Young professionals finding reasons to stay close to home

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From quality of life to business opportunities, region offers what most seek

by Larry Avila, New North B2B editor

Regional leaders have said it on more than one occasion that northeast Wisconsin has to be more proactive at retaining and luring young professionals.

The inaugural honorees of New North B2B magazine’s 3 Overachievers Under 30, which recognizes stand out young professionals from around the northeast Wisconsin, couldn’t agree more. These individuals not only are making an impact on their chosen professions but also in the communities where they reside through the volunteer work they do.

The 2014 honorees include: Gina Popp, 29, president and CEO of Wisnet.com in Fond du Lac, a marketing and online software applications developer; Heather Milbach, 25, retirement analyst at Schreiber Foods in Green Bay, a dairy foods producer and distributor; and Zach Pawlosky, 22, founder and owner of Candeo Creative in Oshkosh, a marketing agency. They were selected from a field of more than 30 applicants.

We sat down recently with Popp, Milbach and Pawlosky to discuss a variety of topics including leadership development, young professional retention and recruiting efforts and quality of life. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.

Are there enough initiatives happening around the region to retain and attract young professionals?

Popp: This is a good tie in to Forward Fond du Lac. What it’s trying to do is work on retaining and developing talent in the Fond du Lac area. Some business owners and conversations I’ve had with executives at Mercury Marine recognize they’re still part of an old boys club and it’s time to open up the gate and let some young people come in and tell us what the community needs. There needs to be openness and the community can’t be afraid to accept that openness.

Pawlosky: When young people network, they do want to be at the table, sitting with those people who are part of those old boys clubs because they want to spend time learning, but they also want to be able to show what they can do.

Milbach: When you network, it’s not just about your career opportunities, but I think younger generations are looking for a more holistic approach about how we live and whether or not a region offers opportunities to do things outside work.

Is the region doing enough to show there are good opportunities for young professionals?

Pawlosky: I think employers and the higher education communities need to be more heavily involved to find ways to form a bridge, so when someone leaves school and they’re looking for an opportunity, they can be ready to move in and be involved with those groups.

Milbach: I had an internship with Schreiber. As I got to know the company and get into the culture, I knew I wanted to be there. I could have relocated and was considering going to a much larger area, but as I was considering relocating, I sought out whether those other communities had opportunities for networking and what sort of schools were there if I started a family. I had to consider whether it was the right decision to move and just realized northeast Wisconsin offered everything for me personally and professionally.

Popp: I think the sooner you can get someone involved in the community, the more likely they are to stay. As someone builds their network and gets involved, they’re less likely to take off because they see that now they are making an impact through their community involvement.

Is there something northeast Wisconsin is missing out on that it can do a better job with?

Popp: I think one prominent thing is Lake Winnebago. There doesn’t seem to be a tourism aspect to it at all, at least not one to draw someone to it. When you look at tourism and what a great place this is to live, we know people who live here take advantage of water sports, but we don’t have the big resorts.

Pawlosky: I think there could be support for new and emerging companies. Just right here in northeast Wisconsin, we have many universities and technical colleges that are full of talent but many students leave the area. We need to find ways to engage them so they don’t leave.

Milbach: With the medical college going into St. Norbert College, I think there will be even more talent coming to the area, but we’re still fighting to hold onto that talent from going to larger markets because they think those bigger areas have more to offer than what’s available here. How we retain talent is a struggle.

CEO finds motivation identifying solutions for clients

Gina Popp’s career may have started on a traditional path but just after a short time, instead of being among the rank and file, she finds herself in a top executive role.

“I was a programmer, so my focus (after college) was different at that time in terms of what I wanted to grow to be, whether that was a network administrator or something else, my target was in a different area,” said Popp, president and CEO of Wisnet.com in Fond du Lac.

Her role at Wisnet.com evolved during the eight years she’s been with the company. Popp has been in her present role for a year, a position she wasn’t expecting to have in less than 10 years since graduating from Marian University in Fond du Lac.

“I was fortunate enough that (Rick Kolstad, owner of Wisnet) was supportive of me and if I had a direction, he would fully support me,” she said. “When we’d talk, he’d tell me ‘this business can be what I wanted it to be and I could make it that,’ so I took it upon myself to grow the business in areas I wanted to be involved in.”

Wisnet is a full-service marketing firm but also develops online software applications, including programs to help businesses automate functions such as allowing workers to punch in through the Internet.

Popp said the ability for workers to log work hours remotely was a great benefit for a Wisnet.com client which operated a snow plowing business.

“If one of their workers went to a job, they could just log their hours remotely,” she said.

Finding solutions to help clients operate more efficiently drives Popp.

“Clients throw different challenges in front of us and much of it involves things we’ve never done before so it’s exciting for me to tackle those challenges and find solutions,” she said.

Her interests in helping Wisnet succeed spills into her roles outside work.

Popp is a board member of the Young Professionals of Fond du Lac and chairs the group’s marketing committee. A Fond du Lac native, Popp also recognizes the importance of the region retaining its young professionals, which led her to get involved with Forward Fond du Lac, an initiative designed to retain local talent and bring young professionals to the region.

Katie Leist, director of communications for the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce, serves on the young professionals board with Popp. She said Popp is dedicated to advancing the organization and finding ways to help the community grow.

