The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Women Taking the Lead (WTTL) program is focused on showcasing top executive women, connecting them with a network of allies who will champion their work, and providing these leaders with professional growth opportunities to drive change in C-Suites, boardrooms, and congressional and corner offices in DC and throughout the country.
Each month Women Taking the Lead highlights a female leader within the U.S. Chamber membership to showcase how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community. This month, Women’s History Month, we spoke with Gina Spagnola, President and CEO of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce. Read more about Gina in her own words below.
Q: Tell me about the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce and your role within the organization.
A: Located on the Gulf of Mexico and only 50 miles from Houston, the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce is the oldest Chamber of Commerce in Texas, established in 1845 when Texas was still an independent Republic. For 178 years, our mission has been to foster a healthy community where businesses thrive, not just locally but regionally.
The Texas Gulf Coast Region is vital to the rest of the nation. Our region provides 30% of America’s total refining capacity; 60% of our aviation fuel; 42% of the supply of specialty chemical feedstock; and 80% of America’s military grade fuel.
Numbers show the Port of Galveston’s impact: 2,207,852 cruise passengers; $2.1 billion in economic impact; 4 million short tons; and 14,103 jobs.
As only the second female President and CEO of the organization, my role for the past 20 years has been to support regional growth and to help develop youth in the community by providing opportunities for leadership exposure and educational programs such as Lemonade Day Galveston County, of which I’m the County Director, and the Maritime Career Pathways Camp. I’m also very involved in the media arts department at Galveston ISD where I host a weekly business show. Our span of educational opportunities includes elementary students up to young professionals under 40.
Throughout my years of participation and involvement with the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Organization Management (IOM), I learned that instilling an entrepreneurial and leadership mindset is vital to our long-term viability. I remember sitting in my IOM class at Villanova University in 2010 and hearing a speaker encouraging chambers to begin to engage with and integrate young professionals into our profession and membership. I listened to this speaker and we established the “C-Crewe.” The C-Crewe, 150 members strong, is a very powerful part of our chamber and several of the members serve on our board. I asked the most dynamic young professionals in our community to develop, recruit and maintain the C-Crewe. That’s the secret to their success. I let them do their powerful and visionary thing.
My role also involves ensuring our members obtain the full value of their investment by collaborating with other Galveston County Chambers of Commerce to expand our reach, promote economic growth, and enhance the business community across the region. By working together, we position ourselves to create a better future for our businesses, communities, and region. The synergy of working together bridging gaps and building collaboration makes us all more effective.
Q: The Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce recently earned the prestigious 5-Star designation. Congratulations! Out of thousands of chambers of commerce across the country, the Galveston Regional Chamber is one of only 142 chambers nationwide and 27 in Texas to have earned this recognition. What has the Galveston Chamber been working on to promote and advocate for businesses and the community?
A: Galveston is part of a working coastline responsible for fueling and providing services to the nation from our ports, but we are better known as a tourist destination. The Galveston Regional Chamber is laser-focused on governmental affairs and advocacy for our businesses. We are actively involved in the coordination of the Galveston County Day at the Capitol. We partnered with Galveston County and all of the Galveston County Chambers to produce this important trip to the Capitol. Our advocacy priorities include funding for beach dune nourishment, continued support for the coastal storm surge protection system, and funding for drainage and flood mitigation projects. We also know that for our communities and nation to function successfully, continuously supporting a pro-business environment means advocating on behalf of other crucial issues like workforce training, regulatory reform, property tax and appraisal reform. Funding for our ports and waterways, as well as windstorm and flood insurance reform is critical to our vital continued role as the gateway for distributing tanker contents across the United States.
In addition, we are continually focused on local issues that affect our members’ ability to do business.
Q: Chambers of commerce are known for their work centered on regional economic growth and advocacy, but there are other ways that chambers support local communities, such as with disaster recovery. The Gulf Coast is no stranger to natural disasters, and you have been a strong, inspiring leader in the face of some really difficult times. Can you talk about what happened to Galveston Island with Hurricane Ike and how that has led to your work helping others nationally?
In 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston Island. The storm surge killed 74 people and caused $29.5 billion in damages, becoming the third most devastating hurricane in U.S. history. We lost everything in our office, but I didn’t wallow in despair over the damage. Instead, I took decisive action and borrowed computers and phones to keep in contact with our members. We even worked out of our cars to help bring disaster relief.
