that since becoming superintendent, the Desoto Chamber of Commerce has come to her and not only expressed their excitement in the direction of the district but have also worked to welcome her, which has been impactful. Because of this legacy, Fleming looks forward to being part of a legacy where positive change can become the standard.
“Without the labor and leadership of the Black women who served before me this movement would not be as effective or simply wouldn’t exist, so it is a privilege to now lead and amplify their voices,” Fleming said.
Fleming stated that due to how Black women are shamelessly underrepresented in positions of power, and those where communities are being served. It’s important to realize that until genuine equity takes place then real work has not been done.
“Black women continue to be shamefully underrepresented in key positions of power and influence, where decisions are made regarding which issues are addressed, which laws are passed, and which communities are served. In my opinion, it is crucial to realize that representation is simply the first step and until people experience genuine equity and inclusion in the policies, workplace, and liberation in general then we haven’t finished the work,” Fleming said.
She hopes that she can motivate other Black women to lead, so we can all win.
“Hopefully, we can inspire other black women across the state to lead in their respective communities with their experience, wisdom, tenacity, and heart to fight for social and economic justice. When we silence voices, when we demoralize confidence, and when we discourage ambition, we all lose,” Fleming said.
Fleming praised the wealth of knowledge that the current Desoto Chamber of Commerce President Vanessa Sterling has been able to provide. Something Fleming notes is the strong economic community they have promoted. The Desoto Chamber of Commerce also spoke with her and Dr. Rodgers about the work they needed to do.
“Not only were they [Desoto Chamber of Commerce] trying to find out information about what the school district was doing, they were actually giving information to businesses, and why businesses should be here because ultimately, we know that if we strengthen our economy, that houses grow. When houses grow, we know that children come and when children come, we know that our system is doing exactly what it needs to do so that we can educate them when they move into the homes,” Fleming said.
As for the influence of having a district, chamber of commerce and mayoral seat where Black women are able to shine, Rodgers hopes that in her time she will be able to inspire young girls through her role.
“I hope through my presence, my experience and the things that I do, I’m helping plan a seat to some little girl who’s entering pre-K or kindergarten to say, they can sit in this seat in the same token, you know, the seat that President Fleming said, saying that, you know, we are creating opportunities, vision and hope,” Rodgers said.
Fleming stated that what she has been able to learn is that they (the women leading Desoto) work best when working together. When they lean on each other and their experiences, something she believes can help future generations.
“There are little girls, and there are women who are watching and are facing the same challenges. But, because we created relationships where we can talk to each other, where we can communicate effectively, it allows us to show up in a safe space and know that we’re there for the same mission,” Fleming said.
As for where Desoto ISD stands today, and how it differs from where it started, Fleming describes a healthier, connected and functional space. What they are working to create in Desoto ISD won’t just allow the district to serve as an educational institution for families in their community.
“That’s the transition we are working to facilitate in DeSoto ISD–one that will not only allow the district to serve as the educational entity of choice for families in our community, but a system that serves as a foundation for growth and expansion in DeSoto, where others see and experience hope, potential and possibility,” Fleming said.
A movement of female empowerment has, for Fleming, been valuable in highlighting how important it is for Black women to be a part of a community that will defend, care for and trust Black women to lead. In a place that primarily consists of people of color, it’s crucial for residents and stakeholders to see a space where equity is present, and because of that, Black female leadership is able to flourish, lead and prosper.
“What is happening here in DeSoto is what is possible across America. While we happen to be a group of Black female leaders, it is evident and demonstrates that we are all capable of leading and making positive progress to better our communities in every sector in schools, commerce, local government and beyond,” Fleming said.
What’s next for the chamber
Over the next five years, Threets stated that she has selected Karen Bishop as a chair-select, a decision that she’s thrilled for.
“I am excited to see another black woman carry the torch not only for leadership, but for the mission of the chamber,” Threets said.
The annual Desoto Living and Taste of Desoto Festival is on October 8 this year. The Desoto Chamber of Commerce will also hold a gala on November 5, which features an entire week dedicated to members and celebrating the chamber’s businesses. To learn more about the Desoto Chamber of Commerce and Desoto ISD click the links below: