When Jake Pickett moved back to Fort Wayne five years ago, he was looking for ways to plug into the community. He already volunteered heavily with the Special Olympics, but he hoped to find an organization that would help nurture his career, too. That’s when he found Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI).
“I was looking to grow professionally and some mutual friends put me in contact with YLNI,” remembers Pickett, who is now the vice president of communications for the organization. “It’s not only a way to grow your network, but also a way to grow the community.”
YLNI is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization whose mission is to attract, develop and retain emerging leaders through community, professional and social engagement. The group started in 2005 when several young business people got together to address the growing issue of “brain drain” in the Fort Wayne area. The concept they wanted to address was simple: How can we keep our friends here?
Since then, YLNI has worked hard to live up to its mission. Stephanie Veit, YLNI president, explains that the group strives to be the voice for the under-40 demographic. While young leaders used to have to fight for input into local issues, YLNI has steadily gained ground on their behalf. Today, says Veit, “People want us at the table. We have seats on several local boards and the mayor wants to sit down with us once a month.”
Pickett shares similar comments: “I’m getting more phone calls and emails now than ever to find out what we think. Our voice is being heard and it’s being valued.”
Even so, it’s not just about having a voice; it’s about getting things done. The grassroots nature of the group has fostered a “let’s just do it” mentality; when someone brings up a good idea, YLNI members encourage, empower and facilitate to help make it happen. “We have a real strength in listening, then translating into action,” says Veit. “If we can’t accomplish something ourselves, we take the information to someone who can.”
Not being afraid to take initiative has been the group’s biggest factor for success. YLNI has had a hand in initiatives that include the Harrison Square project, Riverfront Development and the Downtown Dining District. The group revived and hosts the Barr Street Market and partners with Fort4Fitness to offer an indoor market in the winter. Its summertime Outdoor Film Series and Outdoor Concert Series have quickly become community favorites.
From professional development to community impact to social engagement activities, YLNI’s list of accomplishments keeps growing. Its flagship project, the My City Summit, embodies every aspect of its mission. Born from the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Study which was completed in 2010, this annual event seeks to address the challenge of connecting the under-40 demographic to the community. Pickett explains, “It’s the marquee event for bringing people together to share ideas and spread enthusiasm. It’s half pep rally, half brainstorm, and it naturally evolves every year.”
“So many projects come out of this summit,” adds Veit.
YLNI works not only to make the community better today, it also helps develop people who can act as leaders and continue the effort moving forward. To accomplish that goal, YLNI offers a broad range of ways to prepare its members and to become more impactful.
For example, the YLNI Leadership Institute provides hands-on instruction over the course of several weeks to help participants cultivate skills that will help their careers and the community. The Power Lunch Series matches community leaders with small groups of YLNI members who meet monthly for lunch so they can learn from each other in a more personal setting. The Mentor Program and View From the Top provide additional opportunities for people to learn from each other, as well.
In the same vein, YLNI also works hard to improve local voting participation. Each year the group publishes a brochure called The Vote, which contains nonpartisan information on local candidates and their platforms. It hosts a Meet the Candidate night for each local election, and in 2015 YLNI hosted its first Rally the Vote to raise voter awareness and further community engagement.
Eleven years after its founding, YLNI’s impact on the community has become pervasive. Members and nonmembers attend its events, the mayor and other groups seek its input and, more importantly, people are starting to stay. Of all of YLNI’s accomplishments, that’s the one that makes Veit most proud. “We’re not just a social organization,” she says. “We’re really helping the city attract and retain talent.”
Address: P.O. Box 10774 Fort Wayne, Indiana 46853
Years in Business: 11
Number of Employees: 270
Products & Services: Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana is an all-volunteer organization committed to making our community a better place. All of YLNI’s efforts are focused on three core endeavors: community growth and development; volunteering and involvement; personal and professional development