Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price met with Future Leaders of West Hartford (FLOW) Co-Founder Ryan Keating, Vice President of Keating Agency Insurance, in March 2017 to talk about how he started the organization with the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce. Since then, the young professionals (YP) group has expanded and taken on new leadership.

Nan caught up with FLOW President Kristen Gorski, who is Economic Development Specialist for the Town of West Hartford, and FLOW Membership Director Morgan Hilyard, who is Associate Director for the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce to find out what’s new with the organization.

NAN PRICE: How did you become involved with FLOW and how has the organization evolved?

KRISTEN GORSKI: I’ve been with the Town of West Hartford since September 2016. I became involved with FLOW through my role with the town, where I provide business support and development. So, there are natural synergies.

In December 2016, I was working with Morgan and joined a committee through the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce that was looking to start a young professionals group. I met Ryan Keating at the first meeting, where we hashed how we were going to start the group and what we wanted for the future.

MORGAN HILYARD: Ryan had returned to Connecticut from working in Texas and was trying to assimilate back into the family business, Keating Insurance Agency. He visited the Chamber to introduce himself and gain a little familiarity with our Chamber community. He asked if we had ever considered creating a YP group, because he had been involved with one in Dallas.

The Chamber wanted to get young professionals engaged in the community. There’s a natural progression from starting off in your career, developing in your career, and then eventually becoming a manager or executive in your career—or becoming an owner or entrepreneur. That’s at the point where you’d want to join the Chamber, to increase your marketing, community visibility, and connections in the area.

So, I knew there was a need in the area for a YP group—I also knew I couldn’t start one on my own. Ryan said he’d love to help. So, we got the ball rolling at that point. 

KRISTEN: Our second meeting in January 2017 was with a larger group where we chose our founding members—those people are essentially now our Board of Directors. That was also when we started to hash out our mission what we wanted to see throughout the next year. That’s one of the changes we’ve seen in 2018—our Board of Directors is more scaled back, but it’s been the same people who have been there since the get-go. They meet monthly and communicate weekly.

NAN: How do you define “young professional”?

KRISTEN: That’s difficult. I’ve been associated with other YP groups. Prior to starting with FLOW, I had worked for the City of Bristol, which has a YP group called Professional Young Vision Tomorrow (PYVOT) out of the Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce. We had that same debate: How do you define a young professional so you can be exclusive but still inclusive?

For most YP groups, it’s the 21 to 40 range. So, yes, it is by age, but if it falls somewhere outside of those borders, we still want to be inclusive, get to know you, and gain some networking relationships.

I want to add, our target audience is not only professionals under 40, but also those undergoing a career change. Because they need the same types of resources and networking opportunities as a young professional starting fresh.

Three or four entrepreneurs have joined FLOW over the last couple months. There are a lot of new opportunities and these people are seeing the value in becoming an entrepreneur. I think becoming involved in a YP group has helped people grow and build new networks.

NAN: Kristen, you mentioned business support and development. Are you working directly with startup and entrepreneurs?

KRISTEN: Yes. I work with entrepreneurs with in West Hartford. I support the businesses West Hartford has, and then a large part of my role is helping to bring in new business.

NAN: Are you collaborating with any other organizations for startup and entrepreneurial resources?

KRISTEN: Absolutely. We reach out to other Connecticut Chambers and YP groups through networking to make connections that help bring new entrepreneurs or businesses to West Hartford.

And we collaborate with coworking spaces within West Hartford—we have a Regus Center on North Main Street and West Hartford Co-Working. A lot of our startups utilize coworking before they expand into larger spaces.

We also work with the state agencies (and quasi state agencies), which have been helpful to gather resources. I’ve worked with Connecticut Innovations and CTNext, keeping up-to-date on their entrepreneur programs, including the Entrepreneur Innovation Awards live pitch events. Those kinds of opportunities help facilitate connections through those organizations to assist businesses we have.

NAN: In what ways do feel the Chamber is innovating and remaining innovative?

MORGAN: The Chamber is innovative in the sense that we pay attention to our membership needs. When a member joins, whether they are a solopreneur or a small business owner, we ask: What are you looking to get out of this? For example, if they’re looking for connections with a specific type of professional, we’re able to make that direct introduction and help them along on their mission.

