Protege Chattanooga is a nine-month program that matches early-to-mid-career professionals with a red-carpet list of regional leaders. The end goal? Unforgettable connection among young professionals paired with a viable, noteworthy mentorship with real-world leaders.  

It’s all by design, as the Protege program allows young professionals to learn from some of the most respected leaders from civic, nonprofit and entrepreneurial realms across the region.   

“They have a vested interest in giving back to leaders who are coming up through the ranks,” said Toya Moore, Chattanooga Chamber’s Leadership Development Director.  

Protege Chattanooga accepts 24 young professionals – ages 21 to 40 – for its nine-month program. The 2023-24 class graduated on May 9 with deep affection and respect for the program. For some, the entire experience is summed up in one word. 

“Community,” said Calen Jamerson, Donor Stewardship Specialist with Signal Centers. “I was able to pick the brains of the top industry leaders in the city and that experience was invaluable. The most important lesson I learned coming out of this program is the importance of building your network. There is no substitute for having people in your professional life to learn from.” 

The Protege experience included community service at Crabtree Farms, building garden beds and preparing the soil. 

“I was deeply humbled by our experience and am intrigued to continue volunteering on my own time,” said Kelly Cone, graphic designer with Text Request. “It actually opened up something in me that yearns for volunteering opportunities.” 

Others volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House.  

“I have driven by the building 1,000 times but had never been inside,” said Jamerson. “Learning that we have such an amazing resource for those families dealing with so much made me feel so happy. Sure, I could have just Googled it, but seeing it firsthand is probably something I wouldn’t have thought to do if it had not been for Protege. Making those connections is what this program is all about.” 

To promote mentorship, Moore invites a diverse, compelling list of area leaders who speak to the Protege participants with clarity, honesty and advice.  

Like Stacy Lightfoot from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Adera Causey from the Hunter Museum of American Art. Stacy Martin of Seahorse Snacks. Stacey Keating with CBL.  

“In our meetings, when these leaders come to speak to us, we hear all about their career journeys, where they started, what makes a good leader, their leadership styles, what they’re currently reading, their morning routine, the habits that make them successful,” said Moore. 

Once, after one leader finished speaking, Cone texted, asking to meet.  

“Her response was immediate and it’s on the schedule for this week,” Cone said. “Once you’re in this program and gain these connections, they’re all a phone call away.” 

Cone remembers the wisdom offered throughout the nine months.  

Lead by example — the best sermon is one without words. 

Never burn bridges — you never know what may come down the road. 

Conflict arises when people don’t feel heard and validated. Diffuse by listening and validating. 

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. 

Go where you are seen, go where you are wanted, go where you are nurtured, go where you are loved loudly and not in whispers. 

As Protege Chattanooga selects a new, incoming 2024-25 cohort later in June, Jalerson offers some personal words of wisdom for these young professionals.  

“It continues to highlight the best thing about Chattanooga: the people,” said Jalerson. “People in this city are always willing to lend a hand and give back and this program is a shining example of that.”