All work and some play for young professionals in region

On Tuesday, May 6th, a group of nine-to-five working stiffs traded business blazers for a weekend wardrobe to gather at Fields of Fire paintball park in Mystic for an evening of paintball shooting and business shmoozing.

Every month, professionals both young in age and young at heart meet at a local business - sometimes a hair salon, sometimes a hotel, sometimes a paintball field - to get a little more connected to their community.

They are brought together by the Young Professionals of Eastern Connecticut, also known as YPECT, an organization run by the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce. The group aims to connect professionals between the ages of 21 and 45 to help build local professional networks, as well as foster a sense of community among businesses.

"The goal is to provide a platform for young professionals in our area to meet and network both socially and professionally," said Megan Cronin, the program and event manager for the group. YPECT has over 200 members, also known as YPs, with an average attendance of 75 members at each monthly networking event, according to Cronin.

In addition to hosting networking events, YPECT also connects individuals with volunteering and fundraising efforts in Eastern Connecticut. The group has participated in volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity, the Human Society and F.R.E.S.H., a New London based non-profit dedicated to educating the community on healthy eating habits.

JoAn Collins, an operations manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Groton and chair of YPECT, believes that the events organized by the group show an investment in the future of the members and their community.

"Giving back is good for everybody," said Collins, who believes the YP events allow younger members of the community to build confidence by engage in events and service projects with people their age and career level. "We all want everybody who's coming (after) us to have the same opportunities that we do."

For Allison Keck, an event and wedding rental consultant at Arrow Paper Party Rentals in New London, being a member of YPECT and hosting networking events at her business has helped to connect her with new clients.

"(YPECT) kind of opened our business up for everybody to see what we offered," said Keck. "One of the YPs did her wedding with us. I've seen some of the YPs come in to rent. We're in a younger crowd for party rentals. You can do (promotions) through social media, but when you're going out and actually talking to somebody, you can ask them questions."

The cocktail hours - complete with drinks, hors d'ourves and ice breaking games - provide a setting for professionals to interact with people from other area businesses, which Cronin believes helps to forge business relationships, particularly among young people.

The Young Professionals group is part of the Waterford-based Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, which also offers business networking events. However, Cronin believes it is important to have a young professionals meet-ups in addition to other networking events organized by the Chamber of Commerce.

"I think (having a group of young people) changes the atmosphere and makes it a little more comfortable," said Cronin, comparing the YPECT events to other Chamber of Commerce networking meet-ups, which she said can draw an older group of professionals who tend to be at more advanced levels in their careers.

"You can identify with people your own age - people who are flexible in the workplace, looking for new opportunities, buying their first houses, starting a family. This is their first step, too," said Cronin.

Young Professional members, like Eunice Lima-Brooks of Charter Oak Federal Credit Union in Waterford, agree.

"Originally, Charter Oak was having events with the Chamber of Commerce and I was invited but I felt out of the loop with the older crowd, and I heard them mention the YP as the new generation," said Lima-Brooks. "The YP is the younger crowd, we interact a little bit more."

Events that allow young people to make personal connections with local businesses and with other professionals also helps them make connections to their community at a younger age, when it is important for them to be doing so, Keck said.

The Young Professionals group "highlights Eastern Connecticut as a great place not only to work, but to live and raise a family," said Cronin. She said that fostering relationships between businesses and younger demographics help to "get young talent here and keep it here."

The group also helps highlight a market that may not be the focus of some businesses who are used to doing business with an older, more established market, said Cronin.

"I think (there is) a vibrancy that the Young Professionals group brings. It's not just about the networking, they don't just meet and exchange business cards. I think it really builds a new younger community and helps businesses realize there is this clientel available," said Cronin.

And as much as the events focus on achieving professional goals, as with many events involving a younger demographic, Keck believes social goals are achieved as well.

"I've made a lot of great friends through it," said Keck. "You get to mingle, you get to talk about business, (and) then you meet new people. It's kind of cool to just get out there and see what else is out there for young people."

For more information on joining the Young Professionals of Eastern Connecticut, visit www.ypect.com.

J.HOPPER@THEDAY.COM

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