They are the heroes who make our region a great place to live and work — the winners of the annual 7 Rivers Alliance and River Valley Media Group Rising Stars Under.
The 7 Rivers Alliance – a regional economic development group – sought nominations from throughout the region from young men and women who are making a difference. This year we have selected 28 recipients from three states.
“The stories of these exceptional people are inspiring and show how fortunate we are to have them living and working in our communities,” said Chris Hardie, CEO of the 7 Rivers Alliance. “They are true leaders in their workplaces and communities.”
“Selecting winners from all of the outstanding nominations is not an easy task – everyone nominated clearly makes a difference in their community,” Hardie said. “These are men and women in our region whose endeavors enrich our lives and raise the bar for all of us.”
The winners were recognized in a reception held Oct. 19 at the La Crescent Event Center.
Baertsch Books, Winona
All of our recipients truly make a difference in their communities in different ways. Jenny is doing it through her children’s chapter book called “Junkyard Tough: A Tail of Bravery.”
Jenny has volunteered to visit 25 local schools over the past nine months sharing her story about a cat who learns to be brave and a discussion on bravery. She tells the kids that anything is possible when you face your fears, have courage, feel strong on the inside and out, and never give up.
The book was published locally and she donated a copy to the Winona Public Library. Jenny works full-time as marketing manager at WNB Financial and also volunteers with Junior Achievement, Winona Volunteer Services, Ready Set School and the Foundation for Winona Area Public Schools. A part of her always wanted to be a teacher.
Her message to others: “Anything is possible with hard work and bravery. ” It’s the message I wrote to my own kids, Tessa and Chase, on my book’s dedication page. It’s also my personal affirmation – something I repeat to myself when the going gets tough.”
Hatfield Resort, Hatfield
Dillon is a local man who parlayed a successful athletic career into a successful business career. Dillon played football for Westby High School and UW-La Crosse, where he graduated with a finance degree, was a member of the Young Professional group and also worked as a realtor.
Dillon today is building a diversified business consisting of real estate investments and other small businesses. He owns and maintains 70 rental units in the 7 Rivers Region including vacation rentals in Jackson County and apartments in La Crosse County. He and his wife Makayla operate a gas station, convenience store, gift shop & tiki bar next to Lake Arbutus in Hatfield, Wi.
Dillon is also a member of the Lake Arbutus Lake Association and Jackson County ATV Club, which helps maintain over 100 miles of ATV/UTV trails and routes in Jackson County.
Dillon knows — like successful teams — winning isn’t about one player. “I am especially proud because I have surrounded myself with a great team of people,” he says. He also credits his football coaches at Westby and his parents for his success — pushing him to new beliefs.
His advice to others? Keeping solutions simple. “I seem to find the “aha” moments when I am breaking down a process or strategy that isn’t working for me. Then, I apply a different (simpler) approach. “
Ho-Chunk Nation, Black River Falls
Randall is an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who has dedicated his life to perpetuating the Ho-Chunk way of life. Randall is a veteran of the United States Air Force and serves the Ho-Chunk People as Veterans Services Officer.
Randall is a member and former commander of the Andrew Blackhawk 129 American Legion post and is honored to pay tribute to veterans, who are revered in the tribe. He carries colors at events and provides military honors for fallen veterans. “They have done so much for our nation and community,” he says. “It’s great to do something for them.”
Randall has spent the past several years learning the Ho-Chunk language, participating in the traditional ways of the Ho-Chunk People by joining the lodge and has also worked to reintroduce traditional la crosse to the tribe and often makes and donates la crosse sticks to youth so that they can learn to play the game.
Randall says he was inspired by his parents, who taught him to help others. “Throughout my life I’ve seen there are opportunities to help everywhere and there are opportunities to create programs and organizations to help everywhere. You don’t have to look far.’
Noble Rind Cheese Company, Viroqua
After many years working in the specialty food sector, Sarah opened her own fine cheese and foods store in Viroqua this past February. The store is located in the newly renovated Historic Fortney Hotel.
Sarah says opening the business is her proudest professional accomplishment because it took the courage to go after goals even if they are extremely intimidating.
