Darien Marion Burton sits for a photo inside his office on Monday, Nov. 15, in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

Oak Park native and local business owner Darien Marion-Burton has been elected as the new board president of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce, making him the self-described “youngest, Blackest, gayest” person to ever assume the position. The 28-year-old, whose term begins in January, is succeeding Dr. Mary Ann Bender, who championed the business community during the height of the pandemic.

“Mary Ann has done so many great things for our organization, and really positioned us in a place where we’re a voice of authority,” said Marion-Burton. “My goal is to capitalize on that.”

Though his age puts him well below that of the typical chamber member, Marion-Burton is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to leadership experience and zeal. Since becoming a member in 2018, he has been active in a variety of chamber events, including co-captaining the volunteers of Bite Night in 2020. He has also worked on the planning committee for the chamber’s Golf Outing event, hosted the chamber’s podcast and acted as membership ambassador. For the past year, he has served as a director on the chamber board.

Liz Holt, chamber executive director, gave Marion-Burton her stamp of approval. Holt told Wednesday Journal she and Marion-Burton have been working together since he opened his own marketing firm D.M. Burton in 2018, which has allowed Holt to watch his success grow.

“I know Darien is just what we need as we move into 2022 – strong leadership with a keen sense of community, and a good balance of business acumen and vision for a strong future,” Holt said.

Darien Marion Burton stands for a photo inside his office on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

Bender is similarly pleased that Marion-Burton will take over the presidential post. The two have been working together as Bender transitions out of the role and Marion-Burton into it.

“As a small business owner, he can relate to what our businesses go through every day – not only the struggles but also the daily success stories,” Bender said.

Marion-Burton was also quick to share his appreciation of Bender, under whose leadership the chamber’s advocacy efforts increased exponentially. Bender was only two months into her term when COVID-19 hit, necessitating her to take on the unenviable task of working to keep the reeling business community afloat.

“She led us with such integrity and grace through that,” said Marion-Burton.

Come January, Marion-Burton intends to not only continue Bender’s work but expand upon it. He plans to address poor employee retention, which many businesses are experiencing throughout the country, by establishing some sort of workforce development program or employee sharing system. Marion-Burton also intends to double down on the chamber’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, starting with the creation of a new chamber affinity group for people of color.

“One of my big things is I want to institute a BIPOC businessowners group,” he said. “We have a lot of affinity groups, but that one just hasn’t existed.”

This particular affinity group is needed as non-white people face unique challenges when starting businesses that white people generally do not, said Marion-Burton. He believes COVID-19 served to highlight those challenges, which include not having access to capital.

As president, Marion-Burton hopes to grow the chamber’s young professional membership-base. While he has always felt welcomed by the chamber, he understands that others may not feel as comfortable getting involved.

“I think our chamber itself is so special and I just want everybody to experience that.”

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