“She is extremely dedicated to volunteering and going that extra mile and takes the initiative to get things done,” Leist said. “If there’s any projects that need to get started, she is that go to person you can count on to get things done.”

Popp said she hasn’t forgotten her roots. Understanding and having the knowledge of the technology side of the business is useful.

“I’m away from the tech side of things and more involved in marketing, but having the knowledge is good because when I sit down with clients, I understand how things work,” she said.

Desire to help others launches business venture

Zack Pawlosky hoped one day to run his own business. He just didn’t think he’d become an entrepreneur while still working toward his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Pawlosky, 22, launched Candeo Creative, an Oshkosh-based integrated marketing agency, about two years ago. While managing a business – which today employs 12 people – Pawlosky expects to graduate this fall then plans to pursue an MBA at UW Oshkosh.

His interest in marketing is fueled by a personal passion in helping others succeed.

“As far back as I can remember, I just love helping others, whether it’s through stocking shelves or something else, I just like to find ways to lend a hand,” Pawlosky said.

Pawlosky said marketing helps businesses and organizations raise awareness and expand their reach. With the Internet and social media continually evolving, Pawlosky began researching how businesses could use those media effectively.

As his knowledge about Internet marketing and social media grew, Pawlosky began speaking to business groups and other professionals on the topic. On more than one occasion, following one of his presentations, Pawlosky said he’d be approached about consulting work.

“People would approach me and say, ‘You seem knowledgeable about this. Is there anything you can do to help my business?’” he said.

A few requests later and after discussing it with friends and family, Pawlosky decided to launch Candeo Creative.

“I saw that there was a local opportunity to help others when it came to helping them reach their goals,” he said.

That’s exactly what he did for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce about two years ago, which today is recognized as one of the most social media-friendly chambers in the nation.

“Zach is a high-energy person and he’s here to help create solutions for you,” said John Casper, CEO of the Oshkosh chamber.

Casper said the chamber recognized two years ago it needed to be more active with social media to engage members, but didn’t know how to do it effectively.

“We thought we were doing well with it, but when we brought Zach in, he developed a solid strategy for us,” Casper said.

As he was building his business, Pawlosky donated his firm’s services to non-profit organizations and continued speaking on Internet and social media marketing.

He found it to be an effective way to raise awareness for his business. Pawlosky still donates services to numerous organizations including Habitat for Humanity in Oshkosh and the Northeast Wisconsin Chapter of American Red Cross.

Pawlosky’s entrepreneurial spirit comes from his parents, Charlie and Cheryl, who have owned and operated numerous businesses through the years, including the Silk and Art Gallery in Oshkosh.

“When I was younger, I can remember my dad being up until 3 a.m., working on strategy and he just loved it,” Pawlosky said. “I just got to experience that at such an early age and that inspires me today.”

Pawlosky admits his professional life has accelerated more quickly than he expected but is confident his path is sound.

“I never really dreamed that (owning a business) would happen so quickly,” he said. “I can confidently say, where my personal plans are there are more exciting things still to come.”

Drive comes from helping others reach next level

The continuous improvement model has more applications than just helping businesses find ways to run more efficiently.

Heather Milbach, a retirement analyst at Schreiber Foods in Green Bay, believes people should be life-long learners.

“I draw from other people and I just enjoy helping others see what their potential can be,” Milbach said. “It really motivates me to be a better person.”

Milbach landed a job at Schreiber Foods after securing an internship with the company shortly after graduating from St. Norbert College in De Pere in 2009. She initially worked in supply chain management, but then shifted to sales and eventually human resources.

“I’d definitely consider myself a people person,” she said.

This is where Milbach found she truly could excel. She serves on numerous internal groups at Schreiber, which focuses on an array of services from helping new hires acclimate to the company’s operations and culture to offering guidance to retirees of the employee-owned company who need help transitioning to life outside work.

Milbach’s enthusiasm brings a fresh perspective to company operations, said Kelvin George, who works in sales for Schreiber in Arkansas, but worked with Milbach when he was in Green Bay.

“She has a strong business sense and is constantly looking for ways to help all parties be successful,” George said. “She has a caring spirit and caring heart and effectively manages multiple pieces of a business, which I find refreshing.”

George said he has been with Schreiber for nearly three decades and working with a young professional helped him see operations from a different perspective.

“To bring someone in fairly new in her career and pair that person up with someone who has been here a long time helped me see things through fresh eyes,” he said.

Milbach’s interest in helping her colleagues goes beyond Schreiber. She’s a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Green Bay as well as with Junior Achievement and the American Cancer Society.

Milbach also serves on the Brown County Teen Leadership Steering Committee, co-leads a Girl Scout troop, and works with youth programs at the YMCA.

Milbach describes what she does as being life driven.

“I’m either helping someone get on a good path or ensuring their career at Schreiber gets off to a good start or helping someone make that transition to post-career life,” she said. “Professionally, it’s one of the most satisfying things to me.”

Milbach said her career path has taken a non-traditional route since graduating from college but is pleased where her professional life stands.

“When someone is just starting out in their career, there is a perceived path and expectation, based on what you studied,” she said. “I started out in supply chain management, but I knew (at some point) I wanted to be in a role where I’d be working with people, so I’m extremely happy where my path has taken me.”