Leaving Their Mark

As the Young Leadership Council (YLC) turns 30, we take a look at what the nonprofit has meant to New Orleans.
Jeff Strout
The current YLC staff — from left to right: Ellen Durand, Wednesdays at the Square production intern; Natasha Ott, office manager; Stephanie Powell, executive director; Candace Weber, membership and programming coordinator.

The lights on the Crescent City Connection, those bumper stickers you see everywhere proclaiming, “New Orleans: Proud to Call It Home,” and $2 billion worth of economic investment from hosting sporting events including multiple Super Bowls — New Orleans has the Young Leadership Council (YLC) to thank for all of this and more.

The oldest, independent young professionals’ organization in the country, the YLC celebrates its 30th year this year. Over the decades, it has served as the training ground for countless prominent businessmen and city leaders, while raising $25 million to support projects in and around the New Orleans.

Known primarily as the force behind the popular free concert series, Wednesdays at the Square, today, the organization is headquartered just off Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. As has always been the case, it is run by a different executive director every year and currently includes four staff members and a 25-member board of directors. The YLC boasts more than 1,000 dues paying members and an additional 7,700 supporters receive their e-newsletter. Membership is open to all individuals and enrollment is open year-round.

So how did this organization go from a handful of enthusiastic young people sharing a meal to a powerhouse for city change? Biz New Orleans takes a look.

Yesterday’s Dreamers

Just barely out of college and searching for a meaningful way to become involved in the community while enhancing their professional lives, a few young professionals came together in the spring of 1986 to work on a way to solve some of the big issues facing the city of New Orleans.

John Landrum, vice president for innovation at Intralox, remembers the breakfast meeting well.

TOP LEFT: In 1989, the YLC raised $500,000 to add lights to the Crescent City Connection bridge. TOP RIGHT: “Proud to Call it Home” remains a slogan still seen today around the city. It was created by the YLC in 1994. BOTTOM LEFT: The YLC’s 1994 bumper sticker campaign was embraced throughout the city. BOTTOM RIGHT: Most know YLC as the force behind the free spring music concert series, Wednesdays at the Square — running since 2006.

“There was this handful of young professionals that had all been involved — on both sides — with the local mayoral campaign,” he says. “When it ended, they were all still feeling exhilarated about doing more to help the city, so the idea of the Young Leadership Council was founded.”

Landrum says the original core group included himself, Charles Leche, Chris Johnsen, Robert Bickham, Tripp Friedler and Constance Lewis.

Straight to Work

Within just the first three years of operation, the YLC racked up some impressive accomplishments. The first was creating the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation in 1988, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing major sporting events to the city. Still going strong today, the foundation has brought well over 100 high-level sporting events to New Orleans, including various Olympic trials, four Super Bowls, NCAA competitions and NBA All-Star games, along with national championships for everything from synchronized swimming to taekwondo.

The YLC’s second big project was raising more than $500,000 to add lights to the Crescent City Connection in 1989, followed by a bumper sticker campaign in 1994 that created the slogan, “New Orleans: Proud to Call it Home.”

Another significant project was the Festival of Fins in 2000 — the largest art display to ever hit the streets of New Orleans. For the festival, large fish sculptures were adorned with various materials by local artists, businesses and entrepreneurs and displayed at numerous locations around the city. An auction of the fish sculptures raised more than $550, 000 — money that was utilized by 65 local non-profit organizations.
Probably one of the more visible activities of the YLC is the Wednesdays at the Square concert series. The YLC took over control of the outdoor music series from the Downtown Development District in 2006 after having provided volunteers for the project since its inaugural year in 1999.

The free live music festival has become an anticipated rite of spring. Spanning from March through May each year, it attracts an average of 6,000 attendees each week. This year alone, the series features noteworthy artists including Amanda Shaw, the Bucktown Allstars, Cyril Neville, Kermit Ruffins and Marcia Ball.

“Wednesdays at the Square relies heavily on volunteers and sponsors for its success,” Powell says. “All of the food and beverages purchased at the concert, along with the corporate sponsorships, help keep the event free to attendees and raises money for the organization.”

“Back in 1986, there were lots of things going on with the local economic environment — most of it not good. The YLC created a pro-active environment for this city’s young people that really empowered us to make a difference in our community.” – John Landrum, vice president for innovation at Intralox

Powell says YLC fundraising efforts enable the support of all 15 volunteer led community service projects. “From sports-based youth development programs like RECreate and YLC Kicks, to an annual campaign for literacy with One Book One New Orleans, YLC has ingrained itself into the fabric of the city.”

Jodi Aamodt, an attorney with local firm Jacobs, Manuel, Kain & Aamodt, says her work with the YLC began in the 1990s.

“I actually got into the YLC through the RECreate program,” she says. RECreate is a youth recreation program the YLC started to provide accessible recreational activities to kids in Central City between the ages of 5 and 14.

“Every Saturday all these kids and young professionals would get together at the gym. There were different leagues, and people would sign up to be coaches. I remember [Congressman Steve] Scalise was a coach, so was Michelle Morial. The incredible thing was all the mentoring that happened and how it happened, so organically. There was nothing saying that you should take your team out after the games or tutor one of the players in math, it just ended up happening. We loved it. We were all young and I’m sure everyone was going out on Friday nights and staying out late, but we always made it to Saturday mornings.”

Today’s Leaders

A seasoned community leader with 11 years in nonprofit management, specializing in strategic planning and volunteer coordination, Stephanie Powell only recently took up the reigns as YLC’s executive director. She was appointed in January of this year. Most recently, Powell served as field director of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta campaign, where she managed national and state-based collaborations among nonprofit, for-profit and governmental entities.

