A program offered by the Greater Des Moines Partnership is giving the young professionals of today the skills they need to step into the leadership roles of tomorrow.


Attracting and retaining top talent has been an ongoing challenge for Central Iowa employers and economic development professionals, and the Partnership’s Fellowship Program is designed to retain top talent that is already here through networking, professional training and community engagement.


Companies throughout Central Iowa participate in the two-year program, selecting young professionals who have up to two years’ experience working in their organization. The young professionals receive mentoring from executives across the region, have access to community engagement opportunities and get a customized professional development curriculum. They also work on a capstone project with a local nonprofit organization.


The most recent class was the second cohort of the Fellowship Program. They began in August 2020, and 21 graduated in June. The first cohort began in August 2018 and graduated in June 2020. 


The Business Record spoke with three members of the most recent cohort about their experience in the program, what they learned about themselves and what their goals are for the future.


We spoke with Mark Marrano, a consultant and software engineer with Nationwide, Gina Wrede, a technology office analyst with Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Brandon Rollefson, an actuarial technician with F&G Life.


Here is what we learned:


Mark Marrano, 25, an Iowa State University alumnus who has a degree in software engineering

What is your key takeaway from your participation in the Fellowship Program?

We were able to engage in classes that would have otherwise been available to only the leaders of our companies. I was always finding myself to be lucky to just be in the room. Through the training I was given and the guidance we had and the experiences we had, I’m more confident I can participate in my community and make a difference.

What part of the program did you find to be the most rewarding?

I participated in a nonprofit project with Central Iowa Shelter and Services, helping to develop their agrihood plan. Helping them and getting to know what that initiative was and their plans to help the community, to be a part of that was definitely the most rewarding to me.

What class do you feel you benefited from the most?

As a team lead software engineer, I have engineers from different ethnicities, developers offshore in India, and I’ve always struggled to connect with those engineers, and the Tero classes that focused on growing that connection in the workplace helped tremendously. It talked about how to grow those relationships and realize those cultural differences in the workplace and it’s helped me build a more connected team knowing how to appreciate and recognize the culture of other professionals. Learning to appreciate the impact of culture in my workplace, and how I can bring diverse people from different cultures together to solve the problems we face.

What are your goals?

A goal of mine would be to move into that executive leader, strategist role and use the skills I have today to jump-start that move. A personal goal would be to use the skills gained through the courses and my involvement in the nonprofit project to increase my engagement in the community. I feel like doors have opened through my participation in the program and the skills I received to go out and make an impact not only in my career, but in my community.

What advice would you give to other young professionals?

Pay attention to everything that’s going on around them. The fellowship helped open my eyes to what is happening, whether it is community events or what the community needs.

What is your hope for the future of Des Moines?

Des Moines has been doing a fantastic job of growing, in people, diversity and culture, and it’s incredibly important to retain that and continue building on that.

Gina Wrede 25, a Drake University alumna who has a degree in information systems and marketing, and has a master’s in business administration

What is your key takeaway from your participation in the Fellowship Program?

A major part of my experience was building those lasting connections with the people I met. It was a great way to meet other people and get more engaged in the community. I got opportunities to hone my presentation skills, my professional presence skills, and identify  people’s underlying interests. That all leads to, as a leader, learning how to find people’s inner motivations.

What did you learn about yourself from the training?

We focused a lot on working with different personality types. So as an introvert, how could I work with other extroverts, how we can problem-solve together and learn how I work best, whether that be under pressure or signs I may exhibit when I’m under pressure. Learning how to work with different personality types was a big takeaway for me because I think it’s relatable for everyone no matter what their job is or what their career path is.

Was there a strength you discovered about yourself?

I love to teach people. I feel motivated and productive when I have the opportunity to teach someone something that I am passionate about. I really didn’t know that before, but when I was given the opportunity to do that, I really found passion for that. So taking that back into my work environment, if I incorporate even a little of that into my day, I have a great day.

What weakness did you discover about yourself?

Taking a back seat and not interjecting my opinion at first even when it matters to me. I’m often a listener at first and then share my opinion, and that can mean that sometimes my opinion is missed because I’m not sharing it upfront with people. I realized if I am really passionate about something and I want my opinion to be heard, I need to have the confidence to step in and take action and not just ride in the back seat.

What nonprofit project did you work on?

I was part of the Eat Greater Des Moines project. We were tasked with improving community refrigerator setups. We helped create a plan for people who want to set up new community refrigerators, some tips on how to do that. It was really interesting to learn about and get us out there. It’s something I had never heard of, so I was excited to work on it. 

What are your goals?

I now feel more confident in my work and I’m hoping to further those leadership opportunities, whether that is personal leadership or leading others, I hope to improve those skills over time and hopefully be able to lead more people in the future.

What advice would you give to other young professionals?

Connect with other people and keep those relationships. Forming long-lasting relationships with others, whether that is in your company or in the community. Having that network of people to reach out to is really helpful.  

What is your hope for the future of Des Moines?

There’s so much to do here, whether that’s farmers markets, cultural events, art festivals, and I love the diversity of events you can go to and I hope that only continues to grow in the future and help attract and retain young people and talent.


Brandon Rollefson, 26, a University of Iowa alumnus with a degree in mathematics

What is a key takeaway for you from the Fellowship Program?

It was an excellent opportunity with all the networking and professional development, along with community service opportunities. They definitely kept us busy and it was just extremely rewarding.

Was there a part of the program that you feel you benefited from the most?

I think I benefited the most from the professional development courses. One particularly was about presentations and how to effectively lead a meeting and capture your audience. I found that to be so applicable every day in my career. It taught us how many little things we can polish up and collectively how much of a difference it truly makes.

What did you learn about yourself?

The course we took was regarding personality types. When we took the assessment it confirmed some of my tendencies and gave an explanation for it. I’m extremely organized, regimented and things like that, and it helped me give clarity to different personality types and how I can adjust my personality type and habits to better interact with others.

Was there a strength about yourself you discovered?

I think being an effective communicator. A lot of things I discovered, beginning with my personality assessment, and being able to clearly communicate my point and stay organized, stay on top of things and hold people accountable, things like that actually led me to make a career switch toward the end of the program. All those things played perfectly into my new role. [Rollefson previously worked at Farm Bureau Financial before moving to F&G.]

Did you discover weaknesses about yourself?

I would say my public speaking and the confidence that came with it. I truly learned how much I had to polish up, and it was quite a bit. Day one when I came in it was horrible. I was so psyched out. They filmed us to critique our body language, things like eye contact or how I wasn’t effectively conveying information and it really showed me how much I needed to work on.

What are your goals?

Career-wise I’d like to eventually move into a management role. Personally I’d like to be able to give back more to the community. Through the service projects, it opened my eyes to how easy it is to make a difference in the community if you just lend a little time.

What service project did you participate in?

I was involved with the Global Greens program with Lutheran Services in Iowa. What we did was help them to try to overcome some hurdles, like securing more land in the Des Moines area so that farmers, who are mostly refugees, can have their own land to work and build equity, so that was extremely rewarding.

What advice would you give to other young professionals?

Just network, network and network. I’m finding that the networking component is super rewarding. Once you meet these people, a lot of these techniques and tips and stuff can be transferred from one individual to others to just spread that wealth of knowledge, which is just one of the values of networking.

What is your hope for the future of Des Moines?

To keep booming like it is right now and continue to grow. And keep putting a huge emphasis on diversity. And attracting and retaining young talent. Providing opportunities like this one will do wonders for the community to continue on the path that we’re on.