Jill Meyer distinctly remembers when the idea of serving as CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber first entered her mind. Back in 2015, she was member-in-charge of Frost Brown Todd’s Cincinnati office, where she’d been practicing law for 19 years, and was hosting a reception for several women who’d been named CEOs of area organizations in the previous few months.
At that time, Julia Poston was the Chamber’s board chair as well as managing partner at EY, and Meyer was serving on the Chamber board. “Julia came to the reception,” Meyer recalls. “I was greeting people as she walked in, and she said to me, Hey, I have a question for you. Will you come run the Chamber? And I looked at her and said, No. Can I get you a glass of champagne?”
Meyer understood the challenges and the opportunities facing Chamber board members as they searched for a new day-to-day leader, and she was excited about the possibilities ahead for Cincinnati’s business community and the region in general. She just hadn’t pictured herself in that window of opportunity would slip away,” she says. “Julia told me, I know you love your law practice and your firm, but I also happen to know you love Cincinnati even more.”
Meyer joined the Chamber as president and CEO in September 2015 and focused on tackling pressing economic issues and building Cincinnati into a stronger destination for people and businesses. Under her leadership, the Chamber launched the Workforce Innovation Center, the Center for Research and Data, the Leadership Center, and Cincinnati Compass; brought the renowned BLINK event to life; planted the stake for a regional transportation infrastructure vision, leading the campaign to pass a first-ever Hamilton County transit and infrastructure funding plan; and launched the Minority Business Accelerator Fund I. Meyer led the business community through COVID-19 and its recovery and has been active in dozens of major community initiatives, including serving as president of the Build Our New Bridge Now coalition to advocate for the Brent Spence Bridge solution.
Meyer recently announced that she’s departing from the Chamber on May 15, when current Chamber President Brendon Cull will become CEO. She sits down for an “exit interview” to discuss her Chamber accomplishments, her focus on population growth as the key component of economic success for the region, her hopes for Cincinnati over the next five years, and her own personal next steps.
WHAT DID YOU SEE AS YOUR MANDATE WHEN YOU WERE RECRUITED TO BECOME CHAMBER CEO?
If you can think back to 2015, which seems like 1,000 years ago at this point, the city had some pieces that were starting to pop, but we did not have a real strategy. We had a lot of gaps in economic growth areas. We were not a unified, focused business community at that point. I also knew we lacked strategy because I was one of the frustrated Chamber board members who was saying, Let’s do something here.
I saw enough gaps and potentials that I felt like I could really build strategy and create some vision. It wasn’t like I was coming in to execute a plan; I had to build the plan first. So the city’s business leaders said, We’ll follow your lead, back your strategy, and help you execute it. Wow. People usually don’t get that kind of opportunity.
WHAT WAS THE MAIN FOCUS OF YOUR EARLY STRATEGY, AND DID YOU IN FACT GET THE SUPPORT YOU WERE PROMISED?
I would say that the broad strategy was generally supported. There were some people who were early disbelievers who became believers. And, frankly, there were some people who were like, Well, I don’t think project X or Y is that important, but if this is what we’re doing I’ll support it.
I would say overall people got it and leaned in in a really critical way, which is how we’ve been able to get so much done. The Chamber has become an umbrella organization for other specific chambers and for working together with REDI and with Cincinnati Experience. Not to compete with them, but to really take a “big tent” approach. If you look at what’s required for economic growth in a region, lots of different parts and pieces have to come together to work. And you need to have an overriding core strategy that looks 20 years down the road and drives things forward.
The Cincinnati Experience example is a really fun one. Source Cincinnati launched before I was at the Chamber, and it was all about earned media, which was important. And Source was originally under the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau [now VisitCincy], but there were contributions from others. I had a meeting with Johnna Reeder at REDI and Dan Lincoln at the CVB to discuss this opportunity to turn Source—now known as Cincinnati Experience—into a real driver for promoting Cincinnati’s story to the national media. Some business leaders said to us very clearly, Look, you all need to be telling the same story, whether it’s trying to attract visitors, talent, or business. But we’re not interested in paying a separate entity to do what we think is your job. So starting a strong collaboration with Johnna and Dan really set the table nicely for the kinds of partnerships that would follow.
