As a little girl Williams developing her ability to listen to others needs from her mother. "Mom was sort of the neighborhood shoulder to cry on," she said. Friends and neighbors would drop by and they inevitable found themselves sitting around the kitchen table. Including young Susan. “Just sit there, have a cookie, dunk it and don’t repeat a thing,” her mom would tell her. She learned about people’s stories.
“Having great relationships with people (in your community) just makes things easier,” she said. Connections is a word she uses a lot.
The Oil City High School grad hasn’t strayed far away from home for her base. She lives a couple houses down the street from where she was a little girl. When she was building her family and working for Mellon Bank she took a very strong interest in Oil City.
“I should know people here, this is a place that will impact my children,” she said. So taking a cue from her parents she began to volunteer and became interested in the playground development in the different neighborhoods around the city. “Playgrounds build community,” she said. “You meet your neighbors there and have conversations.”
She helped coordinate several playground projects with a team of volunteers. Their efforts around the city were recognized nationally when in 2002 they were named a finalist by the National Civic League for an All-American City status.
“We’re stronger together,” Williams said. Another example of her belief in teamwork. “This was a great experience and highly impactful for me,” Williams said of the connections she made around the country through the playground effort.
In 2004 she took those connections and experience into a new job at the Oil City Chamber of Commerce working with then director, Ron Shoup. Together they oversaw some changes, including the transition into the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce.
Three years later Shoup decided to retire and Williams took over the reins.
“I inherited a good chamber from Ron,” she said, never willing to take credit for anything.
Wouldn’t Trade it for Anything
To say Williams loves the area is an understatement. She, like her dad, knows everybody and knows the benefits of the region. This helps her with her mission as the chamber president.
She combines her connections to people with her seemingly endless curiosity. “It’s a rare meeting where I don’t go ‘ Hey can I ask you something?’ before we adjourn,” she said. She always wants to know the deeper story behind what a businesses produces. Who are the people? What is the mission? How does the business impact lives?
“In the chamber, you are not alone,” she said. She believes that no question is dumb and it’s just a matter of listening and asking questions to help solve anything. “I don’t have to solve problems, but I can help connect resources that can.”
The Venango Chamber does what every chamber does. They help facilitate economic opportunities for the region through festivals like the Cranberry and Oil Heritage Festivals. They provide programs through their leadership training and business workshops.
“We never stop learning and things are changing constantly.” Williams said. She is a proponent of keeping up on technology and leans on her youthful staff to help her learn new ways of connecting people. The Venango Chamber has 435 members who represent numerous businesses and thousands of employees and staff. Members range from global corporations employing hundreds locally to the independent business owner.
She says it’s always important as a chamber to keep members connected, to pool resources and get things done. In this, she says the chamber hasn’t really changed much over the years, but how they accomplish this certainly has.
And she motivates her staff to keep up and move forward.
COVID-19 certainly provided challenges, but through their commitment to using the tools available, technology helped them remain connected and still provide their leadership classes and seminars.
“It’s a balancing act of where to lead and where to sit back and just help,” she said. “The most impactful things are not seen, building relationships, connecting resources.” She acknowledged the festivals and events are great public shows of the chamber’s work, but really the impacl comes from conversations with legislators, state officials and businesses as well as providing educational opportunities that connect business practices from all over the country.
“I get to be involved in so many interesting things,” she said.
Back to sitting around a table
Though she has embraced the Zoom meeting during COVID, Williams does miss face-to-face discussions. Before the state restrictions for gathering were implemented, Williams had begun randomly inviting people to have a cup of coffee and engage in conversation. This was just an effort to get to know people better with no other agenda.
To connect to the community.
Her mom's lessons around the kitchen table live on with this chamber director.
The Venango Chamber is comprised of a 15 person board of directors with connections to non-profits such as Bridge Builders and small business like a bed and breakfast to large employers such as UPMC Northwest and Clarion University.
Even during the pandemic Williams managed to keep her staff of three together for the most part.
“The newsletter is our life!” Williams said during an interview a day before deadline.
Each month the chamber puts out a fairly large newsletter that is sent out physically and digitally to its members and is available online for all to see. Ads for businesses are featured along with a few feature stories and tons of member updates.
They also let everyone know what the chamber itself is working on.
During COVID-19 they have created several online seminars and education opportunities. They have initiated a long term goal of connecting businesses with local storytellers in an effort to not only showcase the local business wares, but put a human connection out into the community. Who are the people behind the product.
They have been proactive in pandemic information and getting the word out about protective measures and recently the vaccines.
Their young professionals sub group, Flex, is growing and bringing the next generation into community growth discussions and connecting them to more opportunities.
They connect legislators, the media outlets and more with their members.
They are always working on plans for their festivals and events. Each summer the Oil Heritage and Cranberry Festivals are coordinated through their office.
Their educational opportunities range from their popular leadership program to bringing in business training from other successful small businesses around the country.
And they recognize local leaders with the citizen of the year, volunteer of the year and business partners of the year awards usually given out at an elaborate members dinner and awards ceremony.
The chamber often acts as an advocacy agency engaging businesses and government with issues that directly affect the community. They are in frequent contact with Rep. R. Lee James and Sen. Scott Hutchinson’s office and more.
Their Be Here campaign showcases all the benefits the region offers especially to businesses looking to start up and families looking for a better life away from the hustle and bustle of larger cities. They are strong advocates for the natural beauty the area offers.
And they create several chamber events to showcase as much as they can in the region. Mixers at different businesses connect and showcase. They also maintain a hefty community calendar on their website for everyone to keep up on what is going on.
So as you you can see, this is not a one person job as Williams points out repeatedly.
To learn even more visit their website at: https://venangochamber.org