Joanna Rolek’s dining room table at her home in Fort Sheridan has doubled as her work desk for … too many weeks. The pandemic has reduced the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce executive director’s commute from miles to footsteps.
It’s the last day of April, the day before a smattering of businesses—gardening centers, beauty supply stores, pet grooming, and golf courses— would be permitted to reopen in Illinois.
Rolek calls this journalist mid-afternoon to talk shop and a wide range of other topics, from her reign as “Queen of the IBM Selectric” (she was a supersonic typist) to her theatrical and musical performances at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) to her encounters with Yo-Yo Ma and Johnny Mathis as the Denver Symphony Orchestra assistant director of public relations.
The prearranged phone interview is commitment No. 3 for Rolek today, following commitments at 9 a.m. and at noon. Busy, busy, busy.
“It’s been one of those days,” says the foreverupbeat Rolek, in her 23rd year at the Chamber’s helm. “There’s a lot going on today, again. I never feel lonely at home, not with the phone calls and the meetings and the planning. My staff [three part-timers] and I are working doubly hard.
“It’s like I’m drinking water from a fire hose.”
Rolek, via her steadfast leadership and positivity, won’t rest until she does all she can do to extinguish most, if not all, of the concerns and fears that businesses in her communities have these days. The Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce comprises 385 organizations, including nearly 250 businesses in the service industry, and you get the feeling that Rolek thinks about all 385 entities 365 days a year.
“People who live in Lake Forest and in Lake Bluff are fiercely proud of their downtown and business districts,” says Rolek, the master of ceremonies of Lake Bluff ’s fabled Fourth of July celebration since 2006 (this year’s parade was canceled). “We don’t know when we’ll be able to congregate in large numbers again; the safety of employees and the public is of the utmost importance. Our goal is to support the health of both our neighbors and our businesses as we navigate these uncharted waters together.
“Some folks,” she adds, “are hunkering down. Many others are facing this new reality head on; these people are my heroes. I just love the creativity, the collaboration, and the connections manifested from that mindset.”
Last month the Chamber formed a partnership with Kathleen Wood, co-founder of Lake Bluffbased Suzy’s Swirl, and launched the “Business Building Workout” webinar series. Each webinar connects and supports local businesses in a COVID-19-impacted marketplace. Stability in the new normal, the alliance foresees, “will require new business ‘muscles’ to survive, thrive, and grow.”
Retired Navy SEAL Master Chief Steve Drum served as presenter of the first webinar, “Your Leadership Mindset—You’ve Got to Be In it to Win It,” on April 28. The May 5 webinar— “Strategic Pivots: Move Your Business for Success/ Opportunities”—featured Gifted (Lake Forest) owner Megan Stockton and Donati’s Pizza (Lake Bluff ) owner Jeff Urso and showcased the value of thinking outside the box (outside the pizza box, in Urso’s industry) to diversify as an entity and to expand one’s customer base.
“There are businesses that won’t be able to generate any income until we’re able to enter the businesses as customers again,” Rolek says. “Current circumstances are very painful for them. They want to see their clients, share their expertise, sell their services—get back to what they do. How can citizens help? One way is by investing in our community and the health of our businesses through our online ‘With You LFLB’ gift card program (60 different cards, and counting).”
Rolek was a gifted singer, musician (piano, flute, organ), and actress at ETHS and majored in applied music with an emphasis in vocal performance at Boston University. She and her husband, the late, big-hearted Bob Rolek, lived in Colorado, where Joanna served as an administrative aide for the National Conference of State Legislatures before she graced the Denver Symphony Orchestra with her writing and interpersonal skills.
But she continued to perform on stage and do voice-over work in the Centennial State.
Turbo typist and consummate professional by day, showstopper by night.
The married couple moved to Lake Bluff in 1980 and raised three children (Brandon, Kristen, and Stefanie). In 2005 the Round Lake Area Park District’s Community Center was renamed to honor the memory of Robert W. Rolek, the center’s determined and inventive executive director from 1980-1995.
“Shortly after returning to Illinois, I was flipping through a Multiple Listing Service book, looking for homes in Highland Park, Lake Forest, and Lake Bluff,” recalls Rolek, who would become a real estate broker and longtime member of Camerata Singers o f Lake Forest, a 16-voice chamber choir. “Remember MLS books? I didn’t know a thing about Lake Bluff then. But as soon as I entered a home there, I immediately thought, ‘This is magic.’ I walked around the community and thought the same thing.”
The daughter of the late Athens, Greece, native and packaging designer Costis Paps, and the late Chicago Musical College faculty member and church choir director Georgia Paps, Joanna—no fooling—kicked off her tenure at the Chamber on April 1, 1997.
“That first year,” she remembers, “a report came out about the three major challenges facing our local businesses. They were malls, big-box stores, and discount retailers. And, in parentheses, the report noted a little-known thing that could also impact our extraordinary, beloved businesses. Guess what that little-known thing was? Internet shopping.”
The three major challenges today, in no particular order? Pandemic, pandemic, pandemic.
“Although we have had to isolate, there are many who had been working in silos and behind doors, who are now emerging from that isolation and connecting in different ways,” Rolek says. “That’s terrific, and it’s where the Chamber is directing its support. Mindsets are developing, showing resiliency. Our Chamber members are focusing and pivoting and creating opportunities out of adversity. The programs they’re presenting, along with the virtual networking, jazz me. We are fortunate in our communities, being surrounded by resourceful business owners and admirable leaders. And our Chamber’s board of directors? Tremendous, absolutely tremendous.
“The lessons I’ve learned from my very wise friends? Assess, strategize, and execute.”
Rolek can’t wait to enter a Lake Forest or a Lake Bluff business, perhaps hear that cheery door chime, and then suffer temporary blindness upon seeing the owner’s “We’ve reopened!” smile.
The shopping experience, inside, compared to the clickladen shopping experience, from home? Priceless.
“It’s going to be wonderful, people no longer tethered to their homes, people feeling safe again, people walking around unmasked,” Rolek says. “I have no idea when that will happen; nobody does. But I’m an eternal optimist. So are many of our Chamber’s members, who now know, more than ever, the importance of running a versatile business.
“Businesses,” she continues, “will have to develop ‘muscles’ they didn’t know they had.”
For more information about the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce and its webinars and #WithYouLFLB gift card program, visit lflbchamber. com.