By Ashley South
Nicki Anderson embodies this issue. She is a woman empowered. Nicki tells us her empowerment is from being stuck in her toddler brain of being chronically curious and listening to herself. “When your intuition kicks in and you have people telling you not to go down an unknown path, trust yourself to go forward and own your success. Embrace the curiosity!”
Nicki’s curiosity has taken her down many different paths: she has been a stay-at-home mom, a business owner, the Chamber of Commerce CEO, a published writer, and currently, a university program director. She is passionate and trusts herself and her decisions along the way, even if the next step is not what she might have expected. There are nuggets from each of her life phases to inspire all of us.
Nicki moved to Naperville as an infant in the early 60s. (She made note to tell us there were 13,000 people at the time—so tiny compared to today!) Her early years were spent in the East Highlands and Cress Creek neighborhoods. In middle school, her family moved to Florida for a year and then to Texas where she finished high school. With Naperville never far from mind and with a contact at The Second City, Nicki, a theater major, moved back to Naperville. She rented an apartment on Center Street in the Historic District. There, she met her future husband, Bill Anderson, who lived in the same building. From that point forward, Naperville remained Nicki’s permanent home.
Bill and Nicki were married a few years later. As their family expanded to four children, Nicki embraced her new role and responsibilities as a stay-at-home mom. She ushered the kids to school, practice, and everything in between. The evenings were her time. She read different publications and wrote, submitting several poems to the children’s magazine, Ladybug.
One evening, she was reading through Publishers Weekly and saw an advertised course on personal training. She studied when she could, mostly at night. Nicki remarked that she used the time as meditation for her to center herself throughout the hectic weeks. After a year, Nicki received her personal training certification. After seven years as a stay-at-home mom, Nicki decided to become a business owner and take her newly formed approach to health to the world.
In 1993, Nicki launched Lifetime Fitness. (A name that was ultimately changed to Reality Fitness due to the other one we know today—although check out that picture with Oprah!) She specialized in in-home personal training and fitness. Nicki describes herself as someone in the confidence building business. For her, this came via self-care and self-compassion. When she found herself regularly driving from Western Springs to Arlington Heights to Plainfield, she opened a studio with individual rooms to truly allow each trainer to focus on their clients during their time at her facility.
A Woman in Business
At this same time, Nicki also wrote four books (including, Reality Fitness: Inspiration for Health and Well-Being and Nicki Anderson’s Single-Step Weight Loss Solution: 101 No-Nonsense Tips for Healthy Living, Weight Loss, and a Diet-Free Life), contributed fitness articles to several magazines, sat on three advisory boards, took on ad hoc speakership opportunities, and ran her business (in addition to all the activities of a wife and mother).
The Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce noticed. They were going through some leadership changes, and the board approached her about coming on as the first woman CEO. As a Chamber member, the organization had been good to Nicki. She also had ideas for changes. She took the job. From 2014 to 2019, she was the CEO of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce. Meetings and idea sharing became intentional under her tutelage. During her time, she created the mastermind groups of business leaders, revamped the speaker’s bureau, and put the Chamber back on the map as a solid support system for its members.
During her time as CEO, Nicki was regularly invited to speak at different events. Her background as a business owner and then Chamber president made her connections to the community vast and her story unique. After speaking at Benedictine University’s graduation commencement in 2019, President Charles Gregory of the university approached Nicki about developing a women’s leadership program at the college. He told her he had a dream of creating a program for the young women at the school. After her speech, he was convinced she was the right woman to bring his dream alive. Seeing this as a platform to help bring her messages of self-care and empowerment, Nicki accepted the position.
Nicki and President Gregory established LEADS (Leadership, Empowerment, Action, Development and Service), a Women in Leadership Program, in 2020. It is a four-year co-curricular leadership program for incoming freshman women. Nicki built the program from the ground up. Starting off, she looked around to see what other schools were doing.
Many colleges and universities have women in leadership programs, but she found that very few had structured programs that lasted all four years, so they created one. “At the core, LEADS is a self-actualization program where the classes help the young women discover who they are and how they can take strengths and turn them into successful leadership traits. When you have the opportunity to work with young women and talk about how they convey themselves in their work, they begin to develop self-trust and confidence.”
Nicki has helped so many people from her clients at Reality Fitness, to local businesses in Naperville, to the students at Benedictine University. Nicki shared with us that she wasn’t always self-confident. She struggled with her weight in her teen years, and she inflicted negative self-talk on herself. She generally felt a sense of dissatisfaction with whatever she did. She told us that changed when she was 17.
Her manager of Gym-n-Trim, where she worked after high school, told her he saw something in her and introduced her to the world of motivational speakers. She was introduced to people who told her repeatedly that she was special. That message won over after some time. From there, she decided she deserved to be satisfied with herself and took charge of her actions, which included self-care. She advised that if you are struggling, ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Ask hard questions: Why are you doing what you are doing? Why now? And have an honest discussion with yourself.
Empowerment and confidence is in ownership, owning who you are fully and unapologetically! From theater major to creator to director of a women in leadership program, Nicki changed course along her route but stayed on her own personal path of empowering others.