John Rolfe
John Rolfe

For some small businesses that managed to weather the pandemic’s severe labor shortages, shutdowns, and supply chain constraints, what looms ahead in 2022 can either make or break them. We sat down with John Rolfe, the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s first Black President and CEO, to discuss his vision to strengthen relations within the region’s business community, aggressively advocate for legislation that benefits business, and meet the specific needs of a diverse small business community.  

Rolfe, a Wichita native, was appointed CEO of the Chamber in Oct 2021 and brings years of experience in non-profit leadership and economic development to the position. 

“ I consider it an honor and a privilege and one I don’t take lightly in many ways. Being the first African American as well as being selected for this particular role at the chamber,” said Rolfe 

Nearly 85% of the Wichita chamber’s 1500+ members are small businesses. With a growing number of minority businesses, Rolfe stated the chamber must prioritize these business owners’ needs in 2022. Despite differences in size and background, he feels that it’s his responsibility to promote and aid the entire business community, which he agrees the chamber hasn’t traditionally done. 

“My focus is on how we engage these businesses, specifically our minority and women business enterprises, bring them into the fold of normal business, and provide opportunities to connect and grow to become major suppliers,” said Rolfe.  

“ I have been intentional about ensuring all our teams are a part of organizations such as Christiana Long’s Create Campaign and other minority groups that reach an audience we haven’t traditionally connected with,” said Rolfe.

Rolfe mentioned that the chamber will develop a better relationship with The Heartland Black Chamber and Wichita Hispanic Chamber. Although they’re different entities, he believes that working together, making connections, sharing ideas will help the overall business community, which he believes is at the heart of every chamber’s mission. 

Both chambers currently have a seat on the chamber’s board of directors. 

“We want the Heartland and Hispanic chambers to be as fully engaged and informed as possible. From my standpoint, we want all businesses to be integrated not just because they are part of DEI, but it’s just business, and we’re doing business with you because you do good work,” said Rolfe. 

Ricki Ellison

In September, the chamber named Ricki Ellison as its new director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). As the director, Ellison will serve as an ambassador and advocate for inclusive and equitable initiatives that benefit minority businesses in Wichita. The DEI office plans to utilize the chambers’ resources to help facilitate minority business through contracting and supplier diversity. 

The chamber has a history of working diligently in Topeka to advocate for change in state policies and laws they feel will help positively impact the economic climate for its members.  The chamber’s 2022 policy agenda has some surprisingly favorable issues that some might see as social, but Rolfe says they also make good business sense.  Here are a few of the issues you might find surprising the chamber is advocating for.   

  • Enhanced re-entry programs The chamber is encouraging programs to help e ex-offenders re-enter the workforce and supports programs to promote work and help recipients of government assistance with obtaining employment

  • Reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system  Their suggestions in this area include supporting “appropriate” training for law enforcement.  Advocate for reforms that address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and support appropriate training for law enforcement. 

  • Mental health and substance abuse The chamber is encouraging the Legislature to increase investment in programs designed to address the treatment of mental health and substance abuse in South Central Kansas, including the opening of a  state mental health hospital in the Wichita region.

Are you interested in becoming a member or looking for more information about the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce? Contact kdundas@wichitachamber.org or call 316-268-1115.

Photo Courtesy of T&J Studios

John Rolfe: A Home-Grown Leader 

John Rolfe is no stranger to Wichita or the Wichita Chamber.  A Southeast High and Wichita State University graduate, Rolfe previously served as the Vice-President of Economic Development for the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce from 1999 to 2001. In that position, he successfully led the division by working with local companies on business expansions and recruitment of new companies while also maintaining partnerships with the city, county, and state

From 2001 to 2012, Rolfe was President and CEO of Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. During his tenure with Go Wichita, the city doubled visitors, resulting in a $25 million economic impact.

Rolfe spent 2012 to 2019 in Houston, TX where he was the Chief Administrative Officer for Houston First Corporation, that city’s visitor and tourism organization.  

Before being named the chamber’s CEO, Rolfe served as the Kansas Leadership Center’s Chief Business Officer. During his tenure, he expanded new partnerships by 70%, doubled the company’s yearly income, and created and executed many new business development initiatives and strategies. 

 “John is a proven leader with a deep understanding of our community,” Ben Hutton, the Chamber’s board chair and CEO of Hutton said in a statement. “Well known in our region, he has a wealth of leadership experience in business, civic, and government organizations which allows him to understand the perspectives of all of our members.”

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