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YLNI in ’09

Four years since its inception, Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana considers the future

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-04-30


When Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI) launched in May 2005 with an “informational open house” at the Dash-In downtown, attendees were encouraged to write down the things they would like to see happen in Fort Wayne.

Under the heading “What’s Next?”, people scribbled things that ranged from the specific (“I wish there was a farmer’s market in Fort Wayne”) to the more general (“I wish there was more of a focus on downtown”).

The responses showed two things. The first: many of the attendees and organizers — all young people in their 20s and 30s — shared the same “wishes” for Fort Wayne. They wanted to have a stake in their community, they wanted to be actively involved in shaping the future of Fort Wayne and the region, and they were looking for other people who felt the same way. “The idea of a community of like-minded people was appealing to me,” says Heather Schoegler, the current President of YLNI and someone who has been involved with the organization from the very early stages. “I am committed to being (in Fort Wayne) and raising my family here. With YLNI, there seemed there was a buzz going on and I wanted to be a part of that.”

The second: there were a lot of people who were interested in being a part of this organization and what they were trying to do. “Our mission is the same today as it was when we formed: to engage and empower young leaders through community, professional and social opportunities,” Schoegler says. “But I think how we do that, and how we strategically think about doing that, has evolved.”

“In 2005, it was a group of people getting together to see if there were enough people to do something like this,” Schoegler continues. “In the course of four years, we grew to a thousand people in our network. That was huge growth, with not necessarily the planning in place, so we’ve been a very reactionary organization so far, and we’ve primarily focused on some key events we do.”

The social networking aspect of YLNI was one of the reasons many people initially were drawn to the organization, including Schoegler. “One of my first interactions with YLNI was the social committee, going to the ‘Hot Spots’ (networking events) and helping with the Masquerade Ball,” she says. “That’s a really easy, safe introduction to an organization. It’s non-committal, you’re not signing up for anything…”

Of course, that may be someone’s first and only interaction with YLNI, but many other members, like Schoegler, saw the organization as a real opportunity to participate and make a difference in the area. Michael Barranda, an attorney who serves on YLNI’s board as a Director at Large, says he got involved back in 2005 in order to feel a part of the community. One of YLNI’s main issues happened to coincide with something he was also interested in. “I attended law school in Chicago and had the benefits of everything downtown Chicago had to offer,” says Barranda, who is originally from Kendallville. “When I came here and started my clerkship working in the court house, I would finish work and it seemed everyone was just going home. But people want that vibrant downtown feeling. It’s something I’ve heard over and over again from other young people as they move back, and people who live here.”

“Social events are certainly an important part of what young people need as far as organizing and getting together to create that community,” Barranda adds. “They’re something we use to engage our membership. But we’re doing a lot more.”

YLNI was actually behind the revitalization of the Barr Street Market, hosting a farmer’s market there every Saturday during the warmer months (it’ll be back again this year). They’ve hosted several “YLNI the Vote” forums for the mayoral elections in 2007 and the wider elections last Fall, and also sponsored an informational summit on the Harrison Square project last year.

This brief run-down of a few of the things YLNI has done (outside events for its own membership) doesn’t quite do them justice, but it illustrates a thoughtful, step-by-step approach to tackling some of the issues identified in that first 2005 meeting as being important to its demographic. Andrew Thomas, a Past President of YLNI, current member of the board, and one of the organization’s founding members, sees the Barr Street Market project as a watershed moment for the organization. “It helped define us as an organization that didn’t become another consensus group that talks about all the wonderful things we need, and doesn’t do anything about it,” he says. “Here are a bunch of 20 and 30-somethings, some of whom never knew about the original Barr Street Market, some of whom weren’t even from Fort Wayne, but they saw a need, got involved and got it done.” Thomas adds that the Barr Street Market is still growing and improving, but that the project showed YLNI was more than just a social or business networking group: it was civic-minded and intent on getting things done.

And it seems to be working. YLNI is beginning to shape itself into a more expansive and influential entity than even some of its founders might have expected, becoming a voice in what might be called important decision-making bodies — the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council; the Chamber of Commerce; and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. Heather Schoegler explains why it’s important that YLNI is being included. “For example, the (Northeast Indiana) Regional Partnership is very active in recruiting business and site selectors to come and see our region. They will invite local business partners to come interact with the site selector. The Regional Partnership is now inviting YLNI to those dinners, because we can say ‘here is the demographic, the 21st century talent that you’re looking for, that your business needs to have.’ We can talk to the site selector about the needs and resources in the region relevant to our demographic, which is key to businesses hoping to relocate.”

