Minority leader builds on experiences

Minority leader builds on experiences

June 13th, 2012 by Carey O'Neil in Business Around the Region

Maria Noel has been named director of Minority Business Assistance at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


Title: Director of Minority Business Assistance at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce

Education: Graduated from City High School, earned an English literature degree with a minor in black studies from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Career: Noel got her first job working in her father's office with Chattanooga's Equal Employment Opportunity and fair housing divisions. She has held a variety of jobs including real estate agent, journalist, private consultant and, most recently, community revitalization manager at The Enterprise Center.

Personal: Noel grew up in Alton Park and has lived in the Chattanooga for most of her life. Her two sisters still live in the area.

Growing up in Alton Park, Maria Noel assumed all grown-ups owned their own businesses.

Her father's shoe store outfitted everyone in her neighborhood. The man down the street worked on everyone's cars, and the neighbor woman kept everyone's hair trimmed and stylish.

As she got older, she learned firsthand what a business owner needs to do to succeed and how the community needs to respond to that business for it to thrive.

"You saw the struggles, too. You saw the struggles of trying to run a business and raise a family," she said. "It was just the fabric of my growing up."

Now that's she's grown, Noel is putting her lessons to good use. For the past nine years she's managed revitalization programs for underserved and distressed Chattanooga communities. Next month, she'll move to the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce where she'll head its new Minority Business Assistance program.

The program was created after the Hamilton County Commission shifted $75,000 from the Multicultural Chamber of Commerce to the Chattanooga Chamber when the Multicultural group ran into serious financial trouble last year. The Chattanooga Chamber's program will draw an additional $25,000 from city government, Chamber spokesman J.Ed. Marston said. That $100,000 is expected to fund about half of the program, with another $100,000 coming out of the Chamber's budget.

Marston said the Chamber is willing to cover the cost because the county has a need for this minority-focused program.

"Businesses often feel isolated," he said. "This creates a common space for minority-owned businesses. You always look for a group or a subgroup that has commonalties."

Marston said Noel's local economic development experience makes her a perfect leader for the new initiative.

Before working for The Enterprise Center, Noel worked in real estate, journalism, marketing, higher education and at a variety of other corporate and independent jobs. For a time, she ran her own consulting business.

Noel said she feels she has experience in most every facet of running a businesses, allowing her to hit the ground running at her new job.

"It was just a natural fit," she said. "Everything that I've done has built up to this career."

When Noel takes her new position next month, she plans to immediately start figuring out what exactly the community needs her program to become. Through her decades of work in the area she has developed connections with business and community leaders both small and large.

"The challenges that affect minority businesses are the challenges that affect all small businesses," she said. "A lot of times people just don't know the process."

Historically, women- and racial-minority-owned businesses have had a particularly difficult time securing the funding needed to start a business or developing the business connections needed to continue growth. But there are always a slew of unanticipated needs particular to each community, Noel said, and she plans to meet with area leaders to face them head on.

"I grew up around a business community, so it's just a natural thing for me," she said. "It's always been a passion of mine because it's always been a part of me."