For this week’s Friday Entrepreneurs post, I interviewed Steve Ressler. He founded Young Government Leaders, an organization that brings federal employees together outside of work. Steve is 25 and YGL now has over 2,500 members. As you read, note a few things:
- This wasn’t a fancy idea. It was based on getting together after a happy hour and realizing that lots of people wanted this. Most people stop there. The really successful entrepreneurs take it a step further and say, hmm, how could I turn this into something beyond me and my 5 friends?
- In yet another Friday Entrepreneurs interview, we see that money isn’t as important as the mission of the organization (it’s a volunteer organization).
- I just like this post because it’s different than a blog or a web site, both of which I’ve featured before. This is a real-life group where people are meeting each other, learning from each other, and making friends. You don’t have to be a web geek to do something cool.
What is Young Government Leaders?
Young Government Leaders is a professional organization to help connect young federal employees across all departments and allow them to break through bureaucracies, connect across departments, and help improve the efficiency of the federal workforce. We host professional development activities, networking opportunities, social events, and seminars. In addition, we notify members to relevant opportunities ranging from job openings, conferences, and community service.
The big “ah-ha” moment came during our third happy hour when we still were not a formal organization. We had sent an email around to our friends about a happy hour for young federal employees. We were expecting about 20 people but the email kept on getting forwarded around and eventually 75 people showed up asking about where the young federal happy hour was located. At that moment, we realized there was a real need for this and the organization was born.
I know lots of organizations that get started to “connect” people, but they almost always fail. What has made yours succeed?
I’d like to think we are more than just another “young professionals organization” as we are truly trying to connect and create the future government leaders of the United States. The federal government deals with a wide range of hugely important societal problems (defense, homeland security, environment, energy, social welfare) and we really need to recruit and retain the best and brightest to help solve these problems. We need a 21st century government with the ability to think creatively and quickly, moving across departments and hierarchies. I would like to think we are part of the solution.
I think we succeeded because of its grassroots nature. We did not start out trying to create a formal organization. Originally, co-founder Megan Quinn and I hosted a happy hour of some of our friends across government agencies. It went so well that we continued to host them until we started to get random emails from people wanting to sign up for our “group” and the media started asking about us. At that point, we saw there was a real need for this, so it was easy for the organization to grow and succeed. I think for an organization to survive in has to serve a real need. We happened to stumble upon an under-served population that was looking for an organization like ours to step in.
What kind of people get involved in YGL?
Basically, the name says it all – young government leaders. We get a wide range of people that want to be involved across the U.S. across all the federal agencies. I would say the common characteristic among our members is that they are energetic, hard-working federal employees (They really do exist!) and want to make a difference. Often, they are new in their careers and looking for guidance on a variety of career issues and sometimes, they just want to meet other younger workers since the federal government does not have many of them. The bureaucracy is strong in the federal government and it is hard to meet people in your own department, yet alone other agencies. Currently, membership is limited to federal employees. However, we have worked with some state and local government organizations, as well as private government contractor organizations, to put on events.
Why start something like this?
My co-founder Megan Quinn and I started this organization when we were both new to the federal government in summer 2003. We were both in organizations where there were very few young people and we felt isolated from our peers in our roles. At the same time, the federal government is a big bureaucratic engine and there are a lot of informal and formal rules to learn about performance ratings, salary, benefits, promotions, etc. We started the group just as an informal happy hour for our friends to vent about their situation and to hopefully learn from each other on how to successfully navigate the bureaucracy and get work done. As we started to learn more, we wanted to share this information and create a place where this type of information sharing could occur.
But I don’t understand. You held a fulltime job and started this on the side? How?
I guess I’ve always just enjoyed trying new things and this was a great opportunity. It was easy to spend time developing the organization as we got such great feedback from people early on that we knew we had to continue. I used this opportunity to gain skills which I wasn’t currently developing at work such as website development, communication and marketing, and leadership and management skills. Once a lot of the infrastructure like the website was set up, I would say most weeks I spent only about 10 hours on the project. Further, I have gotten to meet a lot of interesting people (from peers to current leaders) across the federal government that I would never had gotten to meet.
