Chester County Leadership: Laurie Ryan, President, Exton Region Chamber of Commerce
Laurie Ryan, President of the Exton Region Chamber of Commerce, grew up in Drexel Hill and Havertown as the oldest of five siblings. Inspired by the women’s lib movement in the ’70s and ’80s, she was driven to get a scholarship to college and find success in a career.
Despite being naturally shy, Ryan went into sales, selling cereal for Kellogg’s in rural Maryland. Today, in her role with the Chamber, Ryan is preparing to help small businesses weather a potential recession and working on welcoming more diverse businesses.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was one of the first babies born at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media. My parents were still in college when I was born, and I lived with my grandparents for the first couple of months. Then we moved to Drexel Hill, where they had three more children in four years. We moved to Havertown when I was seven, and my parents had another kid, my younger brother Benjy. We thought we were getting a puppy.
What memories do you have of growing up in Drexel Hill or Havertown?
In Drexel Hill, I was one of the youngest in the neighborhood. It was such a great neighborhood. People would come and “knock up” – that’s what we used to call it – and say, “Is Laur-Laur here?” We had a nice alleyway where we would play. My favorite memory of Drexel Hill was sledding with my dad.
What about Havertown?
We felt like we died and went to heaven. They still call that house “the big house on the hill.” It had six bedrooms and three floors and, again, it was such a great neighborhood. We would walk up to the library or play in a little inflatable pool in the backyard with all the neighborhood kids. We joined the Karakung swim club when I was 9 and we rode our bikes to spend every day at the pool. Summers were the best.
I started in public school when we first got there, and then in fifth grade, I went to Catholic school. St. Denis was right across the street, so we could come home for lunch and never had to find parking for the St. Denis Fun Fair
Did you play any sports while you were growing up?
I tried every sport. All I wanted to do was be a cheerleader, which I did in eighth grade. I played volleyball, basketball, and softball – all very poorly – and I was on the swim team. I was in the choir and participated in a couple of plays but mostly driven to do well in school.
Where does your drive to do well in school come from?
That’s definitely from my father’s side of the family. He was a second-generation American, and education was very important to his family. My Italian grandparents did not go to college and they encouraged all of their children to attend.
And it was the late ’70s and ’80s, so there was the women’s lib movement – women not just being stay-at-home moms. My mother and her mother, my grandmother, did not provide that role model and I thought I wanted to be different. It was important to me to have a successful career.
And your dad encouraged you?
For sure. My parents had five kids, so we knew we had to work for everything we got. It was expected that we would pay for college, so we would go wherever we got the most aid or scholarships. I received a good scholarship from Saint Joseph’s University.
What about part-time jobs when you were growing up?
I’m the oldest of five, so I started babysitting when I was 10. My first job was at a little apartment complex as a lifeguard, which I did not like at all, so I got a job at Lawrence Park Swim Club at the front desk.
When I got a job at Sears in Radnor in the business office, it was great – I could work on weekends, holidays, and in the summer, and I made much more money there. In college I landed a great job at Lankenau hospital as a discharge clerk on weekends and summers in the business office. That job really put me through college.
What lessons did you take from those jobs that remain with you today?
I learned the most about working with people – that people really matter, and hard work pays off. I met people from all different backgrounds. That was the biggest takeaway – working with people and effectively navigating different personalities while holding people accountable.
I remember there would be adults I worked with, while a teenager, who would tell this other teenage girl and me, “Stop working so hard. You’re going to make us look bad.” That stuck with me. When you’re taking a salary or even an hourly job, it’s not just punching the clock. You’re supposed to be working. That also made me realize that I want to work somewhere other than where I must wait for something to do to fill my time.
So, what kind of music floated your boat back in high school?
I was the disco queen. I loved Disco. Most of my friends loved rock and roll but give me the Bee Gees or – everyone makes fun of me – Barry Manilow.
I was a loner a lot in my early years – I was very shy. Fun Fact, I know all the words to “Jesus Christ Superstar” and all the actions.
You were a good student and a hard worker. Why did you pick St. Joe’s?
I was very practical. I had to pay for it, and St Joe’s gave me the most money in scholarships. I could still live at home and commute, so I saved money. And they had a great food marketing program that my Uncle Ray went through. He was successful, and I just wanted to be successful – women’s lib, Reaganomics, the whole thing.
Looking back, was St. Joe’s a good choice for you?
I loved it. I made such great friends. I love going to school. I had all these years of Catholic school, but the Jesuit education gave me a new perspective of thought. You had to take three semesters of philosophy and theology. It improved my ability to think and gave me opportunities for internships. The Food Marketing Academy offered tons of interviews for their students, and I was offered at Kellogg’s at graduation, at a time when many marketing grads struggled to land good jobs.
I worked two jobs in college. And I still went out five nights a week, partying with my friends and always home for Sunday dinner with the family.
When you look back over your career, Laurie, who were the people who saw promise in you and opened up doors for you?
I wouldn’t be where I am without the person who interviewed me at St. Joe’s, Larry Muntz. He hired me, and then I moved immediately to Frederick, Md. That was my first position with Kellogg’s. I sold cereal in the middle of nowhere. I was a preppy girl selling to people who had gun racks in grocery stores, prisons, colleges, and military installations. It was an awesome experience.
When I was transferred back to this area, Larry became my boss. He was always so helpful and supportive. We won Kellogg’s Unit of the Year, the best in the whole country one year, and won a trip to Hawaii. I think he saw a lot in me. He knew what my goals were. He’s retired now, but we’re still friends.
What do you think he saw in you?
