Don’t be afraid to throw out convention and take risks, Madison-area business leaders were told Thursday night.

“Imagine Forward” was the theme of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner, and keynote speaker Beth Comstock urged the crowd not to resist change. This is the “age of emergent change,” she said.

“Change has to be part of your job,” Comstock said.

Comstock worked for GE for nearly 30 years, including two years as vice chairwoman. There were successes but there were also failures among some of GE’s attempts, for example, to plan ahead for renewable energy and for Internet programming, she said.

“You’ve got to be ready to fail,” said Comstock. “If failure is not an option, then neither is success.”

Comstock encouraged business leaders to follow their curiosity, not to take “no” for an answer, and to give themselves permission to act on their imagination.

“Once you’ve imagined (the future), you can start to shape it,” she said.

Chamber president Zach Brandon ticked off a list of Madison’s successes, as cited by national publications and surveys, praising the area’s diverse economy, high percentage of college graduates and increasing number of jobs that require digital skills.

“We’re coming for you Seattle — and hopefully, on a direct flight,” Brandon quipped.

chamber dinner

Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon called on business leaders to "Imagine Forward" at the chamber's annual dinner Thursday night at Monona Terrace. More than 1,000 people attended the event.

He said American Family Insurance’s newly completed Spark building, at 821 E. Washington Ave., home of the StartingBlock Madison entrepreneurial hub, will be a “catalyst” for the community and a “shiny beacon of Madison’s business future.”

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has some changes of its own in store, Brandon said, including a move to new quarters and new marketing tools.

Brandon hinted the chamber will have a new home along Capitol Square sometime in 2019, calling it “perfect space ... perfect view,” thanks to a long-term agreement with Urban Land Interests, owner of the building Brandon did not name.

Chamber spokesman Erik Greenfield later told the Wisconsin State Journal the organization will be housed in the U.S. Bank building, 1 S. Pinckney St.

The chamber has had temporary offices at 17 S. Fairchild St. since Dane County bought the association’s previous building, at 615 E. Washington Ave., in 2016 to turn it into The Beacon, a day resource center for people who are homeless.

The chamber also is working on a virtual reality marketing video that will feature items representing Madison’s most noteworthy or iconic features. Clicking on an item will bring up local scenes — for example, a sunburst chair will lead to a scene of Union Terrace, and a kayak will go to the “first light on Lake Monona,” Brandon said. Arch Virtual, of Madison, is building the platform, he said. The video will be used as a tool to recruit employees to work for Madison-area businesses.

chamber dinner

Serial tech entrepreneur Matt Younkle, chairman of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, says technology is now the fastest growing category in the chamber's membership.

On a more somber note, chamber board chairman and serial entrepreneur Matt Younkle reminded the crowd that not everyone is sharing in the city’s successes.

“These accolades ring hollow for certain members of our community,” said Younkle. He said Madison will not really succeed until everyone can share in the area’s economic bounty.

The annual dinner, at Monona Terrace, was “the largest business event ever (held) in Dane County,” Brandon said, with 1,058 people attending.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.