Cindy Larsen is President of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, a chamber that has won numerous state and national awards for overall programing and communications. She has been involved in the reinvention of a waterfront community, has served on many boards, and is a strong advocate of Michigan’s Blue Economy. Cindy works hard but also plays hard as an avid hiker, biker and beach-goer. We welcome Cindy to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.
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Shelley Irwin: Cindy Larsen is president of the Muskegon lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, a chamber winning many awards and responsible for the reinvention of a waterfront community, Cindy most certainly works hard, but also plays hard and is a hiker, biker and beacher. We talk to Cindy Larsen. Hello to you Cindy, thank you for joining us on this Powerful Women Let's Talk podcast.
Cindy Larsen: Thank you for having me, Shelley. Always a pleasure.
Shelley Irwin: Where are your going to hike this weekend?
Cindy Larsen: Well, you know, I'm looking at the wind and now so I've done a few urban hikes so I can hike in between the buildings, so I don't get blown over. So we'll see how the weather is and I’ll decide from there.
Shelley Irwin: We'll get to that in just a second but, I want to ask about biking and you might even be a surfer for all we know so, we'll talk about that. All right, let's go back to the first chapter of Cindy Larsen where your dad owned a bakery and your first job was?
Cindy Larsen: Packaging hamburger buns. Yeah, I literally grew up in a bakery because my mother was the cake decorator and my dad baked and so we were there all the time and so my dad had to keep us busy so, he started giving us little jobs and the first one I can recall is the packaging of the hamburger buns. You know throughout the years I did pretty much did everything there, but bake. So, yeah, I started early in business and it was a great learning opportunity.
Shelley Irwin: Michigan native?
Cindy Larsen: Yes, definitely. That was in Whitehall, Michigan where I grew up. So just still in the area and lived most of my life here in West Michigan.
Shelley Irwin: Were you exposed to business as a little girl?
Cindy Larsen: Absolutely. I mean, the crazy part of it is, you know, as I got older and let's say I was in my early teens and my dad would be gone for some reason and employees would ask me what to do and it's like I'm only 15, you know, but they said, well, what would your dad do and its like “Oh Okay,” so I started answering those questions very young in life about making a decision about what should we do and so it really just became part of my life to be in a situation where I felt comfortable making decisions even though it was as simple as you know, what do we do with these leftover cookies? You know, so it's always about simple things but, you know, that's really great training for when you are older and you are in situations where you may be unsure of yourself, but you still have to make a decision.
Shelley Irwin: what did you do with the leftover cookies? Wait, we'll talk about that later. The path to a chamber CEO fill in some blanks for me.
Cindy Larsen: Well, you know, like many people will tell you it's kind of a path that you never expected so getting to the chamber was really a situation where somebody knew the chamber president at that time and so they said hey call the chamber president, you can get some leads on jobs and when I made that call, they said, well, we have a job and so I said to myself, just take this job until I find a career job and of course, within a matter of weeks that job at the chamber just was so much fun and it really spoke to me and I I've never left that world since then and that was really more than 30 years ago. I hate to admit I wasn't always that that chamber but, that's how I started.
Shelley Irwin: Your body language kind of when you mention the 30 years, but hence a well-deserved, journey thus far. What's been a challenge of the chamber CEO?
Cindy Larsen: Well, right now the economy for sure, right? And so it has been the ultimate challenge because we were in the center of it, the hot seat and having gone through the last downturn when we had the housing crisis and so many people and the banks were cutting people off. The minute they said that they were going to shut down the state, I knew that minute the economy was going to be in jeopardy and so it was very difficult, even at first for people to see what was happening except for maybe those of who have been through it before. So experience was key this time in understanding how to move very quickly to try to communicate and serve the business community, which is obviously the core purpose of the chamber is serving that business community. So yes, so that's been the challenge right now, Shelly is just, you know, trying to be in the middle of the storm and try to understand where to go next and as many, many leaders have had to face in this past year.
Shelley Irwin: This conversation is all about you, Cindy, but I also want to stay a bit with the reinvention of a waterfront community under your leadership. How is this happening?
Cindy Larsen: Well, really Shelley you know, I have to be thankful for leaders that came before me because Muskegon in particular started working on cleaning that water 40 to 50, years ago. So by the time I come into the picture, the waterways of Muskegon are being cleaned up and it's a great place for recreation. We don't just look at the water there we’re in the water. So from there, it really was just natural that we could reinvent this community that we could make a difference and that we were committed to it because we just value that beautiful waterfront, which you’ve seen it transform during the time that you've been here and it's truly amazing and so fun to see people who come back to Muskegon who haven't been there, you know, 2 years, 5 years, 40 years and they just can't even believe their eyes as to how it has changed and we're of course not the only community, I was thinking about that. You know, really Grand Rapids had transformed their image and their downtown long before Muskegon started then Holland worked on it in and so we saw the opportunity and the possibility of what had happened before Muskegon started on the journey. So that gave us confidence that if those communities did it, we could do it too.
Shelley Irwin: You mentioned US several times you have followers with your leadership, what is your leadership style? What's making it work?
Cindy Larsen: Well somebody told me that I'm a pace setter leader. You know, so I didn't know what that was.
Shelley Irwin: If you’re a runner you’re a pace setter. The goal is for us to keep up with you Cindy.
