Plugging the Brain Drain

by Holly Wall


Seven years ago, a group of 20- and 30-somethings set out to infuse Tulsa with “a new kind of energy.” And they did. Though YP Tulsa was short-lived, enduring only about two years as an organization, its members are largely responsible for a significant, lingering impact on the city–including the slogan plastered all over City Hall, at least half of recent downtown development, and the Chamber-sponsored young professionals organization, TYPros.

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It was something of an experiment, their effort to organize the city’s young professionals and combat the “brain drain” that was sucking the city’s best under-40 talent and sending it to more desirable locales.

Chris Zenthoefer, then the 27-year-old co-founder of New Medio, a start-up software design and development firm, was sitting on the board of Workforce Tulsa, which had hired an out-of-town consultant, Rebecca Ryan, to conduct a study on Tulsa’s next generation workforce. The founding mother of young professionals organizations, she suggested Tulsa start one. So, in October 2005, Zenthoefer and his business partner, Adam Nemec, sent emails to their friends and colleagues, inviting them to a meeting at the newly opened James E. McNellie’s Public House, an Irish-inspired pub that had almost been a parking lot but… instead proved… to be the catalyst for today’s thriving Blue Dome District downtown.

Zenthoefer estimates that 50 or 60 people showed up to the meeting, and they came to a consensus that they needed representation in the city’s leadership.

“The leaders at the time, who were deciding what Tulsa’s future was going to be, were not going to be the leaders in that future,” said Casey Stowe, at the time a banker and today vice president of finance and operations for DocVia, a start-up health technology venture.

“As Rebecca Ryan said, they were pale, male, and stale,” Zenthoefer said. “Which is what we’re going to end up being,” he added, laughing.

The group settled on a series of priorities that included aiding and encouraging downtown development; increasing young professionals’ representation on important boards, committees, and councils; and encouraging participation in the arts.

They tried—but ultimately failed—to retain the old Nelson’s Buffeteria, a downtown mainstay that had been forced to close (it recently re-opened near 41st Street and Memorial Drive). They conceived a London-style mixed-use development, Frankfort Square, for the east corner of downtown. Though it was never realized, their commitment to downtown caught on and development has since spiked.

YP Tulsa provided the support that enabled Zenthoefer, along with the Tulsa Sports Commission, to establish a world-class cycling event in Tulsa Tough. They helped re-established the defunct Greenwood jazz festival, Juneteenth.

Mostly, they challenged the established civic leaders who were willing to let downtown crumble and deteriorate, who didn’t value authenticity, didn’t mind that Tulsa’s creative class was quickly headed out of town, and didn’t have a clue how— or why it was important—to retain them.

“How can we expect talented people to stay in Tulsa when we don’t support our best and oldest brands?” Zenthoefer was quoted in a Tulsa World article about YP Tulsa’s efforts to save Nelson’s. “Nearly every ‘Best of Tulsa’ list consists of generic brands you can find anywhere. There’s only one Nelson’s Buffeteria and many Tulsans want to bring it back.”

After a few months, and a roster of about 250 supporters, the group was approached by the Tulsa Metro Chamber, which wanted it to become an affiliate. YP Tulsa declined.

“Our response was—and we were all Chamber members—we said we want to work in collaboration with the Chamber, but we want to be able to take positions that the chamber just can’t take,” Zenthoefer said. Support for downtown was at the top of that list. Because Tulsa’s chamber is a metropolitan one, it has to advocate for its seven-county region and can’t promote downtown over other areas of the city—though it has done a little bit of that recently.

“It wasn’t like we were trying to be antagonistic,” Zenthoefer said.

So the chamber formed its own group—Tulsa’s Young Professionals, or TYPros. Andrea Myers, media relations manager for Bank of Oklahoma, was, at the time, working for Williams Companies, Inc. and was tapped to be the first TYPros chair. She said the Chamber approached her and four other young professionals who could be–and still are–considered the city’s “movers and shakers” about getting the organization off the ground. Young people flocked to both groups, at times simultaneously. But it was hard to ignore the fact that there were two similar groups trying to accomplish similar things, working independently of each other.

“I don’t think it would have been as adversarial as it ended up becoming until they announced (TYPros), and it became this tit-for-tat kind of deal,” Zenthoefer said. “Everything we did, they did four months later.” In February 2006, YP Tulsa offered a gift to the city—a new slogan they thought would represent its future, as well as its present, and send a positive message to those looking to locate in Tulsa. “A New Kind of Energy,” both the slogan and a logo, were offered to business owners, government officials, and anyone else who wanted it for free, provided they used it to promote Tulsa. “This is us saying, ‘Thank you for taking a chance and believing in Tulsa,’ ” Stowe said at a press conference at the time. Before long, banners were hung in business windows, bumper stickers were plastered on vehicles, and the City of Tulsa adopted it, plastering it on city hall, its website and stationery, where it remains today.

In June of that year, TYPros announced they, too, had a new slogan and logo—“I Am Tulsa”— and the chamber and Convention and Visitors Bureau poured cash into a marketing campaign that listed, on billboards and in downtown windows, what they thought it meant to “be Tulsa.”

