Young Professional of the Year praises group for opportunities

Although she has spent most of her life in Holland, Rebekah Bakker credits joining the Holland/Zeeland Young Professionals with broadening her perspective of her hometown. 

Bakker joined the organization for the networking opportunities and the programming that gave her a chance to experience the culture of local companies. She went on behind-the-scenes tours of Tiara Yachts’ Holland manufacturing facility, LG Chem’s battery plant, and Holland Board of Public Works’ Energy Park. 

“These sort of unique experiential learning opportunities that Young Professionals offered took networking to a whole new level,” Bakker says. 

She was recently named the organization’s 2020 Young Professional of the Year for her contribution to both the organization and the community. 

Diversity series

After joining the organization in 2017, Bakker volunteered for the professional development committee. After hearing members wanted diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops and training, the committee organized a series in partnership with Gentex and the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance

“It was a really positive way to bring a workshop that was relevant and wanted by our constituents,” Bakker says. 

This has been a pivotal year for Bakker, who transitioned her career from the nonprofit sector to private business when she came on board as a Business Development Manager at Custer Inc, a Steelcase furniture dealer. She is also the newest member of the board of directors of the West Coast Chamber of Commerce.

Law school or ...

The 2003 Holland Christian grad considered law school after earning her bachelor’s degree at Grand Valley State University, with plans for a career in international environmental law. 

She took a year off and joined AmeriCorp, a national service program started by President Bill Clinton. Bakker was placed with the American Red Cross, where she was part of the response team for natural disasters, from wildfires in California to flooding in Ohio. She helped organize bilingual CPR classes, found drivers for blood drives, and worked with churches and nonprofits on a variety of efforts. 

“I watched this multidisciplinary team approach come together and help solve pressing social crises,” she says, adding that the experience revealed her desire for a different career path. “I wanted to be working in a capacity that really was investing in the communities in which I lived.”

Nonprofit work

Over the next decade, Bakker worked for nonprofits such as the Holland Museum, Safe Haven Ministries, Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, Women of Color Give, and the Greater Ottawa County United Way. 

Most recently, she served as Director of Development and Diversity for the Children’s Advocacy Center. In that role, she handled business development, strategic partnerships, and outreach. 

Among her duties was organizing the CAC’s signature events, which was like “throwing a massive wedding three times a year.”

She appreciates the cross-training she received in the nonprofit world, where she did everything from operations to budget. “I learned how to do public speaking and put together a whiteboard presentation,” Bakker says.

Project manager

Her work on a capital campaign led to being project manager for the renovation and expansion of the nonprofit’s center. 

The design team took a human-centered approach to creating everything from the forensic interview rooms to the cognitive behavioral therapy rooms. 

“At the CAC, all of our clients were either survivors of child sexual abuse or severe physical abuse and neglect,” she says. “I realize how much space impacted the trajectory of a child's healing journey. Then I began to research further about how much design impacts the way that people function and how they work.”

Interest in design, space

After that, she was interested in design and why space matters. Fortunately, she lives in West Michigan, the capital of the country’s office furniture industry. 

“Work is such a big part of how we allocate our time and invest in ourselves. I wanted to be a part of driving conversations about how to make spaces and places that are healthier, make people more productive, and encourage collaboration. My experience of seeing how design impacts client experiences really was a perfect setup for me to start exploring a career with companies that are the experts in place,” Bakker says. 

Her new position lets her stay engaged in the community. In addition to the chamber, she serves on a few boards of nonprofits and as a point of contact for charitable donations. If a nonprofit is looking for furniture or upgrades for a new space, she helps manage the donations along the lakeshore.

“A really rewarding part of the job has been looking for opportunities that we can give back in a meaningful way to the community,” she says.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.