Cindy Larsen: Yes, let's go. Yeah, This is where we're going, let's go and so that works for a lot of folks, not everybody likes that because it is a challenge, you know, because some people don't want to go at this pace and sometimes you're ahead of others and so you have to step back, that’s something I had to learn you know, it's like OK, wait a minute, they don't really see where we're going yet or they don't believe where we're going yet and so, you know, it's a learning journey to be a leader but, I have to say that's my style it’s like come on, folks, this is where we're going. If you want to come, let's go, it's going to be fun.
Shelley Irwin: In addition to your leadership, you do serve your community. Why community service, all over your resume?
Cindy Larsen: You know, I think in talking to other folks. You know early on in your life that maybe what you want to do in terms of I remember saying to myself, I want to make a difference. I had no idea at 17 or 19 what making a difference would be and I started in Communications in journalism, in radio and all of that I thought that was going to be my path but, it wasn't. That's a different kind of commitment Shelley, you know that that's a 24/7 commitment and so anyway, when I I fell into working at the chamber I thought, wow, this is a great way to make a difference in the community. You can do things that impact a lot of people and I just saw that it was also a happy positive thing and I really think growing up in the bakery. Who doesn't love a bakery? Everybody loves the bakery, right.
Shelley Irwin: I was going to say, I'm going to find out what you did with those leftover cookies. What did you do with those leftover cookies?
Cindy Larsen: Well, oftentimes we would give them to a church at the end of the week and any any anybody that could use them and in terms of something for free and they were so appreciative of it. So it was a fun part of the job.
Shelley Irwin: Yes. So we get back to the hiking biking and beaches I trust do you stay in your own backyard?
Cindy Larsen: I do, although knowing you're going to ask me about the hiking I did reflect on oh my goodness I have hiked in many states. You know, I don't choose the vacation for the hiking but when I go there, I find a place to hike so, yes, but nowadays, we're right here in Michigan. You know, doing it all over any time we can.
Shelley Irwin: And what kind of biking?
Cindy Larsen: I'm I am your casual biker. Absolutely. i know I went with some friends who are serious and they were all of a sudden we're at mile 30 and I'm like and this was much more than I expected but anyway, so there's so many bike paths around here in Michigan. So yeah, those are the ways I get my exercise. That's the way I enjoyed it the most.
Shelley Irwin: One chapter we didn't discuss was selling office furniture in Chicago. When isn’t Michigan the office furniture capital of the world here?
Cindy Larsen: Yeah, it is. So that was funny through connections I ended up interviewing at the merchandise Mart and I seriously had no idea in my early 20's sad to say that West Michigan was the furniture capital and that got me inspired to do things with career education because so many of our kids don't understand the opportunities that are all around us. That's kind of my first aha but yeah, so here I am managing the Hayworth showroom at that time and no clue but, that was a fantastic experience and again, maybe an introduction to community because we were working with the architects that were building the buildings in Chicago and those buildings had to be furnished with furniture. So kind of my first introduction to, you know, maybe how the world works and how the community evolves by watching those exciting things happening in Chicago at that time.
Shelley Irwin: And talk to me about sketching with Cindy.
Cindy Larsen: As you've heard covid has introduced people to a lot of new hobbies and so after about a half a dozen puzzles i thought, you know, I need to find something a little bit more intense and I knew everybody says oh, painting is so relaxing. So I can't make that commitment so I went to the store found one of these kits that has the pencils erasers and the paper and I started and my goodness, I'm going to take some lessons. It's like I can do this and how funny that you start something at this age that maybe you did as a kid but, never did anything with it. So yeah, I'm working on some art projects now.
Shelley Irwin: What do you tell the young Cindy Larsen?
Cindy Larsen: I would tell the young Cindy Larsen to have more confidence. No doubt. You've got to have confidence, but to be patient. I think we are hard on ourselves right? When we make mistakes we’re too hard on ourselves and that's just part of the process and so be confident but be patient I would say to young Cindy.
Shelley Irwin: Do you plan for a 3rd chapter?
Cindy Larsen: We’ll sure I'm just starting to think about that. I'm excited about it. I've been so committed to my career. I know a lot of people said I don't know Cindy, but you know what, I can envision myself doing something very different or something related to art, even if it's simply volunteering at the Art Museum. So I really would like to see myself do something different than what my career has been, even though I've loved it so much.
Shelley Irwin: And I don’t know, sketches by Cindy, I think we're going to hang onto that. If I was to ask for recommended reading to be inspired by much of your success to find my voice do you have a recommendation?
Cindy Larsen: Oh, that's so funny. I was thinking about how I don't even really remember the details of this book but, it was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and you know, women need to read that book. The main message is lean in, you know, be there, go to the table, be at the table. You deserve to be at the table but that one pops into my head knowing we’re thinking about young women right now and just understanding their role. I read a lot of inspirational type things now that you can do that online. So I love it all. I do, I really do.
Shelley Irwin: Wonderful. Well, congratulations to you on this chapter that you are consistently on making West Michigan and Muskegon very proud. So, thank you for this conversation. Inspirational Cindy Larsen.
Cindy Larsen: Thank you, Shelley and you are an inspiration and it's been so great working with you over the years. I really appreciate it.
Shelley Irwin: That's this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I’m Shelley Irwin.
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