“We have such a better brand in the community now, especially from a senior or veteran leadership stand point than I ever envisioned we would have,” adds Andrew Thomas, who was asked to sit on the Baseball Plus Committee as a representative of YLNI and was a part of Mayor Henry’s transition team. “When YLNI first started, I heard all sorts of things, like the senior leadership in the area wasn’t communicating with younger people, that young people thought (senior leadership) was a good-old-person’s network. Some of that was true to an extent, but most of it is just hype. What we’ve done is create this vehicle and brand that allows that barrier to be overcome.”

Mike Packnett, President and CEO of Parkview Health, is part of this senior leadership that sees enormous potential in YLNI. Packnett serves as a part of an advisory council to YLNI, made up of established community and business leaders, that is there to provide advice, logistical help, and general support. “What we’ve attempted to do is just connect the Young Leaders in areas where we know we need their help to make a difference,” explains Packnett.

Packnett goes on to say that it was the commitment of the group that got him interested in helping out. “I think many of the leaders my age are looking at ways to make Fort Wayne and the greater Northeast Indiana area the best it could be,” he says. “Clearly, the thing I was so impressed by was the passion that both Heather (Schoegler) and Mike (Barranda) have for this area and their really deep desire to see Fort Wayne especially, but also the whole region, prosper.”

“I am excited about this group,” he adds. “We have a very talented, very committed group of 20-somethings and 30-somethings that gives me a lot of encouragement. What I tell them is that the next 10 years of my career, I really want to spend working with them, working for opportunities to have a great place for them and their kids and my grandkids. They give me so much encouragement, that when they are ready to become the leaders in this community, they’ll take Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana to even greater heights.”

But Vince Robinson, another member of the advisory council, thinks that while being embraced by “senior leadership” in the community is all well and good, YLNI will need to move beyond that to establish its own identity. “I always tell them I want them to take over the world,” he says. “What I mean by that is I’d like to see them become more aggressive in really defining who they are and what they want. They’re very committed to serving the needs of their demographic, but they need to articulate what they think those needs are.”

That more aggressive approach might include branching out into advocacy of certain issues important to its demographic. Of course, advocacy is a tricky and dangerous proposition, especially for an organization that has a thousand people in its network. The YLNI members we talked to tended to shy away from the idea, though without necessarily ruling it out. The only issue YLNI has taken a specific stance on was Harrison Square, since downtown revitalization was such a consistently important issue to the organization’s members. With the possibility of a casino in downtown Fort Wayne still being kicked around (though it won’t be a reality in the immediate future), Schoegler says that might be the next issue YLNI takes a public position on. “We have members that I know personally who are in support of a casino downtown, and members I know who are against it,” she says. “If we were to advocate on any issues, we’d model it on what we did with Harrison Square — gathered all the information we could, informed the community and our membership with that information, and based on that, we as the board took a position, speaking not necessarily for our entire membership, but speaking on behalf of our board.”

For now, though, YLNI is working on formulating its 10-year plan, part of which involves expanding its membership and defining its goals. “We can’t be a resource to anybody in the community until we know who we are and where we’re going,” says Schoegler. “We need to establish that first and foremost so that we can then do the work we need to do.”

One thing they’re working on dispelling is a perception of YLNI as focused mainly on social opportunities exclusive to business professionals. In fact, many of the YLNI members we talked to identified that as probably the biggest misconception the general public has about the organization. Thomas thinks that people generally don’t realize how “open” YLNI is. “We’re ‘Young Leaders,’ not ‘Young Professionals’,” he explains. “We believe the ‘young professional’ connotation is business-oriented. I don’t think the artists in our community consider themselves ‘business people,’ but if they’re a leader in the art world, we want that type of person. Our educators might not consider themselves business professionals, but we want those people to contribute.”

And, as if to further underscore the point that being goal-oriented and a community resource doesn’t necessarily mean YLNI is “all business,” many members of the group says that one of the things that still inspires them is what got them involved in the first place — the opportunity to meet new people and forge the kind of relationships that make a strong community. “Whether you’re from Fort Wayne or not, I guarantee that you have one interaction a day where you meet someone for the first time and the second question out of their mouth after ‘what’s your name?’ is ‘what high school did you go to?’” says Schoegler. “It’s sort of that six degrees of separation between everybody in Fort Wayne; sometimes it’s even smaller. Well, every single connection I’ve made in YLNI has been a brand new connection. I’m from Fort Wayne, and I can say that. It’s a really great outlet and opportunity to meet other people. If you do that socially, great; if you do that through our monthly book club, wonderful; if you do that through our leadership institute, tremendous. Any way we can create vibrant community, that’s what we want to do.”

For more information on YLNI, visit www.ylni.org.

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