2020 Pasadena’s Women in Business: Leading in a Crisis

This year our featured women in business were able to pivot in their roles in the midst of a global pandemic. We spoke to them about what their previous experience has taught them about leading in a crisis.

This year’s 2020 Women in Business focus was supposed to be a look at the opportunities for Southern California women in the global economy. To that end, we sought out Pasadena resident and CEO of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Maria Salinas, to provide her seasoned take on business opportunities. To add to the story on the global economy, we reached out to Nicole Childers, executive producer of American Public Media’s “Marketplace Morning Report” for her perspective. But the rapid decline of the economy and the increased public health emergency in March forced a pivot from opportunities to a more defensive position. Fortunately, our featured women in business were able to pivot as well. We spoke to them at the end of March—each working from home—about what their previous experience has taught them about leading in a crisis.

Maria Salinas
CEO, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce

Maria Salinas was energized in the beginning of 2020. 18 months into her tenure as CEO of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, she felt like all the elements were in place for a banner year. Salinas, the first woman in charge of the 150-year-old organization and the first Latina, manages a staff of nearly 50 and a budget of about $15 million. The LA Chamber of Commerce, the largest in the country, represents more than 1,600 member businesses and services the interests of more than 235,000 businesses across 35 categories in the Los Angeles region. Under Salinas’ leadership, the Chamber has focused on key strategic initiatives including expanding its advocacy for a business-friendly environment, promoting the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, and expanding global influence.

“We kicked off our year with all these great plans. I completed my leadership team,” says Salinas. “We had this new, really robust budget, we had a great January and February, and we did our annual advocacy trip to Washington, D.C. in early March.” That four-day trip included policy work with senators to make sure that California businesses were included in any stimulus package that might arise from the rapidly evolving economic and public health crisis.

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic while Salinas was meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. By the time she got on the plane back to Los Angeles a day later, she knew her organization’s agenda had dramatically changed. “Honestly, it felt like we came back to a different world. It was clear that we were headed into almost a perfect storm.”

Salinas is a veteran of Big Eight accounting and spent 11 years at the Walt Disney Company in financial and compliance leadership roles, including global financial reporting duties for the consumer products division. She ran her own consulting business for a decade with clients like Toyota, as well as many small businesses. In 2005, she founded a community bank, ProAmérica—later serving as chairwoman of the board, shepherding the bank through both a global financial meltdown and a merger. She relied on all that work experience to shift the Chamber’s priority list. “This is where those skill sets come into play like being flexible, adaptable, and focused and reasoned in your work.” By mid-March, Salinas and her team identified the top three agenda items: policy and advocacy work; identifying business resources and recovery strategies; and communications, communications, communications.

For internal communications to her far-flung employees, Salinas relied on her Disney training, citing the company’s expertise in messaging. “We’ve done a lot of communication,” she says. “When we came back from D.C., we had a meeting that same afternoon with my entire leadership team. I sent out a note to the entire department, the entire Chamber. And then the following morning, I had a virtual staff meeting and had 100% participation. During crisis time, people are looking for information. They’re looking for the leader to say something.”

For the Chamber’s external communications, Salinas tasked her team to be timely and thorough in getting information out to the business community, particularly small business owners who need to tap into available funding to keep cash flowing. In short order, the Chamber produced a special web portal and webinars aimed at business owners. “We created what we’re calling the COVID-19 response and resource guide. We’re updating that on a daily basis so that we can provide the most up-to-date information from the authorities.” The LA Chamber’s leadership in this area hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Even our national group of chambers highlighted that particular aspect of what we were doing with regard to our communication.”

Salinas, who describes her leadership style as collaborative but decisive, is clear about her role, even in a crisis. “This is uncharted territory without a doubt. The biggest thing for me is making sure I stay calm and reasoned, and not contribute to panic or hysteria.” As a numbers person, she is a big believer in “being planful.” She explains, “Businesses don’t work well in uncertainty. You need to be able to plan. You need to be able to forecast sales, inventory, all of that. That’s been disrupted, so what can you plan for? I think when you start thinking about what does your worst-case look like, it can help you navigate bumps in the road and hopefully get you to think about the things you need to avoid.”

Salinas cites her deep commitment to her family, her church, and her community as a grounding force in her business life. Over the years, she has served numerous esteemed civic and nonprofit organizations and has been recognized for her leadership and community service. She is currently chair of the Board of Regents and a member of the Board of Trustees at Loyola Marymount University, her alma mater. She also serves as the board chair of UnidosUS and is a member of the founding Board of Directors of Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine.

A Pasadena resident for the last 18 years, Salinas and her husband Raul, a prominent lawyer, have four sons: twins Alejandro and Nicolas are 21, and twins Francisco and Gabriel are 18. All four are Eagle Scouts and she says that experience has shaped both her personal and professional life, connecting her to Pasadena in a meaningful way. “Pasadena’s a great place for families to thrive because you have really great neighbors and really great resources within the city here.”

