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Group Seeks to Empower Young Professionals With Networking and Leadership Opportunities

The Young Professionals Network, whose steering committee meets in Clayton, formed about three-and-a-half years ago.

Steering committee members of a Clayton-based group of young professionals group that prides itself on diversity said they hope to grow the organization from more than 800 members to 1,000 this year.

"It's a mind-set," said Nino Clarkin, an Edward Jones employee who works in project delivery services, about the Young Professionals Network. "You don't have to have an accent. You don't have to have a different color." She and three other committee members spoke to Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch during a roundtable interview earlier this month.

The young professionals group formed in 2008. It got its start through the (RBC), a 11-year-old consortium of 100 businesses that are primarily headquartered in the St. Louis area, said Katie Kaufmann, coordinator with RBC.

No dues are required to join; RBC underwrites the cost of the network. Those interested in becoming members may provide their email address to Kaufmann by registering on RBC's website. In exchange, they receive monthly updates about networking events they can attend, including those sponsored by RBC, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. Thirty-five members comprise its steering committee. The committee serves in a planning capacity and helps businesses find people for leadership opportunities from within its member pool. Members also have the opportunity to meet up informally.

"Those kinds of connections are things we can't really quantify," Kaufmann said.

The young professionals group stemmed from a program in which college students from diverse backgrounds received guidance from RBC mentors. With the young professionals group, Kaufmann said, RBC has gone a step further by working to ensure that those students and others transition smoothly into the St. Louis business world. It provides young people with opportunities to make friends and to get to know the city.

The focus on diversity came because RBC members were saying they viewed it as a top priority.

"This is something that is integral for our business success," Kaufmann said. Members of the steering committee said they view the term not just in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, but also in the context of socioeconomics and workforce experience.

"All I want to do is give what I have and soak up anything they have to give," said LaShanda Barnes, a credit analyst , of her time on the young professionals group's steering committee. She said she was "blown away" with the depth of experience she found at her first young professionals meeting, and she became actively engaged in the group in late 2009.

The kickoff event for the young professionals group happened in 2008, when 300 ethnically diverse St. Louis employees convened at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis to network and socialize.

Everyone on the patio at the event that night knew that "something special" had started, said Steven Harris, a partner at RubinBrown who chairs the steering committee. It was a group with "so much positive energy," he said.

For him, the young professionals group exists not only as a means for social interaction, but as a way of training people who can stay in St. Louis and become its next generation of leaders. Through the group, they can receive exposure and serve on boards in their communities.

He said there is beauty in the group's lack of formal structure: It leads to inclusiveness.

Bobby Torgoley, an attorney with Thompson Coburn LLP, said he's one of the newer members of the steering committee. He's been involved for a little more than a year. He began to make connections at his first young professionals meeting, too.

"You kind of belong," Torgoley said.

Barnes, with CitiMortgage, said the program is important because it keeps St. Louis workers competitive. While St. Louis is often considered a small city with big-city amenities, she said, some of the world's best employers call it their home.

"We can't afford to act like a small city," Barnes said.

Kathy Osborn, executive director of RBC, said three things are key for business growth in a city—good public policy, a vibrant infrastructure and workforce development. The young professionals group has helped advance workforce development by maintaining the relationships RBC has established with St. Louis colleges and universities to ensure that newer hires have business connections, social connections and opportunities to give back to the community.

And by giving back to the community through service in civic roles, Osborn said, the young professionals group will show a larger audience the diverse workforces businesses maintain.

"We're trying to change the face of St. Louis," Osborn said.

WHAT Young Professionals Network spring reception WHEN 4 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE Thompson Coburn LLP, 1 U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown St. Louis City
MORE INFO The event is free and open to anyone interested in learning more about the young professionals group. It will include a conversation with Dr. Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools. A panel on diversity in the region will include St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay, Karlos Ramirez of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis and Richard Mark of Ameren. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley will not be able to attend this year as he has in the past, Kaufmann stated in an email.

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