Couple finds love at Young Professionals

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 10, 2013 

Young Professionals is not -- repeat, is not -- a singles club.

The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce auxiliary group conducts events for ages 21-40 to network, develop careers and learn about other businesses and how to get involved in their community.

YP's mission is to attract and retain young talent in the region. But sometimes, YP members attract each other. Sometimes, relationships go from professional to social to personal.

And no YP members personify that benefit better than Derek and Laura Ann Mann. Although some members end up dating, the Manns are the only ones in YP's five-year history who have married a fellow member.

So the Sunday before Valentine's Day is a good time to tell their love story:

Fateful walk

Laura Ann's maiden name is Sills. She graduated from Harris County High School in 2005 and the University of Georgia in 2009. She was a news reporter for WTVM. Now 25, she is resource development manager for Columbus Habitat for Humanity.

Derek, 34, is a business banker with Columbus Bank and Trust. He graduated from Columbus High School in 1996 and played shortstop on the Blue Devils' three straight state championship baseball teams. The Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the 37th round of the Major League Baseball draft. After a seven-year minor league career that reached Class AA, he returned home to attend Columbus State. Despite a nine-year age difference, Derek and Laura Ann were in college around the same time.

In February 2011, Laura Ann was a greeter for a YP leadership development session at Green Island Country Club. Derek, who hadn't been to a YP event, was invited to go with CB&T colleague Colby Cardin. When they arrived, Laura Ann escorted Derek down the hallway, making small-talk.

"I thought she was very pretty," he said.

"I didn't think much about it then," she said.

A month later, however, they again separately attended a YP event, this one an after-party for an American Cancer Society fundraiser at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.

Derek went as the "third wheel" with another couple, and Laura Ann was there with a bunch of

friends.

Across the room, Laura Ann saw this cute guy, but she didn't remember greeting him at Green Island.

"I didn't put it together," she said. "He did."

She turned to her friends and gushed about his blond hair and blue eyes.

"The next thing I knew, their eyes got so big," Laura Ann said with a laugh, "and he was standing right behind me."

Derek reintroduced himself.

"I definitely didn't know they were talking about me," Derek said, also with a laugh. "But if that's the way she tells it, that's the way it was."

They left the party in a group to go to The Loft. They talked there for an hour or two.

It was getting late, so Derek started to leave, and Laura Ann ran after him. She caught him at the top of the stairs and made it clear she would like to go to lunch with him.

Their first date was at Sushiko in late March. Derek appreciated not hearing too much gossip about their pairing among YP members.

"We definitely were not the focus," he said. "Everyone was excited and happy for us, but they still were professional about it."

They were engaged Nov. 13 and married June 2, 2012.

YP ambassadors

Since then, they are walking and talking advertisements for YP. At events, organizers have noted the origin of their relationship and asked them to wave.

They don't mind.

Laura Ann said their love story is a "good way to hopefully get people to their first event. Then they'll see the real reasons."

Derek summed up those reasons to join YP.

"It gives you endless opportunities to develop yourself personally and promote Columbus to other young professionals," he said, "so we retain and attract talent to Columbus and keep it a great place to raise a family."

Laura Ann likes to tease Derek by insisting they never would have seen each other again if she weren't so aggressive.

Derek contends otherwise; he already was smitten. But they do agree that they wouldn't have met without YP.

"He is just one of the most compassionate people that I know," she said. "He's very intentional about his relationships and just a kind person, and I don't think you find that very often. Still to this day, he opens my car door, no matter what. He's the epitome of a Southern gentleman and a Christian. That definitely attracted me to him as well."

"She is smart and articulate, just a great person," he said. "She is able to talk to anyone, so she's just really impressive in the way she carries herself. Everyone loves her because of her outgoing personality."

And they have managed to overcome that he is an Auburn fan and she roots for UGA.

Along with finding a husband, Laura Ann also found a new circle of friends through YP.

"Even though I grew up in Harris County, it was an opportunity to meet new people," she said. "They do such a good job of letting your network."

YP's growth

As their love grew, so did YP's popularity, to 400 members now -- an increase of 100 -- and representing 190 companies.

"It's great, just phenomenal," said Amy Bryan, the Chamber's senior vice president for talent retention and community development, who directs the YP program. "YP has made a name for itself as the go-to organization for young professionals."

But you don't have to be employed to join, Bryan emphasized.

"We have a lot of success stories as far as people changing jobs or finding the job of their dreams," she said. "You get a lot of exposure to a lot of business leaders because of the attachment to the Chamber."

The five YP committees are leadership enrichment, governmental affairs, community service, career and talent development, and social engagement. The $75 annual membership is valuable for employers as well as their employees, Bryan said.

"There's a tremendous return on investment," she said. "Last year, we offered over $1,500 in professional development. A lot of these companies don't have the budget for that."

For example:

• YP offers the RightPath personality assessment twice per year at a discounted rate.

• Governmental affairs conversations have included U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland and Sen. Johnny Isakson.

• Develop and Dine is a lunch-and-learn series about career skills such as interviewing and critical conversations.

• Cocktails and Company is where CEOs or other executives discuss their leadership journey.

• Connect Columbus introduces members to area civic clubs.

• Résumé Xchange is a service on YP's website to search job postings.

YP also proves to be a reliable resource for community leaders to find volunteers.

"Mayor (Teresa) Tomlinson has really latched onto the YP program," Bryan said, "and at least once a month she is emailing to ask me to recommend members for task forces or boards or commissions."

YP earned a presidential award after totaling more than 7,000 community service hours for local nonprofit organizations, Bryan said.

Another love

Despite being Columbus area natives, YP sparked a renewed love for their hometown in Derek and Laura Ann.

"It showed me that Columbus is more than a little small town," she said. "Growing up, I thought I have got to get out of this place. Then after college, I got offered a job here and said, 'OK, I'll give it two years, but I'm not staying.'"

After pro baseball, Derek first lived in San Diego, but he found it too expensive and too far from family.

"I thought there wasn't much to do in Columbus," he said. "Then when I moved back and settled in, I realized there are a lot of good opportunities and a lot of good people who care about their city."

Although he now has a good job and a good woman in his life, Derek continues to participate in YP "because I hope to have children one day, and I want Columbus to be an even better city than it is now."

And if someone joins YP with more interest in finding a date or a mate than a job or a promotion, it might be more productive than searching a bar or gym.

"I know they say opposites attract, but you have to have something in common," Laura Ann said. "(YP) lets you show your best self while meeting people who are like-minded."

Bryan credits her predecessor, Mary Johnson, who now is the assistant director at the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center, and YP program assistant Mercedes Parham for helping the group succeed.

"I get to work with the most energetic and exciting young professionals," Bryan said. "They're volunteers -- they don't have to do this -- so it's inspiring and fun."

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, Laura Ann suggested how to balance pursuing professional development with welcoming social and personal possibilities.

"I really believe love happens when you stop looking for it," she said. "Be open to the opportunity, whether it's a new job or a move or love. … Once you figure out who you are, you are more open to somebody else. Stop looking and focus on being your best self, and Young Professionals gives you that opportunity."

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