Building New Bridges: Engage! Cleveland – C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald
From navigating her own journey of young professional life in Northeast Ohio, to leading the transformation of Engage! Cleveland into the community pillar it is today, Ashley Basile Oeken walks the walk when it comes to elevating young professionals.
While the pandemic disrupted the organization’s core value of in-person programming and personal connections, the organization found virtual ways to deliver to YPs, and as a result, has create new and lasting bridges to Engage! Cleveland across the country.
View the podcast below to learn more about the spirit and community behind Engage! Cleveland, as well as its commitment to helping make Cleveland the home and career destination for generations to come.
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SCHMITZ: Hi, it’s Christina and we’re here with the C to C Commitment to Community Podcast. I’m here with Ashley Basile Oeken, and she is President of Engage! Cleveland. Ashley, thanks for zooming with me this morning. How are you doing?
BASILE OEKEN: Thanks for having me. Christina. Excited to be here. Great.
SCHMITZ: It’s five or six years ago when we first met for coffee. I know it’s going back away, but at the time at Oswald, we were starting our first Young Professionals’ Employer Resource group…and you were sharing the vision that you had for Engage! Cleveland. Looking back, and what you and your team have accomplished. It’s amazing. So I’m so excited for you to be able to tell your story through here today, and I hope to meet again in person soon. But for now, this is a happy second for me.
So would you mind just telling a bit about your story and all about Engage! Cleveland?
BASILE OEKEN: Yeah, absolutely. So I am from Ohio, originally from Boardman, Ohio, near Youngstown. So it is actually the last exit in Ohio before you hit Pennsylvania. Growing up, I didn’t really spend a lot of time in Cleveland. I only really came to Cleveland for maybe a school field trip, baseball game, football game, something of that nature. If we were going to the city for a big day, Pittsburgh was actually closer, so we would spend more time there. So I grew up in that area. I went to college and when I graduated with my master’s degree, I started thinking about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.
I knew I wanted to be in a larger market. But I knew I didn’t want to be too far away from home. So I was looking at positions and Cleveland was very attractive. I thought it might be a great place to kind of start my career. So I interviewed and accepted my first position in Cleveland and moved to the West Side. I’m a West Sider, and I have been loving my experience ever since. From that first role, I actually knew some of the board members that were with Engage! Cleveland.
When they were hiring for their first full-time employee, they reached out to me and asked me to throw my name in the hat. So I have been here ever since, and it’s really come full circle because I was a person who moved to Cleveland that didn’t have a lot of connections; didn’t know a lot of people and worked at a very small organization. There were five of us, including myself. I really had to figure things out on my own. I love now that I made this transition and have done a 180.
Now I’m working for an organization that’s helping to better acclimate newcomers to the Cleveland area and really working to get them attracted and engaged and involved in our community. It helps to provide a roadmap from day one, something I didn’t have. I’ve absolutely loved being engaged and watching our growth and trajectory as well.
SCHMITZ: Well, that’s incredible that you literally walked in the shoes of the clients and the members that you serve and that experience. It’s evident in all of the growth in all of the different areas that we’ve seen Engage grow at Oswald, we’ve participated in many different ways, both as a member company in events, getting our young professionals and emerging leaders involved. If you could describe, I guess, in a nutshell, what are the main pillars of service that Engage offers?
BASILE OEKEN: Sure. So Engage! Cleveland, our mission is really focused on three pillars, the attraction, engagement and retention of young talent to the Greater Cleveland area. Within that, we’ve really determined that we need to work with two stakeholder groups. We work with young professionals, generally speaking, and we will help them with anything they need. I will field phone calls from somebody who is currently sitting someplace else and answer questions about where to move and where to live and where to look for a job. Then once they actually get here, we really try to connect them to the community.
Helping them to find friends, get involved, civically, everything that would really make you love the city that you’re a part of. It’s not just for people moving here. It’s also for people who have lived there their whole life and their lifers. You grew up in a city and you went away for College and you went away for a master’s program, and suddenly it’s six years and you’re coming back to a different city, or you’re at least experiencing it in a different way. A lot about young professionals and just getting them acclimated.
