Looking for Leaders

Chamber of Commerce program helps foster sense of community

Outsiders often suffer from the common misconception that Las Vegas has no community. But ask many longtime residents, and they still hold the mindset that Las Vegas is a small town.

Unfortunately, as in many small towns, it can be difficult for newcomers to connect with our community’s entrenched social networks. Las Vegas compounds this problem by burying its small community within a huge city. However, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce created the Leadership Las Vegas program 25 years ago to address this problem.

Most residents still have never heard of the program. Leadership Las Vegas has more than 900 graduates, and has led to many community projects being started or strengthened, including DJs for PJs and the Three Square BackPack for Kids food program. “You start to really understand how our community is intertwined,” says 2007 graduate Cara Roberts, director of public relations for the chamber.

Each year, the Leadership Las Vegas organizers, all former graduates of the program, select 48 applicants from a diverse cross section of industries, incomes, ages and backgrounds. Students share the potential to contribute to the Las Vegas community, but are otherwise notable mostly for how different they are. This is not just a club for old, rich white guys.

Not everyone can get in, though. Each student must pay $3,500 (but there are some discounts and partial scholarships) and tuition is nonrefundable, even if a student quits or gets dropped for missing too many sessions. In addition, there are usually two or three times as many applicants as positions available. Applicants from overrepresented professions face even more competition, since only a sample from each profession will get in.

The program has grown slightly, from 40 students in 1986 to 48 today, but the class size is deliberately kept small to encourage the students to form strong relationships, which is a crucial element of the program.

“We really try during the interview process to discern whether or not these people have either the ability to lead or the desire to lead, and if they really want to learn more about the community in order to make a difference,” says Aggie Knoblock, Leadership Las Vegas council chairwoman and properties director at Thomas & Mack Co.

The students spend 10 months together, during which they work on joint projects and attend intensive daylong sessions once a month on different aspects of Las Vegas, including criminal justice, education, gaming and tourism. By sharing these experiences, students learn from each other and form solid working relationships, which often last years after graduation.

The program has proven to be very successful, and the cities of Henderson and North Las Vegas both have similar programs of their own.