By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Laura Watilo Blake
“I came to Cleveland just over five years ago for a two-year fellowship at the Fund for Our Economic Future,” Basile Oeken, Engage! Cleveland’s executive director and a Boardman, Ohio, native, says. “After a year, the organization went through a transition from a program of the Cleveland Foundation to a standalone 501(c)3. I went with them and moved from being a fellow to having other finance roles. I worked with them for three-and-a-half years, then started with Engage! Cleveland.”
The impetus for Engage! Cleveland came in 2010 when leaders of Cleveland ConneXion, a volunteer consortium of local young professional organizations, began discussing how to strengthen, unify, and connect the young professional community and its stakeholders. Local employers, especially those in professional services, joined forces with the young leaders. A business plan was drafted, the name Engage! Cleveland was branded in 2011, Basile Oeken was hired as the group’s first executive director in 2012, and the group was registered as a not-for-profit this year.
Since its inception, the group has reached out to 21- to 40-year-old professionals considering a move to Cleveland as well as employers attempting to coax young talent to the region. The organization has also encouraged young people to serve on nonprofit boards.
“We’re a roadmap to help point you where you need to go,” Basile Oeken says.
There is no formal membership for the group, whose events attract hundreds of folks who live or work in Cuyahoga and surrounding counties. Gatherings, including mix events, contain an educational component. Often they are held at Cleveland institutions as a means of introducing newcomers to the area’s gems or reintroducing them to residents who may not have visited for a while. In May, after 400 folks had networked at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, an Engage! Cleveland survey revealed that 44 percent of attendees had never walked through the gardens before.
The group’s professional development events include an annual, day-long workshop that encourages business professionals to consider becoming leaders within their companies, on nonprofit boards or within young professional groups. Recently, as part of its individual programming, the group sponsored a two-part series about sitting on nonprofit boards in partnership with BVU: The Center of Nonprofit Excellence.
Basile Oeken practices what she preaches.
“I’m eager to get involved and try to manage my time between work and civic involvement,” she says. “I go to a lot of events put on by (Cleveland’s) young professional community, and I’m always looking to explore new things in Cleveland.”
And she thrives on helping others appreciate the area’s appeal. Basile Oeken regularly invites out-of-towners considering a local job offer as well as Cleveland newcomers to attend Engage! Cleveland events. There, she introduces them to other young professionals.
“I sometimes get a card or email a week or two later and they say they’ve met new people and feel like Cleveland is really home,” she says. “It just makes the work I do so much more rewarding.”
Much of Basile Oeken’s work as executive director revolves around social media and technology. In the past 18 months, she has grown the group’s presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
“Our following has exploded,” she says, adding that young people eschew traditional newspapers and even online links in favor of scrolling through one social-media platform, where they can access the most amount of information in the least amount of time.
“Collectively, we have 9,000 or so combined folks looking at our work. All of our events are promoted via social media as well as the events of the young professional organizations that are part of our network. We also promote community events, like the Tremont Art Walk and Parade the Circle.”
She also reaches young professionals through a twice-monthly online newsletter that highlights Engage! Cleveland and others local groups’ programming. Approximately 5,000 folks subscribe.
An easier-to-navigate and more interactive website launches this fall.
“It contains good information about living here and getting connected here,” Basile Oeken says. “There’s a job opportunities page, volunteer opportunities page, and young professionals organization directory.”
Whether locally or elsewhere, companies interested in engaging younger employees and clients must recognize the value of technology, especially text messaging and smartphones, she adds.
“Young professionals are doing everything on their smartphones,” she says, including making travel arrangements, refilling prescriptions, and getting on restaurant waiting lists.
“Companies who are going to win the war on young talent will embrace change as it relates to technology.”
For more information: engagecleveland.com