Eric Mills had to give up the fun of his college years when he graduated last year from Winona State University. But he wasn't ready to put on a tie and become a businessman, either.

He joined the Young Professionals, which combined the best of both worlds.

The group, organized by the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, helps young professionals connect and network, and it gives a voice to the younger members of Winona's business community. The group's members meet once a month for socials and say the organization has helped them meet a lot of new friends.

"I am the definition of a Young Professional," Mills said.

The 23-year-old is the workforce training and continuing education coordinator for Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical. He's also chairman of the Young Professionals. He joined the group last summer, shortly after it formed, looking to make business connections.

The chamber started the group for people like Mills, said Genny Yang, the committee secretary for the chamber. It has grown to more than 70 members.

On Thursday at Jefferson Pub and Grill, about 15 of them gathered for a social. Many came straight from work, though most of the conversation wasn't about business.

"Probably 80 percent of my friends are from Young Professionals," said Stacy Brueggen, a 29-year-old who works at Merchants Investment Services. She joined the group the day she got the job.

Several new members made their first appearances Thursday, including Melissa Schmid, a graduate student at St. Mary's University studying business.

She made the rounds, meeting others who, she soon found out, were a lot like her.

"We're all young professionals trying to find ourselves in this world," she said.

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