Then on the flip side, most young professionals need a job, and most employers want young talent. We also work with employers. We have about 100 employer member companies that we work with, and we are so happy to have Oswald as one of those. Those companies are trying to be employers of choice and attract young talent to their organizations, engage them and ultimately retain them so they don’t have high turnover, cost and the like. What we’ve typically found at Engage is that companies historically are very good at selling their company, how you should work there, the benefits, all that great stuff, but are less likely to really sell the community that they’re a part of.
It’s great to see an organization like yours having this podcast talking about connecting to the community because we know for younger generations, and it’s incredibly important. People they want a great job, but they also want that great job in a great city that they can live in and make home. A lot of what we do with employers is helping them to attract talent. We have a job board, we do a job fair and then a lot around the engagement piece. A lot of events programs that younger employees can come to, they can network, they can meet new friends outside of their organization.
They can find a civic or nonprofit organization to get involved in and just really start to build their own personal network in the Cleveland area. Those are the two primary audiences we serve and some of what we do with those and that’s kind of just scratching the surface. There’s a lot that we do in that space, definitely.
SCHMITZ: It’s hard to have this conversation without talking about the Pandemic and even pre-pandemic. A lot of the areas that you serve were in high demand, be it helping to attract younger talent, helping to keep our talent in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. All of those pieces fast forward 18-20 months here. Those same needs have been amplified because there’s just the obvious challenges of the Pandemic and highlighted by the fact that finding your place, finding those connections when maybe in-person events weren’t able to be done safely. and maybe someone’s personal preference and how they felt if they were not comfortable doing one way or another. Can you talk about a bit about your Pandemic pivots, or is there anything from the Pandemic that you want to continue in the future for your organization?
BASILE OEKEN: Yeah. Great question. The Pandemic has definitely, I think, hit all of us personally and professionally in ways that we probably could have never even imagined. As a nonprofit organization, we were hit very hard by the Pandemic. We’re a nonprofit so we typically receive a large portion of our funding from companies. A lot of those companies are becoming members and paying annual dues, or they’re paying to become sponsors of events. And essentially what happened was most companies went on some type of spending freeze, which meant no in-flow and dollars to us as an organization.
That was incredibly challenging to not have that income. I would say most companies froze budgets for at least six to twelve months, which was really hard on the nonprofit community. Then in addition to that, another big revenue stream for Engage! Cleveland is our events and ticket revenue. So when we went shut down, we weren’t allowed to host events, and all of the venues we worked with were closed. We lost a lot of ticket sales from events, simply just not being permitted to happen.
Again, no income coming in from those events either. We luckily, very quickly, got creative and we pivoted to doing events virtually back then. I think everyone was just so excited to connect virtually, and we tried to still make things experiential. We had people getting kits delivered to their house and doing things over, Zoom together and just trying to still make it as close to in person as possible while not actually being there. I think it served us really well. During 2020, we were still able to host 100 events and engage over 4,000 people, which, I’m just so proud of our team for everything that they accomplished. For again, pivoting so quickly and not losing that momentum because the other piece that was really challenging that we learned is that the pandemic really affected young professionals quite a bit and was causing a lot of anxiety and depression. When you think about young professionals, many of them are single, living at home, living in their apartments by themselves, and they weren’t going to work. So they weren’t seeing friends and colleagues again. Events places were shut down, restaurants, bars, they weren’t going out, and many of them weren’t seeing their parents because of fear of potentially passing along COVID.
They became very isolated and so being able to have that outlet to at least connect virtually, I think, really served our audience well and kind of looking at what were the silver linings or what did we learn? It’s so interesting. We typically host all of our events in person, which obviously limits who can participate. So if most of the events are happening in Cleveland, Ohio, we may pull people from surrounding cities in Ohio, but if you live in Florida or California, you’re not making the commute and for a lunch and learn.
We have so many people, especially from a lot of our employer member companies who have various office locations across the United States or world, even, who were able to tune in to our programming and actually participate with colleagues who they’ve never been able to do that. But a virtual platform permitted it. We were excited to see a lot of our events still grow. Our next generation of women event is a terrific example. That event continues to grow last year was the largest event we did, with 450 women tuning in virtually from all over the United States.
