ProNet Charlotte – A Model of Community and Compassion

“A healthy social life is found only, when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living” – Rudolf Steiner

How do you define community? Before we dive into that element, we need to begin with the key elements that unify a group of individuals to form, harness and breath as a community. To believe in something greater than you and find others that share in that passion is perhaps the greatest sense of belonging one can find in one’s life.

What differentiates a great community from a good one is never having to be invited, but to find a path to the house of gathering. To belong and to share in something positive is to educate and be educated.

The virtue of community combining guidance, professional insight and encouragement has been discovered in Charlotte North Carolina with the foundation of Pro Net Charlotte. This professional transition community provides training, educational workshops, software, counseling and a home for displaced professionals that need the support and encouragement to weather these unprecedented times.

I had the fortunate opportunity to discuss how ProNet has affected the lives of a number of key patrons of this organization who have some insightful stories to share of their personal experiences.

One of the underlying themes that recurred throughout my many discussions was the feeling of community. For many of the members, ProNet provides an outlet of confidence and comfort during a time of uncertainty. Seeing others in the same situation and understanding their backgrounds, helps re-instill a sense of value.

Candice Szeliga, a Social Media Consultant when asked what makes ProNet Charlotte so successful stated, “Because it works. It builds confidence. You hear horrible news about the economy on the news and each week people are landing”

ProNet partners with United Family Services to offer outsourced counseling for those that require professional assistance to deal with the life changes.

Along with partnerships in counseling, computer software training and volunteer instructors, this organization has built “a community within a community within a community impacting the world” say Szeliga.

Job teams are an essential element of the infrastructure of this business model. These are small groups of ten to fifteen individuals that meet weekly to discuss progress, motivate, providing networking options and bonding. These groups are not a walk in the park but in some respects a boot camp. Overcoming adversity takes diligence and persistence. These groups work each other and ensure everyone is on task if they are willing to put the work in.

Bob King, a Sales Management Professional outlined Job Groups as providing:

Family – There are people out there for you providing support

ProNet started as a small networking group two years ago with one speaker a week and only twenty plus members. Topics varied from career planning to networking. Using CCPC as the primary location, it has now landed safely in downtown Charlotte. With funding from a Workforce Grant and private allocation, along with volunteer efforts from leaders from some of the largest companies in Charlotte, this architectural design is now an infrastructure.

Led by Steve Partridge, Managing Director of the Charlotte Regional Economic Workforce Recovery Initiative, ProNet has given a home to professionals in transition throughout the region. “Many knew there was educational value, but ultimately they wanted to build a community.” Partridge states.

Mr. Partridge outlined Tom Brokaw’s view that America has lost the grand community (4H, Community, and Church) and become a transient society. It is time to bring back that sense of belonging but this initiative is moving in the right direction. No matter how much we globalize, talent will still be the top skill and effective networking and relationship building is the key to personal and professional success.

“ProNet is a response to a crisis. We have become a society that is engrossed in technology. It is allowing us to do more with less natural/human resources. We need a greater conversation about entrepreneurial behavior and communications. Engaging people is their next move. It is about life long learning. No one is totally engaging in life long learning criteria. That is the thinking of the board.”

As Steve outlines, the board is an advisory board made up of corporations and workforce professionals who help to develop curriculum, structure and programming. These are all volunteers who are donating their time and expertise to help the greater good of the membership.

The goal is not only to assist professionals in transition, but also to retain the talent in the Charlotte area. The banking, construction, automotive, retail and energy sectors put tremendous diligence into bringing in talent to the region and now that there is a downturn in opportunities, it is critical to keep the talent in the area when the turnaround occurs.

Ann Marie Young, former Programming Director for ProNet Charlotte believes in the brainpower of Charlotte and the need to retain the talent brought to the Market by the big Banks and other businesses and organizations. “These professionals are not on the street due to anything other than Market economics. Our participants are educated professionals that were recruited and promoted most of their lives and very loyal to their employer – leaving little time to network in or outside of their industries. We teach these professionals to understand their personal brand and their value. We teach them the value of continuous networking in and outside of their industry.”

She is very optimistic about the growth and success of the ProNet Charlotte community. “Charlotte area employers are hearing about our efforts and beginning to hire from our group. And those that are hired become part of our ProNet Alumni community.” This Alumni community then follows the ProNet mantra to pay it forward – by volunteering or by getting their new employer involved.

Pay it forward

What differentiates ProNet from other workforce initiatives is the extreme generosity provided by the members, staff and advisors. Most members, when they have landed still maintain contact, provide new networking resources or give of their time for training/development workshops. It is their way of giving back for all they have received. Bernice Mar, a former member of ProNet utilized her expertise to provide counseling services to other members. She came to ProNet initially to gather information and help others but over time she saw the sense of community and hope that grew within her and others. The true value of ProNet is “that it stands out because it is based on volunteers.”

Praise cannot be measured alone on intangible metrics so we spoke to Mark Weber, Managing Partner of The Darton Group. When information trickled down to him about ProNet through his church group, he sent his wife in on a reconnaissance mission to learn more. Bottom line, she was “blown away” by the professionalism of the speakers and members. Mark was hooked. Since he began to volunteer, he has placed 5 and 7 members in consulting roles with his firm. Now a member of the advisory board, Mr. Weber continues to be an active member of the community.

What is next for ProNet Charlotte?

Steve Partridge sees the five year plan to make this a national model. With a redesign of the JobLink Center envisioned, more focus on younger members and corporate partnership, the potential in the region is tremendous. The recommendations from the board include bringing new talent to Charlotte, expand on the curriculum, get more employer presence, and building membership.

“At the end of the day, success is measured by jobs”, outlines Mr. Partridge.

ProNet Charlotte is about celebration. It is about the foundation and strength of community, the thrill of landing a new career opportunity, the confidence from building new friendships, and the fulfillment of lifelong learning.

It is rare in our lives that we find something that we truly believe with unconditionally. It is that sense of belonging to something greater than yourself where people help people that gives us a reason to believe that things will get better. As we continue to weather the storm of recession, remember there is a ray of sunlight shining over Charlotte. With the wheels in motion, we hope other urban sectors adopt this model of excellence.

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