Sarah says she has experienced the importance of community, moving from a big city to a small town. “Our time on this earth is fleeting and what we choose to do or not do with that time matters, she says. “Connecting as neighbors, sharing food and experiences and providing safe spaces to gather and share seemed to be a way to help.”
Sarah volunteers for children’s programs at the public library and is also involved with the Viroqua Chamber of Commerce event SOUP that is a community micro-funding platform. She often donates the soup.
Her advice to others? “You are far stronger and much more capable than you believe. Try not to take things too personally and approach everything as a massive opportunity to learn. “
City of La Crosse
Julie has made a big impact on the 7 Rivers Region since moving to the area from Alaska, where she was involved in economic development in Fairbanks.
Currently the economic development administrator with the city of La Crosse, Julie previously worked for the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative (WWBIC), helping small businesses thrive.
Julie lives in Viroqua, where she volunteers as the Chair of the Viroqua Area Montessori School (VAMS) Governance Council and as a volunteer with the Vernon County Teen Court, an inspiring restorative justice program. She is inspired by the troubled teens she helps.
Julie says she measures success in small increments, day by day and says it’s easier to lead when you are supported by a great team, like she has with the city of La Crosse.
Among her advice to future leaders is to find your purpose. “Be careful not to overestimate what this needs to look like and/or underestimate the impact and importance of simply living daily with kindness and intention.”
City administrator, Hillsboro
A born leader is certainly an apt description for Josh, who was hired to lead the city of Hillsboro in Vernon county nearly two years ago.
Josh has helped launch a new Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce and engages the community assisting with businesses and economic development. He also serves on the Hillsboro Cemetery Association and assists with the library board.
That strong sense of community comes from his grandfather – who was engaged in local political service for 30 years – and his father. “I learned early on that one of the greatest gifts you could give is your time,” Josh says.
The trust, he says, that Hillsboro took in hiring a 24-year-old is what drives him to do more. One business or one project can make a difference.
So it makes sense that Josh’s advice to others is to become involved. “Take the opportunities when offered, you never know what you’re going to find,” he says. “There are people who do, and people who don’t: be a doer, don’t be a don’ter.”
Black River Area Chamber of Commerce, Black River Falls
The pandemic was a challenging time for all businesses, but Amanda could see the impact it had on the Black River Falls area small businesses. So she created a new event – the Small Business Saturday Drive-thru Chamber Bucks & Area Gift Certificates giveaway.
The first year $2,500 worth of chamber bucks and gift certificates were handed out and last year that doubled to $5,000. “People who drove through were so grateful and excited to shop local,” she says. The event will continue again this year.
The Chamber has record membership under Amanda’s leadership. As a Black River Falls native, Amanda credits her mother for setting the bar. “She was always very active in the community and she taught me the importance of being involved and always trying to make a difference.”
Amanda faced the professional challenge of leading the chamber, having two young boys and being the primary caregiver for her mother. She offers the following advice. “Never give up! There will always be challenges and obstacles — keep moving forward.”
Trane Technologies, La Crosse
Morgan says her current role as the Chiller Product Support Team Leader at Trane is the result of hard work and her background in athletics which started with family. Morgan says her brother let her play tackle football, tackle hockey, home run derby, and basketball in the yard with all his friends. Learning not to quit helped her become the captain of my high school sports teams and the captain of the UW-Platteville Women’s basketball team.
Morgan graduated in 2018 from UW Platteville with an Industrial Engineering bachelor’s degree, was hired by Trane and completed a rigorous six-month Graduate Training Program – the equivalent of a master’s degree – right after her hire.
“This class set the foundation for my career and overcoming adversity during that class has helped me persevere in other difficult situations,” Morgan said. She was named support leader last year, managing a team of six direct reports supporting all chillers produced by Trane at four manufacturing locations.
Never give up, Morgan says. “There are going to be days that are difficult but remaining positive and working through the challenges will make you a better person and leader.”
Family Promise of Monroe County
As her nomination suggests, Tia is a very accomplished young lady. Along with being the executive director of Family Promise – a homeless shelter program – she and her brother Trey started Hewuse Family Homes LLC, a community-based residential facility for adults with developmental disabilities.
Tia has transitioned out of active duty Air Force and is a captain in the United Air Force Reserves. Tia says she is fortunate to work for an organization that addresses homelessness at a deep level. She is an active member of the AAUW (American Association of University Women) because she says, “I feel strongly for advocating for gender equity and economic opportunity.”
