Business Q&A: Nashua Chamber chief wants to nurture young professionals
NASHUA - The last thing someone would expect to hear about the head of Nashua's chamber of commerce is that he can't resist a karaoke mic. Chris Williams placed third in a 1999 Boston karaoke contest singing Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," and he's proud of that.
A native of Abilene, Texas, Williams broke with many fellow Texans to volunteer with the John McCain presidential campaign in 2000. Studying at Boston University helped bring him to New Hampshire for the first time.
After receiving his master's degree, he landed a job with then-state Senate President Arthur Klemm, a position he held between 2001 and 2004. His next job was as vice president for government relations and economic development at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, which he left in 2006 for his current role as president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce.
For Williams, the economic conservatism of Granite Staters and their moderation on social issues is what attracts him to New Hampshire politics. But it's the rising activity of Nashua's entrepreneurial youth that gives Williams his thrills, amounting to what he considers an economic renaissance. He has big ideas for the Gate City, like the construction of a $40 million performing arts center as well as a pavilion on the Nashua River, which he views as Nashua's foremost development prospect. He also wants to open an all-night diner on Main Street, and even has his eyes on a location.
Williams is equally adept with social media as he is with handshakes and slaps on the back. At 37 years old, he enjoys the corner office of a historic building at the center of Main Street.
Q: What was the focus of your undergrad and master's studies?
A: Undergrad was (political science) with a minor in history and business management. And then grad was an M.A. in international relations with more of a focus on European security issues. That was back during the Balkan Wars, Kosovo, the NATO bombing campaign. I had anticipated at the time I was going to go work for the State Department or something along those lines, but I got sidetracked here into New Hampshire and, for the most part, haven't left since. It's treated me very well here.
Q: I find it interesting that being from Texas you decided to join the McCain campaign, one of the more moderate Republicans at the time.
A: That goes back to the military background. I served in the Army Guard for six years, and also went through the corps of cadets at Texas A&M. That, coupled with the fact that my dad was military career, really led to me liking McCain and his military background, his war story. I really gravitated toward him. But that was a little tough on my family to be working for McCain and all of them to be voting for (George W. Bush).
Q: What was it about your story that led to that split?
A: I grew up in a rural, west Texas military Republican family, so you can probably imagine the mindset of a child who grows up in that environment. I think what has really evolved a lot in my own mindset is living in Boston for a couple of years and then here in New Hampshire, where our state is much more Libertarian-minded, and therefore can come down on different sides of the political aisle depending on what the issue is. It was the politics that attracted me to New Hampshire. It's the political mindset that kept me here.
Q: Do you share the feeling that Nashua undergoing something of a renaissance?
A: I do. I feel there's a certain set of dynamics that are happening in the Nashua area right now. I think we have key leadership positions in Nashua that are filled by people who are big in the way they think, and are willing to collaborate with each other maybe more so than what we've seen in the past. Number two, we have finally been able to get a couple of major projects resolved and moving in a good direction, and I think that is lending itself to a more optimistic atmosphere. Number three, I think in a very quiet way there is a new generation of young business leaders that are each respectively getting a better foothold in their industries or careers, but beyond that are building bridges to each other and are collectively setting their sites on making some big changes to Nashua's community in a positive way. Based on those three things, I'm tremendously optimistic about what's going to happen to Nashua in the next 10 years.
Q: Talk to me a little more about the last of those three things, the increase in youth involvement.
A: You've got our young professionals organization, IUGO, which just turned 5 years old. It's a Latin term meaning "to connect," and that's what IUGO does, it connects young people to each other, it connects them to companies in the area, and it connects them to the community. That has served as a major platform for young people to start getting out of their bubbles at work or at home, and start realizing, "Hey, there are other young people here who I never would've met before who I share a lot of interests with." Leadership Greater Nashua is a local leadership program that takes 25 emerging leaders from all different industries and puts them through a rigorous nine-month program that is intended to educate them on Nashua's history, its economic and socio-cultural demographic trends, and then introduces them to the leaders in the community today so that they can then take on leadership positions.
Q: What distinguishes these young folk from the current leadership, aldermen, board members?
A: A lot of them run their own businesses rather than working for large companies. When you look at who is on our Board of Alderman right now or who is on our Board of Education, many of them tend to work for large companies like BAE Systems or others. These guys are entrepreneurial in spirit and entrepreneurial in practice. These guys are accustomed to setting their own goals and pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. And so there's a different mentality there that lends itself to a group like these emerging leaders, that compliments really well what we have with our current leadership here in Nashua.
Q: You have a very positive outlook of where we'll be in five or 10 years. What will prevent us from really developing to that extent?
A: Certainly, there are obstacles in Nashua that are more infrastructure related, or issue-oriented, things like our Tree Streets district, which needs a lot of help to make it what it should be. Certainly, we've missed opportunities in the past with major projects and developments, but I don't think there's anything in our way in terms of being able to accomplish some of these big projects.
Q: Some people say we're likely to see your name on a ballot in the years to come. What are the chances of that?
A: All I will say at this point is that I see myself continuing to be very active in the business and political communities, representing Nashua both on a local and on a state level. But I won't say no to anything.
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Simon Rios may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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