Kathryn Roberts, Ph.D.

At first blush, unflappable LeadingAge Board Chairwoman Kathryn Roberts, Ph.D., is not the type of person whom one asks to hold her boots.

But that’s exactly what pop superstar Janet Jackson did during a “behind the scenes” zoo tour in the early 1990s, when Roberts was the Minnesota Zoo’s executive director. To be fair, the star’s feet hurt.

Roberts’ time overseeing exotic animals and famous singers, not to mention running the state’s sports under Gov. Jesse Ventura, are among what makes Ecumen’s president and CEO far from traditional in the long-term care profession.

But no matter where she’s worked, after college she says she “realized my heart was in not-for-profit and public sector and I’ve never gone back.”

There’s also the jam.

A hard-core gardener, in November Roberts shared that she had found a wild apple tree and spent the weekend making 20 jars of apple jam. A former county fair winner for her wild plum jam, if the apple jam “is as good as I think it is, I will be back,” she notes.

Roberts has spent her life in Minnesota, growing up outside the Twin Cities and completing her bachelor’s degree in child psychology at the University of Minnesota in Mankato. 

After she finished her master’s degree and was working on her doctorate, she did a variety of temporary assignments. She worked at the zoo for 11 years, then became the first chairwoman of the state’s Metropolitan Sport Facilities Commission. Her lack of interest in sports — not to mention being female — proved to be an asset.

“They had no idea what to do with a woman,” she recalls. “I really tended to business. The Twins were going to leave Minnesota and we sued [in 2003]. For me, it was about doing the job.” 

But when Ecumen called, the opportunity to return to human services was irresistible. 

In the past dozen years, Roberts has been a “transformational leader,” who cares about her employees, says Robin Dunbar Balck, senior vice president of administration and chief strategy officer at Ecumen, which is one the nation’s largest nonprofit long-term care providers.

“She is a visionary and a futurist. She can imagine what she wants the industry to be like, and if you say, ‘What does it look like 20 years from now?’ she can tell you,” Balck says.

Roberts became involved in LeadingAge when former president and CEO Larry Minnix recruited her to the board.

“I was, of course, an anomaly to the business because I haven’t grown up as a nursing home administrator and felt a little bit of an outsider, in a good way,” she says. 

There’s no doubt she has an ally in President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan, who calls her “innovative and curious,” and “a really dynamic chair.”

In her personal life, Roberts is married to Jim Hiniker, has an adult daughter, Alex, and two stepsons, Jay and Michael. She’s always had pets — her current two are Great Dane Ellie and Goldendoodle Teddy Ray.

While there are certain to be challenges as LeadingAge transitions, Roberts says the job intrigues her.

“I loved every minute of my board service. Again, it’s the opportunity to be involved in public policy at all levels that makes a difference in people’s lives.”