Tia credits the amazing volunteers that keep Family Promise running. “We get to work with some of the most selfless, kind, caring people,” she says. “Our community gives so much to make this organization run and I’m proud to have a small piece of influence on it.”
Trust Point, La Crosse
Heather blends a successful professional career in financial leadership with giving back to her community through her involvement with nonprofit organizations.
Last year Heather was named the managing director for Emerj360, a new division of Trust Point. She is responsible for the management of the team, new business development, as well as budgeting and strategic planning. Heather was more than up to the challenge. Since the launch, her team has educated and assisted more than 1,000 individuals with their retirement plans.
Launching a new division is no easy task, but Heather’s un-yielding dedication along the way was pivotal to the success of the launch. Her commitment to Emerj360, from her involvement with the vision, goal setting, financial analysis, and even branding, has been instrumental in making this new division an instant success. Furthermore, Heather’s passion in helping individuals plan and realize their retirement dreams has been significant to the growth of Emerj360. In just a short time, the team has educated and assisted over 1000 individuals on setting the course for their financial futures.
Heather is a member of the Holmen Rotary and the La Crosse Chamber’s Young Professionals committee. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Children’s Museum of La Crosse, where she is treasurer.
“I love what I do and I love where I work,” Heather says. Her advice for younger leaders? Always learn and make connections. “Relationships are so important both internal and external to your organization,” she says.
Wonderland Therapy, La Crosse
Sometimes the idea for a business comes from seeing an opportunity in your work. As an occupational therapist, Laura encountered many children and families who lacked access to formal and non-formal activities that would benefit their child’s development. She also saw the need for a place where young children can meet and engage in safe-age appropriate play options. The concept of Wonderland Therapy was born.
Laura said she enjoys mentoring and training future occupational therapists and volunteers at community events by providing no-cost activities for children.
Seeking mentors is part of her advice to others. “There are wonderful resources and mentor opportunities available in this community,” she says. “Reaching out to find a mentor can be intimidating but can be highly rewarding and beneficial.”
Gundersen Health System, La Crosse
Leading transformational projects is always a challenge, especially when also faced with the challenges of Covid.
That is what Laura faced as the clinical operations director at Gundersen. At the same time she was leading the medical surgical units through the pandemic surge by designing and leading a Covid unit, Laura was designing and building an innovative home hospital program.
Gundersen Home Hospital is a new program that allows for the care of hospitalized patients in the comfort of their own homes.
Laura – who volunteers with the St. Patrick Elementary PTO, Catholic Charities Warming Center and Rotary Lights – says her inspiration for leadership is the desire to positively impact others.
“Work hard to find something that brings you joy,” she says. “It’s easy to devote your time and energy when the work you do is fun and rewarding.”
Tomah School District, Tomah
It would be fair to say that Alex is a maestro when it comes to connecting music and his community. A Tomah High School graduate, Alex is now the director of bands for Tomah and has just completed his second year as the Kids from Wisconsin tour band director and community relations specialist. Kids from Wisconsin is a non-profit organization based out of Wisconsin’s State Fair Park that brings a Broadway-caliber show to over 40 communities around Wisconsin
It’s a job that’s more than connecting notes – it’s connecting people and students that want to make music together. “Showing kids that music helps you become a better person while giving you amazing experiences in school is my favorite part of my job,” he says.
Alex has worked with the Warrens Cranberry Festival and the Monroe County Fair and plays piano and organ at Queen of the Apostles parish in Warrens and Tomah for multiple church services. It’s important, Alex says, to serve the community.
“We (people my age) are the next generation and we need to rise up to the needs in our community,” he says. “Uniting your community through your volunteer efforts starts with you.”
Mark’s path to becoming a senior vice president and chief retail officer began 17 years ago when he began as a personal banker with a marketing degree.
What followed was a dedication to hard work, drive and desire instilled in the practice of servant leadership and then the pride to see his employees follow the same path. Mark says it’s rewarding to see employees become successful leaders when they may not have seen the leadership qualities he does.
Mark serves on the board of directors for the Coulee Region Business Center because he believes the success of small businesses is vital for communities. He also works to promote financial literacy within the schools and supports other local nonprofit organizations.
