A bruising fall and a car crash have forced Laveda Brown into retirement, but the 12-year president of the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce remains an inspiration, and a phone call away, for her successor.
Mentor to unknown numbers of would-be business owners, Brown resuscitated the troubled chamber of commerce during her tenure. It has more than 250 members, and new president John Bible said an ongoing membership campaign should push the total beyond 300.
Bible, 42, a Baylor University graduate and investment adviser, said it would be foolish to ignore Brown’s knowledge and experience.
“She’s an honorary consultant of mine,” Bible said with a smile. “She told me her phone is open to my calling at any time. I consider her guidance more valuable than gold itself. She has volunteered to mind the store, so to speak, to watch our offices when everyone has commitments elsewhere.”
Brown, 63, took over the organization in 2007 and used her business acumen to rescue an agency awash in mismanagement. Membership hovered at about 30 and was falling fast. Bylaws needed addressing. Confidence needed to be restored.
She helped burnish the chamber’s image among funding sources. The city of Waco has increased its earmark from $68,000 to $93,000 annually.
“I am very pleased with how it stands now,” Brown said. “I was fortunate to have an opportunity to turn it around. It was in disarray. My top priority was to empower individuals and to help grow businesses, to train the next generation of leaders.”
The Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce was founded in 2004 as an alternative to the scandal-ridden Heart of Texas Black Chamber of Commerce. The Cen-Tex organization encountered financial troubles and power struggles early on, prompting the city of Waco to withdraw its support after the organization failed to meet performance guidelines.
Brown’s arrival righted the ship, according to her many supporters.
The Center of Business Excellence she championed gives budding entrepreneurs room to network, compare notes and access data. Then there is her “pride and joy,” better known as Esther’s Closet, which operates next to the chamber headquarters at 1020 Elm Ave., on the former campus of Paul Quinn College.
“We offer women in the community outfits for job interviews,” Brown said. “They get a full wardrobe from head to toe, including accessories. Then if they get the job, they come back to Esther’s Closet and pick out seven to 10 outfits so they can start work without worrying about what they’re going to wear. With help from the community, which has been very supportive and very generous, we’ve given out more than 5,000 outfits and helped with more than 400 individuals. It was my idea, one way to address the poverty issue.”
Brown was born near Huntsville. Her father was a Baptist minister, her mother the first black registered nurse at Madison County Hospital. She learned hard work on her grandmother’s farm, married her high school sweetheart, Gregory Page, but lost him to spinal meningitis. With two children to support, she ran a barbecue joint and sold cars in the Dallas area. She eventually took a job at the Small Business Development Center in Abilene.
She worked 11 years with the center before acquiescing to Waco City Councilman Wilbert Austin’s request to take charge of the chamber.
“She has been a real asset to our community,” said Alfred Solano, executive director of the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Laveda is kind of a quiet person, so her departure came as a surprise to a lot of people. She never led from the front, preferred to operate behind the scenes. I appreciated her humility, her quiet nature. But when she spoke, what she had to say was very meaningful. She leaves the chamber in good shape, in good hands, and we hope to be a willing partner on any new projects.”
Waco City Councilwoman Andrea Jackson Barefield said Bible has impressive shoes to fill.
“We are grateful for Laveda’s tenure at CTAACC” Barefield said via email. “She has created a space that fostered growth and development for the next generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders in the African American community of Waco. As Waco evolves, so will the work of the CTAACC, and we look forward to the ideas and strategies John has for the future of the chamber.”
Bible, a University High School graduate whose career path includes teaching Chilton fifth-graders and launching an investment firm, Bible & Sovereign Partners LLC, said he relishes face-to-face interaction with business owners and East Waco residents. He walks the streets on Friday, spreading the word.
“We just tell people we’re here, and we appreciate what you’re doing,” he said. “We want to make people feel like we care because we do.”
Bible said chamber members pay annual dues ranging from $75 to $1,000. The chamber also raises money through an annual golf tournament, business training seminars, sponsorship and admission to special events.
Rachel Pate, a chamber vice president, said the organization is excited about projects planned along Elm Avenue that will tap into East Waco’s past and potential. The projects include hotels, apartments, restaurants and arts venues.
“I remember the meeting at which residents heard about many of those plans for the first time,” Pate said. “Megan Henderson, with City Center Waco, led it, and the chamber facilitated it. The emotion was incredible. There was a feeling that something positive and pivotal was being accomplished. Change can bring fear of not being in control. Knowledge is empowerment.
“This is an exciting time. We want the community to know our door is always open. If you want to know what’s going on, come here.”