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Go! Network evolving to continue helping white-collar St. Louisans transition to new careers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 27, 2012 - Five months after last-minute donors stepped forward to keep the doors open at Go! Network, the nonprofit continues to seek financial support to continue its mission of assisting unemployed and underemployed St. Louis business professionals who are transitioning into new careers.

The program, which offers networking and retraining programs, is also evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of current members and its now-employed alumni, said Roni Chambers, executive director of Go!

Networking for Life

New offerings for 2013 include a seven-week program to enhance skills for job seeking in the new economy and a series dubbed “Networking for Life,” a monthly after-work career and business networking event.

Chambers sees "Networking for Life” as a way to stay connected with the 4,500 St. Louisans who have cycled through Go! since the program started at the height of the recession in February 2009.

"What we are finding is it is ever more important to maintain strong networking relationships for your career and your business success, and we believe that we need to provide a vehicle for our alumni to stay engaged in the organization,’’ she said. "I want them back at the table because all too often they lose a job and have to start over because they’ve been so focused on delivering their job performance that they haven’t stayed connected to their networks. We want to facilitate that opportunity.’’

Chambers said the evening networking events won’t be held in bars but at area businesses. The first event on Dec. 11 will be at Switch marketing, a corporate partner.

Go! will continue to host its weekly Tuesday morning speaker series, a staple of the program since it began, and St. Patrick Center will continue to provide the program with free meeting and office space.

Go!, which has been free of charge, will now charge a $50 annual membership fee. That fee will include the Tuesday sessions, social media classes and access to videos of past Go! sessions. Chambers said those videos are popular with St. Louis viewers and have been watched by people in far-off locales, such as China, Australia and New Zealand.

The membership fee will help subsidize the costs of the program, while requiring a small personal investment on the part of its members, Chambers said.

"It’s very inexpensive for what you get,’’ she said. "I believe that 'free' is perceived as not having value, and you have to have skin in the game in order for the game to work.’’

Go! Network was started as a short-term intervention to help jobless middle managers after the financial meltdown of 2008 led to massive corporate layoffs in St. Louis. Anheuser-Busch was the major initial donor for the program that was organized by St. Patrick Center with the assistance of the United Way, the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment and the local business community.

As the urgency of the Great Recession passed and corporate financial backing for Go! dried up, Chambers helped lead the program’s transition from a corporate-backed initiative to a stand-alone nonprofit organization. While the nonprofit continued to receive small donations -- often from grateful recipients of the program who have found work -- they were not enough to pay program costs and in Chambers announced that Go! would be closing in June. A $10,000 pledge from an anonymous donor and the launch of a challenge grant program kept Go! afloat.

Chambers, a laid-off Anheuser-Busch human resources executive, had been donating her time and also paying the program’s bills from her personal savings. Though she continues to work without a salary, she said donations to Go! now cover its expenses, which she views as a "raise.”

"I have been given a raise because I don’t cover any expenses anymore and Go! Network has some money in the bank -- and we’re doing things we couldn’t do before,’’ she said.

The program continues its search for funding sources, and Chambers praised recent support from the Employee Community Fund of Boeing St. Louis, Bank of America, the Centene Corporation and the Regional Business Council.

"Donations picked up in the last quarter of the year,” said Chambers who is the program’s most ardent supporter because, she insists, "We are on to something here.”

Chambers said that about 60 people now attend the Tuesday morning speaker series, including a growing number of younger jobseekers. Go! originally focused on 50-something white-collar workers, but is now working to also meet the needs of young professionals.

"And we have had people who took the day off from work to attend a session on resume-writing,’’ she said. “I suspect that is the future. The level of burnout in corporate America is pretty extreme right now.’’

Chambers believes that Go! is a unique resource for business professionals navigating the changing business world.

"People are getting jobs,’’ she said. “I hate to go on the record saying that the economy is improving, but there are jobs. It’s just hard to find them, and hopefully our curriculum around how to find them and how to make the network connections to find them is helping. That’s part of what we’re hoping to do.’’

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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