Veta Jeffery Heralds New Era of Diverse Leadership in Omaha
by Leo Adam Biga
With diversity a key metric for employers and workers staying or relocating, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce has made a statement with its new leader, Veta Jeffery. When she succeeded longtime Chamber president-CEO David Brown in May the African American Jeffery became the first woman and person-of-color to head the organization in its 129-year history.
She and her husband Tony Jeffery, ordained pastor and veteran athletics coach now working as a Metropolitan Community College consultant, are parents to daughter, Ishmaiah and Toni.
Veta Jeffery’s brought experience overseeing a turnaround in the fortunes of beleaguered Ferguson, Missouri. Her record of accomplishment in small business development, banking equity and coalition building led that state’s governor, Jay Nixon, to appoint her as manager of community development in the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson riots.
Among many initiatives she helped implement was the Heartland St. Louis Black Chamber of Commerce – she served as its first managing director – and a workforce development program for Black youth. When the Omaha Chamber’s search committee contacted her, she said, “My husband and I were deeply engrained in the things we were doing in our hometown, so at the time I was not looking to go somewhere else. We were doing some meaningful work.
When the Omaha opportunity presented itself, we had to look at it like we look at all things. Is it a place we feel comfortable calling home and will the work we get to do be impactful enough that it will hold our attention? Once we were able to run it through those points, we made the decision that this is something we would absolutely be willing to do. This is somewhere we felt we could make a difference.”
She knows her bridging divides in Ferguson and greater St. Louis is what got her on the radar of the Omaha Chamber, but she deflects credit.
” Ferguson had a lot of hands, a lot of feet on the street, a lot of brain trust involved in figuring out what happened to our community that suddenly put us under a microscope for the world and what will it take to grow back to where we were or beyond.”
But she acknowledges her background has prepared her for this leadership moment in Omaha.
“I have spent a wonderful time working in LMI (low and moderate income) areas and finding out how do we raise the economics for all involved (including advocating for differently abled people). The areas I have been fortunate and blessed enough to serve all culminate together to make me the perfect person to be in this role to do the things I have been charged with doing.”
She is purposeful about what spaces she appears in. Last June she spoke at the Omaha Minority Small Business Summit because as someone who comes from a small business background herself, she is in solidarity with small business owners, their challenges, and contributions. Her passion for small business is personal. Her late father Lenoa Thurman was the first minority distributor of Kirby vacuum cleaners in Missouri. As a girl she accompanied him on sales appointments. As a young professional she owned a financial services business.
She is aware more than half of Omaha businesses employ five or fewer people, most local Black-owned businesses are small and Black business ownership here lags compared to other cities. She wants to increase access to resources for minority small business.
Jeffery told attendees,
“I was asked to come here and do something different. I was charged with bridging gaps, making alliances, making stronger commitment and intentionality for all those who seek to grow Omaha together. I am committed to doing so.”
It has not escaped her attention, she said, Omaha has “a unique situation” with well below national average unemployment overall but high unemployment or underemployment in certain zip codes, in
neighborhoods of color.
In terms of workforce development, she sees progressive work being done by MCC and AIM Institute programs that focus on building the trades and tech talent pools, respectively. She has spent her first five months on the job surveying the metro’s business-economic landscape, getting to know the players and partners, identifying gaps and who is best positioned to meet them, having lots of conversations, and taking lots of meetings.
“That is a great part of how I spend my days. I do a lot of listening and then I try to figure out how can I put these puzzle pieces together so that we can all collectively work closely to get more done. Part of my job is to be able to sell this city. Omaha’s not a hard place to sell. I think people born here feel like it is but for someone coming from a different city, this is not. We have gotten some remarkable things happening. What Omaha is rich in is public-private partnerships that work well together. Out of it comes beautiful things.”
She champions Millwork Commons, the new Gene Leahy Mall, the soon to open Brickline at the Mercantile, the under-renovation Heartland of America
Park and the coming Kiewit Luminarium, Steehouse Omaha and Mutual of Omaha tower projects as examples of ongoing downtown and riverfront revitalization.
The emergence of the Blackstone District, improvements along North 30th and 24th Streets and developments in South Omaha are all part of a new high-density, urban core emphasis she embraces.
“There’s a lot of great development happening,” she said.
“The challenge and opportunity,” she added, “is marrying the corporate aspect and the small business aspect to the development in order to stimulate business and economic growth around it.”
She wants businesses of all sizes to reap the opportunities and benefits of new development.
Jeffery will not be satisfied unless the Chamber maxes its potential as a convener and resource for enhancing the metro business climate.
For her leadership style she draws on sports analogies, viewing herself as a coach who leads a team in pursuit of certain goals that give Omaha a competitive advantage.
“I am competitive as all get out. I absolutely show up ready to play. I am focused on how we can be number one. How can we make sure that chambers around the country are looking to see what we are doing and that
businesses here have the right fire, right ammunition, right support so that they are leading and doing something worth mimicking?
“From my perspective we all have a stake in the game. I recognize we must get better at diversifying all tables in thought, in culture, in gender, in all those aspects. The more diverse the conversation the better we can
be in showcasing the strength of who we are.”
The fact she is the Chamber’s first female and Black president-CEO, she said, illustrates the lack of diversity that is characterized much of Omaha’s and other cities’ business leadership.
“It’s unfortunate the opportunity for making that (history) still exists in 2022, so while I’m honored to sit in this seat, I also understand the responsibility that comes with it and all the work that has to be done.”
She has joined a growing Black leadership class leveraged across Omaha business, education, faith, government, human services, arts-culture sectors. Jeffery said for any city to thrive, including Omaha, there must not only be diverse players but a balance between attracting new business and talent and keeping existing companies and workers at home. Much of the
Chamber’s focus is on recruiting, retaining, creating opportunity, and making the city appealing enough that its best and brightest stay or, if they leave, feel compelled to return.
“We have to have a path for those here to see themselves in the landscape of all the beautiful things happening.”
That means, she said, persons of any persuasion feeling confident they can attend a local college or university of their choice and upon graduating find a job that pays a living salary. Said Jeffery, “They need to feel like my talents will be wanted and employers will make space for me. We must make certain our larger employers continue to call Omaha home. I do not want large employers to ever feel like they can move anywhere they have a footprint. But we also want those businesses with five or under employees or the sole proprietors to feel like they are playing a significant role.”
She is instituting a campaign to enlist Chamber members to promote membership benefits. “One of the things we’re working on is making sure if somebody walks up to you and asks what it is the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce does you can answer that and then answer for yourself why you need to be a member and here’s what you’re missing out on if you’re not.”
Whether a business is a member or not, she said. “I absolutely want to make it plain the Chamber is a space where all businesses will find opportunity and access. We are a resource. We want the Chamber to be the first stop for all things business.”
She vows making herself and her Chamber team available to anyone reaching out. Synergies of opportunity are always welcome.
“The Chamber cannot be all things to all people, but we can be smart and intentional about partnering. We are absolutely looking to make certain we connect with all the resources available to impact helping businesses build capacity and have access to what they need to grow.”