25 Under 35 Honorees Value New Connections

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Standing before the corner of the bar at Whitefire Grille & Spirits in Canfield, Matt Skillman and Josh Zarlenga were talking business at a mixer hosted by the Mahoning Valley Young Professionals. Skillman, owner of Ohio Flame in Columbiana, brings up how he works with customers while Zarlenga, a principal in HBK CPAs & Consultants, discusses marketing strategies.

Normally, the two wouldn’t cross paths, they admit, were it not for one connection: both have been named to the Mahoning Valley Young Professionals’ 25 Under 35. Skillman made the list in 2014; Zarlenga is a nominee this year.

“These are the kinds of things that, if not for this kind of event, I wouldn’t have been able to have the opportunity,” Zarlenga said at a recent Young Professionals mixer. “It’s always nice to put everyone together and meet them. You use that to build your network and help your clients or even help other professionals.”

For the past 12 years, the 25 Under 35 awards – formerly known as 40 Under 40 – has served to recognize the best and brightest in the Mahoning Valley. At one point, the MVYP club’s president, Bob McGovern, noted, that the list was mainly white-collar employees at accounting firms.

“Each year, there are more and more people who I didn’t know before they were honorees. That tells me we’re drawing in more people from different areas of the Mahoning Valley,” he said. “We’re seeing all sorts of professions represented from more communities.”

Among this year’s 25 Under 35 honorees are attorneys, teachers, pharmacists, artists, audiologists, government officials, researchers and economic development specialists. Past honorees have included engineers, physicians, journalists, coaches, urban planners, executives and funeral home directors.

“I’ve met plenty of people that I wouldn’t run into on the streets. There are people here from all over the Valley. There are people who work at GM who maybe they don’t leave Lordstown that often,” said Joe Paloski, a Canfield Township trustee and program coordinator at the Ohio State University Extension there. “So many people are doing so many great things that you don’t know about until you meet them. Then you start talking about things and maybe even end up working on things together.”

At the mixer, Paloski talked with McGovern and Joselyn Parker, the youth and teen director at YMCA of Youngstown. Before that evening, the club president said, he and Parker knew each other, as did the youth worker and township trustee. But McGovern and Paloski hadn’t met before and conversed with each other throughout the night.

“It’s always important to get a diverse group of people together, whether it’s in a conference room or online,” McGovern said. “Matt [Skillman], for example, owns a company that makes fire pits, which isn’t a profession you think of when you talk about a young professional group. Having people like that is helpful and expands your comfort zone.”

For the past two years, Tiffany Anderson, an English professor at Youngstown State University, has worked largely with two communities: her colleagues at YSU and older groups at black churches.

“I’ve never really had the opportunity to talk to people my age,” she said. “For me, it can be amazing to see people who aren’t talking about academics all the time. It’s important to get outside the campus or academic world and see what other professionals are working on.”

At the same mixer as Skillman and Zarlenga, Anderson was talking with a fellow English professor, Diana Awad Scrocco, who joined with the Young Professionals when she and her husband moved back to Youngstown a few years ago.

“It was nice to join a community and become re-acclimated to what’s happening in the area,” Awad Scrocco said, noting that what she’s learning from the group can be transferred into the classes she teaches. “We’re always talking about how to appeal to audiences and understand them. You can’t meet the needs of a community without being a part of it and being engrossed in that community.”

For Skillman, the networking aspect of Young Professionals isn’t just about marketing advice or suggestions for his business. They serve as a way to develop personal connections.

“A lot of us are all in a similar position age-wise and in our professional careers. It’s a good chance to come together just as friends to share experiences,” he said. “We all have questions about where to go in our career or what to do in certain situations.”

Zarlenga also noted that for younger employees in large firms, especially those drawn to organizations similar to the Young Professionals, it can be easy to fall out of touch with one’s age.

“Sometimes that gets lost in the workplace when you’re working with people who are mainly older than you,” he said. “You can get lost to the fact that there are people out there who are your age doing things in other fields.”

That’s also led to an informal mentorship between previous classes of 25 Under 35 winners and newcomers to the group.

When she was first nominated, Katie Phibbs, half of the duo who own The Lettuce People at the Kitchen Incubator, more seasoned members stepped in and asked if she needed help. Now that Phibbs herself has some experience, she’s worked with the Youngstown Business Incubator director of program management Brittany Housel. Housel, nominated by Phibbs, is another honoree in this year’s 25 Under 35 class.

“When we first got nominated, people reached out to us that we had never even talked to before,” Phibbs said, mentioning people such as judges and accountants. “We’re in that foodie circle in the community, so there isn’t always that interaction with the younger professional people in the community. This connects us to that next generation in the area.”

And for everyone involved in the 25 Under 35 awards, whether as members of Mahoning Valley Young Professionals or as nominees themselves, all note that it’s played an important role in helping them enter areas they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to.

“It’s so easy for people get in their own silos,” said Parker of the Youngstown Y and the CEO of Speak. “When you get the opportunity to meet people that you had no idea were in the same area as you, it adds culture and diversity to groups. I tell my kids that it’s never a bad time to network. Continuing to meet these people throughout your life is always a positive.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.