“I love San Rafael—it’s an urban hometown. It’s not the city, but it’s not a sleepy town either. It has a little bit of everything, including interesting merchants, who are engaged in the community. The synergy between local government, the schools and the business community is strong.”—Joanne Webster, president and CEO, San Rafael Chamber
The young girl who grew up in Swampscott, a small, ocean-side town outside Boston wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she grew up. But by high school, Joanne Webster decided to pursue a career in business. She went on to study mathematics and computer science at Boston College. When she graduated, she was on her way, accepting a position as a programmer for a new software engineering firm, before startups were a thing.
As a young woman, she caught the Boston & Maine commuter rail to the city each morning in her navy suit with her Walkman headphones in place, wearing Reebok sneakers, and stashed her pumps in a briefcase. “This was before the era of startups, and this was a company that was growing by leaps and bounds,” Webster recalls. Though she hadn’t considered moving to the west coast, her life soon changed direction.
“I met a man and fell in love,” she says with a laugh. That man was Charlie Garfink and his family had invested in a Double Rainbow Café franchise, a gourmet ice cream and desserts café. Charlie moved to California in 1985 to go into business with his brother. Three months later, Joanne followed. “Here I was the little red-headed girl moving to the Golden State,” she says. They began by opening a franchise in Los Gatos with the intention of expanding. In 1988, they purchased the rights to open a second location in San Rafael and operated their business on Fourth Street for the next 20 years. “We were hands-on owners and raised our girls in the back room,” says Webster. Along the way, she became passionate about San Rafael and advocating for the business community. In 2001, she assumed the mantle of director for the Downtown San Rafael Business Improvement District. In 2011, she served as the chamber’s director of marketing and community promotion and in 2015, the board appointed her president and CEO.
“I love San Rafael—it’s an urban hometown. It’s not the city, but it’s not a sleepy town either. It has a little bit of everything, including interesting merchants, who are engaged in the community,” she says. “The synergy between local government, the schools and the business community is strong.”
As a leader, Webster relies on that synergy and connection to keep the business community thriving. As a result, policy- and decision-makers often reach out to the chamber for input. “I believe it’s unusual and exciting, and helps us move the community forward together,” she says. As an organization, we understand the importance of the business community to the ecosystem, she adds, and it was only magnified last year when shelter-in-place orders brought business to a standstill.
As to her approach to managing the pandemic, Webster admits she mostly relied on her New England, pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-keep-fighting mindset in the early days. “We kept pushing forward, answered lots of questions and became a reliable resource hub to help businesses navigate through it,” she says. “We wanted the business community to lean on the chamber and not give up. All of the information opportunities that came on fast and furious was confusing.”
When businesses shuttered, Webster and team made the decision to help all business, not just members and worked quickly to set up a relief fund. “We had set up a 501(c)(3) foundation in 2019 to solicit charitable donations for women in leadership, but we quickly moved to legally modify the bylaws so we could accept donations for disaster relief, too.” They also devised a plan to distribute funds, which included drafting eligibility requirements and forming a grant selection committee. Since then, the chamber’s Educational Foundation has distributed more than $250,000 to small business owners who’ve used the funds to stay in business and keep people employed before the PPP loan program originated. When the chamber saw that its emergency small business relief program was working, they shared it with other chambers in Marin County.
Today, Webster has high hopes for the future. “I attended the grand opening of the Farmers Market last night and the atmosphere was popping—people seem optimistic and hopeful,” she says. “Marin County has done a great job with vaccinations. People feel more comfortable. We want our employers and employees to feel comfortable, too.”
As business continues to open in San Rafael, Webster is spending more time in the chamber office on Mission Avenue. “We are open and welcoming people, again, and happy to see anyone who stops by.” As to winning Best Business Community Leader, she says, “I’ve known others I’ve admired who’ve been recognized in the past. I am honored.”
When she’s not at work, Joanne is enjoying life at home in Fairfax. Her daughters, Anna and Meghan, now grown, are a source of inspiration to her. “They’re beautiful, smart and courageous, and I listen to them intently. They are my bellwether,” she says. In their spare time, Joanne and Charlie like to hit the trails in the water district for a hike or a ride on their mountain bikes in the place they call home and remain passionate about since arriving more than 30 years ago.