John Legend has message for young professionals, and a song or two

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Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2013 12:00 am

Balancing work, life: Attendees hear advice

What young professionals wanted to ask seasoned executives Thursday was how to best achieve a healthy work and personal life balance.

Have a plan, said one executive. Understand now that it will involve some give and take, said another. Accept that now's the time for passion and change the compass later, said another. And leave the smartphone behind sometimes.

All agreed that it won't be easy.

At a conversation-style session — part of the summit for young professionals — five Omaha executives shared their perspectives on how to succeed.

The executives were Randy Parks, chief operating officer of Goodwill Industries Inc.; Ann Finkner, a senior vice president at Farm Credit Services of America; Sherrye Hutcherson, vice president of corporate services at the Omaha Public Power District; Angela Jones, vice president of talent and inclusion at ConAgra Foods; and Daniel Applegarth, chief financial officer of Northstar Financial Services Group LLC.

Hutcherson said it's easy to commit to too many projects or activities. She did. Now, she and her husband have a nightly routine with the kids and set aside weekends for family time. “When you're tired and all you want to do is sleep, you're no good to you, your company, your husband, children and community.”

— World-Herald staff writer Emily Nohr

Young businesspeople learned new skills and made contacts Thursday, but singer/songwriter John Legend encouraged them to make their community a better place in addition to working hard at their day jobs.

At Thursday's YP Summit at CenturyLink Center Omaha, Legend spoke about education as a key component to ending poverty and, by extension, bettering our communities.

Earlier in the day, Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise, also spoke about education, particularly his foundation's mission to build schools and create quality education programs.

The event, put on by the Greater Omaha Young Professionals, has grown from a way to network and get advice from business leaders into an event that's also about making a difference in the community, said Mike Battershell, one of the group's board members.

“The shift to the holistic community approach in addition to the professional development has been great for the conference,” Battershell said. “It's become an important event for the city.”

Attendees also got the chance to meet and trade ideas at living room-like spaces set up in the conference hall, and also attended breakout sessions on community responsibility, leadership, nonprofits and improving conversation skills, among others.

About 1,600 people attended the lunchtime keynote where the Grammy-winning Legend spoke about education and, to many people's delight, sang a few of his hit songs.

Legend's Show Me Campaign is committed to fighting poverty, mostly through education.

For Legend, his schooling was a combination of home-schooling, private school and public school before he made it to the Ivy League at the University of Pennsylvania. It was his teachers, including a favorite English teacher, who pushed him both in his music and education.

“I wouldn't be the person I am today without her or teachers like her,” he said. “I write songs for a living now, but I didn't believe that writing was one of my strengths until I spent a year with her. She gave me courage to write with passion and clarity.”

What summit participants said

Nicole Seckman Jilek, attorney at Abrahams Kaslow & Cassman LLP

“The biggest takeaway that I got from the session was that everyone's decision is personal ... and how you decide to take on a new opportunity is up to you. You have to figure out who you are and what you want to do before taking on a new opportunity or adventure so that it fits your outlook and goals.”

Juan Vazquez, software engineering specialist at the Omaha Public Power District

“You put these executives on pe-destals and think nothing fazes them and then you really get to understand that, 'Hey, I can do that too.' As a young professional, you worry about how I'm going to do this and that, and (after hearing an ex-ecutive speak) you're like, 'Oh, I can do that, too.' ”

Katie Kotlik, attorney at Abrahams Kaslow & Cassman LLP

“I thought it was nice we learned about how you don't have to be on a specific career path forever. I also thought it was really positive how people in my group were asking questions and taking ownership of their own career. It is what you make of it. You have to make the best of it. It's not going to be handed to you.”

Marco Kpeglo LeRoc, owner of Moneyvations LLC

“Just vision the top and look for what you can do to work on you. You know what you offer and you can be part of the solution for a company. You don't have to sit on the sidelines.”

Legend did his homework and cited Nebraska statistics that show the state is doing better than most states. Still, the gap between high- and low-income students is a problem. About 40 percent of low-income students have problems with proficiency in math scores by the time they reach fifth grade, he said.

Quitting your job to become a teacher might help, Legend joked, but he recommended some avenues by which attendees could help children. He encouraged people to be involved whether through supporting political candidates or policies, donating to nonprofits or volunteering as a tutor, which Legend does at a school in New York.

“If we all take a step back from our day jobs, we do share a common quality,” Legend said. “We are all citizens. We are all members of this country and members of a community, and we all have a stake in what happens here.

“I believe everyone in this room has the potential to make a positive impact on the world.”

After the 20-minute speech, Legend took questions from the audience and, later, sat down behind a piano for maybe the most anticipated part of his appearance: a four-song set.

He started with the love song “Save Room” and followed with his own rendition of Bruce Springsteen's “Dancing in the Dark,” which he performed at a slower tempo and filled with his soulful vocals. He finished the short performance with a piano version of his dance hit “Green Light” and his Grammy-winning song, “Ordinary People.”

During both the performance and the speech, the audience listened in quiet awe.

“It was awesome,” said attendee Kate Nedrow of First National Bank. “The summit isn't just about professional development. It's about getting deep down and inspiring others, not just yourself.”

Ashley Postlewait, also of First National, felt inspired by the speakers and their messages.

“Both (Legend and Braun) referenced finding something that starts a fire inside of you,” she said.

Legend also had more messages for young professionals. Known for collaborating with artists such as Kanye West and the Roots, Legend said that collaboration among your peers is key if you want to create something big.

“For young professionals, I always say it's important to find good collaborators no matter what you're doing because it can inspire you to do something new and something fresh,” he told The World-Herald before the speech. “One and one can add up to three or four because you figure out that your strengths complement each other so well and you bring our the best in each other.

“I feel like that's true in music and I find it's true in almost every other business.”

After Legend and Braun's keynotes, many attendees were most excited for the closing 20x20 talks, where speakers show 20 images for 20 seconds each while they speak about transforming themselves and the community.

“The best part,” said summit vice chairwoman Meagan Schnoor, “is that it's re-energizing and reinvigorating people.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1557,,

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