Downtown Perspective: An Interview with Ermina Karim

Ermina KarimCommunication & Content Manager Zoya Dixon sat down with former San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce CEO Ermina Karim for an interview reflecting on her time at the organization and all things related to Downtown. Here’s highlights of their chat, edited down for size and clarity:

Zoya: Tell me how Downtown and doing business Downtown has changed during your tenure at the Chamber.
Ermina: I moved to San Luis Obispo in 2005 and came here sight unseen from New York City, and had the good fortune of stepping into this incredible location. That is part of my first impression of San Luis Obispo: “Wow, where have I landed.” This experience is rooted in our downtown. I started at the Chamber as Director of Governmental Affairs, and our economic vision has always identified the downtown core as the “jewel of our community”, the heart that requires continues care and love and recognition of its very special place. At the time, projects like Chinatown and Garden Street Terraces and a big seismic retrofit was all the work I was really involved in. It’s beautiful to see the incredible impact that the burdensome but necessary seismic retrofit had and what property owners did with that moment: they used it to invest in downtown and make it more beautiful. I think that within the coming twelve months, these long planned for investments in the community are going to emerge. For some, it may feel like it happened overnight, but over the last ten and a half years, it’s been a slow and deliberate approach to creating a downtown. And I think in a time where people are disconnecting from downtown and disconnecting from retail experience, there’s been a lot of thought into how the balance of our downtown meets the needs.

What is the accomplishment you’re most of proud of?
For me, I’m most appreciative of the work the Chamber has done to continue to connect with diverse perspectives; the work—the toil, really— to challenge ourselves and invite others to the conversation. To have opportunities that allow for more robust participation and different doorways to open, while respecting and keeping welcomed those who have been investing for a long time in our place. The idea of having a wider door and more people feeling like they’ve got a place in our community. That to me is what we have worked really hard for in the last 7 years that I’ve been CEO.

We’ve seen a lot of vacancies recently. What’s the biggest challenge Downtown businesses face today?
Downtown is this really distilled, beautiful story of people wanting to create something and create experiences for people. Of course, our community is going to be impacted by macro-challenges, like the future of retail, or how are people going to park, what is the future of the automobile, and what does this do for streets and our public spaces. These are, of course, the great questions of today. At the same time, we’ve got these incredible assets: beautiful spaces, a very connected community, artisans, individuals who are able to bring forward new ideas in a community that is open to new ideas. So while there are many challenges, I’m not worried, because we’ve got the recipe for addressing them.

So we’re innovative, and creative, and special enough to meet these challenges.
Well, we talk to each other, we have processes, we care about our place … where you see challenges overrun a place is where people think their voice doesn’t matter, where they have no voice, where they think they can’t affect the outcome. We have the opposite here. We are a highly engaged community: we are invested in the outcome, and that differentiates us.

What is something that one other city is doing that you’d love to see in SLO?
I love to travel. So many of the great European cities live in the times with their style. I would love to see San Luis cherish and preserve that which is historic and beautiful, and allow the juxtaposition of modern, so we don’t just become generic but allow something fresh and innovative. I would also love to see art being brought into public works, and having more artists and creatives involved. When you bring an artist in, you connect the public good with the public aspiration.

You’re leaving to spend more time with your daughter. As a working mother myself, I’ve often felt the strain of being pulled in many directions at once. How do you view women’s roles in leadership today, in light of them typically being the primary caregiver, and what obstacles do they face?
That’s a giant question! I am in a very privileged spot: I am able to make a choice that is out of reach for most people. I am stepping away from a job I love at a great point in order to be able take 6–8 months off. I will be working again, but right now it’s really about reframing. We have chapters in our lives. I am a strong believer in working to align my values and my priorities with my actions. This role, for me and the way I’ve chosen to do it, is very public, and all the time, and there’s no stop or start to when I’m thinking about this organization, which I have loved. I would say that of course it’s a challenge, and we all have a responsibility- men and women- to be thinking about the ways we are questioning our approach, our processes, our pathways, and how our words and actions align.

There’s a lot of places where we say something is important, but we haven’t changed the structures, and when we haven’t changed the structures, we continue to reinforce what we already have. When you want to change the outcome, you have to change the structure. I’ve been proud to be part of an organization and a community that is challenging itself, that has women as role models, where women have a voice.

Fundamentally, we have to be doing everything to reach out and share your own struggle. I think if you put it out there, that creates space for others to realize that they’re not alone. How we show up every day, and show compassion, and bring our voice, and work to listen—those are the ways in which working moms and working dads figure out, “There is a place for me, and today I am going to do my best.” I have this conversation with my husband regularly: “What is the underlying message we’re saying [to women], and how are we consciously inviting that leadership we want to see?”

What advice do you have for women who are entering the workforce today and who will be mothers tomorrow?
Know that there isn’t one way to do it. It can be isolating when you feel like you have to be like every other mother, but it’s still your story.

What does the future hold for you?
I don’t know what I am going to be doing! My plan is not to have a plan. For me, this is very uncomfortable, and yet, I know I am moving towards where I want to be. I am getting my daughter to 7th grade, I’m spending more time with my friends, and I am unpacking this incredible period of my life that I have loved, deeply; really, the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had: to find your people.

Kat Thompson
Author: Kat Thompson