Thank you all for joining us to celebrate the young leaders who are being honored tonight, and thank you to Vital Communities for recognizing their important contributions to our community. It is so important to make a point to pause in our busy lives to recognize those around us who make our community what it is—the Upper Valley. As we all know, each year Vital Communities honors a different category of heroes and leaders. So the natural question that I am tasked to answer tonight is “Why are young leaders important?” It just so happens I have been asking myself this question since I first joined the Upper Valley Young Professionals in 2012, the year the group was founded. After five years being on the group’s board, and serving as its co-chair and chair for several years, I find that while I don’t feel as young as I did back then, through furthering the group’s goal of supporting young leaders by connecting them to one another and to their community, I have learned quite a bit about this subject.
The first thing I have learned is that the Upper Valley is especially scant on young professionals. If you are under 40 and accidentally walk into any non-profit board meeting in the Upper Valley, you will almost certainly be sweet-talked into joining. My own fiancé made the mistake of missing just one Grafton County Bar Association meeting, and—oops—he was voted onto the board and was deemed the group’s website guru! Now that isn’t to say that young professionals don’t want to join non-profit boards—they certainly do, like many of the leaders being honored tonight. The problem is that there just aren’t enough young leaders to go around. In the 2015 census, the populations of both New Hampshire and Vermont had a higher average age than almost all the other 50 states.
Perhaps partly due to this fact, being a “young person” in a field or community where your colleagues are usually in a different demographic category than you are can be quite challenging. Many young people in the Upper Valley’s workforce find themselves here to take on a new career opportunity or start a new educational program, and many are moving from more populated areas around the country. Our young professionals group would hear that many in this category arrive in our area feeling somewhat isolated. Many of the Upper Valley’s workers not only live in one town and work in another, but they don’t congregate in the same city center during the day, as is the case in metropolitan areas. This means that there is less chance to strengthen social interactions among members of our workforce unless we make those chances more readily available ourselves. We also often hear that many of our young professionals may be the only ones under 40 in their offices, and sometimes even in their whole fields. Once they get here to the Upper Valley, they are faced with being not only a newcomer, but also someone in the dreaded “young” category.
We all know being in the “young” category often does not have positive connotations when you are trying to be successful in your career or be a leader in your community. We have heard how our honorees tonight have been quite successful in their fields, but I also wanted to give a voice to our other peers, who may have trod a more difficult path. “Young” is often associated with “inexperience,” which means it can be difficult to have one’s voice be heard and taken seriously in some scenarios. I have heard from several of my peers that even though groups and businesses are eager to welcome young people, those peers then often face challenges when offering a new idea or solution, when it has been done the same way for a very long time. However, it is imperative for young leaders to be able to contribute to the cause they are interested in, because when they can, in turn they will feel invested in the business or group’s success. Likewise, professionals in the mentor class can pass down their experience and expertise. This helps a business or group remain relevant and resilient, and by including a young person in your business or group, it builds in continuity and succession planning for the future.
How can we help a young person to succeed? As an example, when I first joined Dan Grossman in law practice, he made a specific point to encourage everyone in the office to refer to me as just another lawyer in the office—not a young one; not a new one. You don’t want your brain surgeon to be introduced as the young, new brain surgeon. That does not instill confidence. Words matter. Just this week, a colleague and I were referred to as “girls” in a professional setting. I know it was not intended to be a slight, but when you speak to someone who is a professional peer, it doesn’t make them feel like one if terms such as “young” or “girls” or “boys” are used. Often, the person using these terms doesn’t even realize the effect this can have, but that’s exactly why I wanted to talk about it. Our young professionals group has even considered that maybe including the word “emerging” professional in our mission would be more accurate than “young.” We all know what is meant by the term “young,” and if used correctly, it can be worn as a badge of pride, like it is tonight for our honorees, who are in a special class of leaders that deserves to be celebrated due to that specific circumstance and the challenges they face because of it. However, in certain contexts, it can be used in a way that is not helpful to promoting one’s sense of confidence and ability. All of us of all ages need to think about how we can best support this special type of leaders and professionals.
So why are emerging leaders important to a healthy and vital community? Well, let me tell you another quick story. When I first became a lawyer in my mid-twenties, some fellow professionals and clients would tell me that I looked too young to be a lawyer, or that I couldn’t possibly be a lawyer because I was the same age as their own children. To which I would respond, “Old lawyers don’t grow on trees.” And guess what—experienced professionals, those who create jobs and pay taxes, they don’t grow on trees either. They have to ripen over time. In other words, seasoned professionals just don’t show up out of nowhere. The community has to plant the seeds that encourage young leaders to move here. As a community, we have to provide them with affordable shelter and affordable education; we have to mentor them, listen to their ideas, and support them in their goals. If we are lucky, they will decide to put down their roots here, contribute to our economy, populate our schools, pay taxes, shape local policy, stabilize our community, and plan for its future. This takes work on all of our parts.
Young leaders reinforce why the Upper Valley is such a great place to live. If you ask the person sitting across from you at the table today why they chose, out of the whole country, to live here, you will most likely get a response identifying the area’s work/life balance, natural beauty, community cohesiveness, availability of social services, opportunity to be involved in local government, or friendly corporate environment. When you work here at a local business, most of us can call up any one of our competitors if we need help. You can call your neighbors when your car gets stuck during mud season. Or when your neighbors find your goats in their own yard, eating their flowers, they will bring them back to you—an experience I can personally attest to. These qualities just don’t happen by accident. They are created by a balanced community that strives to take care of all the needs of its members. A community where every little bit can go a long way and a new idea can spark real change. Our region provides fertile ground for fostering this cohesiveness, and with the right amount of care, our young leaders have demonstrated for us the amazing results that can be grown from it.
Our honorees today help to weave these very intangibles together to provide the fabric that is our sense of place. Some of them have overcome moving from across the country, far from their own families and friends; have started a new career or new educational program; have developed a new business; and even started new families, all while taking what little precious personal time they have left to give back, for the benefit of all of us in this room. Despite these challenges, our honorees today have made amazing contributions to our community’s health care, environmental, economic development, finance, technology, corporate social responsibility, disability awareness, international advocacy, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, athletic, and education spheres. They were not afraid that they didn’t have enough experience. They were not afraid that their voices wouldn’t be listened to. They were not afraid of trying something new that perhaps hadn’t been thought of before. They were not afraid that they couldn’t make a difference, or that it wasn’t worth trying. They started by giving back a little bit a time, and their success and impact grew and grew.
We celebrate your hard work, your perseverance when facing these obstacles, and your dedication to an idea greater than yourself. An idea that connects all of us in this room together. An idea we call the Upper Valley.
You should all be proud to be called a “young” leader, and we know you will give back to whatever community you live in—even though we truly hope you will continue to make the Upper Valley your home.
Delivered at Heroes & Leaders celebration 5.24.2017 honoring Young Leaders by Markell Ripps