Young professionals look ahead

Last year was the 10th anniversary of the Omaha Young Professionals Summit.

When you talk about the future, you’re talking young people. So who better to outline 2016 and beyond than young professionals?

Specifically, members of the governing board of the Greater Omaha Young Professionals Council, an affiliate of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

Talk to a few of them, and you’ll get a wide-ranging view of the metro area’s possibilities, issues and directions, from social media to public transportation, from gender identity to exploring neighborhoods, from volunteering to thriving in “a safe, happy place.” Here’s a sampling of their comments.

Lindsey Spehn, senior consultant, Gallup

As chairwoman of this year’s Young Professionals Summit, Spehn heads a team working to assemble 1,500 or more people interested in developing themselves, their employers and their community.

“We increasingly are getting a seat at the table,” Spehn said. “We have a louder voice in the community now than we ever have had before. It’s a great opportunity and also a great responsibility to really maximize what we can be doing for our own organizations and for the Omaha community.”

The 2016 summit, set for March 3 at the CenturyLink Center, includes keynote speakers and breakout sessions on multi-generational workplaces, community redevelopment and collaboration, the art of finding opportunities, discovering your personal brand, charting your path to giving back, reducing crime and Omaha in 2025.

“I’m most excited about the talent that we have here now in Omaha, and the talent that we’re developing,” Spehn said.

The city’s 11th annual summit will give attendees a venue to start shaping themselves and their community, she said, but it’s just a starting point.

People may start new businesses or do something creative within their current jobs, she said. Or they could become involved with a new organization. Each person can answer this question: “What can I be doing to make this the best Omaha for everyone?”

Spehn said Omaha is alive with organizations, career opportunities, a favorable cost of living, a vibrant entertainment scene and other attractions.

“It kind of creates that perfect storm of a really exciting time to be a young professional in the greater Omaha area,” she said. “We have so many things as a city. We’re hoping that people can focus on how they can be the best versions of themselves and chart their own course.

“It’s about making Omaha a cool place to move to but also a place to stay where you can live, work and play for a long time. We need to rise to the occasion. We want to make our organizations and our community proud.”

Andres Torres, engineer, Valmont Industries

Omaha could use some improvement to keep attracting and retaining young professionals, said Torres, who came to Omaha from his native Colombia intending to spend six months improving his English and ended up earning a master’s degree in engineering, getting a job and falling in love with the city.

“Omaha became home the moment I became involved in the community,” Torres said. “I’m passionate about Omaha. It’s a great city, and that’s something I can share personally with other people.”

He picked Omaha because it was affordable and he believed he could be immersed in English, rather than choosing a city with a large Hispanic population where he would mostly speak Spanish.

“The Midwest is a great place to learn English. People are so friendly and open,” he said.

But young professionals — he favors a broad definition, beyond 9-5 office workers — want to live in a city where they can make a difference in the lives of their fellow residents, he said.

“Community involvement and volunteer work — that’s important for young professionals,” Torres said. “Omaha is a place where connections are important. So when you are coming from another city somewhere, the main challenge is for you to meet people.

“If you are able to overcome that first obstacle, to connect with other people, that would be fantastic.”

He said that for many in Omaha, there are two degrees of separation. “If you meet someone, you probably both know someone else. But if you don’t know people, Omaha is a difficult place, especially if you come from another country. It’s a challenge to meet people and get to know people.”

His solution: Find a way for the many groups in the city to network with each other so that they can get to know what others are doing, broadening the network of contacts within the city.

“If we can bring the groups together, we can work together as a whole to make things sweet.”

Angel Starks, real estate agent, Nebraska Realty, Young Professionals engagement chair

Starks’ dream is that 2016 will be a year when people in the Omaha area get out of their comfort zones.

“If we want to grow as a community and a city all together, we have to be able to increase our empathy and understanding of other cultures and communities,” Starks said. “The only way we find out about other individuals right now is through the news. ... Let’s face it, a lot of the time it’s very negative.

“People get that impression, instead of getting involved at an authentic level, actually knowing what’s happening and getting information first-hand.

“Sometimes we ... need to go and explore and to know what great things we actually have here. People need to see things from different perspectives, whether it’s Village Pointe or Elkhorn or downtown or northeast Omaha.”

Starks’ call is for people to make an effort to find out what’s happening in all parts of the city and then follow through, trying new things in new places and with new people.

It’s easy to get stuck in a routine that’s comfortable but not stimulating, she said.

“I fell into that trap a few years ago. I was thinking about relocating elsewhere, just because I felt like Omaha had nothing to offer me,” Starks said. “I was taking frequent trips to Kansas City or different places that gave me some ideas. Then I realized that a lot of those things are here. I just have to reach out and find it.”

The most rewarding experiences can begin with things that are unfamiliar, she said.

“People tend to stay in their comfort zones,” Starks said. “I’d like to see more mixing of individuals, to see different areas of town together just a little bit more. I’d like to get people connected with Omaha in general.

