Changing the face of 'young professionals'

With westward movement of STEM talent to places like Boulder, Colo., San Francisco, and San Jose, Calif., many cities across the Midwest have suffered what economists call the “brain drain."

It's a phenomenon where the "best and brightest" young residents leave the area--sometimes never to return--and it affects everything from the amount of consumer spending to local culture. 

But for the last 14 years, an organization of young residents in northeast Indiana has been working to mitigate the effects of this phenomenon here.

They call themselves YLNI (short for the Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana), and as a group, they are been more interested in focusing on solutions rather than dwelling on problems.

The past decade has meant a lot of developments for YLNI, especially in terms of programming and community impact, and now a new president.

YLNI’s membership committee participated in the 2018 Volunteer Fair at Turnstone.

YLNI’s interim and incoming president Savannah Robinson, whose term as president officially starts July 1, is the director of legal personnel at Barnes & Thornburg LLP. 

She’s excited to turn the tide, at least in terms of gender.

Come July 1, YLNI will have a female president and vice president along with a male secretary, putting two female leaders at the helm for the first time in 10 years.

Robinson is conscientious about what it means to move forward while honoring the organization’s past.

She says that while they have been intentional in their growth, they have also remained faithful to their original mission of attracting, developing and retaining emerging leaders through community, professional, and social engagement.

What makes YLNI particularly unique is that its formation was born out of feedback from the types of people it serves today.

As Robinson explains, the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council set out in 2004 to survey young professionals to find out what they wanted from their community. This cohort, united by shared interests and goals regarding economic and cultural growth, became what we know as YLNI today.

“The intent was to retain the talent and develop them so they’d feel a sense of attachment and want to stay here,” she says about the Council and later YLNI’s vision.

To that end, YLNI has several community initiatives whereby they make a positive impact on northeast Indiana. Perhaps the most visible or high-profile example is the success of the YLNI Farmers Market, which started in 2005 to meet the demand for fresh and local produce in the city. 

“We started with about eight vendors with just a few weekends,” Robinson says. “This year, we are open 20 weeks with over 80 vendors approved and an average of 50-60 vendors a week."

The number of people attending the market is growing, too. Last year, it averaged about 2,500-3,000 patrons a week. This year, it is only three weeks in, and the average attendance has been 3,500.

YLNI's Leadership Institute has gained traction, as well.

Launched in 2006, the program was designed to train the next generation of leaders for service on boards and at businesses throughout the region.

It started with a group for young professionals in their 20s and 30s, and this year, it has grown so much that YLNI has spun off a high school version of the program, too.

Launched this month, the High School Leadership Institute program engaged 21 students over a two-week period. They learned about various topics from community leaders while exploring the city behind-the-scenes.

Robinson says engaging an even younger demographic is part of YLNI's mission going forward--giving residents a reason to stay in Fort Wayne while they're in high school.

“One of the things we’re focused on is doing what we’ve been doing and taking a step back to look at opportunities to engage,” she says.

Something she and the group would like to make clear going forward is that YLNI isn’t just for business leaders. 

Robinson says YLNI’s continued focus will be on reaching the next cohort of local leaders, wherever they may be, in the corporate world, at trade schools, or in high schools.

The group wants entrepreneurs, teachers, job seekers, service industry professionals, and leaders of all types to feel welcome to join.

“We’re trying to be very intentional about that,” Robinson says. “We want to be diverse and inclusive and make sure we’re connecting with people who aren’t thinking about YLNI.”


On June 21, YLNI is hosting their annual General Membership Event, where current members, potential members, and established community leaders are invited to come together to celebrate the growth of the community and YLNI's accomplishments in the past year.

This year's celebration will take place from 6-9 p.m. at Three Rivers Distillery Company. Here, prospective members can connect with our various committees, as well as enjoy food from TRDC, Fort Wayne-inspired beverages, outdoor games, and live music from Will Certain.

Admission is free, but registration is required. 

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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