Emerald Coast Business Journal

The Young and the Fearless Young Professionals Capitalize on the Emerald Coast of Today While Actively Shaping Its Tomorrow 

By Ashley Kahn

Youth is impulsive.

Youth is ambitious.

Youth is ephemeral, but while it is theirs, the next generation of Emerald Coast leaders is scaling the proverbial ladder – one social and professional rung at a time. 

A national trend in business and social networking organizations for up-and-coming members of the workforce has trickled down to Northwest Florida, now home to a handful of dedicated groups for young professionals – also influential voters and innovators – equipped to change the way we live by transforming our politics, technology and culture.

The beach might not be a typical destination for young leaders seeking to settle down and build a career, but that label could swiftly change with a dynamic community of cleverly monikered “YPs” at the helm.

Just three years ago, such a resource was not available for graduates and newcomers seeking direction. Now, they can tailor their membership to their needs, whether to meet new friends, volunteer time and money, or establish business connections.

Youth can be indecisive, but the youth of our coastal communities have proven they know what they want, and they are capable of achieving it.

Just ask the supporting members of Emerald Coast Emerging Leaders, Fort Walton Beach Young Professionals and the Panhandle Network, three organizations committed to improving our area by making it more livable – for every age group.

Emerging on the Scene
When Cory Fosdyck joined the Emerald Coast Emerging Leaders (ECEL) Advisory Board in January 2005, one of his main objectives was to pioneer a new program for young professionals, a growing trend in Florida and nationwide.

Leadership Florida was in the midst of launching a statewide young professionals organization, originally called Emerge Florida but since re-branded as Connect Florida. Instead of adopting a model that worked elsewhere, ECEL formed a focus group to determine the critical issues of young professionals right here in Destin.

The goal of the inaugural meeting was to brainstorm a name for the group while developing its organizational structure, and Fosdyck was in good company. Other members included current Destin Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Shane Moody; Elizabeth Spies; George Brannon, Jr.; Susie Cross and Joe Rizza.

A Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor with the Krueger Group of Merrill Lynch, Fosdyck now serves as ECEL Chairman.

He says selecting the acronym ECEL was as easy as defining the group’s target demographic – eager, young professionals along the Emerald Coast with a united goal of polishing their leadership skills.

Even the emblem has a hidden meaning. “The ECEL logo includes a subtle ‘X’ to represent ‘Generation X’ and the membership’s desire to excel in their professional development,” Fosdyck says.

What came out of that first session was this: Destin and its surrounding communities needed and wanted a good business organization of young professionals ages 21 to 41. There were enough volunteer and social opportunities in this town, but there was a gap for people who were just starting their careers.

Many young professionals find it difficult to connect with their peers when they graduate from college and move to a new city.

 “The local pub is not always the best place to develop your professional network,” Fosdyck says. “I think everyone would agree that if you have a strong network in a particular city, you are more likely to stay there.”

Elizabeth Spies, vice president of communications for the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce, advocates the value of such a network not only for young professionals who already have chosen to live and work here, but also for those who may be considering jobs in our region.

“ECEL is for those new to the area and for those who have been around for years,” she says. “It gives businesses in the Destin area a quality place to send their employees for professional development and networking, and it allows those new to the area an outlet to make connections quickly.”

With the backing of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce, Emerald Coast Emerging Leaders was in full force by April 2005. A chairman and a planning committee lead the program, and dues are structured to offer Chamber member and non-member rates.

“Planning committee meetings are open to all ECEL members,” Spies adds. “The only requirement is a desire to help determine the programming of the organization.”

Since its inception, ECEL has grown to just under 300 members; enjoyed the leadership of three chairmen; recognized outstanding YPs through its “Emerging Leader of the Year” award; provided Board of Director training to 20 members through its “Board Approved by ECEL” program; and received two grants from “Keep America Beautiful” to fight cigarette litter along Destin harbor.

Last year, ECEL hosted the 2007 Young Professionals Leadership Conference, attended by more than 100 YPs from Pensacola to Jacksonville.

“It sought to bridge the gap between the organizations, creating an opportunity for all members of these groups to get to know each other and to learn from each other’s best practices,” Spies says.

Still, the perennial favorite of the annual ECEL events calendar is the group’s very own Birthday BASH celebrating its founding each April. When ECEL turned one, a “What is Business Casual?” fashion show feted our community’s laidback style with a parody of appropriate work attire at the beach.

ECEL hosts one BASH (Business and Social Hour) and two lunches each quarter. BASH events are geared toward social networking, while lunch meetings tack on an educational component. By strategically holding programs at locally owned establishments, ECEL supports our area’s economic prosperity while nurturing an emerging workforce.

“I believe the key to continued success is keeping the events fresh and allowing the membership to take ownership in the club’s activities,” Fosdyck says. “If members are passionate about the activities and recognized for their volunteer efforts, they will continue to dedicate the time and mental capital to keep the organization thriving.”

