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The Gathering offers opportunity for Black professionals to engage with businesses and each other

GBC Visuals
Attendees at a Gathering network and mingle with each other at an event hosted by GLMV architecture. The networking collaborative creates spaces for Black professionals to engage with businesses and like-minded contacts.

The effectiveness of business networking groups can vary from organization to organization. But one group focused on connecting Black professionals in Wichita is having success by using a different model.

A series of new networking events are shaking up things in Wichita.

Known as The Gathering, it offers a chance for Black professionals to network with each other and with the business community.

When you attend an event, you might be met with some unfamiliar faces. That’s actually by design.

"This is my first time, and I only recognize like two people," said Charity Davis Lowe, a recruiter for a private wealth management company.

Lowe attended a recent Gathering event at Mark Arts last month.

Camille Turnetine
Unicorn Lane Creative
John Rolfe checks in attendees for the seventh Gathering.

Before each event, the Gathering team curates a diverse guest list of Wichita newcomers and local business professionals. Here’s the catch: This will be the only invitation to the networking event that they receive.

If you’ve been invited once, you won’t be invited back for another standard Gathering.

However, previous attendees are welcome to attend what is called The Grand Gathering, a super-sized version of the networking event.

The purpose of The Gathering is to serve as a “welcome mat” for Black professionals to the business community and offer them a way to mingle with other like-minded contacts who might rarely find themselves in the same room together if not for the networking event.

“My CEO told me about the event,” said Shawn Knox, a director of consumer banking for Fidelity Bank.

“He said that he knew that I was new to town and he knew … of a gathering where like-minded people were, and he said that would probably be a great idea for you to meet people across the city.”

The concept for the event was conceived by Junetta Everett, Darryl Kelly and John Rolfe in 2020. Everett said they were all working on individual projects that kept overlapping with one another, and they were worried about exhausting mutual contacts.

"And after a while, those same wells were going to be depleted if we don't spread this out a little bit more," Everett said.

With an idea in place, a team was assembled with the task of organizing the events. As of last month, the group has put together seven Gatherings.

And even with all the new faces, Kelly said it doesn’t take long for people to start networking.

"When we get to the event and we see the smiles on folks' faces when we see the connection," Kelly said.

Here’s how each event works: It starts with a tour of a local business or institution. For last month’s event, for example, the group took a tour of Mark Arts and learned about all the services it offers.

Afterward, the team explains the idea behind The Gathering and then each person lines up and introduces themselves, where they work and where they’re from.

Networking and mingling is encouraged throughout the whole event.

"It's just really bringing people of color together to find out who's doing what," said Valarie Black, a community impact officer for the Kansas Health Foundation. "And in the position that I'm in, I'm always looking for resources and connections for the community organizations that I engage with."

Camille Turnetine
Unicorn Lane Creative
Darryl Kelly leads Junetta Everett and the group in a prayer before the event begins.

And that desire to connect is something that Rolfe, one of the originating members, said is at the core of The Gathering.

"People are looking for an opportunity to gather, to get to know each other and look for opportunities and how they can make Wichita a better place and even make their workplace a better place," he said.

There’s no shortage of groups eager to host The Gathering. Businesses have lined up to book the event all the way into 2024.

"It was refreshing to see 40 professionals that had never been here before, and they got to hear about our programming and how all are welcome here at Mark Arts," said Katy Dorrah, the CEO of Mark Arts. "And I think we've built some new connections, and hopefully maybe met a few new board members.”

Everett said seeing people who look like you on a board or in your office can be a powerful experience.

“We had one employer that … one of their employees literally was in tears and saying, ‘I've never seen this many of us in this building before.’ And that rung a bell with the employer," Everett said.

"And they told me, ‘We are so glad that she was here to make that comment.’ And it's really making them now look at things differently, even in their hiring.”

The audio portion of the story was voiced by KMUW news director Tom Shine.

A previous version of this story misspelled Shawn Knox's name.

Hugo Phan is a Digital News Reporter at KMUW, and founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. After years of being a loyal listener, he signed up to be a KMUW volunteer and joined the station's college student group before becoming a digital assistant in 2013.