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These younger faces—some of which grew up here and some of which came in from other places—are making an impact on how Roanoke goes about its business and growth.
As Roanoke’s “retirement town” stigma fades and it emerges into what many see as an up-and- coming city of the South, there’s a new gang of professionals and business owners in town who are changing the face of what it looks like to live, work and grow in Roanoke. It’s a new generation. These young professionals are 20-, 30- and 40-somethings who are taking the reins of progress in the Star City and making it their own.
John Park, Financial Advisor and Networker, 36
John Park’s name (better known to most by his Twitter handle, @HungryAsianRke) has become synonymous with guerilla-style social events that annually attract hundreds of young professional Roanokers. Monday Funday was the original concept that started back in 2009 when Park, 36, decided to get a small group of friends together to hang out after work on Monday nights. Over time, it’s turned into Roanoke’s go-to networking and social gathering event. The group meets at a new restaurant or bar every first and third Monday of the month.
“We started with a few people just getting together and at its peak the event was bringing out more than 100 people,” he says. “We couldn’t go to restaurants anymore at one point.”
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been a huge part of what makes Park’s events so popular and well-attended: “Social media makes it so easy to say ‘Hey we’re going to do something, do you wanna come?”
And what would the Hungry Asian be without his better half to explore and discover new cuisine and events? Sharon Park (aka @MrsHungryAsian) says John started these events to silence the haters who say there’s nothing to do in Roanoke.
“About 10 years ago, Roanoke started tip-toeing into being a cool city and about five years ago it really started taking off,” she says. “John got tired of people griping that there’s nothing to do so he was like ‘Roanoke is a small town with not much red tape; if you want to do something, do it!’”
Taking their own advice, in 2012, John and Sharon also started the first Food Truck Rodeo in southwest Virginia, which is turning into an annual event. All of the local food trucks “round up” in the parking lot at The Village Grill in Grandin and Roanokers gather to sample tasty fare all in one place. Now in its third year, 1,500 people showed up at the most recent event.
Park, a northern Virginia transplant, says there is more to do in Roanoke than eat and says among some of Roanoke’s best kept secrets are the Tuesday night Pub Runs at The Village Grill, a hike to Devil’s Marbleyard and Roanoke’s annual City Works (X)po.
Madison Madden, Entrepreneur, 28
Walk into Madison Madden’s day spa, LASH, on any given day and you instantly feel as though you’ve been swept into the boudoir of a famous movie star. There’s a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling, lighted mirrors all around so to get every swoop of mascara just right and beautiful makeup displays peppered with beauty products that for most women elicit the same feelings as walking into a candy store as a child. Attention to detail is obvious and looks effortless.
Behind all the glamour is the owner, 28-year-old Madden, a beauty queen herself as a former Miss Roanoke Valley, bounding with endless energy and a zest for life sometimes not so common in millennials. And don’t dare judge a book by its cover; this hard-working pageant girl knows how to get her hands dirty, without messing up her manicure, of course!
Madden was flipping her fourth house, had finished her MBA, had just gotten married and was about to accept a job offer when her intuition kicked into high gear and she decided instead of working for someone else she would fulfill her lifelong dream of owning her own business.
“Roanoke is a great place to start a business,” she says. “We have tremendous resources and people here to help. Tom Tanner from the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center is amazing. He helped me forge a business plan and offered great advice. There are also great bankers and contractors in the area that helped me bring my vision to life.”
That was a little more than a year ago and the “city-chic” day spa has already been voted one of the best spas in the area.
As a young professional owning her own business in Roanoke, she says there have been some challenges that many business owners face, including finding the right vendors in the early stages, balancing life while working 12-hour days and age discrimination that can come with being a young and successful business owner.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a sentence begin with ‘Oh sweetie…’ In those cases I just smile. I believe that another person’s perception of you doesn’t have to be your perception. I know that it takes tenacity to be successful. I have hit the ground running since the day I opened my doors and I don’t plan to stop any time soon.”
Mike Hamlar, Multi-Tasker, 33
Most people think they have a lot going on with a full-time job and maybe a kid or two at home, but Mike Hamlar gives new meaning to the term multi-tasking. At the age of 33, he has three kids under the age of 12, is celebrating his seventh wedding anniversary this year and runs his family’s business, Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home.
As if running a full-time business wasn’t enough, six years ago he and his wife also started Hamlar Enterprises, a business brokerage firm that specializes in mergers, acquisitions and business valuations. Working at the funeral home is his “9-5,” but there’s plenty more to do in a 24-hour day because, oh-by-the-way, he’s also working on his PhD.
“I don’t sleep much,” he says. That’s the athlete mindset, go big or go home,” he says with a laugh.
Born and raised in Roanoke, Hamlar graduated from Cave Spring High School and had football mentors like Ronde and Tiki Barber. He was awarded a full athletic scholarship to Wake Forest University, starting four games at outside linebacker as a redshirt freshman, and was cruising through his sophomore year when tragic news struck his family. His father and uncle, who were both running the family business, died within two weeks of each other.
“I had to ask myself ‘Do I come home and run the business or do I continue to play football?’ At that age it was a difficult decision, but after talking with the family it was an easy decision. I don’t regret coming back to Roanoke one bit.”
Hamlar says Roanoke has a lot to offer young professionals and small business owners with places like the CoLab, with locations in Grandin and downtown, that provides a business incubator for young entrepreneurs. “There are a lot of ideas that have been generated out of that space,” Hamlar says.
He also refers to the plethora of civic organizations YPs should be involved in like the Roanoke Chapter of Business Networking International, the New Gen Rotary Club and most recently XPerience, a conference held in Spring 2015 organized by a committee of young professionals and business executives encouraging high school and college students as well as others to stay in the area. Above all he says, networking is number one.
“In my 11 years as a small business owner I say the seasoned professionals in this town prefer to sit down and spend time with you and they have knowledge, so why not pick their brain?”