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The Value of AFE’s Young Professionals Council

The Value of AFE’s Young Professionals Council

Professional Development, Networking, and Growth

One of the best ways to ensure a brighter future for our industry is investing in the next generation of young professionals. Every which way you turn, you’ll find exceedingly bright minds and eager youth, ready to take on the next challenge. Facilitating their career development and a path for success is at the forefront of the American Floral Endowment’s priorities. Enter our Young Professionals Council (YPC) – an interactive group of like-minded industry members between 21 and 35 looking to advance their careers, gain leadership skills, and advance the floral industry together.

Since 2015, the YPC has offered networking, volunteer, and educational opportunities through events, webinars, meetings, and more to help drive successful careers within the industry and support AFE’s mission. Not only do members get to build their network through these events and unique connections, but they gain spectacular career insight through collaboration with AFE, industry members, and other young professionals. After the Council, YPC members go on to take great strides in floriculture and horticulture, equipped with the tools to foster an impactful career.

Over the past two years, and during the Pandemic, YPC served an even greater purpose by continuing its efforts and dedication through the COVID-19 Pandemic. In 2021, not only did the YPC stay engaged in supporting each other, but it grew. Having a network of peers for young professionals is vital to ensure the next generation of industry leaders. AFE will continue to build this network, provide leadership opportunities, and connect young professionals to industry leaders to support future growth. 

We sat down with four YPC members get to know them and to ask their perspectives on the value of the YPC. From all accounts, it’s exciting to see the passion and thirst for knowledge from these individuals as they strive to get involved and give back.

Jon Mahoney, Ph.D.
Ball Horticultural Company
New Member

The way Jon Mahoney sees it, it’s an exciting time to be a young professional in the floral industry. With the floral’s growth and increase in consumer interest over the past several years, the opportunities are abundant. “As a young professional, we have the fortunate opportunity to bring a lot of momentum to this industry right now,” he says. When times change and new challenges arise, so do new solutions and pathways forward. It’s a privilege for Jon, and young professionals alike, to witness. “We are at a stage in research and development to start creating breakthrough products for the floriculture industry, and I’m excited as a young scientist to be involved.”

Now a Cell Biology Scientist for Ball Horticultural, Jon began his floral journey in high school, working at a local greenhouse and florist in Des Moines, IA. He went on to get his Bachelors in Horticulture at Iowa State University and a Doctorate in Plant Breeding at the University of Connecticut. Recognized for his outstanding passion, a colleague at Ball Hort suggested Jon join AFE’s Young Professionals Council this year, and the rest is history.

Jon is excited to be a part of the YPC and foster his growth to reach goals of developing new technologies and leading future industry members. “This is a great opportunity for me to build my network and become involved with the floriculture industry. More importantly, I believe this is a steppingstone to start giving back to the industry and inspire the next generation of floriculture leaders,” says Jon.

Even as a new member, he has already begun to reap the benefits of YPC membership through these network connections, as he says it’s “very helpful in building a sense of community among young professionals.”

During his membership, Jon looks forward to YPC’s professional development opportunities in science communication, team management, and leadership skills. “As a young scientist fresh out of graduate school, I’m always interested in improving my management and leadership skills,” he notes. This is a common response from our YPC and one they often have opportunities to address. Through our research, webinars, and other ongoing projects, YPC members are invited to take on leadership roles and help the AFE team spread information to the industry – an opportunity one such new member named Michael has begun to take advantage of.

Michael Wijesinghe
Bell Nursery
New Member

Michael Wisjesinghe joined the YPC in 2021 and was heavily involved from the get-go. He was instrumental in helping to digest data collected from the industry and academia for two career-focused surveys which give advice to young professionals looking to enter the field. Not only was Michael involved in the development of the executive summaries of this data, but he also moderated the webinar which presented the results of the surveys along with other career advice from industry experts to his YPC peers. “I accessed great advice from a range of industry professionals by reviewing the career surveys,” he said of the experience.

Michael is now a Grower for Bell Nursery in Ohio who formed his love for floriculture early on, working at a family nursery when he was 14. “I fell in love with the art of horticulture and the joy ornamentals brought to customers,” he said.

With a keen interest in addressing food inaccessibility in communities, Michael took to the YPC to help expand his opportunities. He one day intends to operate his own Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) project to help bring fresh produce directly to inner-city communities. “Until then, I am working to improve my skills through the YPC, my full-time role as a grower, and general knowledge of the industry as a part-time consultant for similar CEA projects,” said Michael.

