Denita Willoughby becomes the First African American Woman Board Chair of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
She is as kind as she is beautiful. Her classic reddish colored dress was exquisitely accessorized by the grandeur of her smile. If I had to use three words to describe her, they would be sincere, organized, and present. From the moment I walked into her spacious 10th floor corner office – lit up by a combination of the warmth of her spirit and the warmth of the California sun – I knew this was going to be a delightful conversation.
Surrounded by pictures of her loving family and awards that were duly bestowed upon her, it did not take long to know I was in the presence of a woman who arrived at her current station in life with great intentionality. One does not just happen upon this level of prominence. A professed planner, Denita Willoughby, not only serves as Vice President of Supply Management and Support Services for Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), but she is making history as the first African American woman Board Chair of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
A transplant from Chicago's Southside, Willoughby recognized immediately a special connection between she and California. “I knew when I came to California as a junior in college that I had found my new home,” she shares. Her commitment to relocating was so strong that when she was offered a job at IBM straight out of college, she daringly told the executives that while she was grateful for their offer, the only way she could work for IBM was if they found her a position in Los Angeles because it's where she would be living. With an initial response of the only job they had that was in Chicago, IBM quickly realized about Willoughby what she already knew about herself: she was an asset. With this realization, they secured her a position in Los Angeles.
Keep LA Fabulous.’ That’s been my theme...I want  to be a call to action for LA to stay fabulous... I want us to build on the strengths of our city.”
It was through her work at IBM that Willoughby first became involved with the business landscape of Southern California. And it was a desire to bring solutions to some of the problems within that landscape that led Willoughby to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. Today, as an eternal optimist, Willoughby feels good about the business and commerce indicators for Southern California. “The ports are busy. The economy is strong. Unemployment is low. The Olympic Games are coming in 2028. These are just some of the indicators that feed my optimism.” At the same time, she is not oblivious to the issues impacting the Chamber's members as well as Southern Californians at large. She has her finger on the pulse of matters like affordable housing, advocacy from a policy perspective, and homelessness. For over a decade that she has been with the Chamber, the Board has been tackling hard issues using several strategies, one of which is community collaborations, an essential pillar of the Chamber of Commerce. Partnering with organizations that have unique insight and specialized approaches has been instrumental in advancing many of the Chamber's objectives.
As one who lives by the motto, “I can't solve a problem I don't know about,” and one who believes strongly in the power of outreach, Willoughby lit up like a Christmas tree when she spoke about why she loves her job at SoCalGas. “With the gas and energy sources our company supplies, we help people cook. We help people wash their clothes. Basic human needs are met as a result of what we do here. As an engineer, who knew I'd be in a position to make life better for millions of people in this way.”
The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce is incredibly fortunate to have the strong and bold leadership of Denita Willoughby as our 2020 Board Chair. Throughout her career, she has shown immense leadership and a dedication for excellence that the Los Angeles region needs and deserves. This is truly an exciting time, and I'm looking forward to her partnership and support as we continue to chart the path to address some of our region's most complex problems and drive for a thriving region for all.”
— Maria S. Salinas, President & CEO, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
For as much as she loves her job and loves making a difference, Willoughby lets nothing stand in the way of making sure her family knows how important they are to her. Happily married for 25 years, she and her husband are the loving parents of two young adult sons. Having a balance that puts her family first is a practice she has never compromised on.
When asked about being called a woman of influence and power, her response was, “I have a responsibility as a Black woman to live up to it and deliver.” Delivering for Denita Willoughby means staying true to the core values her parents instilled in her: education, hard work, and helping others. Delivering means remembering the examples of women throughout her journey who personified influence and power—starting with her own mom, whom she calls “A real dynamo.”
In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, Willoughby acknowledges that she would not be where she is today without mentors who guided her, shared their resources, and believed in her. “Believing in someone else is so powerful,” she declares as she talks about why she enjoys supporting others in any way she can. “Ask for help” is something I tell people all the time.
As for her vision and how she plans to help further shape California in 2020, she had this to say: “I love the diversity. I love the culture. I love the energy. I love the Hollywood Bowl. I love the beaches. I love the sun. It helps me be happy. California is where I met my husband. (And she smiles even harder.) So, I plan to 'Keep LA Fabulous.' That's been my theme: 'Keep LA Fabulous' by doing the things that move our city forward. I want  to be a call to action for LA to stay fabulous. I want our kids educated. I want them to know the technology of artificial intelligence. I want us to include natural gas and not take away choice for energy customers. I want us to build on the strengths of our city.”
Willoughby recently served as a guest lecturer at USC's Multi-Cultural Women Executive Leadership Program. On January 30, 2020, at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce 2020 Inaugural Dinner, under the banner of their theme, "Our Bold Vision: A Thriving Region For All," she will be installed as its new Board Chair.