NAN: What can members gain from involvement?

MORGAN: There is definitely a lot of opportunities for networking. We noticed that more seasoned business owners and professionals knew the art of networking. We’ve seen that networking is really the most successful way to do business. You can spend as much money on advertising as you’d like, but yi really need those one-on-one networking skills connections and referrals.

KRISTEN: We also get members involved with activities in our different committees. For example, our ambassador’s committee welcomes new members and helps them become involved with the group. Our philanthropy committee focuses on community engagement. We don’t want members just joining, going to a few networking events, and then moving along. We really want to better the town of West Hartford as a whole. So, our philanthropy committee is heavily involved in a lot of local charities, nonprofits, and other ways of bettering West Hartford living.

Our social committee gets the word out there and promotes FLOW on social media. They’re also in charge of coming up with new places for our events to be hosted. The restaurants in West Hartford have been excited about the development of FLOW. There’s a benefit to them joining the Chamber because we’re not going to host an event at a non-Chamber restaurant. At every FLOW event, we get around 100 attendees. So, the businesses do incredibly well in terms of their visibility.

And then we have a programs committee, which is focused on educational resources for our developing professionals, those making a career change, and those looking to build their resumes in the future.

NAN: What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

KRISTEN: What I love about the work I do is that it’s something different every day. And it’s helping people get to where they ultimately want to be. They’re setting goals I can help them attain.

Locally, we have new businesses and long-standing businesses. We’re working to ensure everyone’s business is healthy, vibrant, and sustainable. We’re also making sure we have a good variety of different businesses in town—and figuring out what opportunities we have for our businesses.

That’s another thing I love the most about what I do: I love speaking with people and getting to know them on a personal and professional level. There are fantastic stories out there that you don’t hear about and those stories need to be told. Everybody needs their chance in the spotlight. So how do you highlight that as well?

NAN: That’s one of the goals of Innovation Destination Hartford!

MORGAN: It’s appreciated! My answer is similar to Kristen’s. I enjoy getting to know so many new people. It’s such an eclectic group. It’s fascinating to hear not only where they come from, but where they’re looking to go.

On a daily basis, you’re dealing with peoples’ passions and their dreams. Whether they came from corporate America or from another walk of life. Either way, they’ve set a dream. They may have put everything they have into making something a success they’ve always dreamed of. It’s our position and honor to help make their dreams a reality. And we can help connect them with people who will enable them to continue their passion and give back to the community what they love so much in what they do.

NAN: We like to say, “Hartford has it!” What is it about West Hartford? 

KRISTEN: We ultimately decided to stay West Hartford-centric because we have people who live in the community, people who work in the community, or people who do both. It’s a small town of 64,000 people that functions really like a city. There’s a lot going on and we want to highlight the community, be involved in the community, and ensure it’s sustainable long term.

MORGAN: West Hartford plays a huge role in the FLOW puzzle—the focus on and the acknowledgment of the use of West Hartford.

NAN: What’s next for FLOW?

MORGAN: FLOW is looking to become more engaged with youth development. These are the upcoming generations in our business community. We want to see as strong of a business community as possible, and that really starts with the students. We have a lot of plans going forward to participate on that level.

KRISTEN: Morgan is spot on with that. We really want to make sure we’re getting involved in the community and specifically with youth in the community, so we have the next generation for our YP group. The hope is that we can take all our experiences and work with them and help them guide them or teach them.

The Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools is a great resource. We work with them to hopefully inspire them by showing snapshots: I’m in this age bracket, these was my goal, this is where I am, this is my 10-year career goal, and this is how I plan to get there. Maybe it’s not an easy road, but that’s okay. You can get there if you work hard.

We want to be able to inspire the next generation and ensure that our group is sustainable long-term. And we want to tie in in the relevance of what the Chamber community and the FLOW community offer young professionals as they get into the workforce and they become more active parts of society.

In terms of other future goals, in 2018 we absolutely plan to partner with other YP groups to help with their missions because I think we have a lot of similarities from YP group to YP group. But ultimately, we want to continue making sure we feel supported and we’re building and growing our networks and meeting new people.

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Photo: FLOW President Kristen Gorski (left) and FLOW Membership Director Morgan Hilyard.