MAHONING VALLEY Professionals branch out through networking event
First Fridays event provides opportunities for networking, socializing and jazz entertainment.
By DON SHILLING
VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR
YOUNGSTOWN -- Shareef Ali couldn't believe what he saw when he visited business networking meetings in Philadelphia, New York and Washington a few years ago.
"I'd never seen so many black professionals under one roof in my life," he said.
The events he attended were First Fridays outings, which are networking and social events for black professionals held across the country, typically on the first Friday of the month.
"Not only were they passing business cards, but they also were calling each other and using each other's services. I thought that should be happening in Youngstown," he said.
Ali began holding First Fridays of the Valley at the Youngstown Club downtown in 1997 and now has an average of 175 people who attend the gatherings every other month.
Spreading out: Bob Faulkner said First Fridays events are helping him meet people in Youngstown. Faulkner, a recently retired public relations executive with Delphi Packard Electric Systems in Warren, is vice president of work force development at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce in Youngstown. He also is executive director of the Mahoning Valley Labor Management Council.
"I meet new people every time I come here," he said.
Clarence Boles, marketing director for the Lincoln Place and Compass residential youth centers, said First Fridays helps him stay in touch with leaders in the community.
The Youngstown Club also is a nice place to relax with his wife and friends, as opposed to bars, he said.
Interesting choice: Ali said some people were surprised when he picked the posh Youngstown Club. They had been a perception not everyone would be welcome there.
His response was that he is a member and has been treated well. The club recently has been advertising it is open to nonmembers for special events.
"I want to dare myself to be different. I want to open the lines of communication with this event. That's why I chose the Youngstown Club," Ali said.
While First Fridays nationwide is focusing on black professionals, Ali said he wants diversity at the Youngstown event.
"Yes, there's a lot of black professionals who attend, but we cross a lot of racial lines, too," he said.
It's time for people of different races to come together and use each other's services, he said. This event can help foster that, he said.
"If we have talent and skills as black professionals, everyone should have the opportunity to embrace our skills," he said.
Having the event at the Youngstown Club also provides a formal setting that Ali likes.
"I love class environments. I want people to dress up. It's mandatory to dress up," he said.
Mood music: Besides networking and socializing, the event also provides entertainment. Ali selects an area jazz band to play at each event because he thinks jazz crosses racial lines.
His goals are to increase attendance to 500 and begin holding the events every month.
Ali was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. He came to Youngstown when Youngstown State University recruited him for a track scholarship. He ran the hurdles, received a degree in sociology and decided to stay here.
"I'm very committed to this city," he said.
Ali, 34, lives on the North Side and is a claims representative for the Social Security Administration. He has created Longevity Productions to put on the First Fridays events and build Web pages.
The admission cost for First Fridays is $12 in advance and $15 at the door, but Ali said he doesn't make money off the events.
The revenue pays for the food, band and promotional expenses, he said.