How is it going so far?
Young Government Leaders has truly grown since it began as just an idea in summer 2003. We currently have over 2,500 members and we now represent over 30 federal agencies. While we are based in D.C., we have established local chapters in Atlanta as well as Northern Virginia and near Baltimore. We have partnered with a lot of similar groups and participated on various panels related to young federal employees at numerous conferences. We have been featured in numerous trade publications and even established a Young Professionals article series in The Public Manager magazine. We have hosted roundtables featuring pretty high-profile speakers including the former CIO of EPA on such topics as dealing with first-level supervisors, building bridges between government and private industry, and creating your own young professional organization at your workplace. Finally, we just completed our first elections for a new executive board and we have a lot of exciting plans in the next year.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a 25-year old IT employee who currently works for the Department of Homeland Security. I follow in a long-list of successful PhD dropouts (Google anyone…), as I left graduate school at University of Pennsylvania after receiving my master’s degree in Sociology and began working for the government. I’m also involved with a number of other groups including the IAC/ACT Voyagers program for government IT leaders and the DHS Fellows Alumni Network. Outside of professional activities, I enjoy reading blogs (especially this one), watching my DVR, and traveling to Philly to see my girlfriend.
I’m still waiting for an “I Will Teach You How to Be Rich” column discussing the cost-benefit analysis of going to lunch and happy hours with co-workers. I am constantly battling my desire to save money with my goals to “never eat alone” and meet and keep in contact with friends, co-workers, and professional acquaintances.
How are you funded?
Currently, we have no funding. Most of our events we can put on for free with a little work and ingenuity. The only real bill we have each month is the web-hosting fee, which I currently pay out of my back pocket. We are still finalizing our funding approach and wanted to strengthen the organization and our strategy before soliciting funding. However, if anyone has any resources and is looking to help us out, please email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the beginning, how did you manage funding? Did you worry about it?
Since we don’t have funding, it is easy to manage. It is actually pretty easy to start an organization without money. We just let the members pay their own drinks at happy hours and have been lucky to get free roundtable speakers, free space to hold events, and free conference participation. I also try to leverage free Web 2.0 products when possible to keep the costs down. I’m currently looking for new listserv management and communication tools so if anyone has any ideas, please contact me at email@example.com.
Looking back, what would have made YGL fail?
Smart growth is always an issue for new organizations/companies that are successful. At the beginning, we would get a ton of inquiries and we really only had two people who constantly answered messages. It was very difficult to maintain contact with members and deal with all the potential opportunities that were presented to us. We were lucky enough to realize that we needed more help at this point and we solicited more volunteers. Without this great group of volunteers and our 2006-2007 executive board, we very easily could have lost focus.
What made it succeed?
A good mission. The average age of the federal workforce is 45.6 years old and more than half of federal workers are eligible for retirement. Senior managers are very worried about developing the future government leaders and the head of personnel for the federal government refers to the demographic problem as the potential “retirement tsunami.” It really is the right time for an organization for young federal employees. No organization currently exists that meets their needs and that is where we came into play.
What’s next for YGL?
Without being too cliché, I think we are in a key turning point for YGL. We’ve been around long enough that we have gained respectability in the good government world and have coordinated with all the major groups and been featured in many publications. We have just finalized our organization by-laws and finished our first election process. With the new 2006-7 executive board, we are really hoping to take YGL to the next level as we have a strong group of volunteers focusing on specific areas. For the first time, we have elected new co-chairs Addie Spahr and Susan Raymie for the organization and I am taking a slightly smaller role as the Communication Chair (a CIO-type role). We really hope that by giving others leadership opportunities, the organization will continue to grow in new ways. I hope to see more social events, increased community service opportunities, strengthened relationships with our partners, and a focus on meeting the needs of our members.
Is there anything else we should know?
I encourage everyone to check out our website and ask all federal employees to sign up for our group at http://www.youngovernmentleaders.org. Please spread the word to all your friends and help us grow. We are always interested in working with individuals and outside groups in putting on events and spreading important information to our members. If anyone has any questions about our group or opportunities, I would love to hear from them at firstname.lastname@example.org.