Anywhere is a good place to network, but Athens tends to be especially good.
The Young Athens Professionals (YAP) aims to encourage local young professionals to meet, network and work for companies by connecting them with business leaders and entrepreneurs in Athens.
I sat down with Sara Marrs-Maxfield, executive director of the Athens County Economic Development Council, to learn about YAP’s background, events and the benefits of the organization to the community.
Q: WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU DO WITH THE YAP?
Marrs-Maxfield: Kristi Kinnard (General Manager of Career Connections) and I founded this group about 10 years ago.
Q: WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA TO DEVELOP YAP?
Marrs-Maxfield: I believe Kristi came up with the idea. How it came about was that Kristi and her family own a staffing agency in town, Career Connections, and they’re all about providing talent and workforce to the companies that are in Southeast Ohio. She noticed they’d lose some of their regular applicants to other communities because of their inability to connect socially once they graduated college by staying here in town.
One of my roles in my job is to meet with companies in Athens County and help them with their business needs, and a lot of times it was staffing and being able to retain the talent in their company that they needed to be successful. They also would mention that one of their biggest challenges was retaining young professionals who graduated from OU or another higher learning institution, worked for a while and then moved to a different area. Often times, they would state the reason was because they didn’t have a good group of friends here.
There were a lot of college students doing college student activities and partying, but they didn’t want to do that anymore. There was also a large group of professionals that were married, starting to have children and really wanted to connect with those who were in the same situation as they were socially, and so we thought, ‘why don’t we come up with a space that’s specifically designed for these young professionals?’ We can meet once a month, get to know them, help them connect socially and for new job and philanthropic opportunities within the community and really just give them a time and place that was their own. That’s how we started.
We started a couple happy hours and found sponsors to sponsor the food. Attendees are responsible for their own beverages. It was just an open, easy (way) for people to connect. It became really popular really quickly, so we realized it was a niche that really needed to be filled. As we progressed through the years, we tried a lot of things and had a lot of suggestions from our attendees about what the group should be.
Kristi has a staff member that works closely with (YAP coordinator) Ashley . . . because she’s younger than I am. I’m no longer a young professional; I’ve kind of aged out of that group, but they do the planning and get the sponsors. We continue to have really big happy hours every month.
Q: DO YOU THINK YAP WAS HOW IT WAS WHEN IT FIRST STARTED? HAVE ITS GOALS AND MENTALITY CHANGED?
Marrs-Maxfield: The mission hasn’t changed. We’ve seen a lot of different folks come in and out and the flavor of the group may change a little depending on the attendance. For the most part, we’ve stuck to the formula that works and that’s just happy hours once a month open to any and all young professionals working full-time in whatever career path. It’s not open to students because that’s not what our members want. They just want to be with other full-time working folks. If you’re working full time and taking night classes, that’s a different thing. We’re trying to help those who’ve moved on to the next phase of their life and are trying to make social connections and network.
Q: WHERE DO THE HAPPY HOURS TAKE PLACE?
Marrs-Maxfield: They’re at different local establishments such Jackie O’s and Casa every month. We had one at the new Corner Bistro across from the Old Train Depot; a few in Nelsonville to attract some of the young professionals that are working there. We’ve done picnic potlucks to take advantage of the arts, parks and recreation we have around here. Besides the summer outings, it has to be located at a drinking establishment because it’s a happy hour. If it’s a restaurant, we utilize the food they have, if it’s not we get creative, using some food trucks that will bring food. We try to use the establishments that are locally owned.
Q: WHAT OTHER EVENTS DO YOU HAVE BESIDES HAPPY HOURS?
Marrs-Maxfield: In the summer, we try to do one big event, usually some sort of outdoorsy event. One year we did cabrewing. We had vans we provided, and this required a fee to participate. It took us up to Hocking Canoe Livery and everyone brought their own beverages and canoed. We had the bus take everybody home so they had a safe ride. That was very, very popular. We’ve done some summer hikes where people bring their food and hike around the Ridges.
Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROFESSIONS YAP MEMBERS HAVE?
Marrs-Maxfield: Everything. We’ve had healthcare professionals, a lot of folks who work at OU and local companies. It really runs the gamut. There was a time we had a big group of folks working in the Wayne National Forest that were coming on a regular basis. It’s not sector specific.
Q: DO YOU EVER SEE A CORRELATION OF PEOPLE GRADUATING OU AND JOINING THE ORGANIZATION?
Marrs-Maxfield: A lot of them are OU graduates because a lot of them stay and work, but we don’t ask them where they graduated from. You just learn that from conversation.
Q: ARE THERE MORE YOUNGER PEOPLE THAN OLDER PEOPLE, OR IS THERE A MIX OF BOTH?
Marrs-Maxfield: You need to be 21 and working full time in your profession. We haven’t put a cap on age. We don’t go up to someone and say, ‘what are you doing here? You’re not a young professional.’ If you get older folks (to) come in, they naturally see this is a group for younger professionals. We also have a few folks in their 40s and 50s that attend once in a while because they’re great mentors to the professionals. It’s great to have them occasionally so the young professionals can talk to them about what they’re doing and what their path was.
Q: WHAT ARE THE GOALS OF THE ORGANIZATION GOING FORWARD?
Marrs-Maxfield: Just to continue the popularity we have. As long as we’re providing a service and people are coming, connecting and enjoying themselves, it’s creating a value to them and our community. We’ll just keep doing that, and we always want to grow the membership.