Goodwill of the Finger Lakes has named a longtime team member as its new CEO.
Jennifer Lake will replace Gidget Hopf, who is retiring from the nonprofit organization after more than three decades. Lake, who joined Goodwill in 2007, begins her new role this week.
“I’m so proud to work with such a strong team of leaders,” Lake said of her past and future roles with the agency. “The things we have accomplished in such a short period of time, considering the majority of this didn’t have an infrastructure in place, is just tremendous. It demonstrates how committed all of our leaders are, and our employees are truly making a difference in the community.”
In recent weeks, Goodwill has been at the center of a COVID-19 spoke and wheel structure, serving in a number of capacities to ensure the community and its frontline workers are safe and have the tools necessary.
“Jen Lake and I have been attached by the cell phone for the last six weeks through this pandemic, and it’s almost as though all roads lead to Goodwill and Foodlink,” said Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. “Goodwill has stepped up and leveraged its assets and its skills and its scale to help respond to this pandemic in a way that has been exemplary.”
Goodwill, which runs the region’s 211/Life Line effort that connects individuals and families with vital human services, stepped in during the recent crisis and is serving as a distribution site for grab-and-go meals for older adults, and has partnered with Lifespan of Greater Rochester Inc., Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority and Medical Motor Service of Rochester and Monroe County Inc. to deliver meals, Saunders noted.
Additionally, Goodwill has partnered with Catholic Family Center and Action for a Better Community to serve the under-60 population that are homebound, while also collecting, sorting and storing the handmade masks that community members are putting together and donating.
“And they became our partner for supply distribution,” Saunders added. “So your shelter staff, your congregate living settings, your residential settings, your domestic violence agencies couldn’t independently get the supplies they needed so United Way, with the support of the Community Crisis Fund, has bought supplies in mass quantities — from 150,000 masks to cleaning supplies and gloves to food containers — and Goodwill stores them for us. Then RTS buses are delivering them to human service agencies.
“It’s amazing to see all these puzzle pieces and in this middle of it is Goodwill,” Saunders said.
Lake, who most recently served as president of the agency, took the lead for the pandemic response at Goodwill, enabling Hopf — who originally planned to retire later this year — to pass the baton early.
“It’s not my role to choose my successor; it’s the board’s role. But I do believe it’s my role as CEO to prepare internal candidates,” Hopf said. “Jen came to us as a young professional many years ago and she was eager, an eager learner. She had high aspirations for herself.”
Lake joined the agency following a career in a variety of industries, including the Lauder Corp., Warner Bros. and Spherion Professional Services. It was during her time at Spherion that her husband prompted her to truly think about what she wanted out of her career.
“I happened to be going in on a Saturday and my husband said, you work really hard, you’re doing a lot and what are you doing this for,” Lake recalled. “In the moment I was not fully appreciative of his feedback, but the more I thought about it, it really started a journey of wanting to transition to a nonprofit where I could really feel good about all of my efforts going toward making our community better.”
The organization was known as ABVI/Goodwill at the time and Lake was hired to develop its talent strategy.
“I was brought in to really focus on recruiting for the organization, working on growing and developing our employees and ultimately what turned into working with our leadership team on our culture,” Lake said.
Hopf served as a mentor to Lake, putting together an intentional development plan that included coaching and giving Lake opportunities outside the organization.
“It was important that she understand strategic planning. That was always my role and that’s what I did,” Hopf said. “I assigned her that role, which gave her an opportunity to work with the board. She did a great job developing the strategic plan.”
Lake joined Goodwill Industries International Inc.’s 18-month leadership development program several years ago, allowing her an opportunity to spend time away from the local campus and focus on her professional growth.
“This was all designed and orchestrated to mesh with my timeline for retirement,” Hopf said, noting that she approached the board more than a year ago to address the topic. “While I always felt it was important for the board to do a search, even if there is an internal candidate, I was starting to feel differently. We had such a strong culture and strong board and very strong balance sheet that perhaps it was in the best interest of the organization to go with the internal candidate who in fact had been prepared and was ready.”
With nearly 700 employees and a budget of some $50 million, Lake takes the helm of a not-for-profit that has grown and expanded significantly under Hopf’s leadership.
“What I believe I leave behind is the depth and breadth of the talent in the organization, the depth and breadth of commitment to the mission and to the belief that people, regardless of ability, have aspirations and dreams and desires and the ability not only to gain self-sufficiency, but to make contributions to their families and communities,” Hopf said of her legacy. “And that’s what we’re all about.”
Hopf is most proud of the growth of Goodwill’s 211/Life Line program because it was her baby. On a trip to Virginia some time ago she saw blind and visually impaired individuals working a call center, using computers and phones and dealing directly with customers. She grabbed that idea and brought it to Rochester.
“Everything I have I’ve stolen from somebody else,” Hopf jokes. “While we had a manufacturing division, we had people who were blind and visually impaired who were coming out of school in a new era that wanted white-collar jobs and professional jobs.”
Hopf’s name is synonymous with the phrase “community champion,” Saunders said.
“She is so dedicated to solving challenges, to advocating for what is needed to help people. She’s very entrepreneurial and innovative,” Saunders added. “When I think of Gidget I think of a dedicated leader who continued to evaluate and expand how a not-for-profit organization can make positive change, and they’ve become this incredible engine in our community. They are one of the best kept secrets, even though they are everywhere.”
Saunders said Lake is the right leader at the right time.
“She is standing on the shoulders of an incredible team that Gidget helped build,” she explained. “Jen Lake comes with a very operational mindset. She ran the operation, she knows it in and out. She’s very data-driven, but she is surrounded in an envelope of deep empathy. If you have a conversation with Jen Lake, she always starts with who is going to be impacted and how can I help.”
Lake said what makes the organization a success is the continued focus from its employees.
“Over the last 14 years, myself and the other leaders have really worked to cultivate and develop the culture by investing in our employees, really focusing on leaders who lead through their behaviors and their actions, in accordance with our values, and providing development opportunities for our employees to have goals and dreams and, better yet, even accomplish them,” Lake said. “We have various social enterprises that employ people with barriers to independence to generate the funds that we then use to fund our mission services. It’s a really great story to be a part of, and by treating people well I think it’s allowed us to really do so much for the community.”
The future of Goodwill under Lake’s leadership is to no longer be the community’s best-kept secret, she said. She and her team will focus on growing its mission services including 211/Life Line, ABVI and its workforce development programs, while also continuing to grow its financial model through social enterprises.
“There will be more stores and attended donation centers,” Lake said, noting the increased calls to 211 and ability to efficiently handle those calls. “We’ll be moving full speed ahead to participate in the systems integration initiative, with the goal of making it easier for people to get access to the human services they need. And then focusing more on our own employees — many of our employees aren’t very different from the people we serve through 211 — really looking to invest more in our career development initiative with our employees and focusing on a partnership to skill build and potentially outplace some of our own employees with other community businesses.”
Lake said Goodwill’s board had the foresight to ensure that the organization’s culture stays intact and that it is able to continue the “tremendous trajectory we’ve been on.”
“I am truly grateful and humbled to be in this role and hope the community is excited for what is yet to come from Goodwill of the Finger Lakes,” Lake said.