The 41st annual Business Leadership Academy of Tacoma is wrapping up this month after a two-month-long schedule during which leaders, businesses, and individuals came together to network, learn, and develop leadership skills. 

Sponsored by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and Pacific Lutheran University, the program appears to be stronger than ever and offers a chance to connect with the regional business community.

The academy’s leadership program kicked off in late January with a welcome session. In total, the program had 11 sessions through February and March, finishing up with a retreat. 

Tom Pierson, president and CEO of Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, plays a big role in the program itself — to ensure solid leadership in the Chamber and set up site visits during the program.

“I’ve been passionate about leadership programs and a part of them for 15 years — eight years with the academy — and I feel it is highly important to our community,” Pierson said. “The program is a way for individuals to grow, connect, and learn about what it takes to become a leader.” 

Founded in 1978, the program has hundreds of alumni leaders, many who still value the connections they made years prior. 

“It was such a unique experience, bringing like-minded individuals together for personal and business growth with the goal to have their passion enlighten even further,” said AJ Gordon, program alum and director of growth and strategy at SiteCrafting in Tacoma. “There were about 35 of us in the 2006 class, and 13 years later, I still see many of them around — it’s amazing to see how all of us have grown. A few of the people I met during the program, I am happy to call them my close friends.”

This year, the Business Leadership Academy launched its mentorship program, where leaders in the community work one-on-one with the volunteers. Each student is paired with a mentor, allowing for an extra support boost throughout the curriculum. Gordon also remains part of the program on the advisory committee and as a mentor. 

“The mentorship opportunity is great because I was able to sync up with my mentee before the program to get an outside connection, and throughout the program I am here as a resource, someone for them to bounce ideas off of,” Gordon said.

AJ Gordon and Ajaipal Sekhon

AJ Gordon and Ajaipal Sekhon
Photo by Jeff Hobson

Gordon’s mentee is Ajaipal Sekhon, a small business owner and dental professional at Defiance Dental Studio. He said he feels the program is exciting, and he is eager to utilize the lessons learned in his business.

“I can say without reservation that I made a good decision; I’ve come in contact with some very inspiring local leaders as well as the individuals in my class who demonstrate the desire to better themselves, and that has already produced a profound effect on my own growth,” Sekhon said.

The program focuses on building connections and helping individuals understand the community and businesses, while learning key traits to becoming a leader. Throughout their time there, individuals had the opportunity to meet and listen to community leaders and their stories, take site visits, and learn leadership skills. 

Pacific Lutheran University professor Catherine Pratt has been an instructor and leader for the program for 10 years. 

“The university cares a lot about the program and community. We’ve been invested in the program for a long time, and we’ve been a part of the community for over 100 years,” Pratt said. “At the university, we care what happens here, and we want to develop leaders in our community.”

Being an instructor in the Business Leadership Academy means Pratt focuses on organizing the leadership-development content, and leading discussions on how to develop as a leader. 

“We look at each individual and focus on helping them grow as a leader. We do some personal assessments and allow them to craft their own leader development plan,” Pratt said. 

Pratt said the program works well for those searching for specific resources to build their future because of its targeted curriculum. “I love the program because I learn from every group and see/hear what they care about and how they are emerging as leaders,” she said.

With the South Sound business community thriving, and with Tacoma’s history and closeness, many feel the area is the perfect place to hold such a program. 

“South Sound is such a unique community, and it’s exciting seeing the people come together for a common purpose,” Pierson said, citing an example of a time when the community felt a local behavioral health hospital was needed. A partnership with CHI Franciscan and MultiCare was formed to breathe life into the potential hospital. 

“People come together for common purposes across all walks of life. It’s different than what we see in Seattle and King County,” Pierson said.

On April 3, the program celebrated the success of its graduates with a luncheon, during which each of the 22 students and their mentors were recognized. 

“The program was transformative. I went from not knowing anything about Tacoma to knowing so much — the history, leaders, local businesses — and being able to share that with other individuals. The connections are amazing,” Gordon said.