As a child, Julie Coons was fascinated by National Geographic. Her paternal grandmother introduced her to the magazine when she was in grade school, and ever since, she hasn’t been able to get enough of learning about other places, other peoples, and other cultures.
In college, it was this passion for exploring the unknown that led her to apply to study in Japan during her sophomore year. She’d signed up for Japanese lessons as a freshman on a whim, thinking that the class would be interesting, but that if she didn’t like it, she could always stop taking it. In fact, she took to Japanese quickly, fascinated by the language and the kanji characters of its complex alphabet. Not only did she love her time in Kyoto, living with a host family and enjoying a true immersion experience, she set her mind to coming back to Japan as soon as possible.
After her junior year, she was able to land a job at a McDonald’s in Kyoto, and while there, heard about a position with a Japanese department store. “The store was recruiting international employees, and my Japanese language teacher helped me get an interview,” Julie recalls. “In the fall they called and told me I’d have a job waiting when I graduated in May. They put the visa in and said, ‘See you soon!’ By August 1st, I was off to Japan with a job.”
For three years, Julie improved her language skills in her office on the 50th floor of the Sunshine Building, then the tallest building in Asia. “I hardly made any money,” she laughs, “but I lived a comfortable life and was able to travel. I didn’t live the ex-pat life and wasn’t around other Western people very much. I made great friends with many of my co-workers, and I still keep in touch with some of the women.” Those three years in Japan were a perfect launchpad for her career in the U.S., when she ultimately came home for a job at a Japanese TV station in Washington, DC.
This spirit of adventure has been the one constant in a lifetime of moves, risks, pivots, leaps, and accomplishments. Today, Julie is the President and CEO of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, a role she stepped into less than a year ago, but is already making great plans for. The Chamber is the largest in Virginia, and among the three largest business advocacy groups in the greater Washington area, along with the Board of Trade and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. They boast over 700 members of varying size, from large companies like Washington Gas and Cox Communications, to midrange government contractors, to small businesses with under 10 employees. Nearly 15% of their members are non-profits. “For most members, we can be their eyes and ears on the issues that affect them on a full-time basis,” explains Julie. “Most members don’t have the capacity, the time, or the expertise. We are a partner and an ally that monitors the broader business impact of local measures. We are there making sure that the things that need to happen, happen, and that the things that would hinder businesses in the area, don’t. So the return on investment is that we make sure businesses can continue to do what they do best in an unfettered fashion.”
“My mother will tell you I was determined from the time I was a toddler. Something about strong DNA!” Both parents had a strong work ethic and down-to-Earth nature that Julie says rubbed off on her.
The Chamber itself has a staff of 12, and right now Julie is focused on growth. She’s quick to point out that while membership growth is good, in and of itself, that membership growth needs to translate to revenue growth. In Julie, the Chamber found a CEO candidate with a history of successfully growing and developing businesses, as well as a deep knowledge of the region. She wasted no time getting down to business. “When I came onboard my initial goal was establishing a short-term, heavily operational but strategic plan,” Julie nods. “There were three major pieces of that—fiscal growth, regional leadership, and diversity. Operationally, I wanted to look at data and the back office. We ought to have the most amazing database, frankly, in the region. Our list should be unbelievable. And if you get the back-office right, growth can really take off—so getting really good clarity around some of these internal processes and reorganizing them as needed for maximum efficiency.”
Moving forward, Julie also wants to look more closely at what the Chamber can do that will have a more immediate impact on the Northern Virginia business community. Their focus has most recently included successful metro expansions, improvements to the local education system, and other long-term projects. But Julie hopes to pilot shorter-term projects, on a scale of 2-5 years, to address the workforce challenges in the region. “We’re testing the waters right now,” she notes. “If we get some really smart people around the table, that’s a next step that’s coming up over these next few months. There’s a big growth opportunity here.”
Julie comes by her adventurous nature honestly. Both of her parents hailed from Indiana, but decided to pick up and move to Southern California where Julie and her younger sister were born and raised. Both of her parents had been schoolteachers, but after her birth, her mother decided to stay at home with the kids while her father found a position working as an executive at McDonald’s. In Orange County, the girls had a swimming pool in the backyard, were active in the local church, rode their bikes to school, and played with the neighborhood kids. Twice a year, the family had a BBQ breakfast picnic on the beach, and for vacation, they often went to Hawaii.
Academically, Julie describes herself as “self-motivated”, recalling that her parents didn’t pressure her over grades or activities. She signed up for dance lessons and piano lessons, noting, “My mother will tell you I was determined from the time I was a toddler. Something about strong DNA!” Both parents had a strong work ethic and down-to-Earth nature that Julie says rubbed off on her.
Before she entered 6th grade, Julie’s dad received a promotion, and the Coons family moved to Northern California. Just a year later, they moved again, this time to Deerfield, Illinois, on the North Shore of Chicago. The back-to-back moves might have disturbed a shyer kid, but Julie found herself thriving. “It was its own adventure,” she smiles. “I think the biggest takeaway was that I certainly became very comfortable with change, and I still am. For some people, change is really tough, and certainly not everything is wonderful about it. But moving into new environments created a certain resiliency in me; it taught me you can move into new environments and, with some patience, you will be able to adjust and flourish. Change gives you the benefit of a variety of experiences.”
In Chicago, she earned her first dollars babysitting, and continued to do well in school. Julie still keeps in touch with some of the friends she made during her four years there, but before she entered junior year of high school, the family headed back to Southern California. After graduation, she entered the University of the Pacific at Stockton, where she signed up for Japanese lessons and became interested in going abroad. Ultimately she graduated with a BA in two majors: one in Japanese Language and Literature, the other in Economics. After her three years at the department store in Japan, Julie moved to Washington, DC for the job at Fuji TV. “My fundamental task there was to gather the news and help them understand it,” Julie describes. “My language actually improved significantly there because I now had to draw on a level of language I hadn’t before, explaining the nuances of political and news events.” She remembers covering the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the Iowa Caucuses of 1988, and the election of George H. W. Bush.
