By Anna Lothson
The economy is on the mend, but profit margins are still struggling. People are opening their pocketbooks more, but businesses still need help. Just keeping doors open is tough enough for local business owners.
That's where the newly hired Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Yen plans to step in. The chamber announced March 13 that Yen will be the new interim director, stepping in this week as Jim Doss retires.
The chamber has fallen on hard times in recent years, in large part due to a membership dip and the bad economy, but Yen said she sees today as an opportunity to grow the organization and give it stronger ties in the community.
"I'm hoping to be able to build bridges between the chamber and the other myriad organizations around town, including the Village of Oak Park, the Village of River Forest," Yen said Monday, just an hour before starting her new post, "and really work on behalf of the members to make sure the communication channels are in place."
The chamber does an excellent job of encouraging networking, Yen said, but there's opportunities being missed in terms of reaching all the businesses in the two communities.
"The number one goal is to create a chamber that people want to join. We certainly have a chamber that some people want to join," Yen said. "With over 400 members, that's good. But with thousands of businesses here in the two villages, we're not reaching everyone."
To reach this goal, she said, the chamber's first item will be to develop a clear, succinct and executable message, or value proposition, so people have a better understanding of what benefits the chamber offers.
"That's where the membership strategy will begin," Yen continued.
"There's a value proposition now, but it could be larger to get the work spread out. …We'll work across channels to convince people there are things going on in the chamber."
Yen joins the chamber with a skillset that revolved around strategic communciation and operations management. She hopes the chamber can create connections between businesses and village entities.
"I'm hoping we can build those bridges and expand the region of the different business districts into each other," she said. This includes more communication with members about what's going on in all business districts. It also means encouraging collaborating and being an extra voice for businesses.
Yen was appointed to serve as interim director for one year. After a year, the board has the option to continue to employ her as a permanent director or to conduct a search.
As an independent business and nonprofit consultant, Yen has a background in both large corporate and small retail business, including four years as owner-operator of Great Harvest Bread Company in Oak Park. She holds degrees from Princeton University and the University of Chicago and recently completed the Community Leadership Program, an initiative co-sponsored by the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation and Dominican University.
She and her husband Scott, a physician with Vanguard West Suburban Medical Center, have lived in Oak Park for 19 years. They have two children at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where Yen is the Booster Club president.
Doss retires Friday after 12 years in the job. Yen said this week will be spent listening, learning, calling and talking to members and the board about what should be next.
"This is a time to not stop, because things move very, very quickly, but maybe jump tracks a little bit. — keep what is strong and improve from the old ways of doing things," Yen said, and see where the villages can go when we're all on the same train, frankly, and going in the same direction."