Rose Washington Jan. 2021

Rose Washington outside the forthcoming Oasis Fresh Market near East Pine Street and North Peoria Avenue. Led by her, the Tulsa Economic Development Corp. Creative Capital is spearheading the project. 

Throughout her career, Rose Washington has championed the underdog, and as she begins her yearlong tenure as the Tulsa Regional Chamber chairwoman, 2021 will be no different. Small business success and minority entrepreneurship hold a special place in her heart, and she is excited to promote both in her new role. 

A mother of two, Washington is making history as the first African American to serve as chairperson. Her other professional responsibilities include serving as CEO of the Tulsa Economic Development Corp. (TEDC) Creative Capital, where a current project involves helping open a grocery store in a food desert of north Tulsa.  

What is your primary focus for the Tulsa Regional Chamber in 2021? What would you like to achieve as chair?

My focus is primarily on inclusive, equitable and collaborative growth with three target audiences in mind: people, businesses and the community at large. When I think about people, I think about workforce. We need to support our school districts as well as promote our career tech and higher ed institutions. In order for us to remain competitive, we’ve got to show our current businesses, as well as those who are considering relocating to our region, that we do have the workforce that meets their needs at a high standard. 

Another group that I like to focus on when I talk about people is the Tulsa Young Professionals (TYPROS) organization. My 25-year-old daughter is a two-time graduate of the University of Oklahoma, and when I think back on what would have kept her in Tulsa and Oklahoma, I think about engaging her more in a leadership role. There are a number of ways we can engage younger folks in leadership roles while also helping us build the community and the region where they want to live, work, play and raise families. I’d also like to bring more diversity into that group because there are a lot of young minority and African American professionals in the Tulsa area who have grown up here and opted to remain here. 

On a business side, of course big business is critically important to our region, but I play in the space of small business. To me and to most people, small businesses are equally important. Just in Tulsa County, there are about 22,000 employer companies, and most of them are small companies. I’d like to see the small business connection grow to include more of those smaller companies and more minority companies. I think we need to engage with more businesses through membership and make minority businesses a high priority. 

I also like to encourage bigger businesses to create or expand their diversity supplier programs. What it says to a community is that small, minority companies are important to us. If there is a service or supply that a larger company needs, they can look local first and give the small business community a chance to supply that need or provide that service. 

From a community aspect, I’d like to focus on cultural education and inclusive social capital. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission has done an exceptional job in implementing a strategy to build the Greenwood Rising museum, so I think folks from all over the world will find Tulsa an interesting place this year and beyond. I hope that through these visits, Black businesses will have an opportunity to really thrive and capitalize on some of the folks who visit from outside our region. We have a lot of cultural aspects that we are proud of, and I believe Greenwood Rising will become one of those. Building social capital allows all of us to get to know each other as equals, knowing we’re more alike than different.  

What does this role mean to you?

It’s surreal. I’m still getting my arms around this. Having the trust and respect of my colleagues at the Chamber who basically lead the economy in this region is a great honor for me. I hope to use my voice and my passion to elevate small businesses and elevate inclusive growth as something we think about and incorporate into everything that we do. 

How long have you been involved with the Chamber?

I’ve been a Chamber member for 18 or so years. I came to Tulsa in late 2001, and almost immediately got involved with the Tulsa Urban League, the Greenwood Chamber and the Tulsa Regional Chamber. Over time I’ve had an opportunity to serve in different vice chair positions to learn more about the Tulsa Regional Chamber, its strategy and how the well-oiled machine works.  

What do you see as the Chamber’s biggest value?

The Chamber does so much, and so many people don’t quite understand all of the moving parts and how it impacts Tulsa’s economic growth. For me, the biggest value has been building social capital and relationships with individuals who can help me further the mission of TEDC as we serve the small business community and other resource disadvantaged businesses. The ability to connect with people who can really help me move the needle toward fulfilling our mission at TEDC has been a big value. I have been able to do my job well and serve the greater community with support from folks I’ve met through the Chamber.  

What is the Chamber’s biggest challenge going into 2021?

The thing about a challenge is that the other side of it is opportunity. I think the greatest opportunity for us is to stop thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion as just a strategy or program and view it as inclusive, equitable and collaborative growth that benefits everyone, particularly the companies that are near and dear to me. Inner city visits and studies show that companies and cities that have figured out how to create that secret sauce that includes inclusive, equitable and collaborative growth are the most successful. 

As CEO for TEDC Creative Capital, describe your role in community efforts, initiatives and collaborations.

My role is one of strategy enhancement and then as a servant leader in economic development that focuses on all things business. We are a community financial institution with a core mission of helping progressive businesses gain access. We’re building a store in a food desert in north Tulsa and leasing it to a new grocery operation. We’re going to create jobs for that community and hopefully opportunities for young people to learn that the grocery business is much more than stocking shelves and cashiering. There’s technology, HR, accounting. There’s a lot to be learned just in a small business, and I plan to share the role of small businesses in a broader economy.  

How can your organization’s support of the business community resonate through other endeavors?

My job is my hobby. I’m so busy with the work of TEDC that most of my outside activities further TEDC’s mission. The theme of a business representing and serving disadvantaged businesses resonates pretty loudly with me. The work that 36 Degrees North and i2E is doing, along with all the ecosystem builders in the space of small business and entrepreneurship, is important to me. Of course, equally as important, is bringing into the fold those who typically aren’t in that space — bringing more minority, African American and female businesses into the ecosystem.   

Was there a family member who inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

I grew up in rural Mississippi with my grandmother. My grandmother had been a sharecropper and raised her children, including my mom, on a former slave plantation. My grandmother was able to grow cotton on someone else’s land but because she had 12 children, she had a workforce. Her older kids led the younger kids to basically manage the crop while my grandmother worked as a domestic in the town of Pickens. She had the income to cover her operating expenses in what I would consider now her sharecropping business. The house that I was born and raised in, my grandmother built from profits of sharecropping.

If you’re originally from Mississippi and you lived in California, how did you find your way to Tulsa?

I left the banking industry in Jackson, Mississippi, to go into higher education in the business school at a historically Black college. I then married a Tulsan who lived in L.A. and worked in community and government relations at University of Southern California

What do you enjoy in your spare time?

I usually say reading is my hobby. My goal is to always have three books in process: one for my mind, one for my heart and one for my soul. (Right now that’s “Happiness Is...” by A.R. Bernard for her soul, “Golf All-in-One for Dummies” for her heart, and “Know Your Price” by Andre M. Perry for her mind.) Other than my work hobbies, this summer I picked up golf. I am very competitive, but right now golf has the best of me. I’m also trying to spend time with my son before he goes off to college next year. tp

Gail Ellis is a communications specialist in Tulsa and enjoys telling stories about the people, places and history of America’s magic city.

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