His advice to younger leaders? Show what you can offer. “Everything is worth a conversation,” he says. “Ensure you take the opportunities to grow yourself as a person, community member, and leader.”
WXOW, La Crescent
Dustin Luecke has combined his love for journalism and community service into becoming a regional leader.
Dustin grew up in Onalaska and started working for WXOW in 2009. After serving in various positions, he was promoted to the weeknight 6 & 10 pm news anchor in November 2020. His work has been recognized by the Wisconsin Broadcaster’s Association and the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association for excellence
Dustin has been involved in local theater for the past 10 years, is a member of the La Crosse Curling Club and seven years ago joined Rotary Club of La Crosse After Hours. He has his wife also work with Hope Restores, a local African American resource center.
Part of what motivates Dustin is something he learned at Rotary: find ways to use your profession to better your community. That’s why he also donates his time to emcee a variety of community events.
“I truly love helping people not only know what’s happening in their community, but also then helping them enjoy those events—not to mention, presenting recognition for the people who go above and beyond to make the Coulee Region a great place to live,” Dustin says.
Town n’ Country Title
Jennifer’s nomination says it quite succinctly — she is a true professional in her work, holds a leadership position within her industry at a young age, and is very active contributing in her community.
Jennifer is a 2010 graduate of Holmen High School, 2015 graduate of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and is the human resources manager at Town n’ Country, handling the hiring, training, benefits and other HR functions for 10 offices in Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota.
Her other professional accolades include being the chair of the Talent Committee at American Land Title Association, the national trade organization for her industry and chair of the Public Relations Committee at Wisconsin Land Title Association, the State trade organization.
Jennifer is on the boards of La Crosse Oktoberfest, the Holmen Area Community Center and is vice chair of the Western Wisconsin Workforce Development board, along with Rotary After Hours.
Jennifer says she has inspired by many but her biggest influencer was her mother. “She has inspired me to not sit on the sidelines, work hard and go out there and get it.”
Her advice to younger leaders? “Build connections and make impressions. Strive to be the best you can be and don’t sit back and wait for the opportunity — go out there and find it.”
Gensler, La Crosse
All of us make a difference in our professions every day as we apply the skills and education that apply to our craft. Some of us — like Mitchell — get to see what happens when those skills are brought to a larger audience.
Mitchell, an office and studio director at Gensler, was the chairperson of a committee that published a nationally accredited standard that is used in the commercial real estate industry. Mitchell presented in cities across the country. It was an experience, he said, that cemented his commitment to work and impacted his growth into a broader leadership goal.
Making an impact on the world has always been an inspiration to Mitchell and he remains inspired by the people he works with.
His advice? “Know yourself and figure out where you can best make an impact,” he said. ” Show up, trust your gut, and be all in. Going above and beyond will pay off and will inspire others.”
West Salem School District
Laura says she was inspired by family and close friends to became a leader as the high school kitchen manager for the West Salem School District, but there’s always a practical reason.
“When 600 hungry kids enter our high school every day, one is left with no choice but to put those skills to work and become a leader,” Laura says.
She is particularly proud of the work her department did when the pandemic first hit. Although the schools were closed, the school continued to make meals, which were offered for pickup and were also delivered. The outpouring of appreciation and thanks, Laura said, was a heartwarming reminder that their work was indeed essential.
Laura also helps organize and prepare meals during summer school and has been a part of the district’s summer feeding program for the past two years, where even kids who aren’t enrolled get free meals. She is also involved with a planned high school kitchen remodel, which will provide more efficiency and more food options.
Her biggest reward is interacting with the students. Says Laura, “If you could ask anyone in your life about a memory they have from grade school, I bet they would have a fond memory about their lunch lady. I hope one day I get to be that lunch lady.”
HSR Associates, La Crosse
Michelle has always loved drawing buildings. Sketching and imaging space in new ways, she knew from a young age that she was meant to be an architect.
With an undergraduate at UW-La Crosse and a master’s degree in architecture from UW-Milwaukee, she found her place at HSR Associates in La Crosse. From day one Michelle has brought her creativity, passion and design to K-12 school projects throughout the Midwest. She loves how each project is a new challenge to bring a new perspective to everyday space.
