James Lee, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s new president and CEO, promised to “blow the socks off” the feet of the group’s members in his new role.
The entrepreneur did just that during his inspiring and humorous introductory speech at what may have been the best-attended Chamber breakfast Wednesday morning at the Courtyard Richmond Berkeley Marriott in Hilltop.
In front of more than 100 members, prospective members and community leaders, Lee pledged major changes in how the Chamber raises and spends its funds, promising increased value for members. He also promised transparency, vowing to change the fact that 69-percent of the Chamber’s budget currently goes toward paying salaries on its staff. This year, Lee says, the Chamber’s goal is to increase spending toward programs that provide value to members to 40-percent of the budget, while bringing the percentage for staff salaries down to 39-percent.
The Chamber will soon be re-branded and have a new website that will feature software allowing the public to donate toward local nonprofit causes, Lee said. A new blog and social media campaign will spread the word about local businesses, and a new foundation will seek to raise $100,000 this year, he added.
“This is going to be a better membership than your Cosco membership,” he quipped.
With a resume like Lee’s, he may very well accomplish his bold goals. The entrepreneur’s captivating stories from his career include learning how to turn steel into gold in order to increase the value of $200 watches to as much as $2,000. His most successful venture was launching a photography services business called Envision. Lee said he had never taken a photography course before, so he bought a camera on Craigslist, Googled “How to take pictures” and began shooting events for cash. In short time, his work was nominated for a well-regarded photo-journalism award. From that point, his business skyrocketed, he said.
“I was making so much money; we owned million dollar homes, drove the big Escalade,” Lee said. “We had it good. Until I went to China on vacation.”
During his visit, he saw a young girl (pictured below) who changed his life. She was begging on the street, but someone warned Lee not to give her money because she was working for a brutal street gang. Apparently the gang broke the girl’s legs, wrapped them around her head, and forced her to beg.
That heartbreaking moment has shifted how Lee targets his entrepreneurial spirit. The past seven years of his career have shifted to charity work. He built orphanages and schools in such places as Cambodia, India, North Korea and Lebanon.
He also lived among Syrian refugees for three days, which he says deeply impacted him. He had originally planned a one-day trip, but missed his flight. He spent time in a secluded camp in Lebanon, and after a shooting that killed five Lebanese soldiers he was forced into hiding at the camp. He marveled at all the refugee children happily greeting him (pictured below). The camp had no phone reception, and he stayed with a family in a little tent, sleeping side-by-side on the floor. Temperatures dipped to below zero at night and there was no running water.
“This was daily reality for refugees,” he said. “Kids had no toys…they had rocks to throw at each other.”
“What happened to me those three days changed my life,” Lee said.
And this change of mindset will be instilled into the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, he said. Rather than having business be solely about products, services and profits, it will now be focused on using collective resources to raise up the community, and to provide opportunity for low-income entrepreneurs.
“We have a very consumer mindset,” Lee said. “We need to move from consumerism into community. When things go well for you, we rejoice. When you’re hurting, we gather together to help out.”