Special Report: Millennials at Work

Career, Collaboration and Life in the City for Twentysomethings

In past years, 20 in Their Twenties classes have been concerned with busting stereotypes and redefining the Millennial generation as one of tireless work rather than one of entitlement. But for this year’s class, which is Ingram’s 11th installment of 20 in Their Twenties, the grit so many before them have been trying to prove was a given. They didn’t bother with simply verbalizing that they are hardworking; rather, they rather shared tales and discussed ideas that showed their tenacity and penchant for innovative ideas.

Unapologetic in success and confident in their opinions, 17 of the 20 in Their Twenties honorees for 2018 gathered at Ingram’s on Oct. 2 for an conversation about life in Kansas City as young professionals. Topics ranged from how their careers are bolstered by opportunities in Kansas City, and on the flip side, what Kansas City could stand to gain from investing more fully in itself and its entrepreneurial ecosystem. They touched on reshaping higher education, the hiring processes from the perspectives of both employer and employee, and the overall quality of life here.

The honorees’ thoughts throughout the conversation were thorough and always seem to come back to the same point: these young adults really love Kansas City, and they are always ready and willing to defend her good — but often misunderstood—name and image. Although all of the 2018 recipients have already achieved notable success, their careers are bound to take new turns. For some, that has already happened. But between their intelligence and raw passion for their careers and city, one thing is for sure: as Boomers continue to retire, the city will be left in good hands.


Squashing Stereotypes

Anna Petrow, owner of Anna Petrow Photography, led off the conversation, responding to a question posed to the group regarding what makes Kansas City the place to be at this point in their careers.

According to Petrow, because of its Midwestern values, Kansas City is more about community than competition. This regional mindset provides her the necessary accessibility to connections to grow her business. “It’s a lot easier to get introduced to some circles that might be harder to break into in other cities,” Petrow said. “People are never afraid to make client referrals, even if it’s taking business away from themselves in the short-term, and I think that really contributes to the success of young people in the city.

Following up on that thread, John Nolan of Heartland Healthcare Providers said he had also witnessed the Midwestern values in action. He views the business culture here as something that sets the city apart from other, more bustling metropolises like Chicago or New York. “It’s not that we have different or better things than they have, or that it’s necessarily a lot cheaper, it’s that people just talk and interact differently, and the things that those individuals value are completely different,” Nolan said. “You guys get excited and motivated about being successful, changing the world and making a difference, and those might be slightly different values than I’ve interacted with people in those other cities.”

For both Jorge Flores, who works both as a police officer in Kansas City, Kan. and as operations manager at JF & Associates Real Estate, and Alexis Albright, owner of Exceptional Waste Solutions, it’s all about the opportunity that this less-competitive and more-selfless market provides.

“I started my business in Florida, and by the time I had gotten to a job site, 10 people had already been there and it was extremely transactional,” Albright recalled. “Where Kansas City is extremely relationship-oriented, and I’ve literally had someone say, ‘I’m going to use you because I like you.’ ”

Moderator Meghan Lally then turned the tables on the group and inquired what perhaps the city could do to improve itself as a destination city for young professionals.

Without hesitation, Zach Pettet, managing director of Fountain CityFintech at NBKC bank, jumped in and exclaimed, “Pace!” And Ryan Othmer of Great Western Bank agreed that Kansas City is not yet a 24-hour city, which in his opinion, is something that might be holding us back.

And although a slower-moving city than others, Kansas City has grown significantly in just the past 20 years. Shauna Upperman, co-founder of Zhou Nutrition along with her husband Alex (one of last year’s Twenties honorees, as it happens) attested to this growth by describing how she’s seen the River Market grow and business develop in the past three and a half years, since she moved to the area from Central Missouri. The ground here was fertile enough that the Uppermans were able to build a national following for their on-line dietary supplements business, then sell it last year for a reported $20 million.

Alex Edwards, owner of the local Nothing Bundt Cakes, has also witnessed this growth, citing his own experience of watching the southern portion of the metropolitan area develop as he grew up in Olathe.

The word “opportunities” was then mentioned yet again as many of the recipients present said that they were tired of the Midwest being viewed by the ill-informed as a cowtown dominated by cornfields. Nonetheless, they are willing  to suffer through misunderstanding and defend the city, especially to reap the opportunities the location provides.

Zach Pettet even gave props to fellow honoree Conner Hazelrigg, founder of 1773 Innovation Co. “The fruit hangs lower in Kansas City in general,” Pettet said. “I’ve known Conner for a while and she has parlayed one opportunity into another in so many really interesting ways that I don’t think you could do in another city.”

Hazelrigg concurred, saying that Kansas City had indeed provided her the opportunities to foster relationships with people who will manufacture and ship her products with the quality she desired.

She went on to talk about the importance of individuality and to say that she believes the opportunities in Kansas City are so priceless and unique that we would be losing our sense of individuality if we were to shift our trajectory in an effort to become more like Chicago or New York.

Despite wanting to remain true to our humble roots, it is also vital that as a city, we continue leveraging industries like art, agriculture and technology to gain and retain people of all ages.

“Especially with having KU, UMKC, Rockhurst, you’ve got all these schools that have to have a research aspect for their students that are getting a B.S.,” Hazelrigg said. “Even though Kansas City might be a little rural to students because they want to go on to get a civil engineering or software engineering job out in New York, trying to find a way to harvest those students to stay here is going to be a big part of the tech growth here in Kansas City.”

The New Formula for Education

The conversation, as many in the business world seem to do lately, then shifted to education, and whether participants believed a four-year degree was still necessary, or whether technical certification would have been more effective in their careers.

Quinton Huffman of Honeywell said he had found that he learned nothing during the course of his education that needed to be learned in a classroom, and the biggest thing he gained by receiving his MBA at Rockhurst University was the cohort that he developed while he was in school.

And for some, learning outside of the classroom has not always been synonymous with success, or so says Brett Carmical, director of HR at Girton LLL Transport. “I’ve learned the importance of failure,” Carmical said. “I’ll never forget the first time I ever wrote or signed a contract for a million dollars, or had a lawsuit come to the office with your name on it. Those things actually strengthened me and kind of pushed me, not necessarily to get in trouble, but to take bigger risks because of the development that came afterwards.”

Daniel Kusmin of the commercial realty firm Cobbs Allen concurred aboutthe importance of education reaching beyond traditional settings, adding that hethinks there needs to be a bigger push for people to receive vocational educations. “I don’t think I needed a degree at all to do what I do,” Kusmin said. “But I’m also not a nuclear scientist.” But Johnny Hilgers of Spring Venture group had the experience to back up Kusmin’s claims against classic education: “I have 70 people that I’ve hired the last two years, and the best people are self-taught individuals.”

And although some believe technical degrees might the answer, everyone around the table agreed that in this day and time, having a degree still adds a level of necessary credibility, and that probably won’t change for a while.

“I think once hiring changes, that’s when we’re going to see the real change,” said Taylor Buford, managing partner at DriverEnlist. “At this point, right or wrong, there’s still legitimacy to having that degree.”