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Joining Forces

ENCOUNTER: BENJAMIN JENSEN

By GAIL BRACCIDIFERRO, Special To The Courant

February 29, 2008

Benjamin Jensen, 28, a lawyer with the Hartford office of Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner, was recently elected chairman of Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs, or HYPE. The group, formed three years ago by the MetroHartford Alliance, is designed to provide young professionals with a business and social network and connections to community service organizations.

Q: What are HYPE's goals and how does the organization achieve them?

A: The primary goal of HYPE is to give young professionals in the area social and professional opportunities to get better engaged in the region. We have three primary types of events. We have social events such as happy hours, informal gatherings, we'll go to UConn games. We also have professional development. We host a lot of seminars about financial management, for first-time home buyers, 401(k) seminars and other topics geared towards what young professionals in the area want.

The third aspect is community service. We've hooked a lot of people up with board service opportunities. Some of the older members of the business community are really looking to get younger people involved in philanthropic pursuits.

Q: The group specifically targets 21- to 39-year-olds. What sets this age group apart?

A: We've never put an age cap on membership. We do have a "young at heart" division. But one of the things that really changes when you go from being in college to the working world is that you go from being completely surrounded by people your own age and in similar circumstances to, depending on the profession, a place where you might not have anybody who is even within 10 years of you.

Especially for people who are new to the area, if they don't have people at work that they make friends with, it can be hard for them to know where to meet people. Hartford doesn't have the same reputation as Boston and New York. This is something we've heard from a lot of the companies. People come for a great job and they are happy with their job, but they don't have a social life. They don't have an outlet. And they basically sit on their hands until they are able to get another job and they leave the area and go to another market.

The opportunity I really found invaluable was the opportunity to meet people outside my industry that I just never would have met otherwise. I've gotten to meet engineers, insurance people, people in finance, entrepreneurs.

Q: Are there specific community service projects the group has adopted?

A: One of the big events we do each year is called Tons of Toys. Last December, we generated 200 toys and they went to children who are affected by HIV/AIDS. We've also gotten involved in the Travelers Championship golf tournament. One pursuit we got involved in last year was aimed at educating the public about the earned income tax credit. We had several HYPE members who served as budget coaches. The United Way was offering free tax preparation for low-income individuals. HYPE members helped guide the individuals on the way they were spending their money. This year we plan to get involved with Camp Courant.

One of the challenges is that we get proposals and offers just about every day from different not-for-profits. They want young people involved. We can't do everything and the things we do, we want to do well. We are putting together a process right now to evaluate all the offers.

Q: How can HYPE make Hartford a better place to work, live and socialize?

A: We'd very much like to have a say with the powers that be about ways to make the city a better place to live. Several times a day I am asked how I live here without a grocery store, or where do I park? It's a constant challenge to keep defending your city. A lot of the perception is undeserved. One of the things that's frustrating is that a lot of us have moved downtown. A lot of the buildings have done well Hartford 21, Trumbull on the Park they have fairly high levels of occupancy. Yet the commercial businesses and retail have been slow to follow.

Q: What are your goals as HYPE's chairman?

A: Last fall, we switched to a paid membership. Before that, there was no set membership. Anyone could come to our events, and being a member didn't really mean much. As of October, we switched to a paid membership, $40 a year. There are 110 companies in the area which make contributions to cover their employees' dues. We are trying to educate people more about what they need to do to become members and the changed membership policy.

We want to build on our membership base. At the last count we're at 420 paid members, and we want to get to 1,000 by the end of the year and 4,000 by the end of four years. They are ambitious goals.

I'd like to increase the people who are actively involved. I would like to get a large and committed and active membership base.

The group has been great for me. There are so many opportunities to get involved with, things that really matter around the area.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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