A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

New NKY Chamber Chairwoman, Rhonda Whitaker, driven to make a difference with a vision for success

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

Rhonda Whitaker remembers walking into her first Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce meeting 16 years ago and feeling overwhelmed.

Whitaker addresses a group at Gateway Community and Technical College (provided photo).

“I knew no one,” says Whitaker, who is director of Government & Community Relations for Duke Energy Kentucky. “I didn’t understand a thing being discussed in the committee meeting I was attending. I felt a bit lost. “

But it didn’t take long for Chamber staff and members to take Whitaker, who grew up in Franklin, Ohio, under their wings and engage her so she could learn more about Northern Kentucky, its organizations and efforts.

“True southern hospitality right here in the heart of our region,” says Whitaker.

The Chamber, she says, was the key organization that helped her succeed in what was at the time a new role, and it has continued to play a significant role with her responsibilities at Duke.

“I realized early on that the more I got involved, the more I learned,” say Whitaker. “It helped me build a tremendous amount of relationships for my role at Duke. I like the saying our new president, Brent Cooper uses — ‘The Chamber is like a refrigerator. You get out of it, what you put into it.’  So true.

“And that I did, and from that I reaped great benefits in establishing relationships and learning the lay of the land.  Today, I deeply value the incredible relationships that I have in Northern Kentucky.  I feel more connected to this community than any other community in which I’ve lived or worked.”

This year, Whitaker will continue to put a good deal of her energy into the Chamber as the organization’s 2018 chairwoman.

Whitaker in her Duke Energy Kentucky office (provided)

“Deeply rooted” in Northern Kentucky

While Whitaker did not grow up in Northern Kentucky, Franklin was “just up the road,” Her parents, Joan and Charles Lippert, who have been deceased for many years now, enjoyed compiling genealogy from all sides of the family, and collected volumes of documents, which Whitaker treasures. They loved to go on weekend road trips, socializing with family and friends which often took them Pendleton County.

She says they would use some of the weekend road trips to ‘interview’ older relatives about their family experiences and stories of relatives.

“It was fascinating hearing such history, and it was an adventure to visit so many communities all around our region. Great exposure for a young girl,” says Whitaker. “I remember times that we went to a family reunion in Pendleton County, and I thought I’d never seen so many hills. It was beautiful countryside, and to this day, when I drive down to Pendleton on business, it brings back some fond memories of times with my parents.”

Because she was exposed to so much of the region in her youth, Whitaker says she feels deeply rooted here.

“I can’t imagine living elsewhere because as I drive this region, I have so many fond memories of times with not just my parents, but other family members who have passed on,” says Whitaker. “Today, Northern Kentucky has captured my heart.  The people, the topography, the urban and rural settings, the deep rooted history, the passion and engagement of the community and so much more — it is truly, I think, one of the best regions in the Midwest.”

Driven to make a difference

Leadership and a competitive spirit to succeed are nothing new to Whitaker. In high school she served as president of her class, president of the Junior Council on World Affairs, French Club president, and took leadership positions in other clubs. She also lettered in tennis, where she and her doubles partners were undefeated in the Mid-Miami League throughout their senior year.

On top of that, she graduated as valedictorian of her class.

By the time she attended Miami University in Oxford, she says she was a bit “burned out” from all of the high school activities and didn’t become involved in many clubs and activities. Besides, she was working her way through college, with two jobs much of that time.

“I guess you could say I was still driven, though, as I vowed to attain two attain two degrees in 3.5 years, and I accomplished that,” says Whitaker.

Hungry to begin her career, she learned, as do many college graduates, that sometimes one has to try on a few different professions before finding that perfect fit.

Duke Energy, which was then PSI Energy in Indiana, was that perfect fit for Whitaker, and it afforded her the opportunity to engage in the community, which brought back the drive she had in high school to make a difference.

“I had a great desire to make things better; to help others succeed in reaching goals,” says Whitaker.  “Still today, that desire burns strong inside of me.  And I think the older I get, the more I feel not just a desire, but a commitment, to give back to the region that has given my family and me so much for which we are grateful.  When you travel around the country to different cities, and then you fly back into CVG and make your way home, you realize, this is a very special place.”

A vision for success

This year, Whitaker’s drive to make a difference will play out in her vision for the Chamber. It’s a vision, she says, which has a few components.

“First, to have a strong Chamber, we need a strong staff,” says Whitaker. “We’ve been working hard to put that staff in place after several resignations this past year, and as many staff moved on to promotions with other organizations, or pursued other interests. I truly feel that our current staff is rock solid — totally engaged, enthusiastic, and committed to make our Chamber the best that it can be and to make our membership the best it can be.

“Working with our new president, who is an amazing leader, I want to see us build a culture at the chamber that makes it one of the best places to work, so that we can attract the best and the brightest when we have openings.”

Beyond the strong staff, Whitaker says the Chamber needs a strong board and she believes it has that.

“I am confident that the board we have in place, including what I call a ‘hallmark executive committee,’ is deeply dedicated to this organization,” says Whitaker. “They’re also hungry to take our organization to the next level, and I intend to see that we do that.”

The lifeblood of the Chamber, says Whitaker, is the amazing body of volunteers.

While existing volunteers are “outstanding,” she says they must continue to engage new volunteers and re-engage those with great experience with the chamber to ensure diversity of ideas and help ensure quality programming for members.

After putting a strong staff, board and volunteer base in place, Whitaker says it’s important to have clear goals and direction. At the chamber’s board retreat this fiscal year, Whitaker recommended three strategic imperatives which the board concurred with:

* Ensure value for Chamber members

* Lead on business challenges and opportunities

* Increase the Chamber’s relevance at the regional, state, and federal levels.

“Brent and the staff then developed a strong work plan, aligning all goals to these imperatives.  And we like to sum up these imperatives via a tag line that our board came up with at the retreat, and which Brent is passionate about consistently reminding staff and members of — that we “Lead, Connect and Advocate,” says Whitaker.

“These strategic imperatives will drive results for us in this fiscal year, of that I am confident.”

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