Whether it’s working in state government, doing post-hurricane response, sports, or even getting an autographed photo of Han Solo, Augusto Penaranda Jr. has been there and done that.
A Paterson native who has lived in Jersey City for almost four and a half years, Penaranda became the executive director of the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce (formerly known as the NJ LGBT Chamber of Commerce), an organization that supports LGBT businesses in the Garden State.
Penaranda, who’s openly gay, says that his main goal is to urge the governor’s office to commit towards supporting LGBT businesses and expanding their organization’s network throughout the state. On a local level, he’s looking to focus on both LGBT businesses and those that want to work with them.
Working with the New Jersey government
Penaranda has worked at the state government through three administrations and in multiple departments. He got started around two decades ago in what was then-known as the Schools Construction Corporation, where he was the communication’s person for all the new schools being built at the time during Gov. Jim McGreevy’s administration.
He was in the department in the midst of McGreevey’s resignation and a major scandal that was uncovered about the agency. During that time, he said that there was a communications blackout and we were unable to do anything. “There were no public events. Everything was low key until such time that the situation was resolved,” he said.
He continued to stay in the agency when it was replaced with the Schools Development Authority during Governor Jon Corzine’s administration. After Chris Christie became governor, he left to teach at Passaic County Community College as an adjunct professor and an admissions counselor.
Around 2017, Penaranda then joined the Red Cross as the Chief External Relations Officer of the New Jersey region in Princeton, where he was part of the response to multiple hurricanes that year, being on the ground for both Hurricane Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida respectively.
His proudest work was during Hurricane Maria, where he and the Red Cross communicated via satellite phone with Ana Montero, their CEO who was in Puerto Rico, coordinating resources such as shelters, generators, and other support staff. “It was a long 15 hour days in the Princeton office for quite some time,” he said.
He then worked as a public information officer with the Division of Consumer Affairs, an agency in the state Attorney General’s office that handles commerce, before eventually leaving around the beginning of 2020.
Goals with the Pride Chamber of Commerce
Penaranda’s previous experience working with the LGBT community was in the form of LGBT sports. He played football for the New York Ramblers, the New York Gay Flag Football League, and was the president of the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association.
“I don’t know if most people are aware, but it is a very profitable industry in which private sector organizations such as the franchises in the NFL and MLB are partnering up with different tournaments around the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not so much the politics of the individuals playing, it’s about the sport and the volume.”
Penaranda is currently the only paid staff member in the NJ Pride Chamber of Commerce, with everyone else a volunteer. “We have an incredibly talented board,” he said. “The expertise in each of the board members is directly connected to a service that we provide our members, and that is key. Everything from suppliers, diversity, communications, technology, membership, it’s all there.”
One of the primary goals for the chamber is to urge Gov. Phil Murphy to sign an executive order that will allow LGBT businesses in New Jersey to be in the same category as women and minority-owned businesses.
They are also focusing on their 2022 Realignment Plan, where they plan to expand their services into South Jersey such as Atlantic City and Camden. The chamber recently hosted an inaugural sold out brunch in Long Branch that included notable officials such as Congressman Frank Pallone Jr..
“We didn’t know if we’re going to get half of the room or some people,” he said. “I mean, it was Super Bowl Sunday, it was a great, beautiful day outside, so we didn’t know, and it turned out to be a success. It pretty much set the tone for what we’re going to do for the rest of 2022.”
He also said that they need to garner resources, increase the amount of town halls, focus on multiple languages they communicate in, and govern a budget.
“Hopefully with more members and more access to capital, we’ll be able to expand and grow things like our scholarships, and some community involvement,” he said. “Because chambers are specifically more about business, not so much societal issues, but you can’t have one without the other, obviously. So we just want to be aware and support what we can with the resources we have.”
Down at the local level, Penaranda says that it’s not just focusing on LGBT-owned businesses, but also those that want to do business with them. His goal is to increase that in Jersey City and expand that to other parts of New Jersey.
“You just need a service or a business that’s needed in a certain community, and then it just so happens that the owner may be LGBT – we want to help them open up their Main Street stores because they want to hire employees, so that’s good for the state. Two, they pay their taxes to the state, that generates revenue.”
Peneranda says that they have a big responsibility as they look to do what was done in other states such as New York and Pennsylvania for LGBT-owned businesses.
“New Jersey needs to do this,” he said. “It’s no longer an experiment. We have the data, it works, and we have to do right by LGBT-owned businesses in New Jersey.”