Young Professional Groups Continue to Hone Missions, Programming
Coming of Age
The region’s growing number of young professional groups were all created to fill a void in the region, a recognized need for an organization devoted to people of generally the same age and facing mostly similar challenges, professionally and personally. This void-filling role has included a good deal of evolution and expansion that goes well beyond networking, and into the realms of education, professional development, philanthropy, and stemming that problem known as the brain drain.
If all goes well — and admittedly, a lot will have to go well for this to happen — by roughly this time next year, the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS) may be in the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the largest single-day dodgeball competition on the planet.
The organization had approximately 350 participants for this year’s event, staged a few weeks ago at Springfield College, and is looking to do least as well next spring. If it can get that performance authenticated (and there’s a lot that goes into that, including a $10,000 cost, which the agency is trying to get underwritten), then it will become the record holder.
While that wouldn’t exactly put YPS on the map, it would be a marketing tool of sorts, said the group’s president, Peter Ellis, the so-called “czar of first impressions” (that’s really what it says on his business card) at Springfield-based DIF Design, and a source of bragging rights.
Or another source, to be more precise, he told BusinessWest, adding that, in nine years that went by in a real hurry, the group has succeeded in morphing from a networking group (or partying group, depending on who’s choosing the adjective) into a regional resource on many levels.
A resource, specifically, that has developed programming on everything from helping members become better public speakers to assisting them with that ultra-broad challenge of balancing life and career; from providing information on how to reduce stress (much of it from trying to achieve that balance) to familiarizing members with the people and issues on an upcoming election ballot.
This evolutionary process in many ways mirrors the one that has taken place at Northampton Area Young Professionals, or NAYP. Now boasting 200 active members across the region, the organization has moved well beyond networking, said its president, Christopher Whalen, collections officer at Florence Bank.
Actually, NAYP has always had a strong focus on philanthropy that in some ways differentiates it from many similar organizations, he went on, adding that, from the start, with an event called ‘Party with a Purpose,’ the group has always done more than simply get together.
Its monthly gatherings have always had a designated nonprofit beneficiary, he explained, and NAYP has worked diligently to connect members with opportunities to serve nonprofits, through board fairs and other steps.
Meanwhile, Young Professionals of Amherst (YPA) hasn’t really had any time to evolve. Launched in 2014 and now boasting more than 80 members, it essentially represents what the other young professional groups have developed into, said co-president and co-founder Kate Lockhart, development director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County.
She told BusinessWest that, while the group creates a host of networking opportunities, its mission comes down to creating connections — a term used by all those we spoke with.
For the Amherst group, and the others as well, this means connecting members to each other, connecting them to opportunities, and, most importantly, connecting them to the community with the goal of getting them actively involved.
But there’s another piece to this picture, and Lockhart, echoing sentiments expressed by others, summed it up nicely by saying that these groups give young professionals something they’ve never really had — a voice.
“We want to enable young people to be part of the conversation,” she explained, adding that many people within this constituency don’t believe they have the knowledge or experience to make their feelings known. YPA is not only helping to cure them of such sentiments, it is providing the platform for speaking out.
“Our group is working hard to get people involved,” she went on, “and feeling that what they have to say is really important, and that they’re a crucial part of economic development here in Amherst and across this region.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked with leaders of several area young professional groups about the ongoing evolution of their missions, rosters of programming, and business plans, and how such work benefits members, but especially the region.
Those who spoke with BusinessWest said the YP group they now lead was created essentially out of an unmet need, or, even more specifically, a desire to fill a void in a particular region for a group devoted to people of generally the same age and facing mostly similar challenges, professionally and personally.
As Whelan explained, the local chamber of commerce, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, and other groups in a similar vein are all fine organizations, and many YP members are also involved with those groups as well, especially the chambers. But they can’t provide all of what a young professional group can — meaning those commonalities and connecting points.
“There was a need for something that went beyond the chamber,” he explained, “a need for a group of professionals at a similar stage in their careers, with common interests and challenges.”
And that’s why, collectively, the officers we spoke with say they stopped counting how many times Baby Boomers have told they them they wished they had something like this to join 20 or 30 years ago, because the number was getting so high.
In Amherst, said Lockhart, there are many groups and initiatives focused on the thousands of college students in that community, and a good number dedicated to older individuals, especially the rising number of retirees who have made the town their home. But the young professionals have been a traditionally overlooked constituency, she went on, and that’s why she and a few others decided to step up and do something about that.
“There’s a gap — there’s the college students, and then the older professionals with their networks, but there was really nothing for us,” she explained. “So a few of us tried to figure out how to make a network for this age group and their specific needs, and, by doing that, build a sense of community in the town we’re living in and working in.”
So, with the goal of filling those voids, YPS and NAYP were launched in 2007, and YPA in the fall of 2014. In each case, the words ‘young,’ ‘area,’ and ‘Greater’ are certainly relative terms. Indeed, while most members are in their 20s, 30s, or early 40s, there are some exceptions. And, in NAYP’s case, for example, the ‘area’ extends well beyond Paradise City and the communities that surround it.
In the beginning, at least with YPS and NAYP, the focus was — and still is, to a large degree — on networking, or bringing people together.
For YPS, the chosen vehicle was named Third Thursday, and it has become a day of the month event planners from other organizations have looked to avoid, at least if they want a large number of young people in attendance. NAYP also chose Thursday, and calls its gathering simply the ‘networking social.’ In Amherst, a town known for doing things differently, Wednesday was the chosen night for what are called ‘after hours events.’
