Home > Features > Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana aims to foster the area’s next generation of leaders

Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana aims to foster the area’s next generation of leaders

New organization makes public debut with an informational open house at the Dash-In on May 20th

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


In 2004, “brain drain” was on the minds of the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council.

A regional group of CEO’s whose stated mission is to promote the common business interests, growth, opportunity, and general economic welfare for businesses in the region, the NICC were examining ways they could support Indiana’s Graduate Retention Program, an effort funded by the Lily Endowment to combat Indiana’s “brain drain” with internship programs and other ways of getting college students and recent graduates interested in opportunities in the area.

Kirk Kemmish, President of the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council, says that as the council began to explore ideas, a few of the members realized something — they were way outside the target demographic of the Indiana Graduate Retention Program. Essentially, they had no idea what recent college graduates were looking for. “They asked, ‘what do we really know about the young people of Northeast Indiana? What are the young people saying about the strengths and weaknesses of the area and why they either elect to stay or choose to go?’” says Kemmish.

The two council members were Don Schenkel, Chairman and CEO of Tower Bank, and Pete Eshelman, President of American Specialties. “Here’s what really hit me,” Schenkel says. “A few years ago, my president said to me, ‘Don, you’re considered a young leader here in Fort Wayne, Indiana.’ I was 52 years old!”

Schenkel says that in the past, the management of some of the larger corporations in Fort Wayne used to provide a means for younger people to get involved in the community, to serve on planning boards and commissions and contribute to the way the city and county was developing. Now, however, many of those big corporations have left the area… “I looked around and didn’t see a lot of young leaders coming up, and I felt we needed to have a mechanism to get younger people engaged,” he explains. “If someone calls me and says ‘hey, we need a board member,’ well, right away I can look at my own company. But the people who come to mind are my own peers. So we must find a way to get these younger people involved and engaged with the community and take leadership positions.”

The NICC convened a series of meetings, the first consisting of young people who were in intern roles, and a few individuals who had graduated from college and were working at various companies in the area. Each successive meeting expanded on the first, with a more diverse group of younger people becoming involved. The NICC received tons of feedback, Kemmish says. “But if I said ‘tell me what are the key salient points,’ I would say these are people who have a lot to contribute, and they don’t know how to do it. They don’t know how to make the links. How can they become a part of the decision-making process within the community? What we can do is that if those people are interested in participating and volunteering and getting involved is we can make the connections to make that happen.”

What began as a sort of fact-finding mission for the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council grew Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana. A group for people in their 20s and 30s who are (in the words of YLNI’s mission statement) “committed to making our community a vibrant and viable place to live, work and play,” YLNI will make its public debut at the Dash-In on May 2oth, where people can learn more about projects and services YLNI has in the works. “We’re sort of looking at this event as a membership drive, as the first chance to get more people involved,” says Wendy Stein, a member of YLNI’s steering committee.

YLNI’s stated goals are to “engage and empower our young leaders through community, professional and social opportunities.” What this doesn’t mean is that YLNI is a business networking service. YLNI naturally hopes to play a big role in the region’s economy and business, but the organization seems to understand something that a lot of similar groups all over the country appear to miss — that economics and that elusive thing called “quality of life” are inextricably linked when it comes to attracting young people and families to a community. “Groups like this are popping up everywhere around the country, but they’re usually focused on professionals,” says Stein. “We didn’t want to use the term ‘professional,’ because that suggests you have a certain type of job, and that’s not what we wanted.” Stein says that many college students and members of the artistic community have attended the organization’s meetings.

“A big part of this organization is to attract people who are new to the city, and introduce them to things they may not find on their own,” says Andrew Thomas, one of the organizers of YLNI. He gives an example by describing some of YLNI’s early meetings. “We would open the meetings by introducing ourselves, and saying ‘you tell me one thing about Fort Wayne that I may not know,’ he says. “I’ve been here my whole life, and people we’re throwing out things that I’ve never done, or never knew about, and I’m a pretty active person. People don’t know about everything here. Say you live in Chicago, you’re into sports (for example), you go to the Parks & Rec Department, and they have info on everything. In a smaller community, it’s a little harder to find these things. So people don’t know that there’s a triathlon club (in Fort Wayne). They don’t know that there’s a cycling network, the Three Rivers Velo Sport Club…”

Thomas says that YLNI’s overall mission is to engage people in what Fort Wayne has to offer — whether that’s volunteerism, getting involved in not-for-profit or planning organizations — and create what it doesn’t. The event at the Dash-In will address both aspects of the group’s work. They’ll be a wall of “What’s Now,” promoting what’s already available in Fort Wayne, and a wall of “What’s Next,” where attendees can write down some of the things they would like to see in the area. “We want to take all these ideas left on the wall back to our meetings, and say which one of these do we really think we can accomplish? Which one of these do we get the best feedback from? And go from there and try to provide what people are looking for,” says Thomas.

YLNI Informational Open House
Friday, May 20
6 – 10 pm
Dash-In (must be over 21 to enter)
814 South Calhoun
Community members can learn more about projects YLNI has in the works, contribute ideas, enter for a chance to win door prizes, enjoy live entertainment and snack on free appetizers.
Free parking available at the parking garage on the corner of Wayne and Calhoun.

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

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