Everything hasn’t been easy, but just the concept of working from a core strategy that’s shared across businesses and organizations is an enormous step forward from where we were in the past. Especially the fact that the Chamber and REDI share a strategy. It’s really important that we’re able to piece together who does what, how, and in what order.
CINCINNATI BUSINESS LEADERS GIVE A LOT OF THEIR TIME TO SERVING ON THE CHAMBER BOARD, AS YOU DID BEFORE YOU JOINED AS CEO, AS WELL AS ON BOARDS AT 3CDC, CINCINNATI BUSINESS COMMITTEE, ARTSWAVE, AND UNITED WAY. HOW DOES THAT TRANSLATE INTO STRATEGY AND ACTION IN YOUR ORGANIZATION?
It just always amazes me that corporate leaders who probably don’t have the time still make the time. I’m saying that not to sound like a Cincinnati cheerleader, but because I’ve learned in the last eight years that this involvement is actually a differentiator for Cincinnati.
If you go back to the beginnings of Cincinnati as an economic center, this town was built by private business, not by a university or by state government like Columbus or Indianapolis. If you look at the origins of all of our core components—whether it’s arts, culture, the Chamber, or things like the Mercantile Library and other treasures in our community—they trace back to businessmen, and some women obviously, who said, This is our town, and we need to make this a great place to live. And so they built it. It’s always been that way everywhere, that the companies in town run and take care of their city.
Columbus is a great example because it’s so close and so different. The university and state government define Columbus. Those are the mechanisms of how you get stuff done in Columbus. But in Cincinnati you get it done by getting the private business leaders to say, This is important, and this is what we need to do to make this a favorable community.
So if you’re a government city and you want to get a big thing done, you figure out how to get that money from the government. You get your check, and you move forward. In Cincinnati, you say, This is a really cool idea. Let’s see how people think about it. Let’s see if somebody has a better idea, and let’s rally the troops around a core idea.
DOES THAT SORT OF BUSINESS-LED MODEL PUT A LOT OF UNDUE PRESSURE ON PROCTER & GAMBLE, KROGER, AND THE OTHER LARGE CORPORATIONS TO LEAD?
It’s a careful balance, for sure. You need P&G and Kroger and Fifth Third for major initiatives. They get asked for everything, whether it’s the big major things or the smaller things. So I’ve been careful to make sure that when it’s the Cincinnati Futures Commission—which is studying the city’s economic challenges, engaging the community, and planning for the future—we need [Procter & Gamble CEO] Jon Moeller at the head of that. That’s not going to happen at the scale it should without him. For other things, we can stir the pot maybe a little bit differently and not have to rely on the big firms so much.
But here’s the beauty of a Chamber like ours: 80 percent of our members are not big corporations. That breakdown is consistent with business ownership across the country. So we’ve taken big major initiatives and asked, How do we address the needs of businesses from micros to small to midcaps to big, big companies and everything in between all of those pieces? How do you create a place where there’s a seat at the table for people in all of those roles? That’s something this Chamber has always done well. We have focused in my time to include a wide variety of business leaders at our board table as well as at the other tables we’re seeding to get anything done, and that’s the magic of getting big things done. Because you can’t go to P&G for everything and say, Will you write this check? It isn’t fair to Procter & Gamble, but it’s also not fair to everyone else because there are other people who are passionate and have really great opinions. Their checks don’t have as many zeroes, but they might have lots of other abilities to get things done.
HOW HAVE YOU CREATED AN ORGANIZATION THAT BUSINESSES OF ALL SIZES CAN FEEL A PART OF AND CONTRIBUTE TO?
Earlier in my tenure, when some things had started to happen, people asked me what had changed in Cincinnati to get X, Y, or Z done. What I told everybody then—and I would say even more so now—is that more people have taken ownership of what’s happening in this community. That wasn’t always the case, which I think is symptomatic of when a community has so many big Fortune 500 and other strong privately held businesses. There’s a tendency for some to step back and say, We’ll either wait for them to do it, or we’ll wait for their permission to do it. And that’s changed.
Grassroots is one level, but there are also just other rooms where they’re saying, You know what, we can do this. And it’d be great if Procter & Gamble wants to come along, but we’re not going to rely on them or put the onus on them. We’re going to own it. That’s happening in a way now that did not happen 10 years ago, no question about it. And what spurred that, I don’t know, other than maybe a combination of being invited in and being asked their opinion and of seeing some things happen. You know, someone has the audacity to go do something like BLINK and it turns into a really big, cool thing. And that’s great for everyone.
