Cover photo Credit: Christina Leskovar Photography
BY JEREMY GONSIOR
It’s Tuesday and for Heather Gill Fox that means “meeting day,” an interesting, jam-packed day of, well, meetings – meetings with family, friends, organizations and businesses.
Sometimes they are back-to-back, but that doesn’t stop her from being early to the next one, arriving at the coffee shop well before the person who had ONE meeting all day.
But with everything Fox is trying to accomplish in 2017, it makes sense. She has to be focused.
You see, this year is truly a game-changing year for her.
First, she’s establishing herself as one of the youngest and newest members of the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Then this summer she becomes president of the Holland Young Professionals (HYP), after serving as vice president for the last year.
Two important organizations, representing two different worlds. And yet, Fox is there, bridging the gap, serving as the unofficial liaison between the groups, advocating for fresh graduates trying to become established and established businesses trying to stay fresh.
She literally lights up when she talks about the challenge, a privilege she doesn’t take lightly.
“I am excited. I am ready,” Fox said, as she smiles and raises both her hands in the air, fists clenched, shaking them ever so slightly, exhibiting genuine joy about the opportunity. “I am waiting to see where my mark is going to be.”
An overarching theme, no matter what the board: Holland is changing, changing for the better. The community is comprised of more than just white-collar, college graduates with flexible schedules, Fox said. And Holland residents are talking about challenging issues, trying to solve them, not sweep them under the rug, and in the process breaking down barriers.
“It’s cool to see that start,” said Fox, general manager at The Rental Company in Holland.
Two specific issues are especially important for Fox to address in HYP and the Michigan West Coast Chamber.
The first is establishing a strong economic base by slowing resident migration to larger cities and offering a welcoming culture to professionals interested in moving here.
“Talent acquisition is a huge concern for the area – attracting and retaining,” Fox said. “We need to bring in people from the outside.”
Another big picture issue? Acknowledging and embracing and reconciling the different backgrounds present. In other words, white Dutch residents are a piece of the puzzle, not the puzzle.
“We have such a diverse community,” Fox said. “So challenging the assumption that it’s a Dutch community. There are many cultures to celebrate here.”
Life after college
Fox came to West Michigan, like many Holland “transplants,” to attend Hope College. The Rockford, Illinois native started juggling commitments early, knocking out three majors – Communication, International Studies, and German.
And, like many recent college graduates, the city she studied in didn’t seem appealing – at first.
“I kind of thought I would be anywhere else,” Fox said.
Then the Rental Company stepped in.
Her boss, Owner Robyn Allison, encouraged Fox to get involved in the community. She started to fall in love with the area’s wonderful nature and the heart of Holland, while acknowledging its pain points, in her opinion, attracting and retaining top talent, and embracing diversity and equity, as mentioned earlier. The hands-on experience changed her.
“It really helped me to buy in,” she said.
Fox began her leadership involvement with HYP as the Membership Chair, overseeing the organization’s shift from a paid membership model to a sponsorship model.
Then she was elected HYP vice president in 2016. Fox said current HYP President Nicole Paquette influenced her significantly, helping her become more confident, especially in the art of public speaking. In turn, Fox has inspired Paquette.
“Her passion for equity and her thoughtfulness and encouragement towards everyone she encounters are just a few of the qualities that make her an incredible leader,” Paquette said. “Heather is a natural connector and it shows through in her leadership style – she’s very effective at connecting people, causes, and solutions, and HYP has been a great space for her to live that out loud and further her investment and innovation in our community.”
While the HYP board has been more hands-on, the Michigan West Coast Chamber has been more strategic, Fox said. Different, but in a good way.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve for me,” she said.
Michigan West Coast Chamber President Jane Clark said Fox was a strategic addition to the Chamber Board given her extensive involvement and leadership position in HYP.
“We appreciate the perspectives she brings to our Board as a successful young leader in our community,” Clark said. “She’s a graduate of our West Coast Leadership program, a regular program attendee, and our liaison to the many partnership programs the Chamber has with HYP. We love her commitment to making our community a great place to live and work, and her passion and energy are contagious!”
Looking ahead, no matter what committee or board she is serving on, Holland can count on one attribute from her: excitement.
“I am really excited to see where the community is headed and be part of the voice for young professionals,” she said.