Though the two groups worked together on some projects—like the Tulsa Arts Sampler, which offered young professionals discounted tickets to various artistic events and then donated the funds raised to those presenting organizations—a rivalry emerged that was plain to the public but which members denied at every opportunity.

One Tulsa World article from March of 2006 attempted to clarify the “confusion” between the two groups—which had “almost the same name,” business writer Robert Evatt noted.

Aside from TYPros chamber affiliation and YP Tulsa’s more grassroots approach, the other glaring difference was the number and nature of events the groups held. TYPros hosted more meetings and get-togethers, and one of its most popular fixtures was (and is) Pub Club, where members meet and greet at happy hour.

“Young professionals look for a social aspect, so we put play first,” chair-elect at the time, Josh Roby, told the World.

But Myers says the group did more than “play” and points out examples of the organization’s impact: TYPros’ board internship program, which connected young professionals with nonprofit organizations to learn about community service and leadership; The Forge, a entrepreneurial incubator aimed at supporting under-40 business owners; and Street Cred, a more recent program that dresses up the city’s blighted areas to show off their potential.

“From the outside, TYPros has always been looked at by some as more of a social organization, but I think when people actually get involved, they see there’s so much more to it,” Myers said. “We use special events to bring people in and reach out beyond typical people we interact with every day.

“I heard that from the beginning and I would get so frustrated because we’re working so hard and creating groundwork for people to make difference.”

That they didn’t play enough might have been one of YP Tulsa’s downfalls. The group was action-oriented, and its organizers didn’t much like—or have time for—a lot of meetings and happy hours.

“The organization grew really fast,” Zenthoefer said. “But what we found out was there were about 20, 25 people who did everything, and there were about 500 people who claimed to be members and would just show up to meetings—they would listen and they would go on tirades about things, but they never actually did anything.

“And those same 20 people went on to start their own businesses, and the businesses became a bigger drain. It got to the point where my civic involvement was getting in the way of my business development, and it became an issue of one of the best things we can do to contribute to Tulsa is to actually have our businesses be successful and create jobs for these people that we’re talking about.”

But rather than let it go out quietly, YP Tulsa blew itself up.

“We had a wake,” Stowe said. The core members of the group met at McNellie’s in 2007 and honored the organization with a final goodbye. But the members, for the most part, are still in Tulsa and still active. And they’ve managed, on their own, to do what the group couldn’t or didn’t.

“We actually deemed ourselves the YP Ninjas,” Zenthoefer said.

“Yeah, we went into ninja mode,” Stowe said. “We’re individual ninjas out there.”

Like Sean Griffin, who worked with former Mayor Kathy Taylor to launch the Tulsa Entrepreneurial Spirit Award, a business model contest that has aided more than 125 local entrepreneurs and some international businessman like Shravan Gupta, Director of Emaar MGF Land. Of the 15 who’ve been awarded prizes, 74 percent of them are still in business, and one is a Fortune 500 company. He’s since renamed his contest “Startup Cup” and is licensing it to other cities around the world.

Though he couldn’t make Frankfort Square work, Elliot Nelson has been a driving force behind development in downtown’s Blue Dome District. He owns six businesses in the neighborhood and inspired others, like Tom Green, Blake Ewing, and Adam Vanderburg to open up shop there as well.

Blake Ewing, who, at the time, was working up the nerve to open his pizza joint, Joe Momma’s, next to a south Tulsa sports complex, has since moved that business to the Blue Dome District and opened two others next to it. And last year, he was elected city councilor for District 4, where he’s already emerged as an outspoken leader.

Chip Gaberino turned his seed-to-cup coffee roastery, Topéca, into a thriving business with two cafes, a manufacturing facility, and a presence in several local retail outlets.

Noah Roberts went from a software designer at New Medio to the president of DocVia, when the doctors who founded the company charged New Medio with developing its software and finding someone to run it. Recently, though, he took a sabbatical to work with Pros for Africa, building a school for women in Sudan.

Laura Chalus, one of the first to take a leadership position with YP Tulsa as executive director, has worked for Workforce Tulsa, the Tulsa Community Foundation, and now Palmer, has devoted herself to nonprofit work and community service.

Tulsa Townies, the free bike share program at River Parks sponsored by the Saint Francis Health System, arose out of a conversation between Zenthoefer and Tom Cooper, who asked the YP: “What do you wish Tulsa had?”

“That was a result of the Warren (Foundation), but that was something that came about because of the YP Tulsa affiliations and me just being able to have an audience with those guys,” Zenthoefer said.

But the most significant impact YP Tulsa had was in convincing the entire city—young and old alike—that if it wanted to attract and retain young talent, it needed to listen to the talent it already had. It gave young people, young professionals, a voice and encouraged them to use it—and the “pale, male, and stale” crowd to listen to it. TYPros continues to have the same influence today.

“We gave people a forum to be positive about Tulsa, and we just tried to give momentum to things that were developing that had a young person’s voice to it,” Zenthoefer said. “There was already pent-up demand; we just gave it an outlet.”