When Linda Wright was growing up in a tough Irish neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, the American Dream seemed just that -- a dream. Her dad was in and out of jobs; her mom had eight kids to feed. Now and then, the electricity would flicker off, or the telephone would go dead -- the result of unpaid bills.

For a little girl whose heart was set on taking ballet lessons, there was just one thing to do: take a job at Fazio's School of Dance and make the long walk there day after day to work and learn. "It was the only way I could afford to take dancing lessons," Wright said.

Faced with the same dilemma today, Wright would probably launch a dance studio business. Or perhaps a chain of them.

At 37, she has come a long way from unpaid bills and tight budgets and Chicago's South Side. Her resume is chockablock with the buzzwords of corporate success -- "chairman," "president" and "chief executive officer" -- and as the newly installed president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, she has become one of Northern Virginia's preeminent spokesmen on business issues.

President and CEO of Fairfax Savings Bank, former governor Charles S. Robb's choice as the first chairman of Virginia's two-year-old Small Business Financing Authority, former chairman of the Fairfax/Falls Church United Way and a current or former member of about a dozen boards of directors locally, Wright is by most accounts one of the most dynamic and committed private-sector leaders in the Washington area.

She is, by her own description, a woman who loves a cause, who loves making something from nothing, who is good at getting things started, bringing people into the fold, making them work and leaving them with their own momentum. Even in a reflective moment, as she recounts her own success, she gives off a high-strung, fingernail-tapping, foot-jiggling energy.

"I'm a sword-carrier," she said in a recent interview. "I'm an overachiever at work but I'm an overachiever in the community, too. I'm real committed to making a difference."

Many business leaders are hoping that Wright does indeed make a difference in their relations with the county government. For much of the past year, the Fairfax chamber, under then-President Karl Nelson, butted heads with the county, particularly on the question of the level and pace of development.

Nelson, an outspoken insurance executive, was criticized privately by some prominent businessmen for intensifying tensions with the county and injecting venom into the public debate.

"Linda is going to change the whole tenor and atmosphere of relations between business and the county," said Michael S. Horwatt, a lawyer and chamber officer. "She carries a lot of good will and the desire to make things work."

Wright, whose area of expertise is financing for small businesses, intends to concentrate more on that area than the chamber -- which has been accused of pandering to its big-name members -- has in the past.

"Eighty percent of our membership is small business," she said, adding that little effort is made in Virginia to generate venture capital for small enterprises. "There's a crying need for seed capital and start-up capital."

There is little question about her enthusiasm or ability. But for the first time in her career, Wright, who has had little involvement in politics, will be performing in a politically charged arena, and not only in the Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier this year, she accepted the presidency of an embryonic but already embattled organization called the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. The alliance, a business group whose avowed goal is to conduct an education and public relations campaign on transportation problems and solutions, has been criticized by some Democrats who say its real aim is to reelect probusiness Republicans to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors -- particularly Chairman John F. Herrity. Alliance officials deny this.

Herrity's opponent, Democratic Supervisor Audrey Moore of Annandale, says that Wright is an unwitting figurehead for powerful business interests.

"Mrs. Wright is obviously a lady of integrity and character," Moore said. "I also think she was unaware of the agenda behind the group's getting organized. {Alliance organizers} were really smart to put her in {as president} because she isn't knowledgeable in these affairs."

Although Wright concedes that she is not politically savvy, the suggestion that she is a figurehead at the alliance angers her. "I know about the perceptions. They're just wrong," she said. "I'm a good leader. I know that I'm probably more of a consensus-builder. You know why? Because that's how you get things done and move forward."

Linda J. Wright was born Dec. 14, 1949, the second of eight children. With money scarce in the family, she started working early while attending all-girl Catholic schools. "I was always a real aggressive kid," she said. "I wanted to earn money so I could have things."

Wright had a number of college scholarship offers, including one from Northwestern University. But she decided to attend Loretto Heights College, a Catholic school in Denver, "because I'd never been anywhere {and} I saw this college brochure that had horses and mountains -- it was like a dream."

She never graduated. Two years after enrolling, she married a cadet at the nearby Air Force Academy and then spent several years moving with him from one military base to the next. At the same time, she took college courses at night and worked in the day -- first in a variety of clerical positions at a bank in Illinois, and later as a health spa manager in Texas.

After the marriage dissolved, Wright moved to Northern Virginia in the mid-1970s and started working for the Enterprise Bank Corp. She began as a teller and finished seven years later as senior vice president, the bank's second-ranking officer.

Despite her longstanding apprehension that the lack of a college degree would hinder her career, Wright was approached in 1983 by investors who were starting the Fairfax Savings Bank.

Today she has remarried and lives in Great Falls. Her salary is in the six figures -- a milestone that she said is important to her. "If you had told me five years ago that I could accomplish that, I wouldn't have believed it. It's a good feeling," she said.

But she added: "I used to think it was all about money, but it's more than that. It's wanting to be able to be proud, wanting to be able to say that who I was was meaningful."