The Tennessee Business Forum encourages engagement and collaboration between the state’s business leaders and national policymakers. Members of the forum come from a diverse background, which strengthens the forum’s ability to facilitate conversations about national issues. Executive Director Bess McWherter and Brad Bishop of The Ingram Group joined the podcast to discuss the mission, successes and future of the forum.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Intro: The following program is brought to you by the Tennessee Broadband Association. Lead Tennessee Radio, conversations with the leaders moving our state forward. We look at the issues shaping Tennessee’s future: rural development, public policy, broadband, health care and other topics impacting our communities.
Carrie Huckeby: Hello, I’m Carrie Huckeby, the executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association. In this episode of Lead Tennessee Radio, we’re taking a look at a new organization in our state. The Tennessee Business Forum launched in January to provide business leaders with a forum to connect with one another, but to also connect with policy makers on the national level. Joining me today are strategic consultants Bess McWherter and Brad Bishop of The Ingram Group, which created and facilitates the forum. Bess, Brad, thank you for being here this morning.
Bess McWherter: Thank you.
Brad Bishop: We’re excited to be here.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, Brad, start us off. Give us a background on The Ingram Group, its role in creating the forum and why such a group was needed.
Brad Bishop: Yeah, well, first of all, thank you, Carrie, for having us today. We really do appreciate it, and we’re excited to have this opportunity. It’s great to join you and, obviously, thank you to the Tennessee Broadband Association for being a member of the Tennessee Business Forum. We really appreciate you joining the group and your participation in our first year as we launched. Bess and I both work at The Ingram Group, which is a general strategic consulting and bipartisan government relations firm. It’s been around for about 40 years. We are based out of Nashville, Tennessee, but we also have a presence in Washington, D.C. And basically we provide communication support, government relations services, organizational reviews, leadership development and strategic economic development advice to a wide array of clients that spans across corporate clients, nonprofit clients, higher education clients, and other types of nonprofit organizations. So we count many state based organizations as clients, but also a wide array of national and even multinational corporations as clients. So as you can see, we have a pretty diverse background. Our staff is comprised of about 12 people, and we have a very diverse background in where we’ve worked in both the corporate world, as well as the government relations world, as well as in both local government, state government and the federal government. We consider ourselves to be generalists, and our team is really kind of set to fix any problem that our clients come at us with. So that’s basically a little bit about The Ingram Group, and I’m going to pass it off to Bess to talk a little bit about the Tennessee Business Forum due to the fact that she is pretty much the founder and chief of it.
Bess McWherter: Well, thanks, Brad, and thank you again, Carrie, for having us today. We’re excited to join you. Carrie, the idea to create the Tennessee Business Forum was actually brought to The Ingram Group by business leaders in Tennessee who already participate in other similarly structured organizations in other states. And they felt like there was no organization singularly focused on federal policy issues that could bring leaders together from the state to talk about how those issues impact Tennessee and the country overall. And as Brad mentioned, our team is composed of people, including myself, who have worked in many roles within the federal government. And really, after extensive research and a lot of planning on our end, our team agreed that this is a gap for our state’s continued economic development, and we felt like our team was positioned to fill that gap effectively. This is such an exciting time for Tennessee as we continue to see just such rapid growth throughout the state. So that open line of communication between the state and Washington is really as important now as it’s ever been. So that was sort of the background on why we created the Tennessee Business Forum and launched early last year.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, there’s definitely a need there that that you saw and being able to bring people together so. And as you said, Ingram Group has a very long history. And I did see that your team has a very diverse background bringing this experience from all areas so. And on that note, Bess, congratulations on being named executive director of the forum. And you have had this extensive bipartisan career in government. Share your background with our listeners, beginning with the commitment to public service that you saw modeled in your own family.
Bess McWherter: Yeah. Thanks, Carrie. I appreciate that. I’m really honored to have worked for some incredible people throughout my career, and I’m particularly thrilled to be on my current team with The Ingram Group. My colleagues, as you hear from Brad, they’re truly outstanding, so I’m very excited to be where I am. But I’m originally from Jackson, Tennessee, and I attended Vanderbilt University for my undergraduate studies. But while in school, I interned for Congressman Jim Cooper, who’s, of course, the Democrat that has represented Nashville since 2003, but he will be retiring at the end of this term. But that program was really where I caught the quote unquote “bug” to work on Capitol Hill. But to your point, Carrie, I’ve been around politics my entire life. My grandfather was governor of the state. My cousin is a former congressman. My own father ran for governor. My mom actually worked on Capitol Hill for a member of Congress from West Tennessee for more than a decade. So it’s definitely in my blood on both sides of my family. But Jim Cooper really sealed the deal for me. So after I graduated, I moved to D.C. I got a job with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the chairmanship of former Senator Bob Corker, to whom I will always be grateful for taking a chance on me in that period of time.