There were, and are, many goals for networking, and most of them involve the professional, career side of the spectrum, said Ashley Clark, YPS vice president and, by day, cash management officer at Berkshire Bank. She noted that she owes her current job to the one she had before it at TD Bank, which she attained (or at the least scored the interview at which she made a suitable impression) through an encounter at a Third Thursday.
“I met the individual who runs all the retail branches in this area, and let him know I was looking for a different position. I met with him, and got the job,” she said, adding that this same scenario has played itself out many times.
But she was quick to note that most of the individuals she now counts as good friends were met through those same YPS events, and this is evidence of the large social aspect of this organization as well.
Ellis agreed, and went on to say that YPS, which counts as members law-firm partners, bank tellers, and everyone in between, can provide different things to people in different professions and stages of their career — be it opportunities for jobs, the ability to solicit new clients, or to build their own “professional network,” as he called it.
And networking remains a huge part of the equation, said Chicopee City Planner Lee Pouliot, the self-described “NAYP elder” (he’s been a member for five years), adding that many members have broadened their business portfolios or gained career opportunities as a result of those monthly get-togethers.
But the networking always had a purpose beyond the mere exchanging of business cards, he said, adding that, over the years, he’s seen members also exchanging and advancing ideas for getting more involved in the community and also for coping with the many challenges facing this generation of young professionals.
Ellis agreed, and said he’s noted how his networking, and that of others in the group, has changed as their career progressed and their needs evolved.
“Early on, I would go to gatherings, people would say, ‘you need a web site or some design services, let me connect you to a guy,’” he said, noting that he was the guy in question. “Later, I was introducing people to others and creating connections. You become the locomotive, and it’s as if you’re returning the favor.”
Youth Is Served
Over time, the YP groups’ missions and programming have continued to expand and evolve, bringing into sharper focus those terms ‘resource’ and ‘connections.’
All those we spoke with noted that their organizations are looking to broaden their impact in the region, as well as their membership ranks, by partnering with various entities — other YP groups, a host of business and economic-development agencies including the chambers of commerce, area colleges, and even BusinessWest.
“One of the things we’ve identified from a strategic perspective is the need to identify and develop stronger partnerships,” said NAYP’s Whelan. “That includes our chamber, but also other chambers, Leadership Pioneer Valley, MassMutual’s Employee Resource Group, and others. We want to find ways we can collaborate with one another in ways that are mutually beneficial.”
Meanwhile, the groups are also launching new initiatives that fall into the broad categories of education, awareness, and professional development.
At YPS, the group has added something called the work/life balance committee, which, as that name suggests, concentrates on an area almost every young professional struggles with to one degree or another.
Another committee, focused on professional development, hosts, among other things, CEO luncheons (where participants dine with a CEO, hear him or her talk about their work, and then ask questions) and quarterly breakfast meetings featuring seminars on subjects ranging from stress reduction to public speaking, or, to be more specific, the need for developing strong verbal skills.
“These are little things that strike a chord with members,” Ellis said. “These are issues they’ve identified as important to them.”
NAYP also offers some professional-development programming for its members, said Whelan, adding that this is one area the group is looking to expand in the years to come with initiatives such as a webinar series and other vehicles.
Beyond professional development and work/life balance, though, the YP groups are also finding new ways to provide that voice for young people mentioned earlier.
“We want our members to feel that they should be at the table with everyone else,” said Lockhart, “and not think that, because they’re young, they shouldn’t have a voice.”
While most of the YP groups’ efforts are focused on their members, some are aimed at a different constituency that will hopefully become members in a few years — the area’s college students.
Indeed, the groups are now starting to develop and hone programming designed to curb the so-called brain drain in this region by introducing students to area employers and, in general, trying to convince them that they don’t have to leave this region after getting their diploma to find what it is they’re looking for.
Clark said YPS is looking to develop a pilot program that would help area college students develop the so-called soft skills needed to join the workforce, while also introducing them to potential career opportunities within the 413 area code.
“We want them to attend some of our networking sessions,” she said, “so they can meet the people who can say, ‘listen, you’re going to graduate in three months; I have a job for you.’ That’s an example of how we like to say that it’s not networking, but the business of connecting people.”
Lockhart said YPA is doing something similar in the Amherst area, and while the motivation for such programming was already obvious, her own experiences while attending UMass Amherst crystalized this recognized need.
“We’re trying to get the students who are graduating involved with us,” she explained. “We want them to understand that this doesn’t just have to be a stop on their journey; this can be where they live and work — there are opportunities here.
“I graduated from UMass Amherst in 2013, and I never thought about staying here until someone asked me,” she went on, noting that she came to Amherst from the eastern part of the state for her education. “I said, ‘oh, wow, there are opportunities here? I never knew that.’ There’s a huge misperception among students about this region, and we need to address that.”
A New Age
Looking forward, Ellis and Clark said YPS has reached the point in its existence where a full- or even part-time paid executive director is needed to ease the workload of the board members and, more importantly, to put an even sharper focus on all those elements in the mission statement.
But as with that line in the Guinness Book of World Records, a lot of things will have to go right for that to happen, they said, adding that the group will need to ratchet up its cash flow for an executive director to become reality.
In the meantime, however, the area’s YP groups are making many things go right, for their members, for area college students, and for the region as a whole.
In short, they are coming of age, in every sense of that phrase.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]