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Vancouver networking group Impactful People NW ends with a crash

Group dissolves after former executive director comes under investigation by Clark County Sheriff’s Office

By , Columbian Business Editor
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Impactful People NW board meetings have often been a mixture of business and frivolity. The April 15 meeting, however, was all business.

That’s because it was time to dismantle the fledgling Vancouver-based business networking organization.

“It was somber,” said board member Angela Engstrom, a Vancouver lawyer.

Board members had learned the nonprofit organization’s founder, executive director Erika Laws, was under criminal investigation. “There’s some suspicion of co-mingling of funds and some financial issues,” Engstrom said, declining to elaborate.

Within a few hours, the board voted to remove Laws and begin the process of dissolving the 5-year-old group. Laws, who earlier this year sought appointment to the Vancouver City Council, was not at the meeting, having been told to not attend.

In short order, the Impactful People NW website was scrubbed of content, save the board’s statement about the organization’s end. Its Facebook page featured the same statement — along with dozens of photos of smiling people, suggesting that at one time Impactful People NW meant more than the alleged malfeasance of its executive director and president.

“It was a social networking group for up-and-coming small business entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses,” said Sunny Parsons, owner of Heathen Brewing, whose Feral Public House in downtown Vancouver and Heathen Estate near Brush Prairie served as donated meeting space. “Kind of a grassroots community thing. It was a good group of people.”

Laws started a group called Impactful Women NW in February 2014. After assembling a board of directors, she launched Impactful People NW and Impactful Men NW. The three organizations did business under the umbrella of Impactful Women NW, which attained nonprofit status in April 2017 from the Internal Revenue Service.

Laws, in an interview last week, said she started Impactful Women NW because she saw a need.

“There wasn’t a women-only group,” Laws said. “There were a lot of mixed groups.”

Laws declined to discuss the criminal investigation or fallout from the dissolution of the Impactful nonprofit organizations.

About a year after starting Impactful Women, Laws went to work at the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce as its marketing and events director. By the time she left in August 2017, the development of Impactful People NW and Impactful Men NW was underway.

And shortly before going to work for the Chamber, Laws started her business, Impactful Sales Solutions. She has said her duties with the company include running sales training workshops, helping companies put together job descriptions and commission strategies and handle accounting, tax preparation and filing.

While she doesn’t have a college degree, Laws, in the interview, pointed to her work experience as her major qualification for offering expertise.

Before starting her company and in addition to the chamber, Laws worked six months as a call center supervisor, about a year as a digital marketing sales manager and, from 2006 to 2013, as a Nautilus Inc., sales supervisor. She’s had other sales-related jobs. And for three months last year, she was an dealer at ilani near Ridgefield.

Laws quickly built a following for her Impactful social organizations — arranging events and tapping into an apparent demand for something other the pre-existing networking groups. Photos of well-known faces are sprinkled throughout the Facebook page for Impactful People NW.

Recognizable faces

Former Mayor Tim Leavitt recalled Laws, an acquaintance from her work with the Chamber, asking him to attend an event. He did, with the visit recorded in an Impactful People NW Facebook photo.

“Energetic, ambitious young lady in terms of her entrepreneurial spirit,” Leavitt said in an interview with The Columbian. “She seemed like she was well liked. She seemed like she had a positive attitude.”

Other recognizable faces answered invitations: Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz, who last year was the recipient of the “Impactful Woman of the Year” award; Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle; and Kara Fox LaRose, the ilani president and general manager, who was an event speaker. There’s also a Facebook photo of Laws and Sherri McMillan, Northwest Personal Training owner and fitness columnist for The Columbian.

That Facebook page also reflects the support Laws had and still maintains.

“She’s genuine, caring and a powerhouse beyond words,” says part of a lengthy unattributed testimonial. “Erika wants to see people show up for others. She wants to support local. She is community. I’ve met some of the most incredible people because she recognizes and pairs good fits. Erika isn’t one to do this for personal gain, she is bold and hard to the core, but she’s fair. She’s real.”

The organization’s downfall, however, has others reassessing their previous beliefs.

Michelle Bart, president and co-founder of the Vancouver-based National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation, said she once considered Laws a friend. Now, she’s concerned that the questions surrounding Impactful People NW will adversely affect other nonprofits, including her own.

When Impactful Women registered with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office in February 2016, Lani Grass was listed as a “governor” along with Laws on the document. Grass declined to be interviewed for this article.

Vancouver lawyer Phillip Harberthur is named “registered agent” on the document. An Impactful board member said Harberthur is overseeing the organization’s dissolution. He declined to comment through an employee at the law firm where he works.

Blake Sakamoto, on the other hand, is keeping an open mind.

Sakamoto is a Portland-based musician whose group, the Nu Wavers, performs often in Vancouver. If he was at a WareHouse ’23 gig, Sakamoto said, he could count on Laws rounding up at least one full table of guests. He met Laws when she worked at the Chamber.

Earlier this year, Sakamoto received an “Impactful Person of the Year” award.

After he heard about the events in mid-April, he sent a text to Laws saying they were still friends, no matter what.

But even Sakamoto says he’s curious about what’s behind Impactful’s demise.

Investigation underway

Detective Jon Shields, fraud and forgery specialist in the Clark County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Division, confirmed last week, “there is a criminal investigation underway,” and said the probe is in a preliminary stage.

Shields, declining to divulge details of the case, said another government agency alerted his office to “irregularities in (Impact’s) finances and forwarded it to me for investigation.”

Danielle Reyes is among a small group who have heard the allegations but are sworn to secrecy.

Reyes, one of five executive board members, says she was crucial to launching and growing Impactful Men NW. She is often pictured with Laws throughout the Facebook page, but says she has not spoken to Laws since the news broke in mid-April.

Now, the Bleu Door Bakery server says she is disillusioned.

“Impact was a part of me. It was my passion,” she says, adding that helping to grow the organization, “is a huge part of why I’m part of this community.”

But with numerous business networking and professional organizations in the community, why was Impactful People NW even needed?

Of the handful of people interviewed for this story, several mentioned the lack of a membership fee or any other expense — only the purchase of food or beverage at a hosting location.

Reyes, though, said, Impactful attracted nearly 300 members because of a need.

“There was a gap,” she said. “There’s an old Vancouver and new Vancouver. They (old Vancouver) stick to their cliques and stick to their people.”

Impact events, she said, offered attendees a chance to exchange business cards and business tips and “be themselves. They had a place where they felt comfortable.”

John McDonagh, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, said he was puzzled about the need when Impactful formed.

McDonagh acknowledged there are plenty of business networking groups in Clark County, but he said he didn’t see them as a threat to the GVCC.

“Folks find what they are looking for in different forms and in different organizations,” he said. “Our chamber has a very specific networking activity once a week, for members and nonmembers.”

McDonagh declined to comment on Laws’ work at the Chamber.

Tina Vlachos can see the benefits of participating in multiple networking organizations, including Impactful People NW.

Vlachos, owner of an American Family Mutual Insurance Co. agency in Vancouver, recalled attending an Impactful event after responding to a Facebook invitation. She noted that the event was free.

But Vlachos also is a member of the Rotary Club of Three Creeks, which often participates in civic projects. And she’s a member of a local chapter of the national 100+ Women Who Care. That nonprofit collects $100 per member at its meetings for distribution to a charity.

But ultimately, Vlachos said, networking is important.

“Branding is important. Getting yourself and your business out there,” she said. “High cost, no cost or low cost, it’s a good way of getting your name out there — building relationships and meeting with like-minded professionals.”

Columbian Business Editor

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