With two universities and several community colleges, it should come as no surprise that the Capital Region is a hub for young people. But the challenge is keeping them here once they’ve finished college and entered the professional world, as many tend to leave for bigger cities like Houston.
Conversations about how to attract and retain young talent continue among business leaders and local officials, and as a result, organizations for young professionals are recognizing their increasingly important role in the community.
“We’re one of the biggest voices in Baton Rouge,” says Forum 35 president Jessica Trepagnier. “If you want to be a part of the conversation, if you want to see change in your community, if you want to actually be able to affect the outcomes and see things operate and function differently—you have to be a part of the conversation.”
With Louisiana ranking low in opportunity, equality, economic growth and employment, according to US News & World Report, it’s hard for young people—who tend to be more attracted to quality of life indicators—to find a reason to stay put. And Trepagnier says she’s seen this firsthand.
“It’s always going to come down to lack of opportunity,” she says. Even though she graduated from LSU during the financial crisis, Trepagnier took a job in Baton Rouge, despite offers from companies out of state. “But I also made a commitment to the city that I wasn’t going to leave,” she adds.
Young professionals groups provide networking, leadership and service opportunities for their members, allowing them to connect with the city even beyond just making business connections. For Forum 35—one of the largest of these organizations with about 200 members—some of these opportunities require sweat equity, like serving meals at the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen, restocking the pantry at the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank and building gardens at public schools.
“To build a long-lasting career these days, it’s not just about what you’ve done inside your company,” says Meghann King, president of Club Blue, the young professionals group aligned with Boys and Girls Club of Baton Rouge. “Everyone’s looking for outside involvement.”
King works for a health insurance agency based in New Orleans. Though King is from the Baton Rouge area, she lived in New Orleans before relocating home. She says the young professionals community here was easier to get involved in. It’s not “intimidatingly large,” she says.
Club Blue serves a more specific role in the community than others due to its direct affiliation with a nonprofit. It’s largely focused on service, hosting events and raising funds for kids in the city’s public school system. But other organizations are more industry-specific, such as the Emerging CPA Council and the Baton Rouge Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section.
Stuart Helo, president of Rotaract Professionals, describes Baton Rouge as a “little big town.” Despite the sizeable community, he says, young professionals are a tight-knit bunch here. Rotaract and other organizations plan events together in order to build a stronger network, he says. “It opens up the entire city.”
“If you’re trying to grow as a young professional, you have to build a network locally,” Helo says. “And you’ve got to always be in service to your community. What you give, you’ll get back tenfold.”
Helo isn’t from Baton Rouge originally, and he’s moved back and forth between here and other parts of the country. But he didn’t develop a sense of home or responsibility for the city until he joined Rotaract.
“Getting to know what your community stands for, has to offer, what it needs, and what it can share can make it feel more accessible,” he says.
As new generations become part of these organizations, Trepagnier says leaders must stay in tune to what they hope to accomplish.
Based on feedback, Forum 35 has started moving away from large, flashy fundraising events and focusing more on those hands-on community service projects. That included partnering with the Arts Council to share some of the load of its summer cultural event Art Melt. The juried art show is now part of the Arts Council’s Ebb & Flow Festival in the springtime.
Attracting new members also requires some creativity. Meetup events like trivia, beer tastings or bingo at new restaurants or venues help ease any awkwardness and gives people a chance to mingle without the pressures of working the room.
Leaders also look for ways to bridge the gap between passive membership and active leadership. At Club Blue, King says the executive leadership has recently focused on creating subcommittees so more members have the opportunity to take on a bigger role without over-committing their time.
Diversity in race, gender and industry are also a concern.
For Rotaract Professionals, its membership is almost entirely women, so Helo and other club leaders are looking to encourage more men to get involved. At Club Blue, King says shift workers like night nurses and plant workers are often underrepresented, mainly because they have schedules outside the normal 9-to-5 business hours. Now, the club plans breakfast or lunch events to encourage their involvement.
But despite the challenges, young professionals involved in these groups say they are building a stronger, more personal network and developing specific leadership skills that can help the larger community.
“I [was] born and raised in Baton Rouge, but some of my best friends aren’t even from here,” Trepagnier says. “And I wouldn’t be awarded that opportunity if it wasn’t for a Forum 35 that gives you the platform to meet people that don’t look and think the way that you do. And I think that’s a win for everybody.”
And while these organizations aren’t the only solution to keeping young professionals in the state, they do give them an avenue to affect positive change. Members of organizations like Forum 35 have the ear of public officials, and have pushed for improving the city’s transportation system and the intro of the new Gotcha bike share program.
“I think that we have a seat at the table, and we have the right people in the room,” Trepagnier says. “We have the attention of the people that matter, and I think that if we start demanding these changes, people are going to listen.”
ABOUT THE ORGANIZATIONS
One of Baton Rouge’s largest organizations for young professionals is also one of the oldest, with 25 years under its belt. The organization hosts leadership and professional development opportunities and monthly service opportunities. One of its most well-known events is the Reindeer Run, a 5K and 1-mile fun run held on the first weekend of December. The group also hosts the wine tasting event Uncorked to raise money for local nonprofits. For leadership training, Forum 35 hosts the monthly Forum Fridays leadership luncheons and an intensive development program called the Barton Leadership Program. forum35.org
Club Blue is a nonprofit-associated group of young professionals partnering with the Boys and Girls Club of Baton Rouge. Club Blue hosts quarterly volunteer opportunities to work with children, like ice cream socials, field days, haunted houses and end-of-summer parties. The club also hosts regular socials for adults, with each event usually paired with a service project. Around the holidays, Toys for Trivia collects toys for area kids. And this past summer, it hosted a Christmas in July event with other local young professionals groups to collect school supplies for area public schools. brclubs.org
Rotaract Professionals was founded in 2012 as a pipeline to the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge. It’s one of Baton Rouge’s smaller organizations for young professionals with about 30 current members. Rotaract hosts monthly meetings with guest speakers, regular socials and monthly service projects. Occasionally, members tour new facilities and businesses opening around the city. rotaractbr.org
Check out the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s website for a list of organizations around the city, including young professional, professional and recreational organizations and societies. brac.org
This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.