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Connecting with young professionals Buffalo Niagara 360 helps young workers get together

About a year ago, Betsy Murrett went to a party.

Not an unusual thing for a single, 30-something professional woman to do on a fall evening. But at this party, at downtown Buffalo's Electric Tower, Murrett found herself mingling with more than 400 strangers who, it turned out, were a lot like her.

It was the launch party for Buffalo Niagara 360, an organization of young professionals, mostly college educated, all looking to make connections with similar people in ways that both increased their circle of friends and provided professional networking opportunities.

"Where have all these people been hiding?" Murrett remembered wondering at the time. "I didn't know there were so many young professionals in Buffalo."

And that, say leaders of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, was the point. Being a young, hard-working professional person can be a hard existence in any town.

But in Buffalo, with its reputation for economic stagnation and brain drain, it can be even harder for young professionals to find others of their ilk, if only because they think it isn't worth looking.

The creators of 360 were confident that it was worth looking, especially if someone set up an organization aimed at giving young professionals a support network that went well beyond the occasional party.

So they got the word out, mostly through businesses associated with the Partnership, the area's primary business organization. They sought the area's young professionals -- ages, say, 25 to 40 -- and, after that initial party, started introducing them not only to one another but also to one another's employers, teachers, elected officials and community leaders.

The idea is to help members of that cohort of professionals feel at home, put down roots, get noticed by their peers and by those who can guide their careers, and help make the area attractive for other up-and-comers from around the country. Functions include working lunches, seminars and opportunities to "reverse mentor" some of their seniors by cluing them in on the finer points of Facebook and other modern communications media.

And it's been successful enough so far, organizers have decided, to warrant another party. This one is set for Sept. 17 at the waterfront restaurant Shanghai Red's. It's another mixer for young professionals, free for 360 members, $10 for others.

Chris LaFleur, a 23-year-old risk analyst for M&T Bank, also turned out for the original launch party and he, along with several others from M&T, has been active in the organization since.

"It was really right up my alley," LaFleur said. "It's just a way to create more awareness in the community and show you how you can get involved in the community if you want to."

LaFleur is a Middleport native and University at Buffalo graduate who has spent his entire life in Western New York.

"I love it here," he said. "There's just such a sense of community."

Murrett, now communications director for the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, graduated from Syracuse University and followed a career path that, over the course of some seven years, took her through Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore. But she came back to Buffalo to be near family.

"You get to a point in your career -- in your life -- that that's important to you," she said. Not only family, she said, but public service.

And that's another thing the 360 organization is designed to help with, introducing its members to public officials and the leaders of cultural, community and nonprofit organizations who might be seeking new blood, not only for their projects but for their boards of directors.

Julia Culkin, vice president for human resources at the software and Web site developer Synacor, was among the founders of 360. She said it was important to her firm to not only hang onto the brainy young professionals who had grown up and been educated in the area, but also to attract more from other parts of the country -- parts of the county where the name "Buffalo" was somehow not synonymous with the creative urban lifestyle.

"When we started recruiting, we had a really hard time finding talent," Culkin said. "It seemed like the talented young people were leaving right after college, or right after high school."

An existing network of young professionals can be very helpful for the dot-com kind of workers her company is seeking, Culkin said, because, unlike older workers, they don't have the root-setting experiences of buying homes or going to their children's school activities.

Culkin credited the staff of the Partnership, particularly business development manager Ann Mestrovich, with nurturing the 360 idea and bringing it to life.

"This program has really helped these newcomers feel like they are connected to the community," Culkin said. "And that's what we need from them, to stay and to settle, to grow roots and to improve Buffalo."

e-mail: gpyle@buffnews.com