The passion Lisa Gates has for Peoria is palpable.
Now the vice president of marketing and communications at RLI Insurance, Gates is exuberant in talking about her childhood growing up in Peoria. She speaks enthusiastically, as well, about what the city has to offer to residents today.
Those positive experiences going back to her early years have translated into an adult life of service to the community, which is what justifies her selection as one of Peoria Magazine’s Women of Influence for 2022.
Born Lisa Frank, daughter of Tom and Connie Frank, Gates recalls “a very happy upbringing,” shared with one sibling, her sister Sara.
“My dad had early onset Parkinson’s. My mom was very resourceful,” said Gates. “She would take advantage of what Peoria had to offer for us, like nature hikes at Forest Park, Peoria Park District programs and classes, Glen Oak Park concerts in the band shell. We really took advantage of what Peoria had to offer.”
After graduating from Peoria Notre Dame High School, Gates received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
A Windy City start
Her career began in Chicago at Starcom, a division of Leo Burnett Chicago, working for such clients as Proctor & Gamble and Miller Brewing. From there she moved to the Tribune Company, in the interactive division.
“After that it was time to make a change,” Gates said. “I’d learned a lot, grown a lot in that role and it was time to move on.”
By that time, she had married Bob Gates, a graduate of Miami University of Ohio. They had been introduced by Lisa’s roommate at the U of I. Bob was practicing law in Chicago when Lisa approached her husband about moving to Peoria.
The timing was right.
“I was incredibly lucky to get a great offer here at RLI that allowed me to come back to Peoria,” said Gates.
A satisfying, liberating career
RLI Corp., a publicly traded specialty insurer, hired Gates in 2010 as director of communications. Now a company vice president at age 44, she is as exuberant about her employer as she is about her hometown.
“I love what I do,” said Gates. “I feel fortunate and lucky to have a career with a company I love working for, and to be a part of the RLI story is fulfilling.”
She expresses gratitude for her employer allowing her the flexibility to give of her time to community efforts.
“When we moved back to Peoria, I started meeting people in the community who were sharing their lives and talents to make Peoria a better place,” she said.
Gates quickly followed suit and got involved, making such a strong impression that she was named to the 2011 class of Peoria’s 40 Under Forty.
Children’s Home was one of the first places Gates put her community-enhancing skills to work, serving on the board of trustees for the past 14 years. Children’s Home is a multi-faceted agency offering services to central Illinois youth at every stage of their lives and whatever their challenges, including homelessness, mental health issues, developmental and social needs.
Gates will become the board’s chairwoman in 2023. It marks a continuation of her family’s history.
“My mom was a teacher. She started and ran Project Target, a truancy and dropout prevention program,” Gates said. Through that program, the Frank family got to know Children’s Home and many families involved there.
“I’ve admired the work Children’s Home has done to serve families in the most difficult situations. The work they do is powerful and impactful,” said Gates.
Outgoing board Chairman Bill Lutz describes Gates as a great communicator with a management style both collaborative and respectful.
“She has great business experience and insight,” Lutz said. “She’s extremely organized and very thoughtful about how she proceeds.”
Lutz said he also has found Gates to be generous with her time. “This post requires quite a bit of personal time commitment, so her willingness to do that has been fantastic,” Lutz said. “She’s a real pleasure to work with.”
Inheriting a hard work gene
Gates’s work ethic was ingrained early.
Her father, now deceased, “encouraged us to have high expectations for ourselves, get a good education, work hard and trust if you do those things in that order, you’d always be successful.”
Gates recalls spending a lot of time with her father refurbishing cars and “fixing things around the house.”
“He expected us to be self-sufficient,” she said. “Change your own oil, mow your own lawn. Do-it-yourself was our middle name.”
After college, the Gates sisters took their do-it-yourself roots and knowledge and put them to work.
“My sister and I renovated a building in Chicago from top to bottom,” Gates said. “It took us 10 years to do it, but we did it ourselves. We’d live on one floor, rent out the other two. Then when we finished a floor, we’d move into another apartment.
“We had our 9-to-5 job and our 5-to-9 job,” said Gates. “We had a lot of fun doing it.”
Paying it forward
Another Peoria childhood experience Gates appreciates was attending preschool at Lakeview Museum.
“I grew up in a museum, taking art classes and learning to do ceramics,” she said. “While I can’t draw or paint, I’m creative in other ways. I was exposed to different ways of doing things. Marketing and communications require creativity in problem-solving and looking at different ways of doing things.”
Making those learning experiences available to other children is another Gates passion, manifested in part by her last six years of service on the board of Peoria Riverfront Museum (PRM).
“I love the organization dearly,” said Gates. “They’re doing great things for the community.”
From viewing the far reaches of the galaxy in the museum’s planetarium to seeing the works of some of the most prominent and exciting artists of our time, central Illinoisans can access experiences one typically does not find even in larger markets, she said.
Particularly exciting for her is the museum’s partnership with Art Bridges, a nonprofit organization funded by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, which loans paintings from her own collection as well as other participating museums to smaller community museums for exhibit.
PRM was the first to participate in this exchange, displaying works from major artists such as Andy Warhol to those of important female and African American creators who often are not represented in museums.
“But the thing I’m most passionate about is the Every Student Initiative,” through which all students in public, private and homeschool settings in central Illinois receive a free, curriculum-based visit to the museum, said Gates. Since its inception in 2017, the initiative has provided more than 50,000 museum experiences at no cost to students.
By getting those students into the museum, she hopes they see themselves throughout life as museum-goers, open to inspiration and great aspirations.
“Lisa Gates is the preeminent marketing mind among young, emerging leaders of central Illinois,” said PRM President and CEO John Morris. “She attended Kellogg, the number one marketing school in the world. She and her husband Bob could go anywhere to live and they chose here. Her home.”
As a board member, Morris said Gates has been “invaluable. Her level of wisdom and guidance for the museum is so mature and sophisticated and worldly for her being still a young, emerging professional.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, every museum in America closed, for a time. “We had a crisis,” said Morris. “Lisa was a dominant force in helping us create a virtual museum, with emails, videos, social media,” which to this day receive up to 11,000 digital engagements per week.
Why is that digital engagement so important? “We’re in the business of inspiring people. The business we’re in is how many young people we lifted up,” said Morris. “The digital aspects help museum visitors get ready for their visit and be ready to learn when they get here.”
Morris applauds Gates for her leadership on that score and others: “She’s just getting started.”
Making time for other things
In her so-called “free time,” for Gates it’s all about family.
Lisa and Bob Gates are parents to a daughter, 7-year-old Alex. Lisa’s mother, Connie, still resides in Peoria.
Gates enjoys bicycling, horseback riding and has competed in triathlons. Spending time outdoors with her husband, daughter and mother is the best of all worlds for her. “Our favorite thing to do is going to the Farmers Market in downtown Peoria on Saturday mornings.
“We really do take advantage of all Peoria has to offer.”