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Surrey Board Of Trade With Anita Huberman

By July 7th, 2023No Comments21 min read
Home » Surrey Board Of Trade With Anita Huberman

The Surrey Board of Trade attracts and supports businesses in Surrey. They believe that transportation and education are the two economic foundations of building our city. In today’s episode, social profit leader Anita Huberman, the President of Surrey Board Of Trade, shares her tips for working with boards, her idea about leadership, and how to get things done. She also shares some advice on bringing people together around a common purpose. You will want to listen to this conversation if you’re responsible for engaging the community in any organization. So tune in!

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Surrey Board Of Trade With Anita Huberman

In this episode, we have Anita Huberman. Anita is the CEO and President of the Surrey Board of Trade. She is a prominent force in our province, a woman who has made a difference in helping Surrey and Surrey’s industry on the map. In our conversation, she shares her tips for working with boards, her idea about leadership and how to get things done. She gives great advice on how to bring people together around a common purpose. If you’re responsible for engaging the community in any way in your organization, you’re going to want to read this conversation. Please enjoy Anita Huberman.

Welcome, Anita.

Thanks for having me.

Anita, I’m looking forward to the conversation over the next half hour. As we’ve done throughout the season, we’re asking all of our guests to share with us their first memory of giving back to the community or community service. What’s yours?

My first memory of giving back is when I was an elementary school student. I was in grade six. I went to school here in Surrey and right beside us was the Center for Child Development. I went to Simon Cunningham Elementary and they offered the opportunity to the students to work with children that were facing disabilities and needed help being fed. They needed company and to be taken out in their wheelchairs.

You can imagine that I was 11 or 12 years old. This is my first opportunity to embark on helping other people with whom I wasn’t familiar with the challenges that they were facing in their life. I was so used to going out, playing, going to recess and doing whatever but with these poor kids that were my age right beside us in another building, it was so hard for them to make friends. They needed help to be fed. We made lunch for them and fed them. I spoonfed some. They became my friends as well.

Ever since then, I knew that every single person matters. In this economy, we all have a responsibility to help each other, even though it may seem challenging and sometimes it’s uncomfortable for us but it has to be done. My work as President of the Surrey Board of Trade as a community organization is about giving back in a multitude of ways, not only to Surrey but to the province and our great nation of Canada.

What a great story and what a direct connection between those first experiences in elementary school to the tremendous work that you do at the Surrey Board of Trade. I was talking to someone who knows you reasonably well. I said that I was going to be interviewing you for the show. She said, “Ask her what it’s like to be famous.” Does that resonate with you? You’re one of the most well-known figures in Surrey and one of the most well-known figures in the province of British Columbia. What is it like to be famous?

First of all, I like to say that I don’t consider myself or think of myself as being famous. I started in this position when I was 32. I applied for the top job in a very male-oriented environment. I had to fight my way through. I still feel like I have to do that despite everything that I’ve accomplished but every single day I feel like I have to fight for that ability and stature to be famous.

I feel fortunate. I feel sometimes that I don’t deserve the word famous to my profile but I’ve done a lot of good work. I’ve fought for some significant issues that no one else would. I’ve always stuck to my values and principles. Sometimes I report to a board of directors as well. Sometimes you have to fight with your values and principles with your board as well. That is representative of a very good leader. I’m not saying I’m always right but all I’m saying is that you have to have the chutzpah to be able to have the values and principles to fight for what is right. That’s probably what makes me famous, so to speak.

Famous for the right reasons. Your Surrey colleague was pointing out that you’re someone who’s identified with the city in such a prominent and positive way. In your answer, there are several questions I wanted to ask that came out of that. When you were early in your career, you mentioned applying for the top job at 32. What motivated you to strive, hold the role that you have and advocate for the issues that you do so well, even still?

At that time in my life, I was a newly married lady. I wanted to go on to that next step in my life. I knew I could do the job. I started at the Board of Trade when I was nineteen years old. I worked in the summers. I worked once a week to pay for my tuition at SFU because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my schooling. I had to work for everything. I had familiarity with the organization, maybe not like it was my first CEO position but I had a lot of the skills, connections and real willingness to do what needed to be done. That’s why I felt I was ready for the challenge. It was challenging.

What were those first few days like? Do you remember the day driving to work on that first day when you were going to be the CEO?

Like it was yesterday. Our predecessor had left and we were in debt at that time $120,000. Our profile as an organization in 2006 and early 2007 had been diminished for a variety of reasons. We had no recognition. I had to work very quickly to mend some bridges and build partnerships with government leaders and stakeholders. I had to bring in projects, organize so many different areas operationally and bring us back to where we could be fiscally healthy.

