It's unlikely SchoolMint would have relocated its California headquarters to Louisiana without help from the Lafayette Women's Chamber of Commerce.

Executives with the educational software company were considering expanding the Lafayette office a year ago but were so impressed by the chamber's hospitality during a pre-pandemic visit in February that they decided to relocate their entire operation.

Debbey Ryan, who started the chamber in 2018, picked up SchoolMint's team from the Lafayette airport and mailed them a care package once they returned to their San Francisco office.

In between, Ryan connected the executives with community leaders who shared information on Lafayette's tax incentives, university programs, available real estate and cultural appeal.

"It was just so touching to me that she cared so much about us and our business," said Tracy Michele Davis, SchoolMint's VP of human resources. "It even encouraged us so much that our CEO moved, the chief revenue officer moved, the CFO moved. We have about 15 people who have moved to Lafayette from California, New York, Florida and a few other places."

It's sometimes difficult to quantify the benefit an organization like the Lafayette Women's Chamber of Commerce. After all, the region had several existing organizations with similar missions prior to the 2018 founding of the Women's Chamber.

Ryan, who owns a marketing firm, had long wanted to start something different from the region's primary chamber of commerce, One Acadiana, or the smaller, more niche chambers and associations, such as those that focus on Black, Asian or Hispanic businesses and those in Broussard, Youngsville, Carencro or Scott.

Ryan thought a women's chamber could fill a void. 

With the help of cofounders Elaine Alderman and Anita Link, Ryan started the first women's chamber of commerce in Louisiana in July 2018.

The nonprofit organization aims to advance women in business and give a voice to their collective strength in Lafayette's economy. The key to making that happen, Ryan said, is focusing on networking and keeping membership affordable. Annual membership fees range from $55 to $220 for small businesses. Higher-priced corporate memberships also help to fund the chamber's events and offerings.

"Women, especially, need to connect with other women on business," Ryan said. "You don't necessarily know if something is woman-owned, woman-led, woman-run. And it doesn't matter as much who owns the business as much as keeping the money in Lafayette. Our goal is to grow what's here by working with and for our members."

After Ryan guided SchoolMint executives around the area in February and connected them with other organizations, Ryan asked the company to consider joining the Women's Chamber.

There was no hesitation. Davis signed SchoolMint up for a corporate membership on the spot.

"I've been just really amazed by and grateful to the chamber," Davis said. "I'm amazed because it's only been around for two years, and when Debbey shared that with me, I was like, 'You've created so much.' It's very polished, and it looks like it's been around for 10 years at a minimum."

In July, SchoolMint announced the San Francisco-based education software company would relocate its New York and Miami offices to Lafayette, bringing with it nearly 200 jobs with an average salary of about $75,000.

Vicky Roy, who joined the Women's Chamber in 2019, would claim one of those jobs.

"When I interviewed with SchoolMint, that was one of the things they really liked about me," said Roy, who works as the company's office manager. "They saw I was a member of the chamber, and they'd worked with Debbey previously and contacted her as a reference."

Davis said SchoolMint received more than 1,000 resumes in a week after announcing its Lafayette move. Normally, that number is fewer than 100 per week.

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The company has turned to the Women's Chamber to fill positions when options have been overwhelming.

"Debbey has helped me with recruiting," Davis said. "I'd reach out and say, 'Hey, we have this job in marketing. Do you have anyone who might be good for it?' That's been really great."

In just over two years, the Women's Chamber has grown to about 500 members, including 30 men who support the organization's work. 

"I really love helping people, and I don't want to put a price tag on that," Ryan said. "Lafayette lives in a bubble. We always bounce back. If somebody gets laid off, they start their own business and they make money to pay their bills. And those are the kinds of people that are in our chamber — people that want to work, people that want to advance their career, that want to grow their business, that want to help the community. And that's our main goal and focus is just to help our members accomplish their goals."

Lisa Josey started a Duson canning operation called Josey's Goods three years ago after her husband was laid off from his oilfield job.

Together, they make and sell pepper jelly, preserves and pickled vegetables at farmers markets and small stores in south Louisiana.

"Our business was born out of necessity," Josey said. "But we're happy to support our farmers and get the local food economy moving in the right direction."

Josey chose to join the Women's Chamber in 2018 primarily because of its affordability. She had considered other business associations but ruled them out after seeing their annual membership fees.

"I knew it was important to be in a chamber, but price was important too," Josey said.  

Josey said the $55 annual fee for her membership has been well worth it.

With help from the organization, she's currently creating a website for her small business and applying for a marketing grant. She's also connected with local real estate agents to include her products in welcome baskets for homebuyers. 

"My husband and I have a philosophy that people are our greatest assets," Josey said. "And the chamber values that as well. Eighty percent of marketing and advertising is still word-of-mouth, and the chamber's helped with that just by broadening our network."

Most of the Women's Chamber networking and educational events have gone virtual this year because of the pandemic, but they're still providing value to members.

Roy said she recently participated in a useful financial health event.

As she considered the value of her personal and later professional memberships with the Women's Chamber, Roy said it might not be a coincidence that the organization has grown during a year that's been especially challenging for business owners.

"The chamber gives us a way to network and promote products and services and things like that for those within the organization when we're not really able to get out and do business in person," Roy said. "I think it's grown a lot because we're just not able to connect in person."

Learn more about the chamber or view a directory of members at lafayettewomenschamber.org.

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Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.