As the new – and youngest – president and CEO of Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, Manion faces dozens of challenges. But that’s just the way she likes it.
by Melissa Jacobs
Inflation is high, the labor pool is low, the supply chain is tangled, COVID remains a threat and other problems – gas, housing, childcare, education – abound. Who’d want to lead Chester County through this morass? Laura Manion, the new president and CEO of Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry. “I’m from this county and committed to its success,” Manion states. “There’s no place I’d rather be and no job I’d rather have.”
A native and current resident of Phoenixville, Manion has Chester County roots that run as deep as her resolve. A graduate of Agnes Irwin School, Manion spent three years working in Villanova University’s government and community relations department. There, she helped lead the administration through the building of dormitories and a performing arts center on Lancaster Ave., a process that involved cumbersome, contentious dealings with neighborhood groups and township commissioners. When that civic saga concluded with an unsurprising but humble win for Villanova, Manion took her next, bigger step: manager of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Great Lakes Region.
Manion started that job in March 2021, one year after COVID-19 embroiled the country in a sticky thicket of workforce issues, supply chain problems and government programs. The pandemic economy hurt companies large and small all over the world, and definitely in the Great Lakes region, which stretches from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, Michigan to Ohio. “It was a baptism by fire, but it was beneficial to see what a chamber could do to assist businesses in crisis across urban, rural and suburban environments,” Manion says.
That geographical mix is similar to Chester County’s. It’s true that Chester County is routinely rated among the top places in the US to live and work. It’s also true that the county has areas scarred by decades of educational and opportunity inequities that created interconnected spirals of poverty, crime and hunger. Manion recognizes all of that. “We have the upper Main Line, the western part near Coatesville which is industrial, then southern Chester County which is very farm focused,” she says. “The strengths, weaknesses and needs are different in different parts of the county.”
Workforce issues, talent pipeline management, affordable housing and affordable educational opportunities are top on Manion’s agenda. Education is a biggie. “We have incredible institutes of learning in Chester County, but tuition is getting very expensive and the cost may be prohibitive for some people,” she says. “We do have community colleges and vocational schools, and while there used to be a stigma around tech school and going into trade industries, those jobs are now in high demand and recession proof.”
If Manion sounds like a politician, it could be because she holds a master’s degree in public administration, or because her first job was as executive director of the Republican Committee of Chester County. Or it could be because she has political aspirations. Guy Ciarrocchi, Manion’s predecessor at the chamber, is currently the GOP candidate for Pennsylvania’s 6th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Does Manion have plan to run for office? “The job I have is perfect for me, and I don’t see it as a stepping stone to something else,” Manion states. “I’ve wanted to take the skills I’ve learned at the U.S. Chamber and Villanova and combine them with my love of Chester County. This is the job in which I can do that.”
Whatever her goals, Manion has time to achieve them. At 31 years of age, she is the youngest person to hold her job. To Manion, being a Millennial is an asset. “Millennials make up the largest workforce in Chester County,” she explains. “I can talk to people my age and to a CEO about the needs of that workforce. Having worked at Villanova, I also know how to work with and communicate with Gen Z.”
Manion has already met with many leaders in the area and shared her 30-60-90 day plan … which includes one notable event. Manion and her husband are expecting their first child in early August. “By then, I’ll have been in the job three months and my plan is to be a working mom,” she says without missing a beat. “I’m on a daycare waitlist until January, so the baby will come to work with me. And yes, providing adequate daycare is definitely on my agenda.”
Meet Laura Manion, her staff and other Chester County business leaders at the Chester County Chamber Foundation’s Summer Solstice Celebration on June 21 from 5 pm – 8 pm at Grace Winery in Glen Mills. The event is a fundraiser for the Foundation Youth Leadership Program.