DeSoto Chamber president growing city and self
A couple years ago Vanessa Sterling’s life was in disarray, so much that she had lost a career she’d spent decades building and was wondering where she should go.
Now, Sterling is President of the DeSoto Chamber of Commerce and was recently named the city’s Woman of the Year.
“Almost two years ago my life was very different, and to be here in this moment to receive this reward means so much to me. Honestly, I think what put me over the top was my servant heart and my passion for what I get to do every day. I’ve built some great relationships with some of the most amazing people in DeSoto and surrounding areas.”
Sterling was referencing some life challenges that actually began in May of 2017 when she lost someone very important to her.
“I was changing and I did not know how to fix me,” she recalled. “A deep depression set in and my mind was not stable. To top it all off, I was in a relationship that was not good for me and ended badly. I pretty much did not want to do life anymore. I lost my way.
“I started messing up at work but thought I was maintaining. I lost friends and became unrecognizable to myself. In the end, it cost me a career I had worked so hard for. I was in the food industry for over 30 years. I was let go and I realized I had to get my life together.”
And then her life changed
That happened in January 2020. She was devastated, but she said she understood the company’s reasoning.
“I was just a shell of the manager they hired,” she said.
Then came an exchange of calls that changed her life.
“I sat on the board of directors for the Desoto Chamber of Commerce during my last employment, so I had built relationships. I called one of the board members right after they let me go, not because I needed anything, but because I knew they would listen,” she said.
Indeed they did
“In February of 2020, I got a call from that same board member that asked if I could support the chamber while I was looking for employment. Because I believed in the work and I liked everyone I met, I said sure.”
Sterling did what she could to make ends meet, even with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in September of 2020 she was hired as chamber president. Not only did it give her a great job, it gave her a chance to serve others – albeit in a different capacity from her previous career.
“When you pray and tell God you will take less, he eventually blesses you with more,” she said. “I have a piece of mind, I am not stressed, I get a chance to reinvent myself, and most important, I am happy.”
But there are some striking similarities to what she was doing before, Sterling said with a smile.
Loving The Nonprofit Environment
“Here it is in a nutshell. When I was in the food industry, you had to serve people all day every day. All ages, all ethnicities, all temperaments, and without expecting anything in return,” she said. “That is what I do now. Definitely prepared me for this.”
Though there is one major difference. She was in corporate before and she’s in nonprofit now – and loving it.
Sterling had many major accomplishments in her former career. She was a manager by the age of 18. She enrolled in college at the age of 30 and earned her masters degree. She led community food and clothing drives, and she served on the board of directors for Methodist Charlton Medical Center.
“All these opportunities with these companies, to include the community service, prepared me for this role,” she said. “My biggest challenge was going from corporate to nonprofit. Talk about a whole new world.”
COVID-19 Presents New Challenges
It was, indeed, a completely new world when she took office as chamber president. It was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That challenge, she said, helped strengthen her as a leader.
“COVID was and still is rough. The businesses that we supported that did not make it and had to close their doors was heartbreaking. There are businesses that are open but struggling for staff. Everybody is operating in a new normal. Even the chamber,” she said.
However, the chamber never changed its hours, stopped ribbon cuttings, or stopped showing up if a business needed their presence. They could not do some of events, but they added events that could help the businesses. They gave updates on all SBA grants and loans and offered Crisis Business university to assist them in their day-to-day operations.
“We did everything we could to help because people were using their savings. It strengthened and sharpened business skills,” Sterling said.
Learning To Succeed In Any Environment
Sterling grew up understanding life’s uncertainties. A self-proclaimed “military brat,” they moved around a lot, from Germany to Fort Knox, Kentucky. It taught her resiliency and how to succeed in any environment.
Now, her daughter is living the military life. Give Sterling any chance and she will gladly discuss her family with you.
“I have two wonderful kids. My daughter is a nurse and works at Methodist Charlton. She is also a military spouse. My son is a student at Cedar Valley College and works for Walmart Supply Chain. My son-in-law is active in the military at Fort Hood,” she said. “My partner in crime and my heart Gregory means the world to me. He is one of my biggest supporters.
“My mother is in Kentucky. She is the main reason I started in the food industry. Fun fact. We started our bachelors program at the same time and graduated together. I’m so proud of her.”
And no doubt her mom is proud of her daughter.
Sterling has some big dreams for the chamber
“One of my major goals is to grow this chamber and be the best I can be for my members. The City of Desoto deserves a well-functioning Chamber,” she said. “We are going for an accreditation that is not going to be easy, but it will set a standard and assure everyone we serve that we are operating in excellence.”
And yes, she feels her chamber is setting example for others to follow.
“Our mission is to expand nature and promote the business community by providing quality service, educational opportunities, and establishing partnerships. I am an advocate for small businesses. It is important for me to use whatever resources are available, and I love the fact that more of our more established businesses step in to offer assistance when needed,” she said. “A chamber of commerce is intended to promote and protect the interests of their local businesses and community. The Desoto Chamber provides trusted resources and information that is needed for a business to be successful and thrive in the community. Network Connect Grow is our tagline.”