NeXt group in Willmar offers education, networking opportunities for young professionals
Those wondering what the Willmar area’s business community will look like in 20 years may want to pay attention to the neXt group.
NeXt, an affiliate of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, is an organized group that works to advance networking opportunities for young professionals and provide a space for continued learning.
Currently, neXt has around 150 members. About 90 percent of its members work in Willmar, but many of them live in the surrounding communities, according to neXt Chair Travis Steffensen.
The neXt members represent a wide range of career fields: technology, labor and manufacturing, finance, health care and nonprofits, to name a few. The group accepts anyone between the ages of 20 and 40, with the average neXt member around 30 years old.
“It’s a great way to get into the community and meet new people outside of your field,” said Steffensen, manager at Westberg Eischens, PLLP.
“I hardly knew anyone in Willmar before I joined neXt, and now it’s hard to go somewhere without seeing someone I know or recognize. I’ve built a lot of those relationships through neXt.”
The group holds regular educational sessions as well as social events. For the monthly formal education classes, the group often works with Ridgewater College to find local speakers and topics that would be relevant to young professionals.
In the past, the group has hosted sessions on topics including public speaking, creative thinking, fun and humor in the workplace, navigating conflict and networking, according to Diane O’Leary, Chamber office manager and staff liaison for neXt.
“A lot of the ideas for the sessions come from employers, and what they would like their employees to learn,” she said. “We ask what sessions they’d like to see that would benefit their businesses.”
NeXt also holds regular “lunch-and-learns” for members, where topics have ranged from couponing to tax planning to retirement planning. While these topics may not apply to a neXt member’s business or occupation, they help young professionals build essential personal skills, said Jay Halliday, regional account manager at Nova-Tech Engineering and chair elect of neXt.
“Over a lunch hour, members can come and learn some non-corporate skills,” Halliday said. “We try to touch on different topics with these lunch-and-learns. They’re always very well-attended. People are looking to neXt to build these personal skills as well.”
This year, the neXt group has also started a mentorship program. As part of the program, 20 neXt members, in groups of five, will meet with four different business leaders over the course of a few months. These mentoring sessions aim to give the neXt members a confidential space to ask questions and learn from the experiences of “veteran” community leaders.
Aside from these learning opportunities, a significant part of neXt is the social component, giving young people a chance to network with like-minded peers. The group holds a monthly happy hour, as well as several larger events throughout the year.
Every summer, the group hosts a Green Lake boat cruise, a bike ride and a Stingers game. In January, neXt has its annual kickoff event at the Willmar Conference Center, with food, games and prizes. Both current and potential neXt members are invited to this free event.
“We like to have fun in the community,” Halliday said. “We think we’re hitting on all the gaps with neXt. We offer the formal training and the personal skills learning, as well as that social, networking aspect. If we were solely education-based, that would defeat the purpose of the group. That networking is so important.”
In addition to the education and social events, the neXt group also does one volunteer project a year. The past two years, neXt members have helped repair houses through Habitat for Humanity’s “A Brush With Kindness” program.
The group also hosts a Chamber Connection each year for members to mingle with the greater business community.
These kinds of projects and events help put the young professionals of the Willmar area in front of the community, Steffensen said. That’s important, because one day those young professionals will be the area’s business leaders.
“In 20 years, this group will be the leaders of this community,” Steffensen said. “Eventually, we’ll be replacing our current mentors. We want to be ready when they hand us the baton.”