March 3, 2024

Building Bonds and Climbing the Ladder — Even When the World is Closed

Region’s young (and other) professional groups soldier on.
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 1, 2020


No matter the field, career growth is challenging. For younger professionals without the benefit of decades of experience — or contacts — it can be even more difficult.

Couple that with starting out in an era when face-to-face work and in-person networking is increasingly rare, and well … a crew of peers in similar straits, with similar drive, seems more critical now than ever.

From Cadillac north through Traverse City to the Charlevoix/Petoskey area, various organizations are actively working to provide the region’s younger workforce with some of the benefits that accrue to those with years and years of experience and numerous professional contacts in their cities.

“Our focus is to connect, serve, and grow. A lot of programming is focused on connecting,” said Connor Miller. Miller is the program chair of the Traverse City Young Professionals, a part of Traverse Connect, which merged with the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce in 2019 to become the leading economic development organization for the Grand Traverse Region.

The TCYP, which briefly changed its name to FUSE before changing it back, offers opportunities to serve on different committees, like advocacy, marketing, and volunteering. And in addition to an annual conference, the group typically hosts several meetings — which Miller describes as “purposefully informal; you show up and meet peers." — and events, like Morning Brew, which takes place on the third Thursday of each month.

Or at least they did until the novel coronavirus hit Michigan. (More on that below.) 

So how old is too old to join? “Young Professionals is defined very loosely,” said Miller, noting it’s focused primarily on those 18 to 40, “but we don’t turn anybody away. We allow them to self-select.”

Brenda McLellan, the director of investor engagement for Traverse Connect, said participants learn about the value of volunteering, civic engagement, and leadership. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity, especially for those new to the community,” she said. 

Kayla Barnes is the event chair for the Cadillac Young Professionals (some members pictured above, in an event that took place before the pandemic). She said members can come from any profession, as long as they’re between the ages of 21 and 40. “Trades, office work, hospitality — we build connections across the community,” she said.

Barnes said the goals of the CAYP are to provide opportunities to grow professionally through a variety of programs and discussions with business and community leaders and to help build connections among its members. That is especially valuable for those who might not otherwise meet in standard professional circles. It also works in the community. Last year it hosted a corn-hole tournament that benefited the Wexford Civic Center and raised $1,200.

The Manistee Jaycees, a.k.a. the Junior Chamber, is a leadership training and civic organization for people between the ages of 21 and 40. Tyler Leppanen is the current president of the group, and he said the Manistee Jaycees work to improve the greater community as well as help its members advance. “We have members from all over the state and country that have found their way to Manistee in one way or another. Our membership spans across every sector of our local economy, from service to local government to manufacturing,” he noted.

The Manistee Jaycees have been part of the community since 1935. The Jaycees sponsor several events, including the concert series Roots on the River and an Easter Egg Hunt.

Leppanen said the group works to seek out new people in the area, bring them in, and make them feel welcome and wanted. He said many businesses encourage their new hires to get involved with the Jaycees in some form or another. “Some sponsors will even cover the membership fee,” he said.

Thrive 45 serves a similar purpose. Rather than focusing it on and naming it for a single city, it strives to bring together people from communities located north of the 45th parallel, including Gaylord, Harbor Springs, Petoskey and Charlevoix.

“There’s a gap of resources around for young professionals in this area,” said Jessyca Stoepker, who was elected to the group’s board in May.

Thrive 45 offers two programs, each held four times each year. Cultivate is a series of seminars or workshops; Socials are an opportunity to connect outside of work.

Stoepker said the organization does not include or exclude anyone based strictly on age, and the range subsequently varies tremendously. “Some are still in high school, others close to 50. Most are between 24 and 39,” she said. The definition of professional is similarly loose, and includes “anyone who wants to advance in their career path.”

The organization has what she calls a core group of between 300 and 400 members who attend one or two events a year, while there are more who follow or are a part of the group on Facebook and in the community.

There are other similar professional groups that, while not focused on empowering those starting out in the workforce, nevertheless have a significant number of young members. Both Boyne Forward and the Gaylord Rotary Club are open to any age. “The majority of new members have been under 40,” said Larissa Waltman of the Gaylord Rotary, though she noted it is still a small number compared to the rest of its membership. 

Similarly, Boyne Forward is a business organization geared toward those in Boyne City and nearby. Jamie Woodall said it is a volunteer leadership group, with get-togethers for networking and learning opportunities. “It’s not exclusive or specific to age,” he said, noting most members range from their 30s to mid-50s. He said it is a valuable vehicle for those in business to learn from others how to meet various challenges.

The advent of the novel coronavirus has had a chilling effect on business in general, including professional and social events. Organizations such as these have either canceled events outright or had to move them online. “We had to cancel our April event,” said Stoepker.

She said the fact members are typically very busy in the summer months means they don’t schedule many events then, anyway, but she’s not sure what the near future holds. “We’re still trying to figure it out. Our executive committee has been meeting on Zoom,” she said, noting that upcoming events will probably be held virtually at least in the near future.

“With COVID, everything is on hold. We canceled April and May,” said Barnes, noting that the group is exploring its options for the future. “We want to be sure everyone is comfortable … with how to move forward.” 

“Even though we have not been organizing meetings per se, our membership is still working to socialize in ways appropriate for the conditions we are living in,” said Leppanen. Despite the changing circumstances, the group has been able to continue to serve the community. “In recent months we've worked to continue a presence in our community while maintaining a sense of safety. We have done events such as a drive-through Easter Egg Hunt Kits for families to take home during the stay-at-home order. We sent over 75 kids home with Easter eggs!”

Miller said the TCYP has done things like socially distanced trail cleaning with TART. He said the switch to mostly virtual gatherings has had one unexpected benefit; it enabled people to take part who wouldn’t normally have the time to travel outside Traverse City.


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