When Jen Sterling moved to South Riding in 1998, she knew nothing about Loudoun County. She didn't know where to shop or eat or, most importantly, how to keep running her small business out of her home.
"To me, this was like the middle of nowhere," Sterling said last week as she sat in her current office in Reston, where she runs Hinge Inc., a branding firm. Her office is a stylish blend of high ceilings and low lights, filled with arty knick-knacks. On a shelf is, among other things, a clear plastic head wearing red sunglasses.
As a new mother and a small business owner, Sterling doesn't fit the type that often fills the position she just gained: chairman of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. Over the next year, Sterling will head the region's largest and fastest-growing chamber. She is the third woman to hold the post since the chamber was founded in 1968, and the first in 13 years.
"I think one of the biggest assets Jen brings to the job is that she's an entrepreneur," said Randy Collins, president of the chamber. "Previous chairs have oftentimes represented major corporations."
Eighty percent of the chamber's membership is comprised of small businesses like Sterling's, which she moved out of her home when she needed to employ more than one person. By county law, a residence can have no more than one employee — and that's something that Sterling hopes she can help change.
"So many people work out of their home," she said.
THE CHAMBER has 1,400 members, but for Sterling, that's not good enough.
When she joined as a member seven years ago, Sterling almost immediately began pushing the chamber toward change. The chamber's tag line was "Voice of Business," but as Sterling pointed out, every chamber's tag line is "Voice of Business." She helped get it changed to "Make the Connection."
Even though the chamber is growing rapidly, Sterling wants more: she wants to "make it so the chamber is the place to be," she said.
Right now, the chamber goes out and sells memberships, but Sterling wants businesses to be automatically attracted to join. "It should be a given that it's something you do in Loudoun," Sterling said.
Sterling hopes she can help bridge the gap between large and small businesses by pairing them up in partnerships. The example she gives is between the airport and "Joe Blow" carpenter, who could be servicing airplanes for less than what they might pay otherwise. "They really don't have any venue to contact each other," she said.
While the majority of members are small businesses, Sterling is taking over at a time when larger companies are continuing to come to Loudoun.
"We're getting Howard Hughes [medical research facility], we're getting MCI, we've had AOL for a while, we're getting a large corporation like Wegman's," said Louis Matrone, the just-retired past chair. Matrone is the chief operating officer of Information Management Consultants, an international business consulting firm.
"The challenge for Jen is to continue to find ways to serve our broad membership base," Matrone said.
AS THE MOTHER of a 15-month-old daughter, Rachel, Sterling has learned the other benefit of living in Loudoun County: community. Her home in South Riding was the first house she'd ever lived in, and for the first few years, she and her husband, Rob Harris, were one of the only couples on the block without children. For a while there, the couple felt just a little out of place.
"Now that we have Rachel, we're totally in," said Sterling, who grew up in Annandale. "It feels like a neighborhood and I never really had that before because it was so transient."
Sterling, who gives the impression of someone who never does nothing — her husband makes her keep a pen and paper by the bed so she doesn't wake him to tell him her ideas, has created two other little communities of her own. First is a quarterly women's group for working moms.
"I was feeling so pulled in a million directions" after Rachel's birth, Sterling said. "My company is my first kid. Rachel is my second kid."
Sterling has also started a woman's investor group called Chicks Taking Stock based on the popular book "Chicks Laying Next Eggs." It's just another way that Sterling tries to encourage women in business.
"Women need to know that they can," she said.