That was in 2007. Here we are in 2022 and we have purchased our second location. That was the big announcement on September 22nd, 2022. It’s in the Surrey Health and Technology Skill Center. We’re the only Chamber of Commerce or Board of Trade in the country. There are 430 of us that have a second location. We have our existing main building as a real estate asset.

I was able to persuade my board doing all the risk assessments to be able to invest in that second location, which is called the Surrey Technology and Skill Center, to start up and scale up tech businesses, train those labor and match industry sets in terms of labor shortages and skill shortages that different industries are facing. Also, to be able to host events and co-locate companies within that district with another five towers to be built. It’s a major start of an economic development initiative for us.

DSP 12 | Surrey Board Of Trade

Surrey Board Of Trade: We must help start-ups and scale up tech businesses to train those labor and match industry sets in terms of labor and skill shortages that different industries face.

It’s incredible. Your organization in particular is unique and often the leading voice and the first actor for a lot of the exciting economic and community development activities that are happening in Surrey. I want to go back and ask one more question about your first days as the president. One of the challenges in our social profit sector and the community leadership sector and it’s also true in politics as well is that you mentioned a male-dominated industry that you were in and leading Chambers of Commerce and Board of Trade.

Often when women are given that first chance, it’s when organizations are in crisis like in debt and diminished providence. Women sometimes as new leaders and organizations are set up in effect to fail. Did you feel like that was what you were walking into? How did you manage that as a first-time CEO?

I knew that some wanted me to fail. There is this inner urge inside of me that when people think that about me, I work harder. In the first two months, but especially that first week, I still remember I was working 12 to 14 hours a day. I could hardly sleep. It was like the pandemic you’re always thinking about things. You’re worrying and considering different directions trying to connect the dots and always proving yourself.

In a month and a half, I was able to get a good service contract that immediately wiped our debt and put us in a better fiscal position than we had been in years past. I knew that people wanted me to fail. I wasn’t only within our organization but maybe certain politicians. I was the first South Asian CEO of a Board of Trade chamber in the country, a woman of color and someone that’s young.

This was my first CEO position. We all have to start somewhere. You have to surround yourself with good, positive people. I did that. I was very cautious given everything that had gone on prior to me becoming the CEO about whom I surrounded myself with, especially in those early days and whom I trusted. I still say to myself, “You can’t just trust people. You have to be so careful whom you trust.”

You have to surround yourself with good, positive people. Click To Tweet

You were able to deal with the data of the organization. Certainly, the prominence of your organization is very significant and has been for many years. Was there a time as the CEO when you felt like, “I don’t need to fight or elbow my way at the table anymore that I’m the President and CEO of the Board of Trade and here I am?”

Sometimes I feel positive and relaxed but we live in such a competitive environment. There’s no way I can relax for too long. You’re only as good as your last project, last initiative, last policy, last media interview and last meeting with the politician. Every week, my mind needs to have some type of new result. I’m an AAA plus personality. I would say most leaders of a not-for-profit need to be that.

You cannot relax and be comfortable. There’s no such thing as a balanced lifestyle either. I’ve tried to do that and I’ve gotten better. It’s been several years as President and many years with the Surrey Board of Trade. I do feel better from when I first started but the pandemic has changed course for all of us. We need to always have our eye on new initiatives to drive the economy forward.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Surrey Board of Trade and you in particular as a leader over many years is that there isn’t a politician of any level that doesn’t want their picture with you because of what you represent. You represent an important organization in often the fastest-growing city in the province. Was there a time when you transitioned from, “I need to be able to talk to the Prime Minister or the premier or the want to be Prime Minister or the want to be premier,” to you have to decide how you’re going to balance the number of phone calls you get from those folks as they want to be connected with you?

I love being connected to those types of stakeholders because they help me do my job and help my community and our membership. I never get tired of calls politicians or discussions with politicians because that’s the only way I can get my job done. Many of them are my friends as well. We’ve had good, positive relationships. With some politicians, it’s been challenging. I can’t believe some people become politicians but in any case, that is part of the game. I value my conversations, my photos, so to speak, and those positive relationships with our government representatives.

Was there a moment when you realized you were comfortable with that role as the leader of the Board of Trade? Connecting with the Board of Trade was a good seal of approval for politicians, not necessarily during elections but advancing their economic or political agendas. Being connected with the Surrey Board of Trade was important. It was a value. Rather than you needing to seek them out and getting them to pay attention, they were seeking you out. Do you remember when that switched over?

Maybe three years after I became President and CEO because I had a lot of work to do to build our profile and show results in a variety of ways, whether it was government advocacy, research trade, business development, membership and business growth in our community. I had to prove myself. In year three, that started to evolve. In year five, it became better but without having done that foundational work, I wouldn’t be where I am now and at the second location and what we want to do with that, continuing to inspire others and ourselves to do better for Surrey and our nation.