We received an outpouring of support from communities near and far. But the first call we received was from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. With their assistance, just two months later, we developed a business recovery plan and held a successful recovery expo to help businesses open their doors. That expo won state and national awards. I remember thinking – when we get through this, I will commit to helping others, because others helped us so much. I stayed true to my word. I have served on the U.S. Chamber’s disaster recovery team since Hurricane Ike. In 2008, we sent truckloads of supplies to the victims of Moore, Oklahoma after their devastating tornado. In 2009, the U.S. Chamber appointed me as a member of the National Business Recovery Corps.
Since then, we have helped organizations in fire-scorched Colorado and elsewhere. In May of 2011, I was the first person to reach out to the Chamber president in Joplin, Missouri, after they were devastated by an EF5 tornado. In 2021, after Hurricane Ida raged on the Louisiana coastline, I collaborated with regional partners to coordinate drop-off sites and deliveries to those severely impacted. In just two days, I spearheaded the effort to fill an 18-wheeler full of supplies and raised more than $40,000 in donations.
In 2020, I was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to the Texas Division of Emergency Management Business Advisory Council. I’m also one of only 10 individuals invited to serve on the U.S.-Japan Grassroots Disaster Exchange Program.
Q: In 2022, you hosted the Galveston Chamber’s 15th Annual Women’s conference, and I was fortunate enough to attend it for the first time. Can you share more about the conference’s history and the impact highlighting female-owned businesses has had on the Galveston community?
You may find this fact particularly interesting. The first woman allowed to attend a Galveston Chamber of Commerce event was in 1931, and the first woman to serve as Chair of the Board was in 1976.
We started the women’s conference because we recognized a need for women to gather and lift each other up. An important part of the conference is showcasing over a hundred women-owned businesses for our business expo. We envisioned an event where, for one day, women could put down their phones and shut their computers and just concentrate on themselves, which, as you know, is difficult for women to typically do. This would be a day in which laughter would be their medicine and dancing would feed their soul; a day where they could gather and hear the most cutting-edge news on healthcare, wealth management, individual growth, leadership, and community engagement; a day when they could hear from and possibly meet some of the most incredible women doing amazing things; a day that would leave them better than when they walked through the doors.
We are beyond excited and proud to produce this annual event and bring these incredible women together to celebrate Mind. Body. and Spirit. We also recognize women of the year based upon their impact and influence in our region. The conference has grown from 300 attendees our first year to now well over 1,200 in attendance. It’s garnered national recognition. We have grown from a locally attended event to attracting attendees nationwide. The Women’s Conference is a MIGHTY THING!
Q: As a female President and CEO of a business association, what suggestions do you have for other women looking to enter the C-suite?
A: First and foremost, you must believe and have a passion for what you do. You never want to stop learning, surround yourself with mentors who have your best interest at heart. Create your own board of directors to guide you. Know yourself and never deviate from your mission and purpose.
Dig deep and find your courage and be FEARLESS. Fear will paralyze you. Above all, be someone who others look up to and want to follow.
Q: What does business mean to you?
A: We are not all lucky enough to live and work within our passion. My passion led me to this community steeped in rich history, dogged determination, indominable spirit and entrepreneurial mindset. The culture and history of this community is defined by its past diversity of businesses ranging from maritime, healthcare, tourism, the petrochemical industry, education, banking, and hospitality. It’s an honor and privilege to serve the business community.
To me, business is the very essence of our country. It means freedom and free enterprise. It’s the ability to help business owners turn that “open for business” sign around despite any circumstances that come their way. I have the opportunity to witness this American dream every day and to contribute to its success. I don’t take it lightly.
Q: What motivates you to wake up and go to work?
A: I wake up excited and motivated to go to work because every precious day presents the opportunity to give back to my community. In my position, I help not just the business community but also non-profits and educational initiatives which invest in our youth. I can spark a dream for a young entrepreneur or expose a student to a particular career path. I can help rebuild a community after a natural disaster. I can be a voice on the local, state, and national level for businesses and serve on non-profit boards to help in their success. Every day is a new opportunity to serve, to lead, to give and to help leave this community better than I found it. I am eternally grateful to the U.S. Chamber and to others who have helped me learn and grow on my journey of success and will continue to pay it forward.