Young professional groups across northeast Wisconsin aim to better themselves and the community
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch
If the 1970s and 80s were characterized by big hair, boarded-up Main Streets and malls, the 2000s may go down as the era of downtown renaissance and community building.
Some of the more recent updates might be credited to ambitious hipsters and young professionals eager to right what could be considered wrongs: urban sprawl, dead downtowns and lack of a sense of belonging to a community. They’re hosting pop-up movies and dog-friendly night markets, painting murals in ignored downtown areas and hosting talks on how to have a successful side-hustle.
And in the process, they’re hoping their efforts also combat the brain-drain/talent gap that’s dogging the state by convincing other young professionals that their community is a great place in which to live.
What’s new is old
Young professionals groups aren’t anything new. In 1920, the United States Junior Chamber – later known as the JCs or the Jaycees – formed for many of the same reasons: leadership development for young professionals, networking opportunities, and civic engagement.
Jaycees groups are still active, although not as part of their local chambers. Many of the YP groups in northeast Wisconsin evolved out of efforts from their local chambers of commerce. Those are: Pulse Young Professionals of the Fox Cities, Propel Oshkosh, Current YP of Green Bay and Young Professionals of Fond du Lac.
These YP groups may be separate from one another, but they share many common goals: to make their communities attractive to a younger generation, to foster civic engagement, to help young professionals thrive in their careers and be better citizens.
Until five or so years ago, Pulse Young Professionals was a traditional young professionals group. But it shifted to a much more events-focused organization a few years ago, after feedback from the public and business community showed that workforce development and talent retention were hugely important issues.
So the group set about finding creative ways to make the Fox Cities attractive to not just young professionals but all professionals, said Nikki Hessel, director of community engagement for the Fox Cities Chamber and the staff director for Pulse.
“It became more of a push toward place making and creating cultural assets here in the Fox Cities that exist in other places, but that we can create in our own way here,” she said.
Among Pulse’s most well-received events are its night markets, of which it hosts three per year. The Bazaar at Night markets travel to underutilized business areas in the region.
“The goal there is to highlight underappreciated business districts, while also creating a cultural asset that people look for in larger metro areas and that may cause them to say, ‘Hey, maybe I can live in the Fox Cities,’” Hessel said. “There are great schools, a lower cost of living, and now we’re providing some of these large-scale events that happen in larger areas as well.”
The night markets feature live music on several stages, hand-selected artists and vendors, street food, dancing, performance art (often with fire), and live mural installations.
“Someone in the neighborhood agrees to have a mural on their building and we hire an artist who is painting live during the market,” she said. “It’s a cool experience and a live reminder to the neighborhood of their positive experience from that night.”
The first such event, in a high-density minority-owned area that had a lot of vacancies, drew three times the anticipated attendance.
“We expected 1,000 at the most and we had 3,500,” Hessel said. “I think the neighborhood was really craving that, and people felt a connection to their neighborhood that they hadn’t before,” she said.
So, after that first night market, Pulse decided to continue the effort and chose other business districts in the Fox Cities that didn’t have the benefit of heavy customer traffic like downtown Appleton.
Areas in downtown Kaukauna, Menasha, Little Chute, Appleton and Neenah have been recipients of the Pulse night-market magic. The events have grown steadily and have “hundreds of thousands” of interactions on Facebook, according to Hessel.
“More and more people are saying we need things like this here: things that are inclusive, that showcase what’s really going on in our community, and that make everyone feel like there’s a place for them here.”
Young Professionals of Fond du Lac
When Jenna Floberg paused for a moment so those who move slower than she does could catch up, she’d just come off one of YPF’s biggest yearly fundraisers. She and 99 other young professionals from the area spent a July weekend playing kickball in scalding hot temperatures with humidity thick enough to drown a person. Their annual Kickin’ for a Cause raised money for Pathways of Hope, a program of the Salvation Army. Last year’s kicker raised more than $3,000 for Solutions Center Shelter & Support.
“That was a huge success for us. It’s always a great time,” said Floberg, executive director at Villa Loretto nursing facility in Mount Calvary and the current president of YPF. “We’re always looking for ways to get our membership more engaged in the organization and in the community.”
YPF grew by 50 percent in the last two years, thanks to its new corporate membership program that gives eligible employees of sponsoring companies a free membership. “It’s a nice benefit for those employees. They don’t have to pay the annual $50 membership fee,” Floberg said.
Every month, YPF holds at least one social or networking event and at least one professional development event, according to Floberg, for a total of two but sometimes three or four events a month.
The second Monday of each month is Member Monday, an informal gathering at a local drinking or dining establishment.
YPF’s professional development topics have included programs on finding one’s strengths, negotiation, how to navigate crucial conversations, maximizing one’s LinkedIn page, workplace diversity and leadership topics.
