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Distinguished Alumnus

Rita Reagen Athas

M.A., Public Administration, Urban Management and Development, 1978

Rita Athas

Rita Reagan Athas graduated from Northern in 1978 after earning her Master of Arts degree in Public Administration (MPA). For the next five years, Ms. Athas worked as assistant village manager in Western Springs and then in Streamwood before serving as community development director in Hanover Park. From 1985 to 1989, Ms. Athas was assistant director of the Northwest Municipal Conference (NWMC), after which she served as its executive director until 1997. 

Ms. Athas was then appointed deputy chief of staff for external affairs in the Office of the Mayor of Chicago. In this role, she formed the Mayor’s Caucus, an organization that brings together the Mayor of Chicago and the 272 mayors serving surrounding cities and villages. This group enhances intergovernmental relations and addresses such initiatives as the expansion of O’Hare International Airport, education reform, and tax policy. Today, the Caucus stands as an independent 501(c) (3) organization and is often replicated in other metropolitan areas throughout the nation. 

Since 2007, Ms. Athas has been president of World Business Chicago (WBC), where she works with an advisory board of 48 of the city’s top business leaders, chaired by the mayor. The organization promotes private sector growth in and around the Chicago area by advancing a business-friendly environment. 

Responsible for developing WBC’s strategic direction for economic growth, Ms. Athas directs work to improve Chicago’s economic climate and manages the city’s business retention, attraction, and expansion endeavors.  She oversaw the move of Miller Coors, United, Ventas, and Veolia Environmental to Chicago. On the international front, she has worked to raise Chicago’s stature in the global economy by leading the city’s participation in the 2010 Shanghai Expo and coordinating international delegations to Russia, the United Arab Emirate, China, and Hong Kong. 

Ms. Athas has an advisory committee of university business deans, who provide WBC with professional business counsel as well as access to future business leaders.  She has also developed innovative strategies to heighten Chicago’s profile as a business center, including establishing the “Cooler by the Lake” program, which attracts young, knowledge-based workers to the city. In addition, Ms. Athas launched Chicago Career Tech, a job retraining program focused on the middle class. 

As a member of the Chicago business leadership community, she serves as Co-Chair of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council; is a member of the Economic Club, the Executive Club, and the Chicago Council for Global Affairs; and serves on the boards of Metropolis Strategies, Chicago Career Tech, and CEOs for Cities. 

In nominating Ms. Athas for this award, Dr. James Banovetz shared this observation: “I personally consider Rita Athas to be one of the most successful of our alumni in making multiple contributions of lasting significance to the success of the nation’s public sector. No other alumnus has contributed more to the economic well-being of Chicago.”   

As a visionary and innovative leader, Ms. Rita Reagan Athas continues to make a significant and enduring impact on the economic growth and development of her community and the region.



by Shelley Korth