At a Leadership Sandy Springs event in February, a speaker delivered a familiar message: The millennial generation is important to Perimeter cities and businesses. Also familiar was the lack of many millennials in the audience of business and political leaders.

But this time, one of them spoke up — Samantha Marks, the marketing and social media manager for Sandy Springs Hospitality and Tourism. She expressed her generation’s desire to get involved in city leadership, “but I’m the only person in the room” from the age group, and said she objected to the term “millennial” and its stereotypes.

The speaker, Lee Fisher of Ohio-based CEOs for Cities, said Marks had a point.

Lee Fisher, head of CEOs for Cities, speaks about millennials at a February event hosted by Leadership Sandy Springs. (John Ruch)

“For too many years, cities have patronized young generations,” Fisher said, describing millennials as placed at the “kid’s table. It’s like Thanksgiving all over again.” The millennials don’t have the patience for that, he added.

“We’re in a time [where] we need to have millennials at your table, not at the kid’s table,” he said.

Perimeter-area business associations are working hard to bring millennials to the table. Some, like the Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber, still are trying to attract their first millennial board members. Others have been more successful, like the Buckhead Business Association, where 2018 board president-elect Chris Godfrey is a millennial.

But, experts say, millennial leadership in business organization is easier said than done. There are challenges on both sides of the equation, they say, as old-school business groups meet a generation that is used to individual impact and instant gratification.

It’s also a generation that seeks to be appreciated without being stereotyped — a tricky balance for an organization to pull off.

For those that do, says Godfrey, the millennial representation pays off.

“It matters a lot, absolutely, because we want to stay relevant,” he said of his Buckhead association.

Repping a generation

Like most generational labels, “millennial” is a term from marketing and demographics, with definitions that vary somewhat among those who measure such things.

Mark Kooyman, CEO at the Athens-based EXPERIENCE Discovery Group, a branding and marketing consultant to major corporations, defines the generation as those born in 1979 through 1994 — now ages 23 through 38.

More important than specific ages, Kooyman says, is that’s a big generation — about 76 million people — that is now hitting its peak of societal influence. About 98 percent of babies born this year are coming from millennial parents, he said, and millennials are likely the largest share of the workforce and possibly the largest taxpaying base.

“A firm or organization that doesn’t incorporate them today … has to think about aging out,” Kooyman said.

Perimeter business groups are acutely aware of that. The Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce is “very consciously” working to gain millennial board members, and now has a few, said board Chairman Jay Groundwater.

Chris Godfrey, the 2018 president-elect of the Buckhead Business Association. (Special)

A few years ago, the chamber conducted a demographic study of Brookhaven and found the city is about 30 percent millennials — “that really surprised us,” Groundwater said — and about 30 percent minority as well. And it was a concern for his board.

“Chambers tend to be older folks” and give an impression they’re “sort of an old, stodgy men’s organization, if you will,” Groundwater said. “So keeping that [demographic study] in mind, we’ve tried to create a chamber that’s a little more diverse than one might expect. Diversity, by age, by ethnic group, whatever, is important to the lifeblood of a chamber.”

The Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber’s top staff member, president and CEO Stephanie Snodgrass, is a millennial. But its board has yet to gain its first millennial member, she said.

“We are trying hard to fill that role … because we are a young city and we’re attracting the millennial types,” Snodgrass said. “If we’re representative of our businesses …we have to change.”

At a board retreat this year, she said, members talked about the rising importance of social media and the difficulty of getting younger people to come to traditional meetings. Some of the older members — “we use the word ‘seasoned,’’’ Snodgrass said with a laugh — have no first-hand understanding of social media functions such as Facebook analytics.

Most local chambers and other large business organizations have young professionals groups that can act as feeder systems for millennial leadership. The Buckhead Business Association goes an extra step, making the president of its “Young Bucks” group a board member of the overall group as well. That gave Godfrey his seat at the table that is now turning into the board presidency.

The local business group leaders say that drawing in younger business people has challenges. Groundwater said that traditional breakfast meetings don’t work so well for millennials. Godfrey, on the other hand, said that his generation is used to talking via social media, “but as much as everything’s digital … face-to-face networking … has its place.”

Myths and realities

As the target demographic du jour, local millennial business leaders say they like the attention, but not the stereotyping.

“Stereotyping us is unhealthy,” said Snodgrass, laughing while describing someone assuming she automatically knew how to use the Snapchat app. Chambers shouldn’t be stereotyped, either, she added.

Godfrey said that when his coworkers learned he would be talking about millennials, “they were like, ‘Oh, that word.’” He dislikes the “assumption we’re job-hopping or wanting to be in charge of everything immediately.”

Kooyman said there are certainly some false stereotypes — including that millennials are college-aged, when that’s actually a different generation.

But, he said, there are common behaviors and attitudes that hold true across racial, economic and even national lines, probably due to the unifying effect of social media and technology. Indeed, feeling they are immune to stereotyped behavior is itself one of their characteristics, he said with a mildly evil burst of marketing laughter.

The era of “helicopter parents and soccer moms” and smartphones gave millennials a culture of getting what they want on demand, he said.

“They have a demand for impact. They have a demand for change. And they believe they can get it,” he said.

That individualism can be tough for both sides when it comes to business organizations. “They basically don’t understand and haven’t dealt much with organized politics,” Kooyman said of millennials.

At the Sandy Springs event, Fisher said that “by and large, the millennial generation is one that doesn’t want to wait its turn.”

Kooyman has a different context, saying the millennials shouldn’t be viewed as impatient. It’s more about offering meaningful, locally impactful positions, not token slots.

“It’s not so much they want to be a leader, but they want to affect change and be part of the process,” he said. “They want some self-acknowledgement and reward for what they do.”

Or as Godfrey put it, his is “a generation that wants to give back and wants to have something behind what they’re doing.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.