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Episode 212: May 6, 2024

Joe Interviews Kara Bombard, president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield

If she could redo her 20s, Kara Bombard says she would have become involved with the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield much earlier than she did, because the relationships she has built at YPS — which she currently serves as president — have proven valuable. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar talks with Bombard about her work at YPS and why the organization is so important 17 years after it was first launched. They also talk about her intriguing role as marketing manager at Performance Foodservice, which helps area restaurants run their businesses more successfully — and her recent selection as one of this year’s 40 Under Forty. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest.

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Group Created to Stem the Brain Drain Remains Loyal to Its Roots

YPS leaders past and present
YPS leaders past and present, from left: Michael Kusek, Kathleen Plante, Ryan McCollum, Kara Bombard, Heather Clark, and Tyler Hadley.

The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. That’s not a big number, but for a ‘young’ organization, in every sense of that word, it is a significant milestone. What is being celebrated is ongoing work to carry out a mission to bring young people together, to get them involved, to help shape them into leaders, and, while they’re at it, motivate them to stay in the 413. Much has changed over those 15 years, but that important mission hasn’t.

Fifteen years.

Depending on how old you are, it’s either a long time or … a really long time.

To those who were involved in the creation of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS), it certainly seems like the latter. The city and the region have changed considerably since 2007, and their lives have as well. Most are in different jobs than they were back then, and if they were in business for themselves, their venture is probably exponentially larger and more diverse.

Meanwhile, technology and social media have advanced in ways that probably could not have been imagined back then — early meetings were all planned by email, word got out through Evite, and organizers had real rolodexes, for example — and the physical landscape has been altered; many of the venues that hosted those early gatherings of this group, from the Keg Room and Cobalt to the Skyplex nightclub and Sam’s at the Basketball Hall of Fame, have been relegated to memories.

But through all that change — and, yes, there has been a lot of it — the core mission, YPS’s reason for being, is still the same. It is a vehicle for bringing ‘young’ — and that’s young in quotation marks — people together to network, do business with one another, learn, grow, get involved, consider the problems of the region and the world, and maybe discuss some ideas for solving a few.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room. Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

While doing all that, it has made the phrase ‘Third Thursday,’ the traditional gathering night, part of the local lexicon, a tradition that has endured.

The motto back then was ‘live, work, play, and stay,’ with the last word perhaps being the most critical, said Mike Kusek, noting that it was added to convey the importance of keeping young talent graduating from area colleges and universities in this region and minimizing the brain drain that was considered a major problem for the region.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room,” he said of those days. “Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

Kusek is one of those founding members, if you will, who has seen his life and career change considerably since 2007. Back then, he was handling marketing for the Valley Advocate. Today, he is the founder and publisher of Different Leaf, a publication dedicated to all things cannabis, especially the growing industry within Massachusetts and across the country (talk about a major change in the local landscape!).

Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.
Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.

He is one of several founders, as well as some current officers of YPS, who gathered for a roundtable to talk about YPS as it marks 15 years, a milestone that provided a time for reflection on how it got started, what has been accomplished, how the group has evolved, and what might come next.

As to that last question … a 15th-anniversary party is part of the answer. Those at the table agreed that one is certainly needed, and a format and date will come later.

As to those other questions … those at the table agreed that YPS has succeeded with its original mission, but it has also expanded it to include education — through initiatives like its early CEO Roundtables, where members could ask questions of leading area executives — and also involvement (YPS helped spawn the Onboard event aimed at recruiting young people, women, and diverse populations to serve on the boards of area nonprofits), charity, and even politics by encouraging members to register to vote (as part of the national Rock the Vote movement) and staging ‘meet-the-candidates’ gatherings.

The process of evolution continues, and it was accelerated in many ways by the pandemic, said Heather Clark, event manager for Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Baystate Health Foundation, the current president of YPS, noting that the group managed its way through that difficult time by bringing people together through Zoom meetings and finding new and different ways to connect young people and channel their collective energy.

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently,” she explained, adding that, now that COVID is essentially over, the challenge, and opportunity, moving forward is to determine what the future will look like in terms of where and how members will connect — with each other and the community. “We’re still trying to figure out what that looks like.”

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently.”

Tyler Hadley, director of Marketing for DDS Acoustical Specialties LLC in Westfield, and current co-vice president of the board, agreed.

“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” he explained. “Fifteen years ago, young people wanted to get out and do something; now, young professionals may just want to go on a website and look through a business directory. There’s always a place for the in-person gatherings, but we have to look at what else people are looking for.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several current and past leaders of YPS about this organization’s place in the region and within its business community, and about how the process of evolution will continue.

Young Ideas

As they talked about that first, very memorable gathering of YPS back in 2007, those founders (we won’t call them old-timers) we spoke with could remember many things, but especially the lines formed outside the Keg Room on Main Street, the huge crowds that gathered inside, the surprise with those numbers (especially on the part of some chamber and economic-development leaders who had expressed doubts about such an initiative), and the satisfaction that came with those numbers and how they validated the concept.

“We put the word out, there were lines down the street … the place was packed,” said Kathleen Plante, who was handling membership and events for what was then the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield and is now an advertising consultant for BusinessWest. “The leaders of the chamber and EDC [Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council] were shocked by the size of the turnout.”

Those founders just couldn’t remember the date of that memorable gathering.

From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.
From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.

Most recalled that it was warm. Most thought it had to be early fall, while others were convinced it was late summer. But a quick check of some early news stories on their phones revealed that the first meeting was in July.

Still, while the actual date is not etched into those founders’ minds, the motivation behind creation of the group certainly was.