“YLC offers a unique opportunity for young professionals to be civically engaged and to build their leadership skills through service,” she says. “We focus on initiatives that improve the quality of life in the Greater New Orleans area. If you want to grow in your career, have a positive impact in the community, and meet other young professionals interested in doing the same thing, becoming a member of YLC is a great way to achieve all of these goals and more.”

TOP LEFT: The YLC hosted the largest art display ever to hit the streets of New Orleans, Festival of Fins, in 2000. TOP RIGHT: The official launch of Festival of Fins. BOTTOM LEFT: Volunteers get out the city spirit in 1994. BOTTOM RIGHT: The first major accomplishment of the YLC was the creation of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation in 1988. Still going strong today, the organization has been responsible for bringing over 100 high-level sporting events to the city.

The organization also offers several professional and personal development-focused programs for members, including the Leadership Development Series, Grant Corps, YLC Toastmasters and a 9-session money management program called Financial Peace University.

“One of the greatest traits of YLC is that there is something for everyone,” she says. “The social butterflies and people new to town looking to network will enjoy our monthly happy hours and membership mixers. Those looking for leadership development will find an abundance of opportunities to take on leadership positions within our service projects and through YLC’s multi-week leadership development series.

“Additionally, individuals with limited time who still want to volunteer for only one day will find those opportunities as well through our YLC Assists program,” she added. “There are many ways to give back to the community through our organization.”

Changing Lives

“Ten years ago, I decided I was tired of thinking of myself and only putting my efforts into work-related activities and I had heard of the YLC and its projects, so I started volunteering on a small scale and moved onto board positions,” says Calais Waring, YLC board president and independent marketing and public relations consultant. “It is exciting to meet new people through this organization and pitch in to help out the community that I love. Where else can you work with hundreds of diverse individuals from all walks of life all working toward the same goal — improving our city? I have made and maintained a lot of friendships because of my involvement with YLC over the years.”

Waring says that the YLC has become a lifestyle for her and her family. “For example I was in charge of a campaign for YLC which involved filming different individuals reciting our tagline “Leave Your Mark” and I was filming in the early evening and brought my young son with me,” she says. “The next day I saw him in front of the mirror saying over and over again ‘Leave Your Mark.’ What a testament.”

“I was in my mid-20s when I became involved with the YLC. It was those early leadership roles that provided me with a critical boost of confidence and taught me the importance of not just professional, but civic accomplishments. All the civic leadership roles I have gone on to play — the YLC started all that.” – Greg Rusovich, CEO Transoceanic Trading and Development Company

According to Waring, YLC has evolved over the years due to the development of more projects, a stronger staff and a significantly more diverse board across the entire spectrum in terms of interests, background, profession and socioeconomics.

“YLC provides a deeper volunteer experience that is also fun for people to be a part of,” she says. “The organization has grown and continues to offer more ways to volunteer and support the city. YLC’s mission has not changed over 30 years because it was designed so simply and effectively.”

Moving Forward

To what does YLC contribute its longevity and success? In a nutshell, the organization cites its focus on leadership development and community engagement. Building on its original foundation and mission statement of leadership development through community projects, YLC has continued to be a place for young professionals to work together to improve the quality of life in the city through volunteer service.

“A focus on leadership development and community engagement definitely sets us apart from other young professional organizations,” Powell says. “Our board is active, engaged and passionate about the organization and our mission. Our alumni promote the organization and recruit their younger colleagues and mentees to join our ranks. Additionally, our volunteer project leaders play a critical role in YLC’s longevity and stability. To their credit, they lead 15 community service projects and engage thousands of volunteers annually.”

Although what they tackle is already ambitious, Powell says there is always room to grow.

“Individuals can come to the organization year-round to propose a project,” she says. “Those that have a sustainable project work plan and ample opportunities to develop leadership are ideal.”

Celebrate Good Times

It’s already shaping up to be a pretty incredible year for YLC. The organization is planning on taking this anniversary year as an opportunity to look back and celebrate the impactful work they’ve done to benefit the Greater New Orleans community.

“As part of our anniversary, we have set a goal of doubling our involvement by providing 30,000 hours of volunteer service this year,” Powell says. “We also plan to hold a leadership summit later this year.”

RECreate, a youth recreational program for kids in Central City, has been operating for decades.

“Our goal is to get large and small businesses across the city involved in volunteering service hours,” says Waring. “The 30,000 volunteer hour challenge is a fun way to entice everyone to roll their sleeves up and clock in a few service hours for a good cause.”

The YLC is planning a big birthday party blow out on Saturday, Sept. 17 in conjunction with their annual Role Model Awards Gala, held at the Hyatt Regency downtown. Nominations for the 2016 Role Model Class recently closed and the lucky honorees will be announced early in May.

Each year the YLC honors 25 Role Models who have distinguished themselves as leaders in the community. Past recipients of note have included Bryan Batt, Jerry Romig, Arthur Hardy, Tom and Rita Benson LeBlanc, Jim Henderson, Archbishop Philip Hannan, Lindy Boggs, Ella, Ralph and Dickie Brennan, Al Copeland, Fats Domino, Archie Manning, Emeril Lagasse, Allen Toussaint, John Besh, Ellis Marsalis and Sally Ann Roberts.

“We have a cool army of communication professionals who are also members working on a 30th year anniversary campaign that we are rolling out,” says Waring. “The campaign will touch on YLC’s history, foundation, present activities and future plans. This group of volunteers is putting together something special to commemorate this achievement.”

Waring says that she considers all the unpaid hours of work with the YLC a rewarding personal investment.

“Even though I have been involved with the organization for 10 years it seems like a blink of an eye; the time has flown by so fast,” she says. “Volunteering is not always easy — it is work after all — but New Orleans is so worth the effort. Our kids, the real beneficiaries of all our work, are definitely worth it.”



Categories: The Magazine