Severson: ‘We fail to recognize biases of our town’

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Minnesota native Jon Severson came to Colorado Springs in 2002. Like many single, young professionals, he wanted to meet people. But rather than join existing networking groups, he founded one, Colorado Springs Young Professionals. Since 2003, CSYP has grown from a few dozen casual acquaintances who met once a month at a variety of downtown bars to more than 8,000 members in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Severson recently spoke to the Business Journal about his company, and about the difficulties of attracting young professionals to Colorado Springs.

Had it been your experience that young professionals in Colorado Springs were isolated?

I came to Colorado Springs in 2002 and went to work for a mortgage company. I wanted to meet the same level of people that I went to college with — people who are now VPs of banks in Switzerland, doing cool things with green industry in Seattle, that kind of thing — and I just wasn’t finding that in the people that I worked with. So I started CSYP in 2003.

After seven years, where are you now?

We’ve grown steadily. I never imagined that it would ever become my full-time job. … But as we had more success, I decided to make it my full-time occupation. So now I’m the CEO, the head janitor, and everything in between.

How many members do you have?

We have 2,400 in Colorado Springs, 4,600 in Denver and 300 in Pueblo. Our members are in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.

How do you make money?

We have sponsors, and we have events that we charge for. We have more events in Denver than in Colorado Springs, because it’s a much larger market. For example, we just co-sponsored an event with Colorado Biz magazine honoring the top 25 young professionals in Colorado. Nearly 500 people attended.

There’s a lot of concern about out-migration of YPs from the city. Have you experienced that?

Yes. I know a lot of people who have left town because they feel that there’s not that next-level opportunity here. It seems that we’re going after call centers here that pay $15 an hour. Our members don’t want to make $15 an hour — they probably made that in college. They look around, and they don’t see that next step opportunity except up north in Denver, where there’s lots of it.

What should we do differently?

I think we fail to recognize the biases of our town. When I talk to friends in Chicago, or in San Diego, we have a certain national image. We’re seen as ultra-conservative and ultra-religious. I’ve actually had people ask me whether I’ve joined a cult in Colorado Springs. I try to explain to them that those folks are just one of many interesting groups in Colorado Springs, that we’re not just big churches and right- wingers. But the fact is that we’re making the national news for negatives, like turning off streetlights and Focus claiming that teletubbies are turning kids into homosexuals. Even conservative young professionals don’t want to live in that environment.

Audio excerpt of the interview with Jon Severson.