Thirty years younger than his predecessor, Jonathan Weinhagen represents a generational shift at the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. The 33-year-old Shoreview father of four took over as president of the group in October, coming over from the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. Weinhagen, who holds a B.A. and MBA from Bethel University, sat for a recent interview at his new corner office overlooking Nicollet Mall. This is a portion of that conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Q: The progressive movement in Minneapolis, some argue, has caught the business community flat-footed with a sick leave ordinance and with the minimum wage discussion. How much of your job is to come back at that, to mobilize the business community so it can act with the same effectiveness the progressives have been able to muster?
A: I think we were fairly effective at bringing the voice of the business community in the full spectrum to those conversations. We’re seeing even in recent weeks and months the benefits of those efforts. As the ordinance moves forward, we’re seeing some amendments that make it easier to operate. So I don’t think my charge is to invigorate or create some full-on counterattack. It’s to bring that collective voice of our members, our investors to that conversation.
Q: What’s your first job as the new chamber president?
A: Chambers are not what they used to be. Most of my peers across the country are still operating on a 1960s to 1980s model. When we think about the next generation of what a chamber looks like, I think that’s my mandate, thinking about how we get the next generation engaged in this civic work. Our predominant value add, even as recently as a decade ago, was we create this forum to get people together and network and create business opportunity. The harsh reality is with technology you and I could pull together a really great networking event at Hell’s Kitchen and it wouldn’t cost us much more than a cup of coffee.
Q: With whom do you need to build relationships to do what you need to do?
A: Our city officials, our county officials, those are important folks for me to engage with. Then you start to think about the business community. You’ve got traditional stakeholders who are our major employers and mid-tier and smaller employers. They drive who we are and what we do. But as importantly, it’s identifying the next generation, and I’d like to think I’m a little bit on the leading edge of that. The millennial generation is huge and it’s emerging very, very quickly. They’re now emerging in leadership positions in our companies. They’re the future of our civic fabric. The way they engage civically is different. There’s this social component to it, racial equity, the achievement gap, all of those things that as a broader community we think and talk about, but we have a generation in the workforce for whom that’s really a driver. They’re intrinsically motivated differently than their parents are.
Q: How can a chamber be relevant?
A: We need to ensure that we capture that voice in everything we do, and that creates the opportunity to wade into issues like equity and talent attraction. That’s a massive conversation that’s been happening for a decade. We talk a lot about a 100,000 worker shortfall that the region faces by 2020. Guess what, we’re here. So what are we doing to close that gap, to allow us to have a better net migration of talent into our region than Denver does. St. Paul Area Chamber, Greater MSP, a number of us have come together with some Bush Foundation funding to work on this professionals of color work. We are No. 1 in the country against our peer regions when it comes to attracting and retaining white people. We’re No. 14 when it comes to that same talent profile that is black or Asian or Hispanic. Let’s close the gap on that.
Q: A lot of people think of the chamber, traditionally, as in favor of low taxes and at odds with those who argue that we need more funding for schools, or anything. Do you see that changing?
A: We are a regional chamber that serves an urban core, and if we have any mandate from our members it’s to think about things like investment in transit transportation, which our board has traditionally been very supportive of.
Q: It seems like political battles that used to take place in the statehouse have moved to municipalities? Why? Is that going to continue?
A: There’s so much polarization and gridlock at the federal and state level, almost unprecedented. As that has happened, there is a lot of agility at the local level. This is where the work gets done, where you can truly impact change. I can tell you that as a member of a local school board. I feel an incredible responsibility for the 11,000 kids who we serve. Things move more quickly at local government, and then can kind of have that reverse migration to statewide or national discussions.
Q: What do you think of the Minnesota chamber’s lawsuit on sick leave?
A: The Minneapolis chamber is not a party to the lawsuit, but we believe the Minnesota chamber is playing the appropriate role in looking at this as a statewide issue. These are statewide issues being regulated at the local level, which creates all kinds of challenges.
Q: Say the lawsuit prevails, does that put an end to these types of ordinances at the municipal level?
A: Locally, it certainly takes some of the wind out of the sail. That’s not to say that we won’t continue to see some of those issues emerge.