Over the Harbor and Through the Woods
Just over the Brooks Bridge, the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce developed a counterpart to ECEL in April 2007.

The first meeting of the Fort Walton Beach Young Professionals (FWBYP) filled an entire boardroom with people eager to share their thoughts and suggestions on the purpose and direction of the group.

This overwhelming response confirmed the level of interest for such a program and prompted the formation of a steering committee comprising seven individuals, including current chairman Shane O’Dell, a financial advisor with The McGovern Group at Merrill Lynch.

The committee soon nailed down a mission “to enhance the development and education of our young professionals, as well as provide an avenue to network for those who seek to grow personally and professionally.”

That mission has been the driving force behind 2008 initiatives, O’Dell says.

Among the stated initiatives were the compilation of an online member directory, partnerships with ECEL and the first FWBYP “Speed Networking” event – bearing all the makings of an annual tradition.

“I believe the key to success for our committee is to provide our members with an environment they want to be in,” O’Dell says. “To achieve this we need to provide innovative and energetic opportunities that our membership will be enthusiastic about.”

With the introduction of “Speed Networking,” the FWBYP did just that. In the same vein as the popular speed-dating trend, participants are allotted only a few minutes for introductions and the requisite business card swap before moving on.

True to its name, the event quickly became a huge success. Chairman O’Dell counts it as a favorite due to the fun, comfortable networking atmosphere it encourages.

“I am not aware of any other event where you can meet more than 30 people personally in 60 minutes,” he says. “The event is typically a little chaotic and loud, but you walk away with a handful of contacts and potential business relationships.”

The shining achievement of the FWBYP 2008 agenda took place in late September when the group hosted a Golf Classic & Gala Dinner benefiting the Fisher House of the Emerald Coast, a project serving military and veterans’ families by providing a comfortable home at Eglin Air Force Base in the event of medical crisis.

The FWBYP strives for a balance of social networking and community involvement.

“Our driving force is networking and building relationships with our peers and today’s leaders,” O’Dell says. “However, many of our members serve on the board of directors for nonprofit and charitable organizations.”

O’Dell also sits on the advisory board of ECEL and serves as board liaison for the Walton Area Chamber Board of Directors, representing the young professional demographic and keeping the board abreast of the progress of all YP groups in our region.

Walton Area Chamber President Dawn Moliterno, recently honored as Person of the Year by the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association, says she interacts with our YP programs as much as possible.

“The YP leaders are the leaders that will change the landscape of our region,” Moliterno says. “We need to engage them and support them as they take on more of the leadership roles that traditional leaders have held for years.”

She continues: “Through their team building, networking and social interaction, the young professionals programs will build strong relationships that foster respect, integrity and commitment toward each other. This will help them as they make tough decisions facing them and the community in the future.”

The Walton Area Chamber recently partnered with the Walton School District to launch a Youth Leadership Program that will connect high school juniors with mentors and retired leaders throughout Northwest Florida.

Impassioned by the new program, Moliterno says, “It will result in strong leaders who have hope for the future and the tools to influence a positive and progressive community.”

New Kids on the Block
Nestled in the charming seaside communities along County Road 30-A, a new young professionals program is taking shape in the hands of organizers David Milam and Kevin Boyle.

The Panhandle Network was founded in January 2008 after Milam and Boyle realized “young professionals in the area exist but haven’t had a consistent outlet to get together.”

The group has organized five functions, which Milam says “mainly consist of picking a bar in the area and negotiating a drink special.”

Many of the Panhandle Network’s regulars live in the 30-A or Sandestin area, but there are members from Panama City and Destin as well.

“We chose the name Panhandle Network so we wouldn’t limit ourselves,” says Boyle. “We wanted everyone to feel like they could join.”

Milam adds, “As we suspected, all of us were surprised that there were other like-minded, goal-oriented professionals in the area who were interested in having a reason to get together with no stated purpose in mind.”

Milam is an attorney and Boyle manages the Seaside Repertory Theatre, so spare time is not their greatest asset.

“That’s why we’ve tried to encourage both organized gatherings and impromptu dinners and outings of smaller numbers within the network,” Milam says.

Though it was a slow season for the fledgling Panhandle Network, a recent happy hour looked to the fall for continued growth and additional events. Still, Milam maintains the network’s stance as a group of friends learning from and enjoying each other’s company.

“Clearly there is no complexity or laudable goal to our plan,” he says. “We are not designed to compete with any other young professionals group in the area, as we see all efforts to establish social, civic and professional bonds between this subset of the community as a positive step forward for the area.”


411 for YPs: Become a Member

Emerald Coast Emerging Leaders
Membership Contact: Risa Garner
(850) 837-6241

$50 Chamber Member
$100 Non-Chamber Member

Fort Walton Beach Young Professionals
Membership Contact: Shane O’Dell
(850) 864-6102

Panhandle Network
Membership Contacts:
David Milam or Kevin Boyle
(850) 502-9414