When we built the first strategy after I became CEO, it was based on a visual of three pillars. We talked about them as pillars because I realized we needed to reestablish the foundational power of a strong Chamber—and what better way to do that than to have pillars, right? Our pillars were essentially “Business Development,” “Talent,” and “Telling the Story.” Our strategy was focused in all regards on inclusion, and I think my exact words to the board were, Notice I didn’t say diversity, because if anybody needs to understand why diversity is important at this point, I can’t help you.
But what we can do better is look at how inclusive we’re being in Cincinnati. The reality is that no community gets that right. And so I said that we’d focus on modeling inclusion in absolutely everything we do.
WHAT IS THE MAIN ROLE OF THE CINCINNATI CHAMBER, IN YOUR OPINION?
The Chamber is a business membership organization. I took the CEO position because I’m a capitalist at heart. I believe that private business is what makes the world go round. You have government funding, you have engaged people, you have people with self-sustainability, you have wealth, you have people’s ability to feed themselves and their children—you have all of that because you have private businesses. And when I went to the Chamber, I said, I’m going to come into the room saying I’m here to build businesses.
There remain some Cincinnatians who think the business community is only out for themselves and all that kind of thing. I think we flipped that narrative a little bit on its head by saying, Yes, with no apology, I want to build strong businesses in the Cincinnati region. We need to be a region where the people in those businesses want to live, want to work, want to build their families, and can thrive.
At the end of the day, a community is only as strong as its economic base. And when you have private business as the core driver of our economic base as we do, you can’t have a strong business community without a strong community. Happy people make profitable businesses, and profitable businesses make a happy community.
So much of the drive for the business community is to attract new businesses to come to town, which REDI leads. But the other part of the equation, which sometimes used to get short shrift, is keeping people here once they arrive. If you ask any company why they’re locating where they are, they’ll tell you the economic reasons: tax incentives, tax base, and all of the things that impact how you run your business. But what all of them have added in the last decade is talent and transportation. A company is not going to locate here unless we have talent and/or this is a place where talent will come and stay. You don’t add jobs to a community if you’re not a place where people want to be.
These days, it isn’t difficult to get people to move to Cincinnati for a million reasons. There have always been stories of employees at P&G and Fifth Third and other companies coming to Cincinnati to work for an allotted period of time but then staying. We know that once people live here and get ingrained, they love it. But what we’ve also learned more recently with
Cincinnati Experience is that once we get people physically to this town to see it, seeing is believing. Anastasia Mileham [executive director of Cincinnati Experience] will confirm that national media reporters tell her regularly—and this was true pre-COVID as well—that when they’re out on the streets in downtown Cincinnati or downtown Covington or wherever they’re going, they feel an energy. They say it’s palpably different from other places. And that’s not by accident. That kind of real, authentic energy gets created only by people who think and believe and lean in because they own this place and believe in this place.
SOME OF THE SUCCESSES YOU TALK ABOUT, FROM NEW STADIUMS TO A REINVIGORATED OVER-THE-RHINE TO BLINK, HAVE GIVEN ALL OF US PERMISSION TO BE PROUD OF CINCINNATI AND TO BE EXCITED ABOUT CINCINNATI. AND THAT JUST WASN’T THE CASE BEFORE. IT WAS ALMOST EMBARRASSING TO TALK POSITIVELY ABOUT CINCINNATI 30 YEARS AGO.
Yes, people thought you were crazy. One of my favorite stories involves when I was building that first strategic plan at the Chamber. Before it was finalized, I had a handful of sessions with board members where I said, I’ll do a review of where we are in the draft right now to get your input and reactions so we can figure out if we’re headed in the right direction. Our vision was to make Cincinnati the hottest city in America, which we stated right up front: Cincinnati will be the hottest city in America.
So in one of those sessions, as we went around the table to get board members’ comments, [Reds President] Phil Castellini was quiet, which is unlike him. And then toward the end, he said, Go back to the beginning, Jill. So I went back to the very beginning slide where it had the vision, and he said, When I sat down in the seat this morning and you showed me that as the vision, I thought, “Oh God, what has she done? She’s lost her mind.” And then we walked through the strategic plan, and now I’m saying, “Hell, yeah, we’re gonna be the hottest city in America.”
