For Maura Donahue, opportunity strikes twice.
Today, she begins her second turn as chairman of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She served previously in that position from 2005-2006.
While the particular challenges facing the business community have changed, Donahue’s commitment to the Chamber and appreciation of its important role hasn’t. “The U.S. Chamber is in Washington swinging its hammer for business,” said Donahue.
Donahue is president of DonahueFavret Contractors Holding Company, a Louisiana-based small business and a leader in the Gulf South construction industry.
Prior to that, she worked for a Fortune 100 company, but she was drawn to small business. She appreciates the opportunities small businesses provide everyone, especially women. “The glass ceiling has been broken by the existence of small businesses more than anything else,” Donahue said. “If you ever felt stuck in a large corporation, you could just go out on your own and strike out as an entrepreneur.”
We had a chance to interview Donahue about her entrepreneurial journey, her experiences as a business leader, and what she will focus on as chairman of the board.
Q: Your career has spanned businesses of all sizes. What ultimately attracted you to small business?
Maura Donahue: I spent 10 years in a Fortune 100 company, but was drawn to small business.
For me, I felt the opportunity to control the level of my own prosperity lies more in my hands as a small business owner. I have so much more control over my destiny and my livelihood.
Thanks to that experience, I am passionate about promoting opportunity through entrepreneurship for other folks.
Q: How did you initially get involved with the Chamber?
MD: Large companies have lawyers and lobbyists. Small businesses don’t. We don’t have the benefit of a lobbying or legal department. So, for me, understanding the existence of the local Chamber became very important. That gave me the exposure to the state chamber in Louisiana and the U.S. Chamber in Washington.
All three levels serve as a voice for business. Chambers are our voice when we are swinging hammers and doing the things we do every day. The U.S. Chamber is in Washington swinging its hammer on my behalf, defending us and telling us when and what we need to be involved in.
I’ve heard it said, “When the legislature is in session, no man, woman, or child is safe.” The U.S. Chamber keeps our businesses safe.
Q: What roles have you played at the Chamber?
MD: I first joined the board way back in 1998; the same year that DonahueFavret Contractors joined the Chamber. I served as chairman of the board from 2005 to 2006, during which time I focused on the issues of legal reform, health care, and deregulation.
To get to serve in this role a second time is the ultimate compliment – and a tremendous opportunity. I want to use my experience and institutional knowledge to help build a pipeline of volunteer leadership that will serve the Chamber well for years to come.
Additionally, I served on the Executive Committee, the Nominating Committee, served on the Small Business Council and chaired it from 2000-2005, and served on the Accrediting Committee since 1998.
Q: During your tenure as chairman Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. As a Louisiana business leader talk about the recovery efforts.
MD: After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina I knew my time as chairman would have added responsibilities. While I was advocating for small businesses and civic engagement nationwide I was also doing all I could to help local businesses in the region get up and running.
U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue came to New Orleans with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, bringing 150 business leaders to the region specifically who might have had interest in building there to help rebuild the local economy.
By doing that we told the nation the region was “Open for business!” This lured back other businesses, displaced residents, and tourists and really helped the recovery efforts.
Katrina reminded me that we’re all in this together. Recovery wouldn’t have happened without communities, churches, governments, and businesses working together.
Q: What will you focus on as chairman this term?
Restoring the Chamber’s headquarters
MD: One priority will be restoring the Chamber’s historic headquarters, which was completed in 1925, and sits right across the street from the White House. It’s important that it remain a proud symbol of the strength of America’s business community in Washington.
Restoring the political center
MD: Next, We must fight political polarization and promote pro-business philosophies. Excessive partisanship is the biggest obstacle to getting things done in Washington.
About 25 years ago, Cokie and Steve Roberts wrote a great article on why things had gotten so bad in Washington. This was 25 years ago, and it’s gotten worse.
Cokie’s and Steve’s argument was Members of Congress no longer lived in Washington, DC. It used to be they actually lived there along with their families. They played ball together, had barbecues together, went to the same churches and schools. They actually knew each other as friends and neighbors.
Flash forward to today. Members of Congress fly into Washington on a Monday and fly out late Thursday night for home. They don’t know each other. There’s little social interaction and hardly any across party lines.
It’s hard to find common ground and make compromises with other people if you don’t know them or understand where they’re coming from.
[Note: The Roberts made a similar argument in this 2010 column.]
I strongly support the Chamber taking the lead in tamping down polarization and rebuilding the political center. Its revamped Congressional scorecard rewards bipartisanship and working across party lines and it’s a smart strategy
Political labels like Republican/Democrat, liberal/conservative, and Right/Left shouldn’t be so defining. Good policies that grow the economy and create jobs shouldn’t depend on what letter a politician has attached to their name.
The divisiveness in this country wouldn’t be so stark if we were focused on prosperity for all.
We can fight political polarization by embracing a free enterprise-centered philosophy focused on jobs, economic development, education, opportunity, and prosperity. Anyone who appreciates that perspective should be with us.
We can build broad alliances by asking this question: Is bigger government or business the solution to our country’s most pressing problems?
Q: What is a policy issue will you be focused on?
MD: One of my top priorities is infrastructure. I am a builder, after all. Businesses large and small know first-hand that we need to fix our broken roads and bridges. And states, Congress – both Democrats and Republicans – and the Trump administration all agree on the urgent need to get something done soon.
I’m proud that the Chamber is taking advantage of this unusual political alignment and is pushing hard to get something done. I’m confident it will bring all its resources to bear to get a bipartisan infrastructure package across the finish line. I will do whatever I can to help.
Businesses and families across the country are depending on our leadership on this issue.
Q: What’s your outside-the-Beltway perspective on President Trump?
MD: We are living in a unique moment in American history. We have a full-time businessperson in the White House. President Donald Trump is part of the business community and understands the challenges businesses face every day.
He wants a prosperous America where everyone has an opportunity to reach their potential. That’s exactly the Chamber’s vision.
The opportunity is there for the Chamber to make more pro-growth progress like the ongoing regulatory reform efforts from President Trump’s administration and 2017’s historic tax reform.
Let’s seek more opportunities to work with him in advancing a pro-business, pro-innovation agenda.
We won’t agree with President Trump on everything, but on many fronts we can successfully work together on policies that are good for jobs and the economy.
Q: From your perspective, how is the Chamber evolving?
MD: The Chamber has remained influential and effective throughout its history because, while remaining true to its mission, the organization is willing and able to thoughtfully change with the times. Today, the Chamber is evolving on multiple fronts – from modernizing operations and adding top talent to making inroads with emerging industries and diversifying our membership.
I’m particularly excited that it’s going in the direction of more diversity – and that’s a direct reflection of the businesses we represent. It’s not just gender related, it’s also age related. In the future, we’re going to see more millennials, more tech companies, and more leaders from growing sectors that aren’t represented yet on our board.
It’s a very exciting future. All business sectors have their own trade organizations, but the Chamber has all sectors under one roof. That gives it a global perspective to help people in Washington help the country grow and prosper.