By Kim Piekos
You can sense Joanna Rolek’s stage presence the minute she walks in the door. She commands attention naturally, overflows with energy and enthusiasm and engages you in the story she has to tell.
As executive director of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce for the past 25 years, Rolek is devoted to supporting local stores and businesses as they build successful enterprises and navigate changes in the marketplace. Years ago, she saw them through increased competition from malls, big-box stores and discounters, and, more recently, she’s guided them through the challenges of Covid.
“I’ve seen incredible examples of humanity, community, spirit and generosity in this business community, especially the past few years," says Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joanna Rolek.
“I’ve learned the key is to leave your business open to opportunities,” she notes. “You can’t be singularly focused on one thing – you have to be able to shift, to pivot, to be resilient, because the world is constantly changing.”
Operatically trained at Boston University, Rolek performed in musical theatre productions nightly and recorded commercial voiceovers, all while garnering communications, promotion and management experience at the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Denver Symphony by day.
After relocating to Lake Bluff in 1980 with her family, Rolek promptly spread her professional wings locally. She earned her real estate license, worked for the Lake Forest Symphony, managed programming and publicity for the Gorton Community Center, freelanced for the Market Square Merchants Association and launched the North Shore Home and Garden Show while on staff at Griffith, Grant and Lackie. “I got to know Lake Forest and Lake Bluff very well,” she says.
Thus, when the need arose for a new executive director of the Chamber, Rolek was a natural choice. “Our offices back then were in the train station overlooking Market Square, more of a visitors center,” she reminisces. “A perfect place to remind me every day why I was there.”
Rolek cites the “really wonderful people” working in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff and being able to offer value and perspective for them as the best parts of her job. “I love connecting and working with people and celebrating their successes with them,” she says. “I’ve seen incredible examples of humanity, community, spirit and generosity in this business community, especially the past few years. People go out of their way to support local businesses and help each other out.”
Rolek notes how much times have changed since she began at the Chamber. “It was such a different world,” she recalls. “Back then, people didn’t want to leave town to shop. Merchants knew their customers; house accounts were common.”
When big-box stores and malls popped up, Rolek helped local stores reposition themselves to attract local business. “If you are a storekeeper, one of the things we were always touting was ‘You need to be the point of difference between shopping here and there,’” Rolek explains. “The reality is, being local and having personal relationships with customers was their point of difference. Shopping in our local stores brings joy to many residents. That creates loyalty. Residents see the value in shopping local.”
Covid threw business owners a curve ball, but they adapted. “Interestingly, there was a resurgence of energy within the local business community,” Rolek explains. “People were shell-shocked at first when they were told they had to close their doors. But some people were jazzed by the need to think and create outside the box and wanted to share ideas with others.”
The Chamber jumped in feet-first. “From the get-go, the Chamber was communicating important information we heard with our entire mailing list of 1,500 businesses,” Rolek remembers. “We asked what challenges businesses were facing, what their needs were and how we could help.” A series of workshops ensued, with local business owners presenting to their peers in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. Kathleen Wood, owner of Suzy’s Swirl and a Chamber board member, presented on the importance of resiliency and a growth mindset. Jeff Urso, president of Donati’s Pizza, shared his experience collaborating with Lake Bluff Brewery and Suzy’s Swirl and others to deliver food from multiple businesses to the same home. “Jeff and others started some magnificent collaborations right out of the gate, and he encouraged others to do the same,” Rolek says. “It was a brilliant business move and a brilliant community give-back.”
Today, there are approximately 400 members of the 70-year-old Chamber between the two towns. Members of the Chamber benefit from educational and training opportunities in best practices and trends, networking gatherings, promotional opportunities online, between businesses and business-to-consumer and marketing opportunities at special events.
Some popular community events are sponsored by the Chamber, including Restaurant Week, the Lake Forest Summer Sidewalk Sale, the Then and Now Auto Show in October, the Thanksgiving weekend Cocoa Crawl and the Lake Bluff Holiday Market.
“We’re always thinking of new ways to bring attention to the businesses in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff,” Rolek notes. “We want to showcase the businesses and provide opportunities for community spirit to flourish.”
Rolek -- only the second paid executive director in the Chamber’s history -- is grateful for her time leading the Chamber and supporting local businesses. “We are so blessed in these communities,” she believes. “If you really look at the heart of these towns, they are fabulous places to live, work and play. To be part of that has been a real privilege for me.”
Once again, Rolek will serve as the announcer for the Lake Bluff Fourth of July parade for the 15th year, a role she cherishes. And that love of musical theatre? Stay tuned: Rolek thinks it might be time for an uplifting show in our towns. “We’re always planning,” she says, with a smile and a sparkle in her eye.