Any city’s biggest detractors are their local homegrown population, so we’re not different in that regard. But the number of new Cincinnatians who have said to longtime Cincinnatians You have no idea how good you got it here is a lot, and I think folks are listening to it.
WHERE DO YOU SEE CINCINNATI IN FIVE YEARS IN TERMS OF THESE INITIATIVES YOU’VE STARTED?
This is the final year of our current three-year strategic plan, which is why I decided it was time for me to depart. Someone else needs to build the next strategic plan.
I would say one of the things impacting the bigger picture is getting everyone more focused on data rather than on opinions, well-founded or not. The Chamber’s Center for Research and Data drives everything we do now, and it will become more of a natural go-to resource for everyone in the region. I’m hoping people will say, Wait a minute, let’s first get the data and then build from the data. That’s what private business does all the time, so it isn’t a new concept. But I think the Chamber will concentrate on the elevated importance of really parsing through the data to see what story it’s telling and can tell.
I would tell you that two places where we have focused an enormous amount of time and resources should be thriving in five years: the Minority Business Accelerator and the Workforce Innovation Center. Both are focused on helping companies understand what inclusive growth really looks like and helping them retain employees. Maybe some business owners aren’t focused on their DEI initiatives, but they want to focus on how to make their workplace a place where everyone would love to work. We can help with that.
I believe that the Minority Business Accelerator’s Fund 1 will be investing additional funds, which will position Cincinnati as a center for where minority business owners go to scale and really grow. (See more about the fund on page 19.)
Related to that—not exclusively in the lane of Cincinnati or of the Chamber—is our whole positioning, understanding, and deployment of capital for business growth in the region. You have folks like Mike Venerable at CincyTech who live and breathe this stuff and know how to get it done. I think you’ll start seeing more people awaken to the importance of investing capital and being investors themselves. When we get solidified around a strategy that we all agree on, we’re going to invest capital to make sure that our economy keeps growing here.
I’m focused on the urban core, because as Cincinnati goes the region goes. The Innovation District up near UC will become a thriving hub. It’s moving forward. Having that footprint at Reading Road and the I-71 intersection and then into Walnut Hills, where you already see development on Gilbert Avenue, shows that economic growth is coming.
That’s critically important, not just because those are employment centers that can continue to grow but for those neighborhoods that are awesome core city neighborhoods where we know people want to live if they’re livable. Walnut Hills, in particular, feels like it’s on the move.
We will also have in five years, I hope, the new Brent Spence Bridge companion bridge. It’ll probably be in the thick of the construction, but nearing its conclusion. Happily. It’s almost like a monument to Look what we did, you know? The morale boost we’ll get when it’s done will be unlike anything I can think of, because everything we’ve done in my time at the Chamber and for 10 or 20 years before that was about getting a new bridge. But now we can say we got it. Yeah, we’re rocking now. What’s next?
WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOU PERSONALLY?
Everyone seems to be in disbelief that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing next. This Chamber job is one that you can’t be effective in if you’re looking around the corner to the next thing. I committed to our board leader Leigh Fox [CEO of altafiber] and to Candace McGraw as she took over for him that I was going to stay focused on delivering the Chamber’s agenda until my final day here.
I hope to stay in Cincinnati. I love this town. I’m a Cincinnati kid, and I want my son to always be a Cincinnati kid. I will start looking to find something that’s as stimulating, challenging, rewarding, and impactful as I feel like my time at the Chamber has been. When I first took the job, I knew it was going to be fun and challenging. I didn’t know it’d be as much fun or as rewarding and impactful as it’s been.
Brendon Cull said to me early on, You know what you’re doing next, right? And I was like, I do not. He said, So why do you keep smiling? And I said it’s because I’m so excited at my opportunity to figure it out. He told me that makes me among the crazy half of people who don’t feel anxiety when they think about what’s next.
I’m really excited about it, but this kind of thing doesn’t happen often in your work life. Most people get maybe one chance at this, so why not enjoy it, right? When I left the law firm to wind up a 20-year legal practice and start as the Chamber CEO, I had one week in between. And the reason I took a week was to kick off ArtsWave’s annual campaign that my husband [Awadagin Pratt] and I were chairing. So I didn’t take a break.
I know myself well enough to know this won’t be too long of a break. I hope I can find enough time to compress and really be thoughtful about where I spend my next chapter.