Rob Wonderling is losing his office in the Harrisburg State Capitol complex.
On Aug. 1, the two-term Republican state senator from Delaware County will report to the Avenue of the Arts as the new president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, as the private, 5,000-member organization announced last month.
By taking the helm of the region’s largest business advocacy organization, he says he’s eager to re-bolden the region’s new business community.
“We’ve really lost the language of entrepreneurship [in the region],” Wonderling, 47, says. “Risk taking and capital and job creation are almost scurrilous terms in some political quarters. I feel very passionately that for a free democratic society, we need all of that.”
He has startups on the brain — even if startups aren’t exactly in his past.
Before winning his district in 2002, wunderkid Wonderling served as deputy secretary of transportation to then-Gov. Tom Ridge. He spent the previous decade working for Bentley Systems, an Exton-based software firm whom we’ve profiled and Allentown-based Air Products and Chemicals.
Those gigs are more representative of his gadget trigger. See, Wonderling is something of a tech head, having professed that his Blackberry made him a better legislator.
“If you want to be an effective public servant, you really need to master emerging communication tools and techniques that mirror the way constituents are getting their information,” Wonderling, who was among the first Pennsylvania lawmakers to use a handheld wireless device as a legislative tool, told me last summer. “We’re a more mobile culture. I need to be, too.”
Wonderling’s ascension as the Chamber chief after former Gov. Mark Schweiker — who is taking an executive gig with Center City-based business services company PRWT — ended a six-year term was not without criticism.
There was some speculation after Schweiker announced his impending resignation that the Chamber might hire a female or minority chairman for the first time in its 208-year history, as the Business Journal reported, but still the Wonderling choice seemed to surprise few.
The young legislator could even be positioning himself for a possible gubernatorial run in 2014, as suggested by conservative columnist and Pottstown Mercury city editor Tony Phyrillas, who noted Wonderling signed just a three-year contract. Already there are a host of political ramifications from Wonderling’s departure.
But in an exclusive interview with Technically Philly, Wonderling stays off politics and instead tells us how he’ll use, promote and cultivate technology at the Chamber and throughout the region. He also uses the word “scurrilous” unprompted.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
So why’d you make the jump from making state policy to leading the Chamber?
It’s very difficult to leave public service, but the unique opportunity in this new position, coupled with the right time of my life and the life of the family, made it the right choice. I didn’t scout the opportunity. My wife and I, we were going to sit down over Thanksgiving and talk about running for a third term. We probably would have, but it was a decision yet to be made. But then I was contacted by a search firm and that led to this…
It’s the premiere organization for free enterprise in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey with over 200 years of history. The region is well positioned and we’re vital to the good efforts for the good works here in the beginning of the 21st century. I’m happy with the choice. It’s where I should be headed.
Below, watch Wonderling speak at the June 1 press conference at which he was announced the chamber’s next chairman.
How are you going to bring your tech interests to the Chamber?
I hope it would become an organization driven by technology. I don’t see technology as a back office function. It can be a function of everything we do.
Give us some examples.
There are, really, three ways that tech can be a key to our future.
One, I’m very interested in how we can leverage tech as one of the advantages of being a Chamber member, like valued-added services, beyond the health insurance and networking opportunities.
…The value of membership can be — and this is very rough — but think of a virtual license. For a nominal fee or a licensing scheme with GPCC, we give exclusive access to methods to grow your business, maybe a chance to present their business and their products and services to others… That’s using technology and the Web for what it does best, connecting people.
The second area is working with volunteer leadership, through virtual advocacy. That’s not sending 10,000 spam e-mails to fan the flames and try to get people to hit the send button, but meaningful ways of advocacy… and use of the Web to do that… To promote in our region the work we do.
The third area is related to how we communicate broadly. One of my roles will be as chairman of the Select Greater Philadelphia CEO Council for Growth Initiative. It’s a global, economic-developing marketing initiative. What Select has been doing is niche marketing to sectors across the world about doing business in our region. We need people to ping our databases for, let’s say, life sciences, so some country in Bavaria can have access to that database to see what would be good for them… We want to make it easy for outsiders to know they should be working in our region, and technology can help that.
How will you work with the region’s existing technology and innovation communities?
It’s incumbent on the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to be relevant to the traditional service sector economy and the manufacturing sector of the last century, but also the tech sector because we have a shared agenda. We want this region’s technology community to prosper. How to become most familiar with each other quickly remains to be seen, but we know it’s about engaging in the community. The last thing that I want to presume is that I have the secret sauce to bring everyone together on the same page.
I will try to engage a wide range of intentions to be build success around that. Our mission is to grow or retain jobs to create wealth and prosperity, whether it’s recruiting a company to return to the region, helping another prosper or something else that serves the goal.
What is the role of the 135 square miles of Philadelphia proper in your mission?
The city of Philadelphia is the geographic… and cultural… center of our region. So the city must continue to grow. There are obviously issues as any urban area has in this country. So we need to combine the general, public sector and private sector forces, whether it be over crime or poverty or healing whatever else.
We have to remember that the jewel of Philadelphia are the academic institutions, Temple, Drexel and Penn and the other universities. If you want to talk technology, well, the opportunity for technology transfer of innovation is absolutely critical. So not only is Philadelphia the geographic center, but it also has 10,000 scholars at universities coming up with new and great thing that can easily translate into the next Google or Microsoft.
Promise me you’ll watch this video from Wonderling’s 2008 Senator for a Day program:
Every Friday, Technically Philly brings an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia’s technology community. See others here.
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