“We’re really just trying to give the young professionals in the Fond du Lac area skills they can use to thrive in their careers,” Floberg said. “We’ve really been able to build a strong YP demographic in our community.”
In addition to Kickin’ for a Cause, YPF’s seasonal events include the Future 5 Awards in January, a casino night in September to raise funds for a nonprofit, and Breakfast with Champions leadership event in November.
“I think our young professionals are extremely valued in Fond du Lac,” Floberg said. “A lot of other program areas in the community look to us for feedback or ideas, or for us to do a focus group and get our opinion, because we’ve really been able to make a name for ourselves in the Fond du Lac community.”
The sight of a group of young professionals enjoying a leisurely Segway tour of the Fox River Trail in downtown Green Bay might have looked like pure fun. But it had a practical purpose as well: to point out the city’s sculptures, historic buildings and other assets to people who might ordinarily have sped by in their cars.
In 2005, the Greater Green Bay Chamber helped develop Current.
Current’s decade-old Future 15 award program celebrates young professionals’ achievements and community connection. The last event, held in April, had more than 550 people in attendance.
“Everything we do falls into one of three categories: professional development, social engagement and community partnership,” said Andrea Tobias, program manager of Current.
Professional development includes programs on such topics as how to handle confrontations and difficult conversations in the workplace and how to set yourself up for your next role. Lunch ‘n Learns are just how they sound – short, educational lunchtime sessions with speakers on professional development topics. One was called “People Are Scary: Our Defenses and Other Barriers to Conflict Resolution.”
Months alternate between Lunch’n Learns and more in-depth, three-hour workshops on such topics as “Purpose, Passion and Goals” with a life coach.
“These are deep-dive programs where we really explore a topic,” Tobias said. “A program on goal setting might walk you through a whole goal-setting program, so you can bring that back to your employer.”
Social engagement: Part of having a strong workforce in a community is helping people feel connected to it. “We want to make sure they’re making connections on a social basis – they’re not only meeting other young professionals and members of the community, but building personal or even professional relationships in a social environment,” Tobias said. “They’re also getting to know our community, getting to know what there is to do in our area.”
That might include Discover events, such as Segwaying the Fox River Trail, or After 5 networking mixers. One After 5 which included drinks and tapas at Madrid Tapas, served the dual purpose of social and philanthropy by asking participants to bring a donation item for House of Hope.
Community partnership events: “We’re just making sure our young professionals are giving back and are connected to other programs in our area,” Tobias said. “They see how important it is to get involved in the community, to really give back so they can continue to grow and be successful as a community.”
Propel Oshkosh member Steve Toll has lived in the area his entire life but had never set foot in the Paine Art Center & Gardens. Until recently.
“It wasn’t something I thought I’d like, but it turns out it’s pretty cool,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. Propel Oshkosh hosted one of its member events there and found it to be extremely well-received. It’s just one example of how YP groups are drawing attention to community assets that are right in front of their eyes.
Propel has toured a local winery, created floral arrangements at a local flower shop and painted pottery at a paint-your-own pottery studio, in addition to hosting mixers, educational talks and networking events.
“Everything we do is with intent of making Oshkosh an attractive place for young professionals to come to work,” said Toll, an engineer with Fox Valley Metrology in Oshkosh and the current Propel president.
The need to combat brain drain is ever-increasing – not just in northeast Wisconsin – but around the state, he said.
A recent report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum said that with its birth rate 22 percent lower than it was in 1989, the state needs to add 300,000 people per year to fill job openings in 2040.
Propel aims to accomplish its mission through its three guideposts: lead, grow and do.
Lead: “Leaders lead by promoting social stewardship in the city and being a voice for our demographic, being involved in some of the decisions getting made, getting involved on boards, nonprofits and commissions in the community,” Toll said.
Grow includes professional and personal growth. Monthly leadership breakfasts star local leaders who share stories of their road to success.
“We give (speakers) full rein of what to talk about – it’s usually very focused around leadership and what it means to them, what their philosophy is,” Toll said. “It gets phenomenal turnout, because you not only get direct access to some of these people that you’d never get a chance to talk to otherwise, but you get to hear what makes them thrive.”
To promote members’ personal growth, Propel hosts talks that have included health and wellness, personal finance, personal development, and time management.
Do encompass educational events, entertainment, and arts-related events that give members a flavor of what Oshkosh offers, such as Toll’s eye opening experience at the Paine Art Center.
“We’re more or less curating experiences for our members,” Toll said. “These are the types of things you wouldn’t necessarily do on your own. I’m an engineer by trade, and the art museum is just not something I’d go to, but it turns out it’s actually pretty cool.”
Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.