CEO of the Fresno Business Council, Deborah Nankivell, discusses how the Fresno Business Council came about and what it took to develop the organization.
In the United States there are few communities that face the intense social, economic, and political challenges that Fresno, California, sustains. One only needs to look at the headline “Fresno Calif., is the new car-theft capital of the U.S.”  (published by Insure.com, June 2011) to recognize the profuse nature of crime in the region. The news gets worse when the crime rate is combined with a bleak 2011 analysis from U.S. News stating Fresno has the fourth lowest adjusted median household income in the country.  Sadly, there are many other measures that demonstrate Fresno as a community in peril. These statistics, distressing as they are, also show an opportunity to begin a critical recovery, an endeavor that a group of business leaders began eighteen years ago when they organized the Fresno Business Council. Over several weeks, I met with Deborah Nankivell, CEO of the Fresno Business Council, to learn about the start and development of the organization.
Deborah started her tenure with the Fresno Business Council shortly after its founding. She was working as a lobbyist for its originator, Bob Carter, at the law firm, Wild, Carter & Tipton, and then transitioned to managing this new project. The Fresno Business Council was “born of desperation,” shares Deborah when referencing the state of Fresno in 1993. She explained that Fresno had “hit bottom” and the community was ready for change similar to other historic transformations spurred by dire circumstances. Deborah used the civil rights movement to illustrate her point further as she notes that monumental social change came about when intense challenges faced racial equality in the United States.
The Fresno Business Council’s goal is to give business leaders a venue to coordinate the investment of their talents and resources in a struggling community. Deborah described the challenges in attempting to align the Fresno Business Council’s activities with a vast array of community problems. To overcome this disconnect, the founding members brought in an outside consultant to an initial retreat to organize a strategic plan. This strategic planning session was unsuccessful and cut short because the consultant’s guidance was believed to be “too process-oriented,” recalls Deborah. She went on to say that the group decided to change course and to “learn by doing.”
Learning by doing consisted of what Deborah called “Chamber of Commerce-like activities” throughout the mid and late 1990s, implementing projects and organizing committees focused on specific causes such as fostering innovation. These initiatives included supporting the founding of the Central Valley Business Incubator in 1995,  with an organizational goal of encouraging the development of new businesses. “This time was like our training wheels,” says Deborah. She went on to explain that they “were learning about the business of community, the business of government, and then testing new ideas.” She also highlighted the importance of having established positive outcomes during this period to sustain the momentum of the cause.
Early momentum involved more than simply achieving positive outcomes, according to Deborah. It was also about getting the right people involved with the courage to challenge the status quo. She posed the question, “How do you get business people involved?” Her answer was to “ask them to lead.” Deborah described how the Fresno Business Council needed Fresno’s business leaders to step-up in the beginning and create a “platform through social capital.” Having people willing to face the political and social pressures at the start was significant, explains Deborah. She refers to these leaders that took a stand as her “lions” for their community, willing to be champions for the Fresno Business Council’s efforts toward improvement.
With the support of powerful community champions there was an opportunity for the Fresno Business Council to locate and secure the right intellectual capital needed for strategic change. During the early 2000s the group began to expand from focusing on the tactics of change to becoming strategic thinkers, describes Deborah. She calls a person with this type of strategic thinking mindset a “genesis thinker,” or someone who can approach complex problems in new and innovative ways. This new approach to problem solving included developing the Collaborative Regional Initiative (CRI), which sought to align various sectors and integrate business, education, and government planning. 
Deborah then sought to explain the fundamental reason for all of the effort in developing the Fresno Business Council over the past eighteen years. She states that the Fresno Business Council is about companies and people becoming stewards “by restoring the ‘telos’ to the business community,” the telos being the purpose of business. “It’s about meeting the needs and wants of the community” she says. Her counsel to Fresno businesses is that city leaders must be stewards for this community, and the key to effective stewardship is to “start thinking with the whole mind.”
Mr. Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.
Mr. Freeman would like to extend a special thank you to Jen Paul, Communications Director at the Office of Community and Economic Development, for providing additional background information on the Fresno Business Council.