The reason I’m asking this question isn’t to try and trip you up and have you tell a funny story about a politician but if you’ve got any of those, go right ahead. The reason I was asking is that a lot of leaders in the social profit sector have either a desire or some pressure from their board or the idea that some portion of their role is advocacy with the political world. We see that often in organizations and it causes a lot of tension.

One of the things you said right off the bat was, “These conversations help me to accomplish the goals of my organization,” and what you’re trying to accomplish as the leader. That’s valuable for leaders to hear that and reflect on that because it’s more than wanting to be in the picture. Being invited into the room is one level. Being able to advance your agenda consistently is a very different level of connection and relationship with government and politicians. The nice cocktail party photo gets confused with the hard work of advancing policy too often. You’ve balanced that exceptionally well. I wanted to underline that in your comments for our readers.

Governance of your board of directors like board governance and operational governance is very important to try to delineate the work that you need to do for your constituents and members, for example. If an organization doesn’t have that very structured governance in terms of board responsibilities and board accountabilities, getting out of operational responsibilities and accountabilities to meet the mandate mission of the organization, that’s where the conflict comes in between the board, president and staff.

We have evolved since I started in that regard. I’ve appreciated the mature governance that is unlike any other chamber Board of Trade in the country but I can expand on that further. It separates board responsibilities and then they let me do what I need to do to meet their goals and move Surrey’s economy forward.

I’m curious how you manage that balance because one of the number one things we hear when we’re working with CEOs is that challenge of when the board is coming too close to operations or jumping right in with both feet and you pull up the hand and push back a little bit, it’s difficult to not appear defensive. You’re hiding something and protective of your territory. How do you approach those situations when they’ve happened in the past where the board may be coming a little bit too close to what you see as the purview of the president and CEO?

It depends on the individual. I simply say in operational, that’s for me to deal with. If they don’t understand that, then I call an executive meeting. There are three people on the executive. It rarely happens now but it’s all in the board nomination interview process when we go through board elections. We need mature board directors with the right skillsets to understand that delineation. If they don’t, then it’s not going to work on our board of directors. Not everyone can be on our board of directors.

We need mature board directors with the right skill sets to understand that delineation. If they don't, it will not work on our board of directors. Click To Tweet

Even a high-profile person that wants to be on our board of directors, if they don’t have that governance skill, it’s going to be very challenging for them. I do say right away if there is that gray matter, so to speak, between the board and operational. That’s important. If it’s not resolved, then there are other means through the executive, for example, your president, vice chair or immediate past chair, to be able to get their support. I’ve been blessed with great executive members in my career for the most part but certainly, you do need that support at the senior level on the board when those disruptions happen.

When those encroachments into operations happen, name it as soon as possible, rather than hoping it’ll go away and they would forget. You mentioned the importance, which is advice that we give to boards and CEOs all the time. Don’t try to fix the problems once you get difficult folks on your board. Try to do it before and be selective about whom you get onto your board. How involved are you as the President and CEO in the selection process of board directors?

All the time, I’ve been very involved. I am part of the interview panel. I don’t have any voting rights. In our mature board governance model that we have, like a Carver model, it is the board’s responsibility to assess the skills that they need on their board to ensure that they’re asking the question. We have a very, some may say arduous but it’s very intensive and it’s needed in terms of the interview process, the assessment and the approval process of each of these incoming board directors.

I do go out into the community or our membership and suggest different individuals that I know that may have that skillset that may elevate the profile of the organization at the same time to apply but no guarantee. They have to go through that interview process. During the discussion stage, I may say a few words here and there but ultimately, it is the board’s decision.

It’s not appropriate for the President to be a part of that decision-making process. That’s not good governance but the President should be cognizant of who comes onto the board as well because he or she may know if they have an agenda, what the nature of their work ethic is and what their values are, all of those types of background pieces that volunteer board directors usually don’t have.

It's not appropriate for the president to be a part of that decision-making process. Click To Tweet

You’ve summed up beautifully the importance of the CEO or the lead staff member, the President, being involved in certainly not having a veto or being able to hand pick the directors that’s not healthy but being involved in the conversation. I don’t think I’ve interviewed anyone on the show or anyone we’ve come across in our work here at the show who’s been a long-serving CEO like more than five years who isn’t involved in some form as you described. A lot of very new CEOs who are early in their career or with their organizations tend to stay out of that initially but it is a hallmark of success for long-serving CEOs that they are in the room for many of those conversations.

I do agree with that.

This is the question I’ve always wanted to ask someone involved with the Board of Trade. What’s the difference between a Board of trade and a Chamber of Commerce?

We’re the same. We do own the name Chamber of Commerce too for Surrey. We’re all under the Federal Ministry of Economic Development but under special legislation that was formed in 1867. It’s very old legislation. We have special legislation and some minor privileges related to our industry to move the economy forward.

The Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce are the same thing. I was counting on a long story but we’ll go with that. What I did learn there is that the Chamber of Commerce and Boards of Trade are as old as the country. It was in 1867. That’s wonderful. As an organization, you are about connecting community, business and industry. You do that through being a part of or leading more than 300 events in a year with a staff of less than 10. Is that right?

That is true but I also have about 6 or 7 contractors on top of that but not everyone can work in this organization. It’s very fast-paced. You have to be very detail-oriented, be able to sell clothes and be able to connect the dots about the opportunities that exist out there. We deliver a very diversified service portfolio, not only related to events where a concierge should connect.

DSP 12 | Surrey Board Of Trade

Surrey Board Of Trade: You need to connect the dots about the opportunities that exist out there.

If someone needs an industry or government connection on that unique portal, anyone who’s starting up scaling up a business comes to our organization to do the paperwork. If they need support around financial planning, marketing or venture capital, whatever it may be, it is on that one-stop entrepreneurial center. We have a trade center creating global business connections for local businesses. Thirty different country partnerships are working with different government stakeholders to move our presence as a city in the global economy.

We have different member benefits, cost-saving and time-saving benefits. We’re very well-known for instigating change at the different levels of government on a variety of issues. I’m aware of many things. I’m a master of none but I’m able to articulately speak on so many different topics by connecting the dots. That’s one of the unique skillsets that I and some of my colleagues here have at the Surrey Board of Trade.

It’s interesting that for leaders in our sector, the ability to connect people and connect the dots, as you say, is such a critical skill. Is that something that came to you intuitively or is that a skillset that you’ve been conscious about developing over time?

With connecting the dots piece, that came to me on day one. I’ve been doing it even before in my previous roles here at the Surrey Board of Trade but I especially had to focus on it when I’m meeting with someone. Imagine meeting 10 people in 1 day with 30-minute meetings. You have to say in your mind, “What’s the purpose? How can I bring value to my organization?”

“If it doesn’t, then maybe there’s another opportunity for this person. If there is an opportunity for my organization, what’s the next step? How does this connect in moving Surrey’s economy and the organization forward?” Those are 4 or 5 things that I’m always thinking about in my mind and that have been honed into me ever since I started here, especially on day one as president.

What advice would you give to someone who is about to start their first job as an Executive Director or a CEO?

You need to ensure that you have a good relationship with your board chair and there is a move towards structured governance. That’s a clear delineation of board responsibilities and operational responsibilities. The whole board and the staff must be educated on that. Like building a building, you need to build your foundation. Until you have that, you’re not able to build the next floor.

DSP 12 | Surrey Board Of Trade

Surrey Board Of Trade: You need to ensure that you have a good relationship with your board chair. That is a move towards structured governance.

That’s what I would suggest to any new Executive Director or CEO. In addition to that, differentiate yourself from the competition. You’re may be in a not-for-profit charity environment. You need to collaborate but you also need to set yourself apart. You need to do things differently. Don’t be a follower. Be a leader.

As we come to the end of our conversation, I want to ask you our closing question. Anita, as CEO of your organization, what are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to working with our new incoming mayor, ensuring that we’re working on some fantastic economic projects together to drive job creation and ensuring Surrey is at the forefront of entrepreneurial success. That’s what I see for the short-term. For the long-term, we will see.

What a great perspective. Anita, thank you so much for making time to be on the show.

Thank you.

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About Anita Huberman

DSP 12 | Surrey Board Of TradeAnita Huberman has been the President & CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade for 16 years for one of the top 10 Boards of Trade/Chambers of Commerce in Canada, and for one of the largest cities in Canada. Anita and her team serve more than 6,000 member contacts.

In 2021, she was announced as being 1 of 15 Outstanding Canadians for her work in the private sector and through the pandemic. She is an Honorary Captain of the Royal Canadian Navy (appointed by Canada’s Minister of National Defence, just re-appointed for her third term till 2024), holds the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, was a Business in Vancouver Top 40 Under 40 award winner, awarded the 2019 Surrey Community Builder of the Year and received a Canada 150 Community Medal.

She serves on the Board of Directors for the Forum for International Trade Training (FITT), Premier’s Economic Recovery Task Force, BC Economic Development Minister Industry Engagement Table, SFU President’s Advisory Council, SFU India Advisory Council, KPU Business Program Advisory Committee, OMNI TV Advisory Council, Destination BC Advisory Council, Director for IC-Impacts Research Centre of Excellence (for improving the lives of people in India and Canada, particularly in First Nations communities).

Anita served as a Trustee of Canada’s National Film Board for six years, appointed by Canada’s Minister of Heritage. Anita is a highly visible advocate for Surrey businesses at all levels of government with a demonstrated history of evolving, reinvigorating and transforming civic, business & social organization industries.