This isn’t your grandpa’s social club: Meet the millennials connecting across Wisconsin

By Genevieve Redsten

Reposted from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 2, 2023 – In November, dozens of young professionals grabbed a bagged lunch, boarded a coach bus and set off for Lambeau Field.

Inside the stadium they were met by Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy, who shared closed-door wisdom and career advice. Everyone in the audience signed a non-disclosure agreement.

This is Forward 48, a new networking club for millennials in Wisconsin. At a time when young people are more isolated than ever, this group is trying to bring Wisconsin’s young professionals together.

After a tour of the stadium, Forward 48ers mingled over hors d’oeuvres. They talked about their home cities and Murphy’s speech. A group of alumni toasted with tequila shots.

“You get to meet educators, you get to meet engineers, entrepreneurs — people you wouldn’t meet at your day job,” said John Chidester, a commercial banker and Forward 48 alum who tagged along for the trip.

First gatherings held virtually

Like many pandemic-era creations, Forward 48 started virtually. The pilot cohort launched in spring 2020, when everyone was stuck at home. Now, just a couple years later, the group is together in person and having fun with it. They’re pedaling swan boats across Veterans Park. They’re sipping cocktails on the rooftop of Ascent tower.

Young people from across the state are flocking to these events. Forward 48’s spring cohort is accepting applicants from all over the state: Milwaukee, Green Bay, Appleton, Kenosha, Racine, and the Fox Valley. The program costs $3,000, and many participants are reimbursed by their companies.

Organizer Abston is a man about town

This is founder Ian Abston’s specialty. Since he moved to Milwaukee as a 20-something, he’s been a man about town. Abston is in the business of party-starting.

He helped lead the organization that raised around $5 million to light up the Hoan Bridge. He also leads a networking club, the Hoan Group, a low-profile organization that’s a who’s who for local movers and shakers. Abston also consults for the Milwaukee Athletic Club, which just spent $70 million on renovations and is courting younger members.

Young people aren’t joiners like they used to be, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Social clubs, churches, professional societies they’re all losing people, and their members are growing older.

Forward 48 doesn’t want to compete with legacy organizations like the Rotary Club. It wants to bring young people in. Every Forward 48 participant gets a Rotary membership for six months.

The group meets at various locations around the state such as Lambeau, 3rd Street Market Hall, and Lakeshore State Park.

And each event features a guest speaker, who can share career advice and cautionary tales with Forward 48’s budding professionals. In the fall, guest speakers included Murphy, Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske and Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin.

Experienced leaders offer guidance, connections

This is the best of the old and the new, said Forward 48 President Maurice Thomas. The younger generation doesn’t want to learn every lesson the hard way. Experienced leaders can offer guidance and connect the younger cohort with resources.

Forward 48 is working to cultivate a diverse slate of leaders. More than half the participants are women, and about a third are Black.

“We want to build a new region in our image, and that is an image that is diverse,” Thomas said.

Wisconsin’s next generation faces many challenges: a “brain drain” of the state’s educated young people, profound racial inequality. Thomas and Abston believe the solution starts with relationships. They want to find spaces where people can bring their ideas together. Before they can get to work, they need to get to know each other.

“What does it take to build relationships?” Abston said. “How many liters of beer, cups of coffee, have I put into my core group of 15 friends? A lot. And the older you get, the harder it is to do that.”

These connections are what will convince people to not only stay but to transform their communities.

“It would be hard for Ian to leave Milwaukee because he has an app on his phone that controls the lights on the Hoan Bridge,” Thomas said. “He’s made a mark.”

But young people are always getting older. Forward 48 is open to participants aged 25 through 40. Soon, that will include more members of Generation Z.

Abston, who is 39, recognizes that a new generation will soon be looking for ways to connect with each other and leave their mark. He wants to be there to show them the way forward, and teach some of what he learned along the way.

“The ideas that are going to attract the youth are going to come from the youth,” Abston said.