He saw my drive, my charisma. He knew that I was still shy at heart. Trying to sell when you’re shy is challenging.
Before I worked for Larry, I worked with some amazing people – mostly men at the time, but women were getting leadership roles and I was inspired and supported. When it was time for me to leave Kellogg’s, they supported my decision to stay home with my children.
Were there other people who saw promise in you?
Well, the most significant person who’s ever affected my life is my current husband, Sean. When I met him, I had re-entered the workforce and was newly separated. He saw in me something that I didn’t see myself, and I don’t think anybody else did either. Whenever I said, “I don’t know if I can do that,” he’d say, “Yes, you can.”
Without his support, I would have never gone for the job at Buca di Beppo, which opened my whole network. I was exposed to chambers at Wendell August when I first started working after taking time to raise my kids, and that’s when I met him. He’s been a driving force of, “You can do anything, Laurie.” And I believe it now – I know I can.
When I got the job at the Exton Region Chamber of Commerce, I had the fortunate position of having a new boss every year. Men and women of all ages have been the Chair over the years. I’ve learned a lot from people in different industries because I have a sales background but not so much in operations. I call them all my mentors because they’ve supported me in so many ways.
In a true partnership capacity, right?
That’s right, but my first two boards were very patient with me. They had faith in me. Before I took the position, I was a board member, and here I was, having to run a Chamber that others were trying to acquire because we were weaker than we are now. We had people from all sides trying to take us over.
They hired me, who was not as experienced as some but who loved the Chamber. They had the faith and guidance to allow me to be the leader this Chamber needed. I will have been in this role for eight years in January.
So, what opportunities and challenges are you working on in the new year?
There are a lot, but it’s super exciting. We had the best year in 2022. We celebrated our 50th anniversary, and there’s this vibe – a ripple effect of people wanting to build each other up. That was something I worked on when I took over. That’s why I work so hard. We do a lot with just two full-time employees and a lot of volunteers. When I started there were 270 members and there are now 440.
The Chamber really supported the community during the pandemic. I’m not a risk-taker – I like to follow the rules – but we took a lot of risks by having things in person, being genuinely open and available, and having events. If people didn’t want to come, they didn’t have to come, but people did. We continued to build even during the pandemic, which I am so proud of.
We’re heading into a recession, or are in a recession, for whatever that’s worth. Looking back over the Chamber’s past 50 years, it was tough in 2008. I don’t see us being like 2008 at all, but you must be mindful that things are changing. Small businesses are our bread and butter. If they hurt, we hurt. So, our biggest opportunity is to keep that ripple effect going and find ways to support our members and differentiate ourselves from other opportunities out there.
Any new initiatives or new events you’re planning for the new year?
We have a new DEI council at the Chamber with a focus on commerce. There are a lot of businesses in the region that don’t even know what a Chamber is or don’t feel that they would be welcome. We also found that some of the people attending our events represent a bank or other business, but all look the same, even though there may be a diverse makeup of people in the organization. We wonder why they aren’t more involved in participating in the chamber. The Chamber is a welcoming place for all. We want to make sure that all businesses and organizations in the region recognize that.
This is a big initiative and a way to highlight our female, veteran, and diverse businesses and make them shine. The nonprofit council that we’ve had for about nine years, is also coming out of the pandemic and looking at how we can do things better.
In September, we had this super gala, a 50th-anniversary gala, black tie optional. We’re going to do something fun this coming September that’s more dressed down. And we’re going to move our annual casino night, which is usually in September, to March of 2024. It takes so much time to put on those kinds of events with a lean organization, and as we grow, we must be more present for our members if we’re going to keep them engaged.
So, Laurie, what do you do with your free time?
I don’t have free time! But my favorite thing to do is stay home and cook. We remodeled our
new kitchen last year and love trying new recipes. That gives me so much joy.
I have a lot of friends and acquaintances. I love, more than anything, to meet with people. I couldn’t live on a desert island. Even though I say I’m shy, and sometimes people drive me crazy, and I lock the door, I love going to a restaurant and sitting at the bar with my husband, meeting new people, and hearing about their experiences. That’s what fuels me.
Do you read much?
Ever since I started wearing readers, I stopped reading much. When I was on the road for sales, I read one or two novels weekly. Now, it’s either books on tape or podcasts.
What have you changed your mind about recently?
I’ve been learning a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion – I think I had some unconscious biases or misperceptions. The more I learn, the more I go, “Wow.” I’ve really changed my thinking about a lot of things over the last year or year and a half. You think you’re inclusive, or you understand, but so much has been presented to me that has helped me for the better.
How do you stay hopeful and optimistic? It’s a crazy world out there.
I don’t read or watch the news as much anymore. It’s just so much anxiety. Whether it’s the economy or the weather, people I meet in the checkout line or at the mall who express concern worry I try to reassure and say, “It’ll be okay. Just stop watching the news.” Let’s just get through this.
It is some scary times out here. But ultimately, people are good. I wish politics would go away. I stay focused on the positive. I try not to engage with people with negative energy because it affects my psyche and my soul. I function on being with people who are positive and happy.
Finally, Laurie, what’s the best advice you have ever received?
There are two pieces of advice. One is, “This, too, shall pass.” It’s happened in many parts of my life. The first time I heard it was when I was about to get married for the first time, and then when I had the screaming, crying kids. Everything changes, the good and the bad, so keep that in perspective.
I’ve had varying levels of faith throughout my life, but a woman said this to me when I was rotating Pop-tarts at Giunta’s Market back which used to be in West Chester in the early ‘90’s, and it has stuck with me. “I can do all things through God, who strengthens me.”
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