By Aila Boyd
There’s no denying that the past year has been difficult for local businesses. Many business leaders are starting to take a breath now that COVID-19 infection rates are leveling out and vaccination rates are rising. As a result of the pandemic, businesses are starting to chart a path forward. Khari Ryder, the newly appointed executive director of the Botetourt County Chamber of Commerce, wants to be a part of the recovery effort.
His varied career across multiple industries at both non-profit and for-profit organizations gives him a unique and practical insight into the ways businesses can market themselves, leverage their workforces, increase profits and decrease losses. “My life is a very long tale and filled with many different occupations,” Ryder jokes.
Trevor Winter-Pierce, president of the Botetourt County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, agrees that Ryder is the right person to help businesses during this difficult time. “The search committee and board of directors are excited to have Khari Ryder leading the chamber’s mission as we exit COVID and into the future. His background and experience in agriculture, education, and business, more specifically finance, remarkably parallel several of the chamber’s core focus areas,” he says.
The Macon, Georgia native’s occupational tale started when he left the south to head to college for a business degree at Salem-Teikyo University, now Salem University, in West Virginia. Following college his goal was to become employed by a Fortune 500 business with the plan of retiring after 20 to 30 years.
As luck would have it, he ended up receiving a call from a college advisor who told him to report to Anderson, South Carolina in 1996 for a job as an assistant manager and assistant trainer at an equine facility. “When I took the job I really didn’t know what I was jumping into, but I’ve always been a go-getter and adventure lover. I have no problem in taking on new things without trepidation or fear,” Ryder says. It turned out that the job came with its fair share of challenges, including most difficult of all, a belligerent supervisor. “The job certainly taught me patience and diplomatic skills. I decided that as long as I had a job, I needed to buckle down and do whatever it was I was doing.”
His work as a trainer continued until he decided to dip his toes into academia after being recommended to be the director of the equine program at his alma mater in 2003. He later took a similar role at Bethany College in West Virginia.
From there, he went on to teach at American National University in Salem, where he created the curriculum for a hospitality and tourism management associates degree and served as the program head. He says his southern charm and hospitality helped him sell himself when he interviewed for the job. “Those of us who are from the south live and breathe hospitality,” he proclaims.
He eventually decided he was ready for a change of pace and sought out a position he felt would allow him the opportunity to give back to the community while also using his Master of Business Administration degree skills he obtained from Averett University in Danville. He took a job as finance director at Total Action for Progress. “I was there during the Obama administration when we had an influx of cash from the federal government for the stimulus,” he explains. “I helped to disburse the funds and build upon our already existing 23 programs.”
As the stimulus funds started to dwindle, he took an adjunct professor position at Midway University in Kentucky and took a job as a project manager and research and development specialist at Stik-Pak Solutions in Rocky Mount.
Throughout his time in both the business world and academia, he has maintained his own business, Equine Endeavors Consulting, which offers services to those who own horses. Given his extensive experience in roles of authority, Ryder has thought long and hard about what it means to be a leader. “Most servant leaders operate from a level of giving of themselves,” he says. “I believe all good leaders should be able to empower others to take on leadership responsibility and accountability, both of which increase employee self-value and self-worth. It’s always about giving back.”
When Ryder decided to be of service to businesses in Botetourt County, he did so with the hope that the executive director role will be the position he will stay in until his retirement. “Being with the chamber allows me the ability to utilize all of my skills and knowledge base, whether it be marketing, hospitality, education, agriculture or organizational structure. The position allows me to bring everything I’ve done in my life to the table,” he explains.
Looking ahead, he has an elaborate plan to increase the value of a chamber membership by strengthening its ties to the business community. Currently, the chamber has 283 members.
“My vision is to prove our services to the members by providing business and educational support to them,” he says. “The chambers were originally meant to be a voice for businesses and to help them shine. Of course networking events are great, but they have to be more than just getting together and having a glass of wine. We need to assist each other’s businesses when we network.”
Given the fact that he is a realistic person, Ryder acknowledges that increasing the chamber’s profile in the community isn’t going to be easy. As he calibrated the plan, he reached out to members to see what they thought was lacking from the chamber. Not surprisingly, many of the members noted the organization was antiquated and that they were not sure what value they gleaned from their membership.
To help businesses perceive the value of their membership, he has started referring to the yearly fee as an investment. “Chamber members are making an investment that goes far beyond what they would get if they made an actual investment in marketing,” he stresses.
As a result of the negative perception of the chamber that some businesses in the community held, Ryder decided early on that a rebranding was needed. “Every business in order to be successful has to rebrand itself at some point in time. That’s got to happen. They should never be static. We’ll never move forward if we can’t change direction when needed,” he says.
Luckily, he says, the staff, including a member services representative and marketing and events coordinator who both have been at the chamber since 2019, are dedicated to the rebranding effort. “They’ve been pillars of support for me so that I can see what’s going on and breathe a little bit without being pulled in so many directions,” he says.
An additional strength, he adds, is the support that the organization receives from the board of directors. “I see activity from them,” he says, adding that an active board is essential for the organization’s success.
Currently, he is the only person of color leading a chamber in the Roanoke and New River Valleys. In order to ensure minority owned businesses in the county succeed, Ryder is planning an extensive outreach effort. “I’m going to reach out to minority-owned businesses, small businesses and women-owned businesses to bring them together to see what we can do to lift them up. I want to give them the exposure and support they need,” he says. He is also planning a special educational series in the near future for women and minority businesses.
While a resident of Roanoke County, specifically the Bent Mountain community, he’s hopeful about Botetourt’s future. “It’s on the cusp of wonderful things. It’s got the potential to continue to grow, while still retaining its old school charm and beauty,” he observes.
Although he’s not one to dwell on the past, Ryder says his past failures have made him who he is today just as much as his past successes. “Most farmers wake up and take each day as it comes. They learn from whatever successes they had the day before and try to build on it,” he says.
As he’s gotten older, he has become more aware of just how stubborn he can be at times. “Sometimes I stand so strongly on a particular conviction because I know it’s the right thing to do and I haven’t been smart enough to give way to the person in charge,” he explains. His tendency for standing by his convictions was notably on display when he was at Strik-Pak Solutions and strongly objected to the introduction of two additional production shifts. His objections were based on his feeling there was not enough business to justify such a move. The dispute eventually led to a parting of ways.
His advice to those who are just starting out in the business world – don’t be quite as stubborn as he has been in the past and to be open to advice. “Never think you know it all. There’s always someone out there who will know better than you,” he advises. “Be open to criticism and don’t wear your professional heart on your sleeve.”