Debra Hanson: From volunteer to employee
On Jan. 4, Debra Hanson replaced Janeen Leppert as executive director of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce. But since the resident has a history of involvement with the Chamber as a volunteer, she’s not as much of a newbie as one might think.
Hanson, who moved here from New York City in 1990, served three three-year terms on the Chamber’s board of directors, and one one-year term as Chamber president before being hired three weeks ago as the nonprofit’s only full-time employee.
Three years after Hanson arrived in Wilton, with a background in marketing she brought from the city, the Colorado native began working for The Hour Publishing Co. in its advertising division. The publisher was involved with the Wilton Chamber.
Hanson attributes her own subsequent involvement to that man’s influence. “He inspired me to become involved with the Chamber,” Hanson said. “The Chamber was helpful to our business, our ad sales — it was a good way to network and meet customers.”
But Hanson, a Wilton resident, found more than just prospective customers at the Wilton Chamber of Commerce. “The Chamber always seemed special,” she said. “I started attending events; then I became a member, then a volunteer, and then president.
“When Janeen left, I thought, considering my experience, both professionally and with the Wilton Chamber, that I might be able to step up,” she said.
Apparently, she was right. According to Chamber President Mark Ketley, “We interviewed many qualified applicants, but Debra’s experience in marketing and advertising, plus her history with Wilton businesses through her past work as a Chamber board member, really made her stand out as a person that is going to take the Chamber to the next level.”
“Everything is going well,” said Hanson, who attributes the smooth sailing in large part to a “general familiarity” with the Wilton Chamber she acquired through volunteering.
“Coming into this job,” Hanson said, “I was familiar with how the Chamber works — with the way events are structured, how the board operates; I’ve known most of the people on our board and in this business community for my whole local career.”
She produced the Chamber’s first two 2016 events — the annual Economic Forecast Breakfast on Jan. 14 and Business After Hours at Bankwell on Jan. 21.
“Both events were very well attended,” Hanson said, “It feels great to provide something our Chamber membership is interested in. It’s encouraging to get those early successes; now I’ve got to keep the momentum going.”
While Hanson enjoys these successes, she is already back at work planning the rest of the year’s events, including Spring Restaurant Week, the farmers’ market, Taste of Wilton, the Golf Classic, and the Street Fair and Sidewalk Sale.
And while she tends the Wilton Chamber of Commerce office at 86 Old Ridgefield Road, “I’m reaching out to prospective members, introducing myself to members I don’t know, tackling our financials and keeping the books, and handling everything having to do with the press,” Hanson said.
Hanson likes what she sees of the Wilton Chamber now. “We have a strong, committed board, we’re doing well financially, and I think the community’s perception of the Chamber is a positive one.”
That said, there is always room for improvement, Hanson continued. “I’m looking to find places where we can do that,” she said.
“We want to grow our membership and add some corporate members, and I think there are some opportunities for that. Whatever we do, our mission is to advance the commercial and civic interests of the town of Wilton.
“Wilton is a vibrant community,” Hanson continued, “and I’m excited to continue being a part of it, but in a bigger way. I want to be a resource for the businesses here, and I want the Chamber of Commerce to be a go-to organization for commercial and civic needs.”
Janeen Leppert left the Wilton Chamber of Commerce in October to pursue another opportunity at a marketing and public relations firm in Charlotte, N.C.
Debra Hanson’s appointment to executive director of the Chamber was announced Dec. 15, 2015. She left The Hour Publishing Co. in 2014 as the special sections advertising director.
Hanson’s most recent term on the Chamber’s board of directors expired in October 2015.