Some partners Michelle has on her resume include Gundersen Health Systems, Western Technical College, Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, UW- La Crosse and the School District of Holmen.
She has also volunteered on the Property committee for the Salvation Army of La Crosse for the last six years and has recently joined the Advisory board.
Michelle says leadership is not natural for her, but she has learned to have more confidence in herself and take on more responsibility. Her advice: “Have confidence in yourself and what talents you have to offer whether big or small. It is a continual learning process and don’t be afraid to start or even try. You can do more than you think you can! “
Dahl Automotive, La Crosse
Ashley is a self-professed car fanatic, so she was blessed to get the opportunity to work in the auto industry. And what a journey it’s been, as Ashley in five years has gone from someone who never sold car to becoming the lead business manager. She trains and mentors other business managers and has created scalable processes for increased profitability.
Ashley says she’s fortunate to work for a company that is deeply rooted in giving back to the community, which allows her to volunteer annually with Rotary Lights, The Family & Children’s Center, sponsor families during the holiday season for the last eight years through Catholic Charities, Leadercast and also becoming an advocate for rescuing dogs.
Helping others become leaders has had a profound impact on Ashley’s own leadership path and she finds motivation by working with innovative leaders in the auto industry and in the community.
Ashley says she lives by three principles: Never ask someone to do a task you yourself are not willing to perform. Listen more than you speak. Always seek to learn one new fact or skill a day.
Stepping into the leadership role of a community nonprofit organization is always a challenge, particularly when you are replacing the founder.
But over the past year Marcia has taken Engage Winona to new level, from building capacity in more than 20 local changemakers, engaging with more than 1,000 community members, establishing a new office location and hiring a second full-time staff member.
Marcia’s focus on inclusion and participatory placemaking has helped the city to support diverse engagement in the comprehensive planning process.
Marcia also serves on the leadership team of the Winona Area Nonprofit Alliance and serves on the board of Visit Winona. She also works as an artist through community-engaged poetry work.
It’s all about creating a community with strong networks, where people take care of each other. “Winona is a great place, and I want to be the best it can be for everyone who lives here,” Marcia says.
Mayo Clinic Health System, La Crosse
A physician’s life can be quite complex, especially when you’re a department chair. But ask Rebecca what the best part of her job is overseeing obstetrics and gynecology and her answer is simple.
“The best part of my job is to watch a woman become a mother,” she says. “To watch that reaction the second her child is born. There is nothing that beats that moment.”
Rebecca joined Mayo in 2014 and became department chair in 2020. She has a strong desire to foster teamwork, deliver excellent patient care and promote respect amongst her team.
It is that professional and team atmosphere of leaders that inspired Rebecca to take on additional challenges for herself.
“I enjoy having a variety of roles which allow me to meet new people, learn the complexities of the health care industries and take on the challenges I would not be afforded as a practicing clinician,” she says.
Her advice for others: Be yourself and focus on activities you truly enjoy.
Youth Workforce Navigator for Bluff Country Collaborative, Caledonia MN
One challenge our region has is making connections between schools and businesses to show students the wide variety of jobs we have to offer.
MaryAnne Smith makes those connections in Houston and Fillmore County as the Bluff Country Collaborative Youth Workforce Navigator. The collaborative connects schools, employers, local government, and community resources to provide meaningful, hands-on career experiences for the next generation of workers.
MaryAnne coordinates the annual BCC Career and Technical Education (CTE) Exploration Day which serves 550-600 students and 24 local businesses but she’s just as pleased when she can make individual connections with coordinating individual student work experience, job shadows, and mock interviews that enable youth to get a taste of the “real world” and employers to mentor and guide the future talent pool.
For MaryAnne, it’s all about empowering others and finding the greatness in others. Her advice to younger leaders? “Live authentically so at the end of the day you can look at yourself in the mirror with integrity.”
Tomah VA and Maximus Aesthetics & Wellness, Sparta
Katie’s inspiration to become a nurse came from a family experience. Her mother had a rare disorder. “I saw everything she had went through … it made me want to care for people on their worst days and try to make their experience a little easier,” she says.
Her inspiration to become a business owner started when she was 12. She helped her father advertise farm equipment he would buy and sell and would earn commissions.
