‘Karen’s Parties’ encourage young professionals to sink roots in St. Louis

Yoni Blumberg (right) schmoozes with other guests at a Meet New People Party earlier this year. The parties, organized by Karen Kalish, offer young professionals a chance to network. Photos: Bill Motchan

BY BILL MOTCHAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Many young professionals in St. Louis covet an invitation to what’s become known as Karen’s Party.

Officially, the gatherings are called Meet New People Parties, but the popular extreme networkingdinner parties are closely associated with Karen Kalish. That’s understandable, because Kalish came up with the idea and carefully orchestrates the events.

While networking events are common, Kalish’s Meet New People concept is not. There is no cost to attend, though there are a few rules: you must between the ages of 23 and 35, a college graduate and live in the St. Louis area. And there is one more.

“To make sure it’s fun for everyone and to ensure everyone meets lots of new folks, you can talk only to people you don’t know,” Kalish, 73, explains in the invitation. “St. Louis needs more courageous, curious young people who will go into a home or neighborhood they’ve never been to and talk to folks they’ve never met.”

ADVERTISEMENT
MERS Goodwill ad


Kalish’s motivation for developing Meet New People Parties is to keep these bright, creative young people in St. Louis. Perhaps best known as founder of Cultural Leadership St. Louis, which brings African American and Jewish high school students together for a year-long, social justice program, Kalish, who is Jewish, is all about helping to develop future leaders. Her hope is that they will plant roots here and be part of the community fabric. 

The master list of names Kalish has compiled is now well over 1,200, and typically 75 to 100 people come to each party.That may sound like an unwieldy crowd for a dinner party, but it works because Kalish engages hosts who believe in the effort. Earlier this year, hosts Tom and Suzanne Hough, executives at Carrollton Bank, welcomed a diverse group of young professionals to their home. It was the Houghs’ third time hosting. 

“We’ve met so many interesting and contributive young people at these Meet New People Parties,” said Suzanne Hough. “We’re pleased to provide a place for them to make new friends and contacts.”

Guests at the Hough’s dinner party consisted of a 50-50 split of women and men. There was a strong representation of African American, Asian, Hispanic and multi-ethnic young people, all of whom worked their way around to meet as many new people as possible. 

About 15 Jewish guests were in the crowd.

Carly Krainen, 25, grew up in West Bloomfield, Mich., and graduated in 2015 from Michigan State University. She moved to Austin, Texas, for a job with Dell. Last year, she left the Texas capital, the fastest-growing city in the country, and relocated to St. Louis. This area is similar to her hometown, which also has a geographically concentrated Jewish community. The recent dinner party at the Houghs was Krainen’s first Meet New People experience. 

“I met over 50 young adults that I never would have met if it weren’t for the party,” Krainen said. “I met neighbors I didn’t know I had, people who belong to my gym, and potential friends. There were people from all over the world. It was fascinating to meet people from other states, countries and universities, and some with majors I’ve never heard of.”

Another Jewish newcomer to St. Louis at the Hough’s dinner was Dan Applebaum, 28. He met Krainen shortly after arriving at the party. They had a couple of things in common: They didn’t know anyone else at the dinner, and they were both still getting acclimated to their new homes. 

Applebaum has lived here for less than a year. He grew up in Cincinnati and graduated from The Ohio State University with an electrical engineering degree. Asked what brought him to St. Louis, he laughed.

“I heard there was a big aerospace company here,” he said. “In addition to working at Boeing, I’m a certified flight instructor. So I’m pretty busy with my hobbies and teaching flying, but I also want to meet new people, so this is a great opportunity to do that.”

Yoni Blumberg, also 28, has been living here all of nine months. He grew up in Boston, moved to Maine when he was 14, and after four years there, he went to college in Minnesota. He spent the next sev

eral years in southern California. He is participating in the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs.

“This was my first Meet New People Party,” Blumberg said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to get to know new people who are around my age in the area. I met several interesting people. I think the parties are a great way for people to make new friends, learn more about different types of work people are doing and potentially learn new things about St. Louis.”

