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Barbra Blake: Planning to take the GSDBA to new heights

SAN DIEGO -- Barbra Blake has some bold, innovative plans as the new CEO of the Greater San Diego Business Association, the area’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

She will be guiding the Hillcrest-based organization into its 35th year.

“In the life cycle of business, plateau happens,” she told the GSDBA board. “It’s a good thing. It just depends what you do with it. It’s not time to coast.”

With the constantly evolving marketplace, a business has to be adaptive. Marketing, communications and how people find their customers are changing every day. In learning about Blake’s past, it is evident why the board decided that she is the right candidate for adapting to change.

Born in Boston, Blake moved to San Diego 35 years ago when the Navy relocated her mother and stepfather. Getting accustomed to her new home while maintaining a hint of the Boston accent (particularly strong when saying "Balboa Pahhhk"), Blake began pursuing her educational dreams at the University of California San Diego and received a BS in molecular biology. Despite her noted success in the sciences, and a career in pharmaceuticals researching the HIV and hepatitis viruses, she felt called to another cause.

San Diego in the 1980s, as Blake remembers it, was not exactly the most welcoming environment that it is today, especially as it pertains to LGBT members. Fear of what is different, coupled with the demonization of HIV as God’s curse, further reinforced underlying homophobia. Amid this, Blake (who had been out since childhood) had quickly gone from volunteer at events like the AIDS Walk and San Diego Pride to executive director of both events.

She worked days in a lab at Pharmacia, and nights at her house, which had become the headquarters for both organizations. With her inherent business mentality that she was refining more and more, Blake applied marketing savvy and grassroots start-up techniques to her passion projects. Pride and the AIDS Walk grew exponentially, so much so that she had to step away from her day job for the better part of a decade. The AIDS Walk had taken flight, up from 600 attendees in the 1980s to some 15,000 in 1996-97, with a crowd made of Girl Scouts, sorority girls and avid churchgoers. And San Diego Pride, after much lobbying on Blake’s behalf, was moved from the old Naval Hospital parking lot to Balboa Park.

Eventually, Blake said she had taken both nonprofits as far as she thought she could. It was time to pass the torch. She announced her resignation, and soon found herself back on the path of higher education, taking a director position at the Rady School of Management. It seemed like the perfect fit for Blake, who had long been enamored with start-ups and innovation-driven companies, which received special emphasis at Rady. The business knowledge and ambition she had shown with AIDS Walk and Pride was echoed in the school’s students, many of whom sought to turn great ideas into successful organizations.

Naturally, Blake found success throughout her career at UCSD and Rady, but it was a call from a friend that took her once again down an unexpected path. She remembers her friend describing a potential position at GSDBA, for someone who has experience with both businesses and the LGBT community. The rest is history.

With keen insight, Blake concluded with a moving observation about the connection between entrepreneurs and the LGBT community:

The gay community, we are natural risk-takers. It's in our nature to take risks. Just by being an LGBT person, we are risk takers and so are entrepreneurs.”

San Diego offers a very safe bubble, in Blake's eyes – such as Hillcrest, North Park, South Park, University Heights, Kensington, Mission Hills – but you don’t have to travel very far outside that bubble to find unwelcoming environments. Thus the very act of opening a business or buying a house is, in itself, taking risk. And that is largely why LGBT youth are the perfect entrepreneurs, she says.

So it is with much enthusiasm that Blake combines her passion for driving positive change with organizational development and influencing the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Under Blake's lead, the GSDBA's 35th year could be a monumental one.