DJ Gardner of the MetroNorth Chamber
DJ and I take a deep dive into what it means to follow your gut and stay positive amidst the most difficult trials.
I met DJ Gardner on a rainy afternoon at a Caribou in Roseville. After looking around some, I received an email from DJ describing herself. Spotting her with ease this time, I approached the table where she was sitting and introduced myself. “You were looking for me with a different hair color weren’t you,” she said eyeing me. I nodded. “Oh, that’s because I wear wigs,” she said pointing to her hair. “And today’s wig is a different color from what I normally wear at the chamber. I got something to eat too. You can write that in your article; ‘She was hungry and she wears wigs.’” I laughed outright, feeling like DJ and I made a connection.
I told DJ I was also going to get something to eat, and she waved me away with her hand, saying she had plenty of time. When I came back, she asked me what I got to snack on, and I showed her the dark chocolate graham squares I purchased. “Oh, it’s dark chocolate,” she said. “Dark chocolate is super healthy and that doesn’t work for me.” I chuckled, but made no comment, deciding to get out my laptop. I told DJ I never would’ve guessed she wore a wig. “I know, right?” she said touching her hair and smiling.
After some pleasantries, we dove right in. I was curious how DJ was connected with the chamber and what made her want to work at MetroNorth full time. “Lori and I knew each other for a long time,” DJ began. “I started as a member five or six years ago when I was with Metro Dental Care and then with Prime Advertising. Lori said, ‘You know, the I-94 Chamber has an opening for president, you should go for it,’ so I did. And I loved it, but I wasn’t president material. Meaning, the president is responsible for casting the vision, and I prefer to execute another’s vision.”
DJ’s stint at the I-94 chamber lasted a few years until MetroNorth had an opening. “I pretty much begged Lori for it,” DJ said laughing. She explained that her role on the MetroNorth team is the member manager and she also helps execute whatever plan Lori has thought up. “This morning she had an idea for a gala. She comes up with the ideas for that gala, she sets the idea in motion and we set the plan in motion. I like the to-do list.”
DJ also told me that she greatly enjoys taking care of people, which is another reason she enjoys her role at the chamber so much. “I like to take care of people before they even ask,” DJ said. “I like to see who is hiring, who has an event and get the information out. Sometimes I’ll email people when a site link isn’t working. So, I like to watch out for everybody.”
DJ also explained that she does a lot of cold calling and asking different small businesses if they would consider joining the chamber. Many small business owners wonder what being part of a chamber can provide, and DJ explained to me just how hard the chamber works for its members, with a lot of work going on behind the scenes. “It’s the resources we can provide,” DJ affirmed. “For some businesses, it’s helping them sort through township regulations about how big their sign can be, or something like how to fire an employee. The chamber helps with all of that.”
The chamber’s vast network includes knowledge about resources that can help small business owners. The state offers various grants and programs many people aren’t aware of. But one phone call to the chamber is all it takes to get answers for most problems small businesses have. “What Holly and I do, is we match people with opportunities,” DJ perfectly explained. “For instance, if somebody is looking for an HR manager, we can make a recommendation based on who we think would be a good fit.”
The chamber can also help business owners who need some good ideas to jump-start their business. “Let’s say you’re a small business owner and you’re stuck in a corner. You might be asking yourself, ‘Why is no one coming?’ Your first call should be to the chamber. Or maybe you’re a big business with issues concerning overtime and minimum wage. We can help with that.”
Lori works very closely with various state legislators to make sure businesses have a voice in government. Being part of the chamber means a business owner can voice their concerns to someone who has their best interest in mind. “Who is going to have more pull? Our chamber with 750 members or 1 person?” DJ said.
Everything about the chamber’s existence is for the benefit of businesses in Anoka County. The events, the networking opportunities, the guest speakers, and family-like aspect are all thanks to the vision set forth by Lori and the MetroNorth team, and the willingness of the businesses owners to get behind that vision. Personally speaking, I’ve been to many networking events, and the MetroNorth chamber definitely stands apart.
Shifting our conversation away from the MetroNorth, I asked DJ to give me some background to her story. Was she always planning on working in the nonprofit sector? She shook her head. “I graduated with an English degree, then I worked in New Jersey. Sick of the corporate world, I quit and moved to Virginia Beach to be a bartender. Laid on the beach all day, worked at night. That’s where I met my first husband.”
DJ told me her and her first husband are good friends these days, and everything worked out well in the end, even if it wasn’t meant to be. “My son is the real-life version of Rain Man,” she said. “He’s amazing and I love him so much. And last year, I went to my high school reunion and married my high school sweetheart. And I married him in three days!”
Okay, hold on a second. We needed to pause a moment because this was a story that was too good to pass up. I asked DJ to backtrack a bit and tell me some more detail. She grinned. “I flew in early and we spent some time together,” DJ said. “We went hiking on the East Coast, we went to this nice restaurant and I looked at him and he looked at me, and we just knew. I follow my gut on 99% of the stuff I do. He said, ‘Don’t you think we should get married?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but I want a ring first.’”
I gave a hearty laugh to that and began gushing about how romantic it was. I asked DJ how her husband was liking the Twin Cities. “He loves it,” she said with a smile. “I’m dying of heat and he thinks it’s great. He gets along well with my son too.”
DJ began to tell me that she spends a lot of time studying physics and religion. I was curious and asked why. “I believe that physics and religion are the same thing,” DJ said. “Not everybody can be the same, so I believe there are different ways you interpret God. I believe in all kinds of things, and there’s a lot that’s interlocking. I don’t believe you have to exclude beliefs. Maybe how one person gets to God is different than another person.”
Impressed with DJ’s love of deep studies, I asked her if there was anything else she liked to do in her spare time. She told me she’s also a history buff and loves hiking. “I’m a nature person,” she said. “If there’s anything I could do, it would be to string up a hammock in the world and take a nap. Or, I’d go scuba diving. I’ve always been fascinated with marine life, learning everything and anything I can.”
DJ’s upbeat and positive outlook on life comes from how much she’s overcome. “I grew up in absolute hell,” she said. “My father was abusive, a nightmare. If anybody was going to turn out as criminals, that would be me and my brother. But we turned out very respective. They didn’t think that was going to happen. That childhood made me resilient.”
Even different psychologists have been impressed with DJ’s attitude. “I wanted to quit smoking and I couldn’t, so I thought if I went to a psychologist and told him everything, I could quit,” DJ said with a glint in her eye. “You know what he said?” I shook my head and waited for her to continue. “He said, ‘My God. Smoke if you want!’” We both laughed.
“I don’t smoke anymore though,” DJ continued. “I don’t drink and I work out. My only vice is chocolate cake. You have to have something, right?”
I nodded, and from there our conversation took a natural flow. She asked me a lot about myself, and I was so grateful that I got to spend the afternoon getting to know her. Having now interviewed most of the MetroNorth team, I fully understand why the chamber is so special. If you’d like to become a member of the chamber or contact DJ, please go to Metronorthchamber.org or email DJ at Dj@metronorthchamber.org