Jennifer Groce, Northern Illinois University’s Director of Community Promotions in the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, was inducted into the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame in a ceremony held on January 23, 2020. Groce, who is also an NIU alumna with degrees in political science and public administration, has served the DeKalb area community in a variety of professional and service capacities for 17 years.
“Jennifer is an enthusiastic and effective bridge builder between many facets of the community and the university,” says Rena Cotsones, Associate Vice President of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development at NIU. “It is great to see the DeKalb Chamber recognize her many contributions by inducting her into the Hall of Fame.”
Brian Oster, Creative Director and President of OC Creative and the outgoing chair of the DeKalb Chamber says, “It is just incredible to see the depth of work and volunteerism Jennifer has brought to this community. She is one of our youngest Hall of Fame recipients and definitely deserving of this without a doubt. Her speech mentioning that she is just getting started is also music to my ears as a community advocate myself. It is leaders like Jennifer and TD Ryan that continue to grow our community stronger, engaging all people across all demographics.”
Much of Groce’s career has been focused on community and economic development, which she has promoted in her previous roles as executive director of ReNew DeKalb, Inc. and as a research associate for the NIU Center for Governmental Studies, as well as in her current role as NIU’s director of community promotions. Her deep commitments to community development and good government also lead her to volunteer her time with numerous organizations and committees, ranging from the NIU Presidential Commission on Interfaith to the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation and Proudly DeKalb, as well as the DeKalb, Sycamore and Genoa chambers of commerce. She even ran for mayor of DeKalb in 2013, an experience she calls, “a fantastic journey,” saying she “loved every minute of it.”
Groce, who has been active in the DeKalb Chamber since 2004, jokes, “I have served on so many committees I can’t remember them all!” Her roles have included chair of public policy, board member, treasurer and member-at-large.
“The moment I came to DeKalb to work professionally for Mainstreet DeKalb (which later became ReNew DeKalb), I started working with the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce,” Groce says. “I was familiar with chambers of commerce and what they do to promote business and promote community, so I valued that very much.”
She continues, “Over the years, I have found the DeKalb chamber to be very innovative and responsive. When they see a developing business issue for our community, they reach out to NIU, the school district, or whatever entity can be a resource or have an important voice on this issue.”
Groce first came to DeKalb as an undergraduate whose husband had a job in the local community. “And then we stayed to raise our kids,” she says. “We loved it here!”
Groce is deeply grateful to all of the community member and NIU colleagues who have welcomed and mentored her in DeKalb, especially Nancy Castle, Frank Roberts, Mike Larson, Anne Kaplan (Vice President of NIU’s Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development) and Diana Robinson (Director of NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies). “There are so many people who have led the way in this work, who have taught me and have worked with me, I can’t name them all, but I am grateful to each one of them,” she says.
“Receiving this honor has given me time to reflect and see that there’s more to do,” Groce continues. “I was told that I was one of the youngest inductees. When I look at all of the other names, I see that many of them are people who have mentored me throughout my career. I started with the March of Dimes when I was 25, and I started with Main Street DeKalb/ReNew DeKalb – working on a pretty, significant community initiative – at 27. Now, at 43, I feel like I’m just getting started, and I want to give back. I look at the list of those folks who invested in me and brought me to the table. If it hadn’t been for that mentorship, I don’t think I would have the understanding and appreciation that I have for this community.”
So what does the newest inductee of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame plan to do next?
Groce aims to continue the tradition of mentorship that helped her so much. She has already started to do this through “Gather,” a women’s leadership community in the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce that she cochairs with Debra Boughton, a fellow chamber member and Senior Associate Director and Chief of Staff for NIU Athletics. (“In all fairness, it was Debra’s idea,” Groce says.)
Gather, which is now entering its third year, has already doubled from 50 to 100 members. Groce says, “We’d like to see that double again, and we’d like to grow and expand the group’s activities to include even more mentorship and personal development opportunities.”
Personally, Groce is looking forward to beginning her doctorate in university administration. At NIU, she is excited to coordinate the Communiversity Startup Challenge, which President Freeman recently announced. “The focus of the CSC is to have students work on community identified challenges and either come up with business plans, to start businesses themselves, or strategic initiatives that can be implemented in a sustained framework that addresses those challenges,” Groce says. “I am so excited to see where that goes.”
As she continues to engage the community and university, Groce is guided by her ongoing commitment to good government and democracy.
“One of the things I strive to do now is look around and ask, ‘Who’s not represented? Whose voice is not at the table?’” she says. “Because DeKalb reflects our world and our region, and NIU reflects our world and our region. We have diversity in age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, culture, religion: it’s all here, and we have it authentically. How, going forward, do we celebrate that even more and make sure our employment, our businesses, our community and places of leadership look just like our wider world here in DeKalb, which is a fabulous place to be?”