Katie found her love in nursing with the veteran population and is the assistant nurse manager in ambulatory care at the VA.
“There is truly something special about creating a rapport with them and hearing their stories,” she says. “There is nothing better than serving the veterans.”
The entrepreneurial side of Katie started earlier this year when she and fellow nurse opened Maximus Aesthetics & Wellness in Sparta, providing facials and other aesthetic services.
“This past year has been absolute chaos but both careers have been really inspiring and have taught me so much,” Katie says. “They both are completely different and rewarding in their own ways.”
Her advice to others? Everything is “figure-out-able”.
Dairyland Power Cooperative, La Crosse
Sometimes it takes us a while to make our mark when starting a new job. Not with Ah. She joined Dairyland last year and in April was promoted into a Human Resources Business Partner role.
Since April, Ah recruited and filled 28 positions within the Operations Division. Ah attributes that to a good worth ethic and determination, but also credits her colleagues at Dairyland. “I’ve been here for over a year and it’s been a breath of fresh air,” Ah said.
Ah volunteers as a Hmong Interpreter for the elders in the Winona community.
“Growing up with immigrant parents, I understand the daily struggles they face with communication and have always enjoyed being an advocate for them because I believe that everyone’s voice should be heard,” she says.
Her advice to younger leaders? “Believe in yourself and know your worth because there are no limitations to your passions and dreams. Invest in yourself and stay uncomfortable and hungry.”
Small Business Development Center at UW – La Crosse and the Spartan Motel, Sparta
Small business start-up and success is the backbone of our region’s economy. No one knows that more than Mike, who not only works with businesses but became a small business owner himself when he purchased the Spartan Motel in April.
“It has been rewarding to have hands-on business ownership experience that I can use to share insight with my clients,” Mike said.
Mike consults with clients who need start-up, financial and management support and develops financial and business plans to start and grow their businesses. He also helped businesses find financial relieve during the 2020 challenges of the pandemic.
Mike says he is energized and inspired by his clients.”Their willingness to take calculated risks and innovate makes me want to work harder and be more impactful in my organization and community,” he says.
His advice to younger leaders? Of course it’s creating a plan, but be willing to pivot and adjust to achieve your goals.
Eastern Allamakee School District, Lansing
Ian grew up in rural Iowa and relocated to the East coast, where he pursued a career in acting and stage. But he knew his heart was in the Midwest.
Two years ago he came to Lansing as a teacher but his impact extends far beyond the classroom. Ian is involved with various Main Street Lansing events and some of his students restarted the Farmers Market this year.
Ian also was the executive director of the RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Big Ride Across Iowa) 2022 event that had 15,000 cyclists coming to town. His efforts resulted in $115,000 in profits that will be available to community nonprofits.
Ian volunteers his musical and theatrical skills at annual fundraising events for the Lansing Women’s in Business Group and serve as the faculty sponsor for our student led Inclusivity Club, which aims to educate staff and faculty about LGBTQ+ issues and promote diversity within the school.
Ian said as a teacher he tries to equip his students with critical thinking and leadership skills they will use as leaders themselves in the future. “A leader is not defined by their status or their job, but rather by the acts that they do to serve others,” he says.
Ian’s advice for younger leaders? “Be brave. Dream big. I believe that almost anything is possible. With conviction and grit you can and will accomplish a great deal.”
La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce
Neal grew up in Marshfield, WI and came to La Crosse to attend Viterbo University to play basketball and pursue an MBA.
But unlike many other local college graduates who leave, Neal found a local job and became part of the community. He became the CEO of the Chamber in 2020 and now spearheads a campaign called “Choose La Crosse” to attract people to live, work and play in the region. Neal also has helped grow the chamber staff and membership.
Rooted in servant leadership, Neal gives back to the community with coaching high school basketball to helping with food drives. He is the Vice-President of the Board for Habitat for Humanity La Crosse, Emeritus Board Member for the Viterbo University Alumni Association and a member of the downtown La Crosse Rotary.
Neal says he is blessed to lead the chamber, but wouldn’t be in that position if it weren’t for the many, many people that have been teachers, leaders, mentors, coaches, and personal supporters along the way.
Neal’s advice is to be active in your workplace, your community and for yourself. “Continue to learn and grow,” he says.