Bess McWherter: I stayed on the committee for a few years, and then I went to work for PepsiCo, the food and beverage company. I was working on their government affairs and communications teams. And then I returned to work on Capitol Hill as an advisor to Congressman Cooper. And I handled a pretty extensive legislative portfolio for him, including foreign policy, intelligence, trade, transportation, education, small business, women’s issues, all good stuff. And then I joined The Ingram Group in June of last year while completing my master’s in International Business and Policy from Georgetown University’s School of Business. So it has been a very fun and wild ride and very busy. But as we’ve mentioned, all of my colleagues who help run the business forum each have their own real unique Washington journeys. You know, collectively, our team has worked for Senate leadership, the Obama administration, the Trump administration. We’ve worked as chiefs of staff, in US embassies. Some have led government relations for big corporations in the country, and as well as big political organizations in the United States. So we’ve all kind of been around the block, and it’s well positioned us for this opportunity to help serve more members of Tennessee’s economic community.
Carrie Huckeby: Yes, I was very impressed with your extensive background and all the experience that you bring. And also looking at your family history, I thought, well, it would have been difficult for you to go into anything but public service.
Bess McWherter: It was this or my parents sell beer. So it was this or beer.
Carrie Huckeby: So the forum launched with 15 founding partners. Brad, talk about the mix of businesses represented and the vision that they had and have for the organization.
Brad Bishop: So diversity of thought and composition was really a goal for the forum’s membership. And I think we’re very, extremely pleased with the results that we’ve seen over the past year as we’ve grown from 15 members to now 30. Our membership includes a bunch of different organizations that represent a bunch of different industries across the state. Among our membership, we count multinational corporations, a professional sports team, the state’s flagship university, two of Nashville’s fantastic HBCUs, a few local chambers of commerce, several health care organizations. And even a handful of nonprofit associations. So as you can see, membership really runs the gamut. And that was exactly the goal that we set out when we first started the Tennessee Business Forum. And I think we’ve done a really good job of achieving that goal, and this really allows us to have some really wonderful events that benefit, I think, both the delegation and also our membership, because everyone’s trying to to hear what both these organizations are doing in the state and what they’re doing for the state. And then they also have the opportunity to hear from the membership of how they’re representing them up in Washington, D.C.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, I think you’re right. When I looked over the list of businesses that are part of the forum, there’s such a diverse group that those conversations between those businesses are, you know, you’d like to be in on every conversation that goes on because of the diversity of those companies and what they bring to the forum so. The next Tennessee Business Forum meeting is next week in D.C. and your guest speaker is US Representative David Kustoff from Tennessee’s eighth district. He’s the newest member of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, and he plans to talk about the committee’s work. Although the forum is not a lobbying group, what do you hope your members will accomplish through this event and those like it?
Bess McWherter: Yeah. Thanks, Carrie. We’re extremely excited and very honored to host Congressman Kustoff and his staff next week. We’ve hosted four other similar events this year, and we do plan to host one more in November. The goal is really to have candid, off the record conversations with policymakers like Congressman Kustoff in hopes of cutting through that typical D.C. rhetoric and really forging partnerships with lawmakers and amongst our forum members. One of the great qualities about the forum is that it’s not a traditional advocacy organization, like you mentioned. Not every member has the same opinions or priorities. So our conversations are real, and they’re interesting, and they’re never pre-baked. And to Brad’s point, we also hope that it gives policymakers and congressional staff a chance to engage with groups from across the state, some of whom they may never have connected with outside of events like this.
Carrie Huckeby: I and several other members of the TNBA met with the representative earlier this year in April. We were in D.C. for the NTCA Legislative and Policy Conference. We had a really good conversation about broadband, workforce development, supply chain challenges. He was really attentive, engaged, asked really good questions, so I know your meeting will really go well next week.
Bess McWherter: We’re really excited. Thanks.