Indeed, many can come from other markets — Plante from Seattle, and Ryan McCollum from Boston, where he worked at the State House, for example — where such groups were commonplace. With one voice, they were asking two questions: ‘why don’t we have a group like that?’ and ‘why don’t we start one?’

“I was working for Dave Panagore, then the chief Economic Development officer in Springfield, after coming back from Boston and working in the state Senate — and there were a bunch of young professional groups out there that I was a part of,” McCollum, now a political consultant and lobbyist, recalled. “I asked him almost in passing, ‘why we didn’t have anything like this,’ and he said, ‘why don’t you call down to the chamber and the EDC and find out?”

Plante recalled that there were already many discussions going on about a group for young professionals, and a core group of business and nonprofit leaders — including herself, Kusek, Tricia Canavan with the Springfield Public Forum, Michelle Sade with United Personnel Services, Maria Burke with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Alyssa Carvallo with the EDC, and Taryn Markham Siciliano at the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce — took the ball, ran with it, and started planning what would the first Third Thursday, even though that name would come later.

From the start, the idea was to bring young people together, on the theory that doing so would, first and foremost, give such people something fun to do with people their own age — or close to their own age. And in the early days, that’s mostly what it was, with gatherings that certainly helped many of the bar and club owners that were bringing a new vitality to downtown Springfield.

So much so, in fact, that YPS developed — and had to fight back against — a reputation of being a party group. But it only fought so hard, said Kusek, adding that it was created to give young people a place to go, a reason to want to stay in this market. Social gatherings with adult beverages are part of that equation.

“There’s real value in that,” he said. “There’s all this talk about the brain drain at the colleges … 22-year-olds want to do what 22-year-olds do, and if your city or town doesn’t give that social outlet and opportunities that 20- and 30-somethings want, then you’re never going to retain them for jobs; they didn’t graduate from college to be a drone.”

McCollum agreed. “There was a thirst and desire to do something like that, and a lot of it was social,” he said of the early days, adding the requisite ‘no pun intended.’ “For 15 years, it’s been Third Thursday, and that’s really cool.”

Today … and Tomorrow

From the beginning, the word ‘young’ in Young Professional Society has always been a relative term. While the broad implication is that it is for people under 40, this has never been a benchmark, much less a requirement.

“You can be young of age, you can be starting a career, you can be 40 years or older starting a new career,” Hadley said. “There’s lots of ways to be ‘young.’”

And YPS has celebrated all of them through a progress of birth, growth, evolution, and diversification, said Plante, adding that one of the early steps was to create a path toward sustainability.

This was accomplished by establishing a board of directors and officers and generating revenue through membership, which comes on several tiers, from ‘partner business membership’ to nonprofit and student membership, as well as sponsorships, events (beyond Third Thursday, such as the annual golf tournament and dodgeball tournament), some bylaws, and endeavors such as the CEO Luncheons.

By giving YPS that needed structure, the organization was able to move past that ‘party group’ reputation, to some extent, and become a stronger force within the local business community.

Today, the attendance at Third Thursday events is a fraction of what it was in the beginning, say the current board leaders. (The after-party at BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty gala in June was a notable exception.)

There are many reasons for this, but among the clearest is the fact that there are now several organizations devoted to young professionals. Indeed, each county now has its own, and some businesses, including MassMutual, have their own groups, which have the same basic mission — to bring young people together to connect.

Meanwhile, the pandemic forced groups like YPS, which currently boasts roughly 140 members, to come together in different ways, including Zoom, and now, hybrid formats have become the most popular option, and for a reason — they make it easier and more convenient for people to take part.

But Third Thursday lives on, and at a wide variety of venues across the region, including the Boathouse in South Hadley, the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, the Town Tap in Agawam, Hardwick Winery, and even a local Fred Astaire Dance Studio.

“They gave everyone a quick, 30-minute group dance lesson; it was a lot of fun,” said Hadley, adding, as others did, that with COVID receding into the past tense, there is more of a willingness on the part of many people to get out and attend events again.

Events like a membership drive at Paper City Bar and Grille in Holyoke, staged in conjunction with the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, that drew more than 170 people, said Clark. “I think that event really showed that people want to get back out,” she noted, adding that Third Thursdays remain just part of the equation.

Indeed, YPS carries out its mission the same way it has since the beginning, by bringing people together and getting them involved. There is camaraderie, learning — a series of Leadership Luncheons continues — and team building, through events such as an annual ‘golf escape,’ as it’s called, and an adult field day — the modern-day dodgeball tournament — which is just what it sounds like, a series of team field events that test “speed, wits, and strength (minimal).”

“The winning team gets to choose a charity of their choice for a donation,” said Clark, adding that the event drew 20 teams in its first year and has grown consistently in recent years. Meanwhile, the annual golf tournament continues to thrive as well.

Moving forward, YPS will continue to survey its members and the community at large to determine what they want and need from a young-professionals group, said Hadley, adding that, through such research, the group can continue to provide value to the many constituents it serves, including the region’s business community.

“We would love more data so we can go back to businesses and explain why this is valuable,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, since the beginning, providing value to those involved has been part of the mission.

Bottom Line

Over the past 15 years, YPS has helped spawn several business partnerships, some new ventures among members, some personal relationships, and even a marriage or two.

Mostly, though, it has succeeded in doing what it was created to do: bring young people together, get them involved and keep them involved, keep them in this region, and, overall, more effectively harness the energy and talents of those young people to make this a better place to live and work — and play and stay.

Fifteen years later, this is certainly something to celebrate — and there will eventually be a party. More importantly, there will be more chapters written in this unfolding story — a success story on many different levels.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]