Leading by Example

Kent County millennials work to make their community a better place.

Millennials have been called a lazy, narcissistic, materialistic, self-absorbed, Peter Pan generation. But the young leaders who are making their marks in Kent County apparently didn’t get the memo. These under-40s are bringing new ideas and new approaches to old problems, starting new businesses and building up old ones. Along the way they are trying to help the world, or at least their corner of it, with their philanthropy. 

Christina Lessard is a perfect example. At 29, she is comptroller of Lessard Builders in Camden, her family’s fourth-generation custom building company. She works side by side with the president, her father, on every aspect of the business. The company is doing well now, but when she joined in the early 2000s, it was in the midst of the national housing bust. It was a difficult time, but one great for learning. 

As the company downsized with the economy, “My job was to put a smile on my face and try to make a $100 bill out of a penny,” Lessard says. 

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Her father, Brian Lessard, says he admires her ability to lead, her forward thinking and her plans to help the company grow. She is also a risk taker, he says—but that wasn’t always a good thing. 

In her teens, she was banned from job sites after one of her risks ended in a major fall. “I didn’t listen,” Lessard says. It was a lesson in humility that helped her realize how much the younger generation has to learn from those before. Lessard helped found the Innovative Initiative with the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce to mentor the next generation of future leader. 

The Innovative Initiative was founded three years ago as a way for young professionals to network, support the community, build relationships and learn new skills. Members meet every month to work on various events and hear experts speak on such topics as time management, financial planning, and perception vs. reality, says Kristi Osborn, who heads the initiative.

The idea was to create an atmosphere for young professionals to hone the skills needed to transition into leadership. And they are. 

“We’re seeing more and more young people really stepping up,” says Osborn. 

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The initiative offers a way to learn in a non-intimidating atmosphere. Kent County runs on relationships, and those relationships are key to business and the community. Networking is something that doesn’t come naturally to her generation, Osborn says, so helping members of the initiative gain skills to establish and maintain relationships is a major goal. Osborn admits it was a skill she needed to learn. Now it’s her job to teach others.

Being involved and connected is important, says Kevin Mitten, 27, of Mitten and Winters Inc., the accounting firm his father founded in 1985. When not working at the firm, Mitten can be found helping the Master Networks chapter in Dover, a group he helped start. These business professionals get together on Fridays to discuss new ways they can collaborate to help their businesses and the community. 

“My mentor was my dad,” says Mitten, who still works with his father today. “He always told me, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ If you’re not out in the community, the community won’t know you.”

Kim Willson agrees. At 33, she is a partner in the Dover-based government relations and public affairs firm Ruggeri Willson & Associates. A self-described “super positive person, who was also named one of the 40 Under 40 business people of the year by Delaware Business Times, she sees people doing good works everywhere. 

“People are starting to collaborate more,” Willson says. She is a huge believer in people working together to learn from each other. She encourages members of her generation to be respectful and good listeners.

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“Our country is at a crossroads, a dangerous place,” she says. “The only way to get out of it is to work together, to put yourself aside and listen to each other.”

Willson keeps a quote on her phone that she refers to often: The world is changed by your actions, not your opinion. “That’s what my generation needs to pay attention to,” she says. 

For her and her friends, those actions include giving back to the community. Willson, with Lessard and three other friends—Erin Barrett of Outlook Events at the Duncan Center, Stephanie Preece, chief administrative officer for Del-One, and Catrina Sharp, director of communications for Lessard Builders—are Gals that Give, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money and awareness for service organizations in the community. They founded Gals because they knew there were people who wanted to help, but didn’t know where to start and didn’t have much time. 

“We’re all super busy and spread way too thin,” says Willson, a mother of three who understands how people her age are pulled in many directions at once. “I want my daughters to know this is what you grow up and do.”

Gals that Give is able to combine good works with a pretty good time to socialize. At a Gals get together, people show up, pay $25, have a meal and wine, maybe bid on items in an auction, listen to a presentation from that month’s chosen charity, and chat with old and new friends. The events wrap up in two hours so participants can get back home to their families and other responsibilities. 

“Our work is about building stronger communities and relationships, and we believe that women are an important leverage point in that work,” says Sharp, (though men are welcome to participate, too). “Gals that Gives’ mission is to cultivate local community nonprofit organizations by connecting them with a larger network so they can continue to make an impact where we live and breathe every day.”

Gals events average about 200 people. They have raised more than $170,000 in the three years since it started. Many nonprofits say having the time to talk to an interested crowd is just as important as the money raised. 

Creating opportunities was why Preece, 35, helped start Gals that Give, but also one of the reasons she recently changed jobs. For years she was a female face in a male dominated industry as the CFO of the industrial construction company, George and Lynch Inc. where she worked on corporate changes such as helping the office go paperless and working on legislation that affected the industry while also trying to protect the jobs. 

In her current role as chief administrative officer at Del-One, a federal credit union in Delaware, she works to create more opportunities for members and the community.

Kent County is perfect for building opportunity, Preece says. A native of Tennessee, she felt like everyone in Dover knew each other when she graduated from Wesley College in 2001. It took time to connect with the community. “Once you break in, everybody takes care of everybody,” she says.

That caring is what Chris Cooper, 38, sees every day. As development director for Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, he’s helped build the nonprofit’s presence in the community through social media and events that bring people together. He sees young leaders in the community bringing new ideas and energy to build sites and other Habitat events.

Cooper has heard all the negative criticisms about his generation, but he believes there are many positives as well. Self-confidence and creative self-expression are big ones. Millennials are known as early accepters that pull an older generation along. 

The craft beer movement is a great example, says Ryan Telle, 35, vice president of marketing/creative dude for Fordham and Dominion Brewing Company in Dover. While it was millennials who embraced and buoyed the craft beer movement, it was their enthusiasm that pulled in the older crowd.

Millennials have a different way of thinking and approaching situations, Telle says. Though members of his generation are often accused of being glued to their phones, for example, “More than half the time we’re trying to do something productive,” he says.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Lessard says of the number of young people she sees working their way to the forefront across the county.

“There are a good amount of young professionals in Kent County that you can hang out with. We’re making our generation that much better.”

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