Helen Rodgers, 26, grew up in St. Louis. She left the area but moved back after graduating college in California four years ago to be a Coro Fellow.

“It was hard to move back home when most of my friends didn’t, and the Meet New People Parties really helped with that,” she said. “I have been attending these parties for years, and I love them. I really enjoy meeting other people my age who are following their passions and starting their own businesses. Seeing the amazing things that other people have done and their successes inspires me to pursue my passion, too. I have made a lot of connections here, and I love seeing them at each party. On top of that, the houses are always beautiful and the food is great.”

The hosts are responsible for food and drinks, which can be a significant investment to feed 100 hungry millennials. For that reason alone, Kalish insists that guests thank the hosts for their hospitality before leaving. Failure to do so is one of the ways you can get kicked off the list.

“One no-no is not talking to a variety of people,” Kalish said. “If I see someone talking to the same person for a long time, I’ll say ‘Break it up, guys. You’re here to meet lots of new people.’ If I catch them a second time, they’re off the list. If they fail to thank the hosts, they’re off the list. The hosts are very generous with their time and home, so it’s common courtesy to thank them.

“And if you R.S.V.P. that you’re coming and don’t show up, I follow up. I know who they are because I am handing out name tags at the door. So if you don’t come, I’ll send a note asking ‘Are you OK?’ If you had a bad accident and were in the emergency room, that’s a good excuse. If you just weren’t feeling up to going out or something else came up or you fell asleep, then you’re off the list.” 

That doesn’t occur very often because just gettingon the list is a big deal for young professionals. Walking through the Hough’s home, there was a cacophony of noise and dozens of simultaneous conversations. It was rare to see anyone using their smartphone,a conversation killer that likely would have elicited a frown from Kalish.

The rules Kalish established for Meet New People work well because all the guests enter with an appetite for both food and conversation and meeting new people.

“It’s a powerful event,” said Amanda Harris, 25. “I always leave inspired to engage more deeply in St. Louis. I’ve learned about community service projects, local politics and advocacy work. It’s great to not only hear about tangible ways to engage in the community, but also to meet people who can join you. I think this is helpful for people who have been in St. Louis for six years like me or six days.”

Harris is another participant who didn’t grow up in St. Louis. She graduated from Washington University, then stuck around to work at the St. Louis Regional Health Commission. 

“This was probably my fifth Meet New People Party,” Harris said. “I’m always impressed by how many interesting, passionate young adults I meet. Karen is able to find the most community-involved, curious people and put them all in a room. I also find it funny how connected we all are. I met someone who used to work in the same microbiology lab that I worked in during my undergraduate years. And I met someone else who is involved in public health community service, related to what I do. We exchanged contact info, and I hope I can be helpful to her community service project.”

While some young professionals might consider St. Louis a sleepy burg, others see it as a great opportunity to grow and develop. For Jewish millennials, the close-knit local Jewish community is a bonus. Elliott Kleiman, 27, grew up in St. Louis, then left for Los Angeles. He graduated from USC and moved back here when he started his real estate investment business, Mero Properties.

“I’ve been back for six years,” said Kleiman, a Meet New People regular. “L.A. is the kind of market where I could never have created this business, but St. Louis was ripe for it at the time. Business is good, I’m enjoying it a lot, and there’s a lot of opportunity here. I’ve also been the youth advisor for USY at B’nai Amoona and I’m involved with the Jewish Federation. I don’t see myself leaving the area.”

When Kleiman arrived at the Hough’s home on this evening, Kalish greeted him with a warm hug. She hopes more young professionals like Kleiman choose to make the St. Louis community their permanent home. Her Meet New People Parties are certainly doing their part. 

Kalish is already planning her next dinner parties for early May and mid-June. She’s always on the lookout for future hosts. Doing so has rewards, according to Suzanne Hough.

“I encourage others to host a Meet New People Party,” Hough said. “They’ll be contributing to a unique program that brings people together in this community, something we all think we need more of. They’ll also see that there are many sincere, dedicated, and earnest young people who want the opportunity to make their mark in St. Louis. It’s meaningful to help that process along.”