Carrie Huckeby: So, as you know, the Tennessee Broadband Association is composed of independent and cooperatively-owned companies that connect about 30% of the state. Together, these companies have invested more than $400 million in recent years to connect rural Tennesseans to fiber networks. And another $300 million will be invested in fiber infrastructure in the next 3 to 5 years, thanks in part to the recently announced grants from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. With more work remaining to be done here in our state to connect residents and businesses to an infrastructure that we know impacts so many facets of modern life. Tell us, Brad, why you think it’s important for these business leaders to get involved in the legislative process at the national level, not just the state where so many of these funding decisions are made?
Brad Bishop: Yeah, I think it’s a really great, great question, Carrie. And it kind of gets at the core of the work that both the Tennessee Business Forum and The Ingram Group hope to achieve. And I don’t think everyone realizes how impactful engagement with your representative is within every level, whether that be federal, state or local. I know everyone says the old adage is always that politics is local. And you know, it’s true that people’s lives are most noticeably impacted by the decisions made by local officials. That is true. But it’s a little bit different once you start getting into some of those large organizations that are seeking to conduct business throughout the Southeast or even nationally or even internationally. For these groups, you know, the federal government plays an enormous role in the work that they are doing, both the congressional and the executive branch. The actions that they take have a massive impact on what these organizations are doing every day with their operations, operations and the decision making that they are taking at the state every single day. So take, for example, taxes or health care policy, or I know you just mentioned infrastructure. Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill recently, which is now funding countless projects within the state. Our delegation increasingly relies on constituent engagement to kind of discern what’s helpful within the state versus what isn’t exactly necessary to bring back into the state. So expanding businesses often need to engage with those legislative processes, even if it’s as simple as saying, you know, don’t touch this thing that works for us.
Brad Bishop: That constant flow of communication is extremely helpful for both the member of Congress, but as well as the businesses within the state. They’re trying to secure some of that funding for projects that they have. I think another really important thing that is often overlooked is that constituent feedback. Everyone thinks of constituent feedback being calling your local congressman and asking him to support X or Y bill. But that also includes businesses meeting with members inside of their offices. That plays an important role in Washington’s landscape, especially since decision makers in Congress and the executive branch are largely outside of Tennessee and up in Washington and can’t see the things that are going on inside of their district every single day. So bringing those issues to the top of a congressman’s inbox and and kind of getting in person, having that relationship is extremely important and securing some of that funding, getting some of those projects that you see as important, but that congressmen may not see them every single day happening inside of the district. So it’s important to to get in front of them and have those meetings. And, you know, we’ve harped on it quite a bit, but the state is just currently in a boom. And that just means that more opportunity is coming to the state, especially from the federal level. And it really puts an emphasis on the need for engagement right now in our nation’s capital.
Carrie Huckeby: True. And I think the busier that Tennessee gets and the more successful the state is, our legislators cannot be experts on every field. You know, they just can’t. So it relies on those conversations that you have with them to say, “Hey, this is where we’re coming from. This is the challenges we’re facing. This is where we need help.” So I completely agree that those conversations are the only way to make things happen.
Brad Bishop: Absolutely.
Carrie Huckeby: So while the forum was created to facilitate these conversations among the business leaders and the policymakers, it also hopes to create opportunities for partnerships between these companies and within the state. And that’s really the reason the Tennessee Broadband Association joined just to meet more businesses and have more conversations. Have any projects or collaborations between the members come out of these conversations that might not have happened on their own, Bess? Tell us about any success stories.
Bess McWherter: Yeah. Thanks, Carrie. Absolutely. I can think of a couple of instances off the top of my head where we’ve had sort of a member to member project drawn up at one of our events, simply to your point, by our members attending and networking in the same room. One in particular that I’m thinking of stemmed from a truly simple conversation about a shared federal priority that has the opportunity to provide statewide collaboration between these two entities. And truly, it stemmed from the topic of conversation at one of our events. So that was unlikely to have happened without being in the same room in Washington with these members of Congress and with these other organizations that are members of the business forum. So that one in particular has been really fun to follow already. But there are quite a few examples of great collaboration happening behind the scenes because of the forum. And that’s again, one of the best aspects of joining is that members have this opportunity to come together in a very unique setting and really prioritize both the state’s economic development and its people. So it’s been great to follow and great to watch.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah. Sometimes the best ideals come out of just an aha moment when you’re having a conversation with someone else.
Bess McWherter: Exactly, and I watched it happen. It was great.
Carrie Huckeby: That must have been great is as the executive director of this forum. So that was exactly what you were looking for.