When asked if this current crisis reminds her of anything she’s been through in her career, Salinas immediately recalls her role as founder and board member of ProAmérica Bank, when she was asked to lead the negotiations during their acquisition by Pacific Commerce Bank. The appointment was a surprise and potentially intimidating, but also an opportunity. “I was working with people that were much more senior than me, that had volumes of experience in negotiation, and selling and buying buildings, larger banks than ours. The board empowered me to take the lead and to make the decisions.” In recounting the story, Salinas doesn’t hesitate to recall what the moment required. “I just had to step up.”

Nicole Childers
Executive Producer, “Marketplace Morning Report”

Nicole Childers, the executive producer of “Marketplace Morning Report,” a daily must-listen for business and economic news heard locally on KPCC and on 800 other public radio stations around the country, explains her job in simple terms. “I’m tasked with overseeing a team that is spread throughout the world,” she says. “I have team members in Los Angeles, New York and London. The bulk of my job is the sound of the show, curating what stories make it to air on what days, and how we’re covering the daily news that’s going to be important to our listeners.” It’s a credit to Childers’ calm, cool demeanor that she can boil down her responsibilities into a few sentences.
But consider that her work day starts before she even wakes up in her West Los Angeles home at 3:30 a.m. Childers explains, “Before I’m up, my team has a meeting around 2:30 a.m. where they’re deciding what goes into the show.” Once in the studio, Childers oversees six different broadcasts of the succinct eight-minute show reported by a global team of correspondents and host David Brancaccio, currently working out of his home in New Jersey. Once the morning’s production is wrapped, Childers connects with her team five or six times a day to assign stories, hear pitches and listen to tape. “Then before I go to bed, usually around 8 or 9 p.m., I send an additional editorial note of stories that had broken later in the day. I also include international stories. That’s the way that we work.”
And that was before the current pandemic and economic crisis.

Childers is a native Californian, growing up in San Diego before attending the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She majored in African-American Studies, but knew journalism was what she wanted to do. In college, she interned with Diane Sawyer at ABC, who she cites as “one of my most cherished mentors.” Childers spent time at almost all of ABC News’ shows before being recruited back to California to work on two National Public Radio shows that were being produced in LA.

The economic downturn in 2008 eliminated her job at NPR, so she spent the next few years doing a variety of media work from social media marketing and celebrity branding to ghostwriting. She produced Michael Eric Dyson’s radio show and spent time launching Fusion, a Univision and ABC News collaborative effort. She’s been at “Marketplace Morning Report” for six years. Despite the early start time and the non-stop schedule, Childers says of her work: “I love it.”

Now, Childers is managing the whole operation remotely, with the host and reporters in bedrooms and basements all over the word, filing their stories at a time when the stakes for accurate information couldn’t be higher. “Marketplace Morning Report” looks at every story, from a devasting hurricane to a school shooting, through an economic lens. But now the economy is breaking news and the “Marketplace” team has been personally affected.
“We’re journalists, so we have a responsibility to know what’s going on, to make educated choices, to make editorial decisions around what we’re going to cover that will benefit our audience and increase their knowledge of what’s happening in the world and in the economy and their personal economies,” says Childers. “But we’re also people, too. I think that balance is something that has shifted. I’m doing more personal check-ins, making sure that my team is okay and if they’re giving themselves the space to kind of take a step back.”

Childers’ focus on her employees’ self-care comes from an early professional experience. She was a researcher for “ABC World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings in September 2001, watching the news in her apartment when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. She headed into the office when the second plane hit the south tower. “I’ll never forget getting on the crosstown bus and watching the towers burn,” Childers recalls.
The all-consuming coverage not only taught her so much about journalism but also about work-life balance. As a student of leadership, she’s thought deeply about her role. “My job as a leader is to provide balance. To be clear about expectations, but also making sure to address the human side.” That’s knowledge she wants to pass on. “I’ve covered 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. I know how stressful covering these stories can be. I want my team to pace themselves.”

Childers credits her ability to roll with the punches while maintaining her professionalism to the fact that she was part of the foster system as a teenager. When she went off to UPenn at age 17, she was on her own in every sense, which was both exciting and disorienting. She figured it out by working her way through college, interning every summer and staying afloat financially thanks to scholarships from the university. The experience still guides her today. “Having your living situation and your livelihood being very unpredictable, you have to learn how to be a chameleon, and in some ways, you just have to figure it out. That experience has informed quite a bit of how I am as a leader.”
Her advice to others leading teams through uncertainty? “Leadership is situational and you have to constantly adjust it.”

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