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Take Five: Former director of GO! Network says people still need career help in changing work world

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 2, 2013: The former executive director of the now-shuttered GO! Network says she will find a way to launch a new organization to assist St. Louisans with their career transitions.

“I’m not finished with this. There’s too much work to be done,’’ said Roni Chambers after the nonprofit held its last weekly session on Aug. 27 at the St. Patrick Center downtown, where it had met since 2009.

GO! Network began as a temporary program to provide career resources to the hundreds of middle managers laid off by St. Louis corporations in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. It reorganized as a stand-alone nonprofit in late 2010 but struggled to find sustained financial support. At times, Chambers paid the organization’s expenses with her personal funds.

Anheuser-Busch was the major initial donor for the program, originally organized by the St. Patrick Center, the United Way, the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment and members of the local business community. During its nearly five-year run, GO! served more than 4,500 St. Louisans.

Chambers initially joined GO! as a member but moved into a leadership position during the organization’s rebirth as a nonprofit. As a human resources director at Anheuser-Busch, she had the task of laying off hundreds of employees after the beer giant was bought by InBev in 2009. She was laid off in 2010.

Here are excerpts from the Beacon’s interview with Chambers. Although it is her “exit interview” from GO! Network, Chambers said she is determined to establish a new enterprise so that she can continue helping white-collar professionals establish new careers.

GO! Network struggled financially for several years, but you always managed to find a way to continue. Why did it end now?

Chambers: It was a decision the board of directors made, and it was based on the fight for funding.

As I looked around the room [at the last meeting], I thought about how I had been getting about the city of St. Louis looking for funding for this organization. And I compared it to the constituency of the St. Patrick Center or to the constituency of a battered women’s organization or to the constituency of an organization that helps inner-city youths or to other nonprofit organizations, and I understand why it was a fight for funding -- particularly after the downturn of the economy and funding levels decreased for those charities. I’m not sure that if I were leading a foundation, and I had a limited amount of money to give -- I’m not sure that I’d give it to GO! Network because I don’t think we should have been a charitable organization.

Being a 501(c)(3) limited our ability to sell service, and I think we should have been selling our services.

This must have been a disappointment to you because of the personal commitment you made. You personally kept Go! running, did you not?

Chambers: This is true -- both financially and emotionally.

But some people came back [to the last event] that I had sat with in 2010 and 2011, and they talked about the blessing of GO! About the fact that GO! had provided an opportunity for them to dive into their passion and how they were rebuilt.

When GO! opened in 2009, the St. Patrick Center expected it to be a six- to eight-week program. All of these white-collar employees who were being laid off in St. Louis at that time were all invited to St. Patrick Center, and they were going to write resumes and get interviewing and LinkedIn training, and they would go off and get jobs. What was supposed to be six to eight weeks turned into an additional 232 weeks. Those additional 232 weeks served 4,000 people. There’s no failure about that. That’s a success.

My passion is fueled by the people that come to GO! who are lost, and they don’t know how to find their way. I’ve written a curriculum that can help them find their way, and I want to continue to provide that to people.

I think you’ll see me show up in, I hope, less than four weeks some place, and I’ll bet you there’s a crowd there.

How do you plan to re-launch? Won’t you need funding?

Chambers: Re-launch is maybe the wrong word. I am going to launch a different and new organization that will encapsule the hope and encouragement and all of the nurturing that occurred at GO! Network, which I think was at the heart of what we did. And part of that was due to being born in that charitable space. Had we started as a for-profit organization, it wouldn’t have had that element of giving. I’ll take that [spirit] and the curriculum that I wrote while I was at GO! and launch some sort of organization.

There were 100 people [at the last meeting]. Most of them were in career transition. The issue hasn’t gone away. It’s just not happening in the volume that it was happening when GO! Network was created.

One of the things that GO! did so well was we had a holistic approach. It wasn’t just ‘This is how you write a resume’ and “This is how you network.’ It was about ‘I’m going to listen to you’ and ‘I care about you’ and ‘Let’s discover where your heart is and find out how to monetize that.’ ‘’

In the future, it will be a collaboration. In my mind, I know what that looks like. I have to get about calling people and putting a business plan together. And I think there’s a partner out there.

At GO! I was an entrepreneur. I have been an entrepreneur all of my life. Go! was an incredible journey. I have learned more than I ever thought possible about what I want to do going forward. And I am much braver today than I was in 2010.

Based upon your experiences at GO!, where do you think the economy is today?

Chambers: We are in a great transition in our country. I think that the idea of employment -- or the idea of work -- is changing. And I see it changing right before our eyes. I went to an employer every day for 20-some years and sat at a desk and collected a paycheck. But that isn’t the case anymore. We don’t have any allegiance to our employers, and our employers don’t have any allegiance to us as a workforce.

I actually think it is a very exciting time because I think you can create whatever [work space] you want. You can monetize it. But you have to have the passion level to do it.  You can’t just show up and expect it to happen. You have to find the space and you have to get in.

Organizations don’t lay off thousands of people now; they’re laying them off in smaller increments. The day we announced our closing, Wells Fargo announced they were laying off mortgage brokers. It’s still happening. I believe it will happen more often now in smaller segments.

Business is different today. Anheuser-Busch is a perfect example of that. In the 50 years before the merger [with InBev] we built an organization that never laid people off. But today you can’t do that. Today, you have to be agile, and you have to be able to ebb and flow like the tides do -- but with people.

Like Wells Fargo. The mortgage industry isn’t what it was, and they had to let those people go. There has to be a place for people to go for career assistance.

What happens with GO! Network now?

Chambers: The website will be up and running until the end of the year. The videos [of speakers and presentations] are assets of GO! Network and because GO! was a 501(c)(3), assets either have to be given to another nonprofit or they have to be disposed of. [My future organization] will not be a nonprofit.

The trademark will go away. We had some [computer] tablets and other equipment assets, and I’ve given those to St. Patrick Center.

I’m not troubled at all by my own financial contributions to an organization that’s going to go away. I invested in something that I believe in, and I’ll carry it forward in a different form.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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