H. Maria Noel grew up in Alton Park surrounded by African American families who often owned their own businesses to supplement their incomes as teachers, police officers and housekeepers.
Her neighbors owned catering businesses, operated their own gas stations or worked as her father Roy did as a shoe store owner on M.L. King Boulevard while he also worked as a teacher at Howard High School.
"I grew up in a family that owned businesses and in a community where commercial businesses operated by those who lived around me were an essential part of the economic and social life of our community," Noel recalls. "As a child, I started working in my grandfather's store where I learned early about customer service and the value of how businesses help a community by creating jobs and incomes."
Her role over the past six years as director of diversity and inclusion for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce is the latest in a career that has included work on staff or as a board member for The Chattanooga Times, Chattanooga Venture, Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, CARTA, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, the Office of Minority Business Enterprise and the Enterprise Center.
"No matter what job I have had, I have always tried to work to improve Chattanooga for all residents," Noel says. "My passion has been to work at places that help improve Chattanooga's growth and development, especially for women, minorities and lower-income communities to ensure that everyone shares in Chattanooga's improvements."
At the Chamber, Noel has helped establish programs to connect minority entrepreneurs and business owners with other local businesses through program such as Diversify, the Diversity Professionals Group and a minority women's networking group. For businesses trying to expand outside of Chattanooga, Noel helped launch the Business Opportunity Conference that brings to Chattanooga state and federal agencies and other private companies from across Tennessee that are trying to contract with more minority firms and conversely brings many minority firms from elsewhere to Chattanooga to connect with local companies trying to diversify their supply chain.
"Through networking and connections, whether it is business-to-business or business-to-individual, the Chamber can play an important role in helping businesses to diversify their suppliers, their customers and their workforce," Noel says. That helps everyone."