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WomanOf the Month 3-03: Keller Hayes

Her role model was her German grandmother, who raised four children alone on a ranch in the Nebraska Sand Hills after the death of her husband. Today Keller Hayes keeps her grandmother’s courage in mind as she guides the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce in its efforts to support women in business. Since assuming the presidency of the chamber six years ago, she has helped double its membership and significantly expand its community presence and influence.

Hayes grew up on the ranch her grandfather homesteaded and which her grandmother fought to hold on to for her children at a time when women had no legal rights to land. Hayes attended country schools until high school, when she boarded with a family in Ainsworth during the week. There, she credits a speech teacher with changing the direction of her life. The teacher praised Hayes’ work, telling the class, "Someday you’re going to be reading what she writes." "It was like something you’ve been waiting for, like someone waiting for water in a desert," Hayes recalls.

After high school she attended the University of Nebraska, majoring in journalism with a minor in women’s studies. College proved to be a life-changing experience for Hayes, opening her eyes to the many possibilities available to women. She also began her long-standing commitment to volunteerism, working at a rape crisis center where many of the people she met remain her friends and mentors. Her volunteer efforts provided building blocks for her skills as a generalist, serving her well in her job with the chamber.

"I wrote the newsletter for the center, designed it, trained speakers, and did speaking myself," Hayes says. "I remember one time I had to speak to a class at another college about rape. There were quite a few boys in the class, and I had to talk about the details of rape. I figured, if you could do that, you’re good to go."

She also worked for the college daily newspaper, which led to stints after graduation with a weekly in Lincoln, Nebraska. Next came a move to California and a position with Monterey Life magazine. She began by selling advertising and had advanced to co-publisher by the time the magazine’s success led to its sale.

Hayes then worked for several years as advertising director for a lumber trade publication in Minneapolis, but the harsh climate proved challenging, even for a girl from Nebraska. She moved to Colorado and served for a time as executive director for a non-profit and then as marketer for a financial institution. When the job with the women’s chamber opened up, Hayes recognized it as the first instance in which her minor in women’s studies was a big bonus.

Hayes launched the Take Our Daughters to Work Day Luncheon held annually by the chamber and has helped drive membership levels to 1,300 from 600 when she took the job. Monthly luncheons held in downtown Denver attract 180 attendees while Denver Tech Center events attract more than 100 monthly. In fact, the Colorado women’s chamber is recognized as the largest women’s chamber in the U.S. and also the oldest. Calls from those seeking to duplicate its success are frequent.

One of the achievements Hayes is most proud of is the role the women’s chamber played in the T-REX transportation project. "We’re part of the Minority and Women Chambers’ Coalition and we lobbied RTD [the regional transportation district] and CDOT [the Colorado Department of Transportation] that they needed to include the community in the project. Potential contractors had to sign a memorandum of understanding with each of us in the coalition that they would work to include women and minorities in that project. So the effect of a $1.7 billion project has been pretty big.

"We also met with Invesco Field [home of the Denver Broncos] on a monthly basis for almost five years, and 26% of the stadium was built by minority and women-owned companies. It’s been really great to see how our impact on the community has increased. We are consistently the only women’s organization that’s at the table for those kinds of projects."

The women’s chamber fashions its programs and outreach with women’s communication styles in mind. "We’re committed to women’s networking—we’re about relationships. We as a chamber need to make sure that we focus on relationships with our members and foster that within our events," says Hayes.

Another key to the chamber’s success: Membership isn’t limited to one segment such as women business owners. Rather, corporate executives, women business owners, minority business owners, small business employees, government representatives and non-profit representatives all take part. "That makes it more productive for the people involved," says Hayes. "We have met with corporations to ask them how to involve more women-owned companies. We have worked with coalitions to give awards to companies that really have walked their talk. It’s about promoting women within as well as procurement for women-owned companies."

The women’s chamber was the first women’s organization locally to have a man as chair. "Initially some people were surprised, but it’s been a great model," says Hayes. "Joe [Joseph Serna] and I genuinely share the leadership and some great things come out of that. We really do look at things differently, but that doesn’t mean we have different goals."

One of the chamber’s major goals is its Leadership Legacy program funded by the T-REX project and directed at small businesses. The eight-month, half-day program costs $800 and will focus on skill-building, being careful to include female leadership characteristics such as collaboration. "Leadership is a big issue if you want to affect your work and your community," says Hayes. "We’re looking at skills that apply to employees women work with or who work for you, but also skills that apply to the community, helping women interact in a way to benefit the community as well as position them well in the community." Applications will be taken in summer 2003 for the September launch. The chamber is also developing mentoring circles.

The greatest challenge for the members today is the economy—how to help them find ways to survive and promote their organizations. Networking is a huge piece of how the chamber helps. As much as 60% or more of some members’ business comes from other members. "We have members who are really committed to doing business with each other. When you walk into our events, you feel welcomed. There’s an energy and supportiveness," says Hayes. "My invitation is to come check us out."