Like Jon, Michael is also excited to be a young professional in the floral industry today, noting “there seems to be a new generation of professionals eager to make a difference.” He recognizes the drive in his peers and feels welcomed by industry experts. “As an undergraduate, I wish I had more confidence and understanding about the industry before graduating. I hope that as a YPC member, I can help provide that to those who may be considering a job in horticulture.”

Looking to the future is a must for the industry, and uplifting young professionals through the YPC is an essential part of fostering the next generation.

Leynar Leyton, Ph.D.
Graduate, University of Georgia
YPC Member Since 2016

Among these inspired, young, professional plant people is long-time YPC member Leynar Leyton. Since 2016, Leynar has seen the ins and outs of AFE’s Young Professionals Council and not only continues to support our organization but remains heavily involved in events and opportunities.

Originally from Santiago, Chile, Leynar’s childhood connection to horticulture was his backyard. With produce from the kitchen in hand, he planted them to see what flowered. These experiments sparked his interest in the field. In college, Leynar knew that working with ornamentals was his calling.

Now with a Ph.D. in Plant Breeding, Genomics, and Genetics from the University of Georgia, Leynar says he cannot think of a better time to begin his career. With the experience and network connections the YPC has provided him over the years, he’s ready to contribute to the industry in significant ways. “The YPC helped me to find my people and create relationships that evolved into friendships with so many industry members, faculty, and graduate students. Having this network of floriculture friends with whom you can discuss your research, future careers path, and what is happening in the industry has been very valuable,” he said. Leynar also praised other opportunities he’s been offered through the YPC, like travel funding to present his Ph.D. research, conferences, networking dinners, developing a career brochure, and most recently, moderating several AFE Grow Pro Webinar sessions. “The YPC has done a great job in offering different professional opportunities,” said Leynar.

Erin Pfarr
Graduate Student, Rutgers University
YPC Member Since 2018

Similarly, YPC member Erin Pfarr is particularly interested in YPC’s professional opportunities. Since beginning her Ph.D. in Plant Biology at Rutgers University, she had looked for a way to be more involved in the industry – the YPC was the perfect way to do it.

Erinn developed a passion for the floral industry while growing up on a farm in Minnesota. She went on to get her degree in Horticulture with an emphasis on Plant Breeding and Genetics from the University of Minnesota. “I am always working to improve my skills and learn more about the industry so that I can make significant contributions to it as a researcher and plant breeder,” says Erin. And so she has, bringing her passion and experience to the Young Professionals Council.

Throughout her membership, Erin has taken advantage of the experience and enjoyed it. “The most valuable aspect of the YPC for me has been the sense of community and the chance to connect with my peers. I have attended several YPC networking dinners at horticultural conferences like the American Society for Horticultural Scienceand Cultivate. It was especially valuable to connect with people in person this summer after a year of impersonal zoom meetings and conferences,” she noted. Read more about the ASHS Dinner and the Cultivate Meetup on our website. Erin exemplifies the many doors that open when you connect with an organization like the YPC. Taking advantage of these opportunities as a young professional is crucial and proves to pay off.

There’s no doubt Erin will move on to do great things within the industry, like her YPC peers. She aspires to become an ornamental plant breeder or a breeder-supporting researcher that works with genetics or bioinformatics.

Until then, she plans to continue her studies and give back to AFE and the industry through the YPC and helping to review scholarship applications. She sings high praises of AFE, noting, “The breadth of AFE’s programs to support the floriculture industry is impressive – from funding research, scholarships, internships, and educational grants to partnering with the National Floriculture Forum and launching a career board. They do a great job of connecting industry and academia as well as helping students succeed and find careers in the industry.”

We are grateful for the enthusiasm and involvement of all of our YPC members including Jon, Michael, Leynar, Erin, and more. Without young industry professionals pursuing their passion, the industry’s future would be in question. AFE works hard to provide continuous resources and learning opportunities for our industry’s young professionals in and out of the Council. The floral industry is constantly changing, and it’s imperative to not only keep future generations informed but provide them with the tools for success. The YPC offers this and more, ensuring a supportive and enriching experience. The future of floral lies in the hands of the generations after us, and from the looks of our members, we’ll be in good hands.

“I think the need for horticulture is as important as ever in today’s world. Helping to support a community of current and future professionals in the industry will only make it more floriferous.” – Michael Wijesinghe

YPC Logo

YPC membership is free and offers opportunities for leadership, professional growth, networking, and more. For more information and to join, visit endowment.org/ypc and fill out the YPC Membership Form.

By Shanley King, AFE’s Communications Coordinator