I think one of the silver linings is that we will definitely do hybrid programming moving forward. I think it will be for two reasons. One to ensure everyone who wants to participate can from whatever avenue they feel comfortable in, whether that be from their home and sitting behind a desk in a comfortable space, or if they want to get connected, they can do that as well. Then engaging those people from outside of Northeast Ohio. That’s probably been the greatest thing that we’ve seen just that connection piece from the perspective of our leaders in our community.
SCHMITZ: How important is engaging our younger professionals today, tomorrow,… how important is that as you continue to attract very high profile and prominent leaders in our community to your events, in some cases, you get to sit right at the table with the CEO of the largest company in Cleveland.
BASILE OEKEN: I think it’s incredibly important for the next generation to learn from the current leaders in our community. We try really hard to have those types of opportunities available, and it’s definitely a two-way street like we need the younger professionals to come to the events, to participate, to learn to kind of be sponges and take it all in both in terms of our business leadership as well as our civic leadership. Having those people who can join boards and nonprofits and get involved as well is really important, and we need the current leaders to educate and teach these younger professionals and help to open doors and pathways for them to step into leadership roles.
We’re in a really interesting time in Cleveland, where there are a lot of very established leaders who have been retiring and stepping down from positions, and there are new leaders stepping into those roles, and it’s really going to change the dynamic. I think of what’s happening in our community. We’re going to have different leaders, different thoughts and potentially pave different ways forward, which will be really interesting. I think events like our lunch with leaders that you were referring to. It’s a great opportunity to sit down with somebody face-to-face with maybe a few people around the table and have a direct conversation about advice that they would give their younger self and what they did to climb the ladder.
I just think we have a really philanthropic community here. We have a community that wants to give back the leaders, taking time out of their busy days to sit down with young professionals. I just don’t think that happens in a lot of other cities. I think in Cleveland, you can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I think that people young professionals who get involved here who really work hard, I think they’ll see themselves in moving up those paths into leadership roles.
SCHMITZ: It’s making me think about your mentorship program. There are so many programs that we haven’t talked about today, whether it’s the Leadership Development Conference and education. I know you do surveys that turn into studies that help drive what Engage! Cleveland does. Is it the Council, that is a young professional group, is that more like an associate board. You have your board. There’s a lot of people on this team that have that passion that you share. What did we miss before we close today? How people can get involved or is a young professional where to get started?
BASILE OEKEN: Yeah. Great question. So just a couple of notes. One, if you know anybody who is considering relocating to Cleveland, moving back, Boomerang, back to Cleveland. We did start a really large campaign during the Pandemic called Discover the CLE, where we’re showcasing what that is like. So definitely connect them so that we can help them with that move. In terms of young professionals, at very minimum, sign up to get our newsletter at our website, engagecleveland.org. Follow us on social media.
Just stay in touch with what’s happening in our community. If you’re inclined to sign up for some of the events that we’re doing, we do at least one event per month, sometimes more than that, both virtual and in person options. The events are open to anyone and everyone to participate in. Then if you’re somebody who is a young professional that really wants to give back to the community that you live in, you really are passionate about what you’ve heard today and you want to help to educate other young professionals.
Want to make sure your voice is heard. Our Leadership Council is essentially very similar to an associate board. They meet five times a year, get to network, get to discuss different speakers, different topics, ways to really help to attract and engage young talent here. Who better to do that than the young professionals themselves. That’s another great opportunity to get involved. Then for companies, if you’re a company that’s looking to attract new talent to your organization, or maybe you have talent, but you’re not quite sure how to really engage them.
I think joining Engage is a great opportunity. We can be an extension of your internal HR efforts and really help to guide you and ensure that you are an employer of choice and that you will attract and retain the best and brightest talent. So learn more at engagecleveland.org. There’s tons of information out there, and we hope that we can connect with many of you.
SCHMITZ: Well, Ashley, thank you so much for sharing your energy and inspiration around this. Engage! Cleveland. It’s a true force in the community. Congratulations on where you’ve taken the organization. It does sound like you’re just getting started. There’s so much more to come. So thanks so much. We’ll make sure to connect our audience with everything you shared today.
BASILE OEKEN: Have a great day. Thanks, Christina. Thanks for all your support and all that as well. Bye.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and web formatting.
Introducing the C to C podcast, an oscast by Oswald production
Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The C to C podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.
Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.