“Sometimes you get into a job not knowing what to expect, and it’s a good fit,” Nora Roughen-Schmidt said.

As Viroqua Chamber Main Street’s executive director, Roughen-Schmidt found that her particular job, one that centers on empowerment and advocacy for area entrepreneurs and the greater community, was a personal choice she came to embrace in ways she’d almost never dreamed.

“The need was there,” she said, “and I responded to it.”

In the beginning, she said she hadn’t quite seen herself doing the rural-focused marketing, public relations and Viroqua-based initiative.

“Then, the light suddenly went off,” she said, adding, “the fireworks went off.”

That’s because, as she became part of what’s now truly a movement, always keeping her eye on the big picture, it turned out that the Viroqua Chamber Main Street wasn’t solely rural or local. It has become more than that.

“We’re doing everything we can to highlight the community and the region,” Roughen-Schmidt said. “We are not just a local entity. And, we’ve become educators.”

When she talks about the “special vibe” in Viroqua, she’s also acknowledging that, by focusing on “a very cool thing,” an energy quickly spread throughout the region.

The pop-up shop, specifically, is close to Roughen-Schmidt’s heart.

It’s a program that allows entrepreneurs the opportunity to occupy a downtown commercial space rent-free, or for a nominal fee, for three months.

The participating landlords in Viroqua, she said, are kind enough to discount rent in order to make this initiative affordable for the chamber. Three years ago, the local storefronts were empty; with only seven weeks and $1,500, the Pop-Up Shop idea was born. Call-outs were made. There was no way to know whether the initiative would succeed.

“Instead of failing, everybody succeeded,” Roughen-Schmidt said.

And, it’s kept growing. It’s also encouraging diversity: This year, she said, 85 percent of the applicants have been women.

“It’s changing the face of downtown,” she said.

Roughen-Schmidt was recognized by the nominating committee for Rising Stars Under 40 for her key role in making that change possible. She admits her youth present challenges, but she loves a challenge.

“I love being the youngest executive director in the room because I am able to learn from my peers and discover mentor-relationships,” she said. “I also like having to work just a little bit harder to be taken seriously. It’s a fun challenge and helps me to maintain focus.”

She also admits to an enormous amount of pride in her work, which is ideal in the sense that a large part of what she does is encourage everyone to take pride in their community.

“I am working to empower entrepreneurs, to create an environment of creativity and strength and to demonstrate that amazing things come from group think, from committee work and from people who are dedicated to their community,” she said.

And, as she reflects on what’s been accomplished in Viroqua, she’s proud of the incredible teams she’s a part of every day.

“I am really proud of the success that my organization has achieved in the last three years,” Roughen-Schmidt said. “Record-breaking fundraisers, (the) largest farmers market in the history of our organization, the pop-up shop initiative which has won state and regional awards, the SOUP program which highlights the best things about our community, and the Co.Starters business boot camp course that was the result of a meaningful partnership. The board of directors, my phenomenal staff, the member businesses, we are an incredible team and that team creates a very important vibe in Viroqua.”

“I am working to empower entrepreneurs, to create an environment of creativity and strength.” Nora Roughen-Schmidt
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