Local group provides life-changing opportunities for region’s young professionals and YOU can join

Published 12:38 am Wednesday, August 3, 2022

At 34, Sharita Gardner is undoubtedly a leader. The public affairs and communications manager for the Port of Port Arthur is immersed in at least 10 local organizations.

The 2017 40 Under 40 honoree serves with the Lamar University Alumni Board, Southeast Texas Young Professionals Organization, the Rotary Club of Port Arthur, the Press Club of Southeast Texas, the Junior League of Beaumont, Samaritan Counseling Centers of Southeast Texas, the Beaumont Convention and Tourism Advisory Board and Localist Program and Young Emerging Leaders.

And it’s through the latter that the former business development representative for Mobiloil Credit Union found her current career.

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“I got my job at the Port through Young Emerging Leaders,” Gardner said.

“I took a port tour two years ago with Young Emerging Leaders while I was with Mobil and that is how I met (Port of Port Arthur CEO) Larry Kelly. After that, they decided to create this position. And after our encounter, he remembered me and asked if I was interested and I applied. That’s exactly how I got this opportunity.”

Sharita Gardner, right, is pictured with local students during Camp Seaport. The summer camp at the Port of Port Arthur serves students between eighth and 12th grades and introduces them to the maritime industry. (Photo courtesy of Sharita Gardner)

Young Emerging Leaders, led by the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce, was designed in 2019 to bring business professionals from 21-40 together for networking, development and opportunities.

“(YEL) was one of the first things I finished when I got here,” said Chamber CEO Pat Avery. “Initially it was led by Ron Fletcher of Entergy and Art Thomas of Texas Gas Service. They were passionate about the program to get young leaders for things like serving on the Board of Directors and learn more about the region.”

And it’s a passion Avery shares.

“When I was young like them and moved to this area, it took years to figure out all the connections of the industry — from pipeline and waterway, and the relationship between petrochemicals and refining,” Avery said. “You don’t want to start that process when you’re already in it; you want to know about it.”

Gardner said YEL membership has grown 20 percent in the last year.

“YEL basically creates a space for young professionals in (South and Mid County) to provide resources for business and professional development,” she said. “And that is through networking events, speakers, us taking tours at places like Cheniere and the Port and the industrial companies that have allowed us to do so. We want to retain young professionals in Southeast Texas after they graduate from institutions like Lamar University and Lamar State College Port Arthur.”

Avery said that might be even more obtainable in the future as several companies have offered to help sponsor member’s $25 annual fee to make the group more accessible to young business professionals in Southeast Texas, particularly those close to completing courses at Lamar State College Port Arthur.

But, Avery added, the group isn’t just for industry. They welcome those in all aspects of economic development.

“We have about 65 members and when it comes to age range, nationality and our working fields; it’s all diverse,” Gardner said, adding YEL hosts free monthly events with informative topics such as credit score management, mental health and wellness, and investment resources.

Job seekers, she said, have attended meetings to find employees.

“This is a tight-knit business community, so it is really important to get involved,” Gardner said. “When people are looking for new employees, looking for new board members and looking for people to serve; they’re looking at those types of organizations to pull those young professionals from.”

Avery referenced Gardner and the group’s previous chair, Cole Michalk, as examples of the group’s success.

“It provided an opportunity for Sharita,” she said. “Cole was the leader last year and now he works for the Speaker of the House. It really is changing their lives. The more people you meet, the more opportunities you have.”

Young Emerging Leaders meets on the third Wednesday of each month at 11:30 a.m. For more information, call 409-963-1107.