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Members of the D.C. Society of Young Professionals aren’t afraid of the Y-word.
“Listen, I’ve just reached Poupon,” my friend T.’s voice crackles over the cell as he approaches Patisserie Poupon, his favorite Georgetown hangout. “I’ll have to call you back,” he says. “I don’t want to talk inside. I don’t want to look like a total yuppie.”
It’s a common enough concern among persons of a certain class.
Most people, after all, do not want to be considered yuppies. Even if they are young. Even if they are professionals. Even if they enjoy all the trappings a meritocratic, materialistic society can offer. The derisive term signifies thoughtlessness, ostentation, and an offensively earnest commitment to careerism. Talking on cell phones in restaurants, driving gas-guzzling SUVs, buying condos in emerging affluent neighborhoods—they’re the sorts of things you’d like to think most people would have the good grace to do self-consciously, if at all. My friend still has a cell phone—he just hides it every now and then.
Good move. Ever since the first corporate raider began to gentrify a neighborhood, communities have been fighting back. San Francisco hatched the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project (one arson suspect so far), the Web spawned YupiSlyr.com (formerly YuppieSlayer.com), and New York gave us the persistent slogan “Die Yuppie Scum,” to be found wherever low-income ethnics and—more often—boho pioneers are pitted against insurgent lawyers and stockbrokers.
Now, Washington, ever the cultural outlier, has headed down a path all its own. It’s given rise to the D.C. Society of Young Professionals, an organization committed to forging community from the shared pursuit of individual self-advancement. Or, at the very least, building a mammoth list—13,000 names, according to society leaders—of locals unafraid to network, unafraid to card-swap, and especially unafraid to be called yuppies.
A pair of lawyers named Gregory Bland and Michael J. Karlan lead the yuppieklatsch in the name of helping the region’s young and affluent meet, network, and get dates. For them, “young professional” is not a slur, but a proudly proclaimed personal identity.
“We are young professionals, and we like to associate with other young professionals,” says 32-year-old Karlan, explaining the origins of the group’s name. “It sort of clicked.” He never quite explains what makes someone a “professional,” but it’s pretty clear that hairdressers and housepainters aren’t included.
“It was just something that sort of came about,” adds the 29-year-old Bland, who ran the now-defunct Decades Night Club before joining up with Karlan nine months ago to launch the society. “It sort of connotes the people who are really ambitious. Right now, they’re young professionals. But they want to be older professionals. They want to run the law firm. They want to be the member of Congress. They want to run the hospital. But, rather than going to clubs or hanging out in meat markets with 18-year-olds, they want to hang out with their own kind.”
And they want to do so, according to the society’s Web site, in the “most original and classiest” environment. So the society gives them what they crave: waltzes at embassies, outdoor excursions, charity balls, and tax seminars. I catch up with Karlan and Bland at a tax seminar in the Georgian Room of the Phoenix Hotel near the Capitol. On the way in, a woman with perfect blow-dried hair is discussing with a man in jeans the first-ever bi-partisan happy hour convened to discuss social security policy. All eyes swivel toward the elevator each time it opens.
Karlan and Bland are busy setting up the room. They’ve had 80 RSVPs and want to make sure their first educational seminar goes off without a hitch. Karlan’s background is in tax law: He worked for the Internal Revenue Service and clerked with the U.S. Tax Court before joining Covington & Burling for three years. Today, he runs his own small firm. Bland has his own small firm as well, where he specializes in small-business organization.
Appropriately, the pair are dressed like a couple of tax lawyers. Bland is wearing a shiny gray suit and red tie; Karlan a charcoal-gray one and red tie. Karlan’s hair is starting to gray. It’s not hard to picture him talking on his cell phone at a patisserie.
Rich Defiore of Rational Software says he’s here tonight because he knows Karlan socially and identifies as a young professional. “I just want to make sure I’m not losing money on taxes through lack of knowledge,” he explains. This isn’t a group for people with vocations and callings, he adds. It’s for professionals. Oh.
Blond, dark-suited Cynthia Hughes of Northern Virginia has come “because it sounded like an interesting topic to me, and it’s a good way to meet people.” She works for a retail developer—”We build malls”—and is looking into purchasing her first home.
Her equally blond friend, Lisa Brown, another NoVa resident, was drawn by Bland’s name. “Greg is pretty prominent in the community,” she says. But it’s not a community defined in any of the traditional ways, she notes—not religion nor occupation nor ethnicity nor interests. Rather, it is a community defined by an approach to work and by income level. It is, she says, “the community of young professionals.”
In a city full of specific associations for specific groups, it is unusual. The society exists to provide an alternative to socializing with people from work and an opportunity for newly minted ambitious young things to meet people from other arenas who might help them advance their careers. Perhaps it was a niche market only two lawyers could fully appreciate.
“I moved here from New York City seven years ago and hung out mainly with people from work,” says Karlan. “That was very unappealing.”
“As a lawyer, there’s only so much you can talk about with other lawyers,” explains Bland. “And only so much they can help you with 20 years from now.”
“People come to Washington to build their careers and not to build cultural life,” adds Karlan. “If you don’t know anyone in D.C., you come to these things, and you get to know people. It’s like a small town within a larger city.”
And within that small town, it is, apparently, much easier to get a date. Karlan and Bland boast of the group’s nine engagements so far.
I leave the crowd to its talk of Roth IRAs, Keoghs, and strategies for bunching deductions. Outside the room, a hefty fellow with sandy hair is manning a desk with sign-in sheets. I introduce myself as a reporter, and he immediately tells me he doesn’t want his name in the paper. Then he invites me to join his group, JOSH—the Jewish Organization of Staffers on the Hill. But I don’t work on the Hill, I insist. That’s OK, he says: “We like pretty Jewish girls.”
Though the D.C. Society of Young Professionals is thoroughly nondenominational as a group, its existence is enabled by an array of smaller Jewish professional organizations, like JOSH, throughout the city. They hold their own events and encourage members to attend the Society of Young Professionals’. The society, in turn, holds specific events that cater especially to Jews, like a Hanukkah party and the Dec. 24 Falafel Ball at Cities in Adams Morgan.
Karlan says the group purposely shied away from using the word “single” in its name. But the reality is that the society’s evening events are a singles scene masquerading as a networking opportunity. It’s an odd but apparently popular combination. And it’s uniquely suited to a city where people routinely exchange business cards as a way of asking for a date. “Unfortunately, a lot of people in D.C. are married to their jobs,” says Bland. “People who spend 60, 70 hours a week at their desks; they never meet people. We provide an avenue for them to meet people.” CP