Bess McWherter: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Carrie Huckeby: So with the forum in its first year, Brad, how do you feel about the progress that’s being made? Are you meeting expectations regarding number of members? I know you said you’re up to 30 now. Is the participation where you wanted and the accomplishments like you planned in the beginning?
Brad Bishop: Yeah. You know, truthfully, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception that we’ve gotten, both from the concept and the actual forum services have received in the first nine months of our existence. As you mentioned, our membership has grown. We originally hoped to secure five founding partners. We have 15. We’d hope to have 15 members total by the end of this year, and we already have 30. I think it’s clear that the need and the desire are there, and I think we are pretty glad that we’re able to fill that gap rather effectively. But we’re always looking to grow and are excited about 2023 and excited about the future opportunities that next year is going to present to us.
Carrie Huckeby: Well beyond 2023, where do you hope to see the forum in three years or five years?
Brad Bishop: Yes, you know, we always will be driven by our membership, and we’ll be responsive to their needs first. But we are looking to grow our numbers because I think to our points earlier, the participants we have, the more participants we have, the more collaborations that are possible. And at the end of the day, that’s the goal, is more collaboration between both membership and the delegation. We hope to also offer additional services beyond our events, and I know we haven’t mentioned it yet, but our weekly newsletter which we send out weekly to forum members, and it really kind of gets at what’s driving the headlines in D.C. that week. I’m including what’s happening in Congress and at the White House and just all around Washington. It’s all the news events, and we send that out each week, and I think our membership finds that extremely helpful. But we also have found that our members, large and small, really are looking for some new opportunities. We kind of took a poll and found out some new things that people were looking to achieve in 2023. And I think we’re going to capitalize on some of that. For example, we plan to offer some additional media opportunities within the next year. So that’ll be a new opportunity coming in 2023 outside of our quarterly events and then our weekly newsletters. So we are very excited about moving on in the next year and all the opportunities it presents.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, as a member, I do appreciate your newsletter because I do read it, and it keeps me on top of what’s going on because sometimes I can’t make those meetings, especially if they’re in Washington, if my travel schedule doesn’t allow that. So I like reading those newsletters to see what’s going on, so I appreciate that.
Brad Bishop: Yeah, you may not always want to know what’s happening in Washington, but it’s important that you do.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, that’s true. But it’s better to know than not know.
Brad Bishop: Exactly.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah. So to wrap up our conversation, Bess tell our listeners how a business qualifies to join and where they can go to get more information about the forum.
Bess McWherter: Yeah. Thanks, Carrie. Membership is open to any business, nonprofit or educational entity in the state that wants to engage on the national level. You don’t necessarily have to be headquartered in Tennessee, but a Tennessee connection to be part of the Tennessee Business Forum is always helpful. And not all of our members necessarily advocate for something or have a particular goal for participating. You know, some just frankly want to be in the room and hear the discussion about the direction of the state and really how it fits in with the national picture. So all motivations can be different, but all are welcome. Membership dues are based on the size of the entity that’s joining, and we have a discount for our nonprofit friends. So you can find more information about membership and our events and joining at our website which is www.TennesseeBusinessForum.com. Or you can email me at bess@IngramGroup.com for additional information.
Carrie Huckeby: Great. So as we end here, is there anything else you two would like to add that maybe we didn’t cover in our questions, or anything that you want to talk about?
Bess McWherter: I will only add that I think, as Brad mentioned, for 2023, we’re looking to do a lot of the same, but change it up a little bit for the better. So we’re hoping to host maybe one or two more events in Tennessee, Carrie, for hopefully your travel schedule or the benefit of your travel schedule and other groups like yours so they can attend more events. But as I mentioned, we’re driven by our membership, so we always strive to be flexible and accommodating towards them. So we’re looking to grow our numbers. We’re excited about where we’ve been and where we’re going, and it’s a true team effort, so we’re happy to be here to serve Tennessee’s business community.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, congratulations to you both. I know that when you launched it in January, you were hoping where it would end up. And as Brad said, you hope to have a number of members at the end of the year. Sounds like you’ve exceeded that, and you’re going in a great direction. So I congratulate you Bess as the executive director. And Brad, your participation and the communications. Keep that newsletter coming.
Brad Bishop: Will do. Carrie, thank you.
Carrie Huckeby: So thank you both for joining me this morning. My guests have been Bess McWherter, executive director of the Tennessee Business Forum, and Brad Bishop, communications consultant for The Ingram Group. You’ve been listening to Lee Tennessee Radio, produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association, cooperative and independent companies connecting our state’s rural communities and beyond with world class broadband.