“We’re all the city of Omaha. As we grow, we want to make sure we include everybody.”

Kenley Sturdivant-Wilson, fundraiser, Nebraska Humane Society, 2015 chair

Omaha benefits from “locals” who stay; “transplants,” who move to town; and “boomerangs,” who leave their hometown but return.

And Omaha needs them all, Sturdivant-Wilson says.

“We want to make sure people understand that Omaha’s a great place to stay,” he said. “Omaha can’t compete with the beach, and you can’t compete with New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles. But Omaha has a lot of the things those large cities have to offer, and you can do them a lot cheaper here.”

Omaha, he said, offers what young professionals want: “A safe, happy place where they can thrive.”

The Young Professionals’ efforts for 2016 include backing legislation that would ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure stalled in the 2015 Legislature.

“As a state, are we projecting the best baseline for people who want to move here?” Wilson said. “I think this is important for the next generation. They don’t want their friends to be discriminated against, and they don’t want themselves to be discriminated against. Having that law in place will help attract people.

“Ultimately, we’re becoming a community that’s more diverse in many ways. And that’s very attractive to young professionals.”

Wendy Townley, development director, Omaha Public Library Foundation, 2016 chair

Social media gives Omaha a boost by letting people find ways to connect, opening the city’s gates to those who want to be invested and involved in the city’s future.

“I keep an eye on social media, and the number of events happening on any given day in Omaha is amazing,” Townley said. “They aren’t just concentrated downtown. They are out west, and in Sarpy County, and clustered in Benson and lots of places — fundraisers, art exhibits, pop-up retail shops, the local food scene.

“The sheer volume of events, big and small — the hope is that it’s making a rich experience for these men and women when they’re looking for something outside work.”

People coming to town or longtime residents who are starting their careers sometimes wonder how to meet interesting people and find ways to help their community.

“It’s a matter of keeping plugged in,” Townley said. “On some days you have to pick and choose where to go, because you can’t make it everywhere. It’s a matter of taking the initiative and knowing there’s other ways to get involved.

“Really, it’s just, pick an event and show up. That’s the quickest way to get involved. There is such a diversity of people and backgrounds and beliefs and interests.”

Omaha is attracting young adults, including many from other cities, said Townley, an Omaha native.

“I’m always amazed when I meet someone new who has taken a career path that’s completely different from mine, to learn what attracted them to that line of work,” she said. “The number of people you meet who are moving here, who are calling Omaha home for the first time — I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m proud that we have so many people that have been drawn to Omaha.

“There really is something for everyone in Omaha. The hard part is narrowing down where to start.”

Scott Dobbe, associate architect, DLR group

Looking ahead is what Dobbe does for a living.

“So much of what we do is focused on the near term, but the nature of my work is, we often have to project much further into the future,” the architect said. “The buildings we design take more than a year to construct, and sometimes much longer. What we’re working on now could open in 2018 or much later.”

Dobbe said young professionals “want to be here for a long time. We’re interested in how it looks and feels today, and we have high hopes for that. But at the same time I’m concerned what the city will look like in 2025 or 2030 or 2050. We hope to be still around, and our kids are here.

“There’s things that happen in the city that maybe we don’t quite see yet — for example, the rapid transit system. I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, that’s great, but nobody rides the bus.’ It’s a hard comment to take. You have to start somewhere. ... There’s a lot of things we’re doing today that we won’t see the fruits of right away but will see in 2020 or 2050.”

The Dodge Street Bus Rapid Transit line, supported by a $30 million federal grant, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, with 27 stations on the route.

“I think that is the critical first link in the larger network to come,” Dobbe said. “I think there’s thought being given to, that this isn’t the end, that this is just the first step. And over time, maybe we’ll see westward expansion or north-south routes, that will really beef up our transit capabilities so it’s not such a leap to ride the bus.”

Dobbe, who is married and has two young children, said it’s important for the city. “I lived in a city (Chicago) with mass transit, and I didn’t need to waste my meager income on an automobile and car expenses. There’s a certain feeling of freedom from having a train pass or a bus pass and getting where I want to go.

“When you’re trying to recruit younger professionals,” he said, “if they’ve either grown up with or become accustomed to the convenience of transit, to move back to a very immature transit system is looked upon as a step backward.”

Dobbe grew up in Kearney, Nebraska, and returned to Omaha after his time in Chicago.

“It’s a great place to raise kids,” he said. “It’s a great place to live. Exciting things happen in Omaha. But we can always be better.”

Young Professionals Summit

What: One-day conference aimed at personal, professional and community development

When: 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 3

Where: CenturyLink Center Omaha

Cost: $150 or $65 for students; scholarships available

Attendance: About 1,500

Theme: Uncharted

Organizer: Omaha Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals Council

Registration: by Feb. 25

Contact the writer: 402-444-1080,,

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