The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge spans the Missouri River between Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa.Photo provided by Commerce Lexington
Being home to one of the richest men in the world and five Fortune 500 companies gives Omaha plenty to hang its hat on and provides quite a carrot for an organization like Commerce Lexington to direct its annual Leadership Visit to the eastern Nebraska city.
But that power structure has proven a hurdle for the city’s young professionals, 190 Lexington business leaders were told while visiting the city in early May.
“We’re one voice,” said Craig Moody, a former board president of Greater Omaha Young Professionals (GOYP) and managing principal of Verdis Group, a company he founded focused on sustainability.
“Young professionals are very important in this community. Because the young-professional community here is so strong, I think they, the older folks, are listening more frequently,” Moody said during a panel with three fellow young professionals, or YPs, in front of the Lexington contingent. “But I still think we have a lot of work to do to make sure we are a part of that conversation on a regular basis … we need to be a part of these conversations when they begin, not when it’s time to make a decision after you’ve been working on the issue for several years.”
Moody has worked closely with staff members from the Greater Omaha Chamber, which charges two of its workforce and talent employees to organize the YP effort in the city.
Started in the late ‘90s when the chamber sought to address the brain drain, GOYP has evolved from what Sarah Johnson, a chamber workforce staffer, said is the third stage of a YP group.
The first stage, she said, is networking, including organizing happy hours and other meet ups. The second is when an organization takes on charity work, and the third is when the group takes a role in advocacy, be it for quality-of-life issues or to provide a different voice in citywide debates.
GOYP’s board decided to narrow its focus to five areas: arts and culture, community development, inclusivity, public engagement and public transportation. That’s when, according to Johnson, the group started getting traction and making strong advancements.
“A group can only be successful when they have a focus like that. Many, many times, we’ve had an organization come to us and say, ‘Let’s form a mentoring program between the group of young professionals and a school.’ In theory, that’s wonderful and I would encourage any young professional to get involved, but … [as an organization] you have to have focus,” she said.
When Moody ascended to president of GOYP, it came with a seat on the board of the Omaha Chamber reserved for that role.
“It was a huge step [when we got the chamber to give our president a seat on the board], but we also saw it as a very tiny first step. We felt like it was a little bit of a token,” he said.
Since then, he said, the work accomplished by his demographic has led to other YPs getting on the chamber board on their own merits.
“If you look at our chamber board makeup today, looking at that as sort of a case study, there are so many more young professionals on the board than there were previously. I think that’s a really strong indication that … the executive board of the chamber sees it’s important [to have] a diverse makeup to that board,” he said.
But there have been bumps in the road.
“I don’t think you can always expect it to be a harmonious relationship. That’s what we’ve found, “ Moody said. “Any relationship is tough work, and particularly when you disagree on a number of issues, you have to work really hard at it.”
One of the ways buy-in has occurred is through the Council of Companies within GOYP. The council was formed five years ago as a support group for companies around Omaha to create and sustain internal young professional groups inside their own organizations.
Greater Omaha Chamber staffer Sarah Wernimont said the council meets monthly to share best practices about their emergent leader groups. As a result, GOYP can sharpen its focus to help make the city more desirable to live in.
“GOYP is a retention tool, but how can we also be an attraction tool?” Wernimont asked. “How can we use these young people to make these improvements so people want to move here and say, ‘That’s a really cool city?’”
The organization also holds an annual YP Summit. This year’s event saw nearly 1,300 full-day attendants to focus on issues facing Omaha from the young professionals’ perspective. Previous keynote speakers have included musician and activist John Legend and Newark, N.J., mayor and social media star Cory Booker.
By educating the YPs and getting them more involved with Omaha’s established business leaders, Moody hopes some of the perceived walls in the city can dissipate.
With more involvement and inclusion, Moody said, maybe “we can arrive at these decisions together, rather than standing on opposite sides when it’s done.”