“But moving into new environments created a certain resiliency in me; it taught me you can move into new environments and, with some patience, you will be able to adjust and flourish.”
Julie enjoyed the news business, but after three years, she was offered an opportunity at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where she worked in the office of Japan on U.S./Japan trade policy for four years. After that, again taking something of a leap, she headed over to Fuji Bank, providing regulatory monitoring and government affairs lobbying services. She tracked developments in Washington closely, and wrote a weekly newsletter that was faxed to bank branches all around the globe.
Five years after that, Julie got her first opportunity to step into a management role with a job at a telecom company called Iridium. “I had the Asia portfolio, which was really exciting,” Julie remembers. “I went from having Japan, to managing a group of 3 or 4 territories. I had Korea, then Southeast Asia, then the Indonesia relationship. Over time, I became responsible for the Gateway group, which was all account managers for all the global relationships. It’s fascinating, what I learned there.” However, when things began to take a turn for the worse at Iridium, which eventually had to declare bankruptcy and reorganize, Julie set off in search of another business role.
This time, she landed at Teligent, another telecom company in the process of securing a license to operate a fixed wireless business in Hong Kong. She was only there a year and she helped them navigate the process, but she remembers enjoying her time there, which was spent travelling between Washington and Hong Kong.
Ever the adventurer, Julie then decided to try her hand at a Bay Area start-up pitching a data privacy technology. The concept was sound, the product impressive, and the people organized and competent, but the tech, Julie notes, was “ahead of its time.” They hired Julie to manage their relationship with a Japanese credit card issuer, but a mere six months later, she was laid off. The company had decided to sell the technology rather than take it to market themselves.
This was a new experience for Julie. Despite her adventures around the world, through various industries and up the corporate ladder, Julie had always stayed ahead of the unpredictable market forces of the day. Now she found herself at a crossroads, and she considers it, in retrospect, to be one of the most defining times of her life. “I started job hunting and this opportunity with a non-profit came to me,” Julie recalls. “I interviewed for it, thinking it might be kind of interesting. I’ve been in government, I’ve lobbied, I’ve now done private sector business development, I’ve done a variety of things but I’ve never tried a non-profit, so why not?” Julie joined PCIA, now WIA—the Wireless Infrastructure Association, and hit the ground running.
At WIA, she found an environment of pure chaos. The executives at the time had thrown good money after bad chasing a risky dream of international expansion at a time when even their domestic membership needed shoring up. Members were jumping ship left and right to join a competing organization. Eager for new blood and new leadership, the COO and CEO were happy to hear out and implement Julie’s plans for the struggling association, as she desperately worked to cancel bad contracts, refocus the organization, and right-size the staff. “There was a member segment that still desperately wanted this association—the tower industry,” Julie explains, “I said, we’re going to rebuild this association with them.” She focused on reinvigorating and reinventing the association’s tradeshow, a former money-maker that was struggling. A year into her time at WIA, Julie was already second-in-command at the association.
“…but balance your passions with the reality that it’s a long life. Start now, do something, start building something. Your passion will lead you where you need to go.”
In 2004, Julie left the association to take her first CEO position at the Tech Council of Maryland. By now, she had been bitten by the non-profit bug, and knew she wanted to stay in that sector. In contrast to her last role, the Council was already a solid, stable organization; they simply wanted Julie’s help putting them on the map. This role exposed her to the regional business community extensively, preparing her for work with the Chamber today.
From there, ever willing to travel, Julie accepted the CEO role at the Electronic Retailing Association (ERA), where she had the opportunity to work internationally again. Once more, she was hired on to stoke growth, and turn an association’s failing fortunes around. During her first year, the business lost $870,000. The second year, it lost a little less; $780,000. By the third year, the association was seeing classic hockey stick growth; all the changes Julie had instituted were taking off. Over her six-year tenure, she grew the net by nearly $2 million, leaving ERA in far better shape than she found it.
“The primary thing is to start looking at where your revenue comes from,” Julie explains of growth strategy. “Where is your biggest opportunity? In this case, it was a trade show and a conference. The show was in serious trouble, so I brought in a team of folks who had done big trade shows, restructured the pricing on it, and significantly increased member value for both exhibitors and members as quickly as I could. I branded it, I brought in an agency to do the marketing because it didn’t even have a name! We rebuilt these shows for them, created a high customer experience, and moved them to the Wynn Las Vegas Resort which brought us growth, growth, growth.”
As a leader, Julie considers herself to be empowering and goal oriented. “Clarity of goals is crucial,” Julie asserts. “Creating a common understanding of goals, and then having the creativity to implement them is crucial. I’m very accountable, but I don’t micromanage. I share my experiences, but I hope you bring your own. I look at leadership as a team sport. Certainly, the buck stops with me, and that’s the role I’ve chosen. I do set a standard of accountability with myself, I’m transparent about sharing my goals with the team. It’s important that everyone knows their role and that those roles are clearly delineated. If you need help along the way, a good leader can help to bring the staff along.”
To college students, Julie advises specialization and practicality, as well as an appreciation for passion. “Don’t abandon what you love,” Julie encourages. “Be practical about things, but you can still have hobbies. If you love to cook, you can still cook, but balance your passions with the reality that it’s a long life. Start now, do something, start building something. Your passion will lead you where you need to go.”