Ramon Gandaarse is a native of Bogota, Colombia, who was adopted by Dutch parents at birth. He grew up outside New York City, played hockey at a prep school, studied at the University of Arizona, was an intern for television journalist Geraldo Rivera, ran the staff of Tucson City Council member Kathleen Dunbar, and led the Metropolitan Pima Alliance.
All before the age of 30.
“It’s really, really crazy,” Gandaarse says of his unique life path.
Now, at 31, he’s the new president and chief executive officer of the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce. Gandaarse completed his first full week on the job Friday.
“It interests me because I really enjoy working with small business,” Gandaarse said.
That appreciation stems from his father, Rene Gandaarse, an entrepreneur who “grew quite a business” in chemical shipping. “I have a passion for those people who work day in, day out to keep their business running.”
Gandaarse wants to help those people. In his new position, he is placing emphasis upon chamber involvement in public policy-making.
“It’s vital for this position,” Gandaarse said. “Chambers are, obviously, typically known for networking.” But the advocacy duty is critical, he said. Gandaarse wants to educate members about issues, and learn their reactions. If members want the chamber to take a position, “we need to tell that decision to our elected officials before they make a decision that can hurt the business community.”
He said as much Thursday, at his first chamber breakfast.
“We’re here to protect your business, and the business community,” Gandaarse told the audience. “Are there issues that are facing you? Please let us know.”
His first week on the job, Gandaarse was “making sure my e-mail works, make sure I can contact members, learn about my staff. Maybe next week, where we are financially.”
He takes it all in stride, perhaps reflective of an atypical life.
Rene and Josee (Van Reijn) Gandaarse adopted Ramon at birth. “I’ve always been open about it,” Ramon said of the adoption. “I have no qualms, that’s for sure.”
The family moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., when Ramon was a young boy. He attended Trinity Pawling preparatory school outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “I loved prep school,” he said.
Gandaarse came to the University of Arizona so he could attend “a bigger school with lots of diverse people, and to see and experience a new part of the country.
“I wanted to get into the media field,” Gandaarse said. He loved watching television news, and in particular ABC’s Peter Jennings. “I watched the news, to see how it worked.”
Gandaarse sought an internship with the MSNBC program “Hardball” and its host, Chris Matthews. He met Matthews, who said his internship roster was full. Matthews knew Rivera had attended the U of A, so he put in a word for Gandaarse with Rivera.
“It was probably the most interesting experience of my life,” Gandaarse said of his Rivera internship. “It was the goal of goals in media.”
Eventually, Gandaarse decided the itinerant media life was not for him. He changed his major to communications. After school, he worked at the WB Network, then hooked on with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where he made a connection to join the Tucson Chamber of Commerce.
“I knew what a chamber did,” he said. “I didn’t know what they did in Tucson.”
After three years at the Tucson chamber, he joined the staff of Tucson City Council member Kathleen Dunbar. Then came his chance at the MPA, a group that advocates for collaborative housing and business development with government. He enjoyed that work, but was receptive to the NPCCC position after Jerry Bustamante resigned to become head of the Chandler chamber.
For fun, Gandaarse dons the roller blades one night a week for hockey. He loves baseball, barbecuing, and working on the house with his longtime partner Angela Romero, who has a son Gabriel, 9. They have a few dogs, too.