Global Conversations With: Lindi Von Mutius, Executive Director of the German American Chamber of Commerce in Philadelphia

Sharnita Midgett, for GPA -- The German American Chamber of Commerce in Philadelphia (GACC) was established in 1989 to promote the development of trade and investment opportunities between the United States and Germany. The GACC promotes business relations between the two countries by utilizing local contacts, knowledge and an international network. Since its inception, the GACC has become one of the most innovative providers of services for German-American trade. In February 2013, former attorney Lindi Von Mutius was hired as the executive director of this organization and since then, she has been helping German companies with legal counsel and acting as the liaison between companies in Germany and German companies in Philadelphia.

What were your previous roles before becoming the GACC’s executive director?

I was an attorney for four years. I graduated law school in 2008, so from 2008 until 2013, I was an attorney. I worked at two law firms in this area, both in New Jersey. The first was Flaster/Greenberg and the second was Fox Rothschild. I was an attorney, then before law school and graduate school, I worked for a year and a half at the World Bank on the environmental technology grants in the Middle East. I was stationed in Cairo, Egypt, but I had worked specifically with one nonprofit in Egypt called the Association for the Protection of the Environment. They had a number of projects in environmental technology and awareness throughout Egypt. Also, I worked for six months towards the end of high school and beginning of college for John Kerry when he was the Senator of Massachusetts.

Can you describe some of the history behind the GACC and what it does for the city?

The GACC is part of the German government. The structure of it is that we are part of the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy, and that agency funds the DIHK, an umbrella organization that runs all of the German chambers of commerce all over the world. Within Germany there are 80 chambers and you find one chamber of industry and trade in every major German city. Under German federal law, every organization is required to be a part of, or to be a member of, its local chamber of commerce. The whole system is funded by membership dues paid by corporations in Germany.

Chambers located in foreign countries such as the GACC are known as AHKs. There are 120 AHKs all over the world. There’s at least one in 80 different countries. In the U.S. there are seven.

We were founded in 1989 and are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. Basically, we are a branch of the chamber in New York, but we also have our own autonomous board of directors. A lot of what we do is directed by the DIHK and the goals that all the chambers have together. Along with the German government, we help companies from Germany enter the United States.

Some of what I do is to give legal advice and help with legal problems that German companies might have when coming to the United States. For example, they don’t know which corporate structure fits them best for doing business here, so I try to advise them with things like that. Also, when legal problems pop up for German companies, if it’s something basic enough that I can handle it on my own, I’ll do that. If it’s complicated, then I’ll refer them to a law firm here in Philly or wherever they might need it.

Sometimes companies will call up and say they’re looking for a business partner. I’ll put together a list of possible business partners, introduce them and help them with the language barrier. A lot of it is also helping the companies here in Philly that want to do business in Germany because it goes both ways. I try to work really closely with the people who represent the city of Philadelphia and the Department of Commerce. Also, I try to work with the state of Delaware and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because when they have companies coming from Germany, I’ll go to meetings and I’ll talk to them about German companies doing well here and it comforts them a little to know that there’s a presence here to rely on.

What was the career path that drew you to this organization?

It was a little strange I shall say. Basically, what drew me to this job in particular was that I had been working as a big firm lawyer for four years and then I got lymphoma and I had to take seven months off from work because when I caught it, it was pretty advanced and I had to do chemo and have surgery. So as I was home, I started thinking about what the next steps of my career would be. I always knew I wanted to do something with my German background. I’m half German and half Caribbean. My mom is from British Guiana which is now Guyana, and a lot of my family comes from Barbados.

I have this Caribbean and German heritage, but I grew up as a child in Germany. I speak German and I went back and studied abroad there. I always wanted to use my German in my professional life. When the lady who used to run the chamber was retiring, she encouraged me to think about this job. So I applied and I got accepted.

For me the decision was, I’ve been a lawyer for long enough that I can afford to take a little break and maybe I should try this and see what it’s like to work for an organization like this. I said if it doesn’t work out, I could just go back to being a lawyer. I felt like it was the right time to take a career risk and try something new because I had established myself as an attorney. I know that I could go back to that if I needed to. I’m happy that I did take this risk because, even though it was a pay cut from what I was making as a lawyer, and even though it was a completely different skillset for me, this job gave me a lot of satisfaction and I really enjoy it.

This job has taught me a lot and helped me see what I’m good at. It was a worthwhile career risk to take. Also it was good timing, because if the previous executive director hadn’t been retiring, the job wouldn’t have been open. And if I hadn’t gotten cancer, I may not have bothered taking a break. It was a lot of things that came together that made me think about what else I could do with my life.

What would you highlight as the greatest benefits of being part of the GACC?

I think the benefits are the members. Ideally, any chamber that is a member organization, the strength is in its members. Our biggest strength is the fact that when you join, you can meet people who are employed by and run German companies, who are interested in German trade and business. It’s useful for German companies to join when they first get here because it’s an instant networking opportunity for them. Some of the older members who are established American companies enjoy it as well because they get to know the German companies. And that is the major advantage of the chamber. I see my job as basically a matchmaker. My job is to bring people together who can help each other and work together in ways that they may not find on their own.

Photo courtesy of the GACC.