Paul Andersen: Fair Game
November 16, 2009
When you no longer see young people participating in civic, political and cultural groups and events, it’s the sign of a community in decline. How long can gray hairs support the local economy, culture, arts, and government without an infusion of youth?
The challenge for Aspen is retaining engaged and committed generations of successors to maintain Aspen’s vitality and keep Aspen young. That’s why Cari Kuhlman founded the Aspen Young Professionals Association (AYPA) six years ago.
“A lot of my friends were moving back to the city to get ‘real jobs,’ and I wanted to offer them more opportunities here,” explained Kuhlman, 41, a banker and mother of two young children. Kuhlman founded AYPA to avoid what often happens to resort communities through a gradual exodus of young professionals who feel they can’t pursue their careers or enjoy the amenities of a high-income community.
“Aspen is really tough because there aren’t a lot of professional jobs here, and the housing is very expensive, especially when you’re coming right out of school. Because of that, we see a lot of young people moving away. They call it a ‘brain drain,’ where you lose a lot of people who could be very valuable to the community.”
Kuhlman founded AYPA to provide a civic foundation that would enrich both AYPA members and Aspen through community awareness and involvement, networking and business development.
A panel discussion last Thursday at the Gant was a great example of the AYPA mission. It featured a cross-section of Aspen’s diverse business culture – the owner of The Wild Fig restaurant, the founding landscape architect at Blue Green, the co-founder of granola maker Love Grown Foods, and a partner at the Aspen Brewing Co.
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Each panelist described how entrepreneurial passion for their vocation makes their business both a challenging and nurturing experience that is anchored firmly in the local community. Growing a customer base that wants these local business people to succeed is perhaps the most gratifying and uplifting business model imaginable.
The pursuit of passion in business was reflected in a letter-to-the-editor last week by Charles Paterson, builder and former owner of the Boomerang Lodge, who advised young people to “Follow your heart,” as he did with great success. Taking a risk, believing in your dream, and “just doing it” were key points from the AYPA panelists.
One of the earlier AYPA events Kuhlman organized was a talk by Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, which drew an audience of more than 100. AYPA membership reached 100 shortly thereafter, and now counts about 200 members.
“We’re keeping dues low – $50 annually – because we don’t want to exclude anyone,” said Kuhlman, who founded the organization with a group of like-minded friends. “The more members we have, the better it is for networking. If someone feels comfortable coming, they are welcome.”
Kuhlman estimated that most AYPA members are in their late 20s through early 40s, with a mix of college grads and those without degrees.
“We’ve had a lot of members say it’s changed their lives getting to meet people of similar interests, and for finding employees and employers,” Kuhlman said. AYPA is funded in part by membership fees, but mostly from sponsors. “A lot of businesses feel this is worthwhile,” she explained.
Kuhlman came to Aspen 17 years ago. “I was going to take year off from school, before going for my MBA. I was living in Alaska and had been in plane crash, so I decided to take a year to recuperate. Like many people, I came here and never left.”
If AYPA is able to stop Aspen’s brain drain, then more young people like Kuhlman might settle in and contribute to Aspen’s vitality. Aspen should be so fortunate.