On the third Thursday night of most months, a select Orange County venue fills with an array of people in heels, loafers, dresses and suits.
It's called a "schmoozer," and the attendees arrive prepared to network, handing over a donation to the designated local charity as the price of entering the throng.
Although similar to the society events one might find elsewhere in the county's wealthy coastal towns, the mixers have a twist. They target high-caliber young professionals.
"You don't have to wait until you're 40 or 50 years old to start being charitable," said Stacey Kaszton, 30, a board member and vice president for the host group, Elite OC.
At other charity events, one might wonder if he or she is the youngest in the room. Here one can talk about a viral video and know people will get the joke, said Kaszton, who works in marketing.
Founded in the fall of 2010, Elite OC hoped to fill a void for charity and business networking in a comfortable and social atmosphere for young adults.
Anyone can attend the functions, but an application process exists for aspiring members, who gain entry to member-only events, serve as ambassadors for the group and receive discounted tickets for the Elite OC's annual boat cruise and golf tournament.
A Gold membership costs $50 per year, while a Platinum membership costs $100 per year for slightly different benefits.
"If there's somebody that's here just for trying to take advantage of meeting people, we don't want that person in the group," Chris Trudeau, Elite OC president and chairman of the board, said after shaking hands with a woman employed at Pimco and a woman who works at Wells Fargo, both of whom promised one day to join the Elite OC board.
Trudeau, 32, works at Bowermaster and Associates as an insurance advisor. He replaced outgoing chairman and founder Joe Stapleton, 29, a financial advisor running for Newport Beach City Council.
The group hosted its first schmoozer in September 2010 with 65 people in attendance, Stapleton said.
More than three years later, hundreds showed up for the January gathering.
"Just that buzz, it's rewarding," Stapleton said as he walked into the crowded ballroom at The Pacific Club, a private social club in Newport Beach that hosted January's schmoozer. "There's so many young professionals that could be at a bar, that could be elsewhere."
And yet there they stood, holding glasses of wine while they chatted in small groups or pairs. They extended handshakes and offered business cards.
Many came with resolutions to network more that year.
Others, like Adam Go, 29, came in support of the evening's chosen charity, Big Brothers Big Sisters.
"With stuff like this there's always a tendency for it to have an, for lack of a better word, elitist-type of concept," Go said, surveying the scene from his post near the entry. "There's not exactly a kegger in here."
A Bruxie restaurant general manager, Go intentionally left his business cards at home.
He nonetheless left impressed by those he met.
"These guys have a lot of power to change the world, to be honest," he said.
Or as Jeff Bitetti, speaking on behalf of The Pacific Club, put it: "All you cats make a lot of dough, or you're on your way to making a lot of dough."
Similar groups exist — including the Orange County Young Executives, the Emerging Professionals at the Irvine Chamber of Commerce and Future Leaders of Our Community — but Elite OC considers itself a unique blend of business, philanthropy and socializing.
Elite OC is not associated with a specific city or chamber of commerce, Kazston said, but rather started more organically by young professionals for young professionals.
"It's just a way to meet people to help you along your journey of life," said John Jezowski, who works in the tech industry.
He had recently run into Nadia Flores, who works for Think Together, an organization that aims to nurture kids to be productive and responsible adults. Both are 33.
"It is a good age. Good things will happen," he said reassuringly.
The events attract everyone from real estate agents to matchmakers to dentists. While the January event is traditionally well attended for its time of year and chosen charity, February's gathering — at 176 RSVPs — wasn't as impressive.
"I'm just looking to get people for our Orange County market," said Carly Flieger, 36, a professional matchmaker, who wended her way through the crowd at Canaletto, a restaurant at Fashion Island that hosted February's event. Accompanying her was her husband, Jeff, also 36.
Katie Burnside and Kara Bautch, both 26, used the event to catch up with each other. The pair had met previously at a young professionals group of the Public Relations Society of America. Burnside is a marketing analyst and social media manager at Dell, while Bautch is a marketing communications manager for Make-a-Wish, which grants wishes to sick children.
"Yes, we cheated," Bautch said, standing with her friend — rather than a new acquaintance — near a window at Canaletto.
For Fady Elias, 33, the schmoozers offer an opportunity to tell people about NuGene, his stem cell-based skin care line. He's been going to Elite O.C. events intermittently for two years.
Elias passed a black and gold business card to his new acquaintance, Robert Arvizu, 32, who explained that he was interested in meeting like-minded, high-quality young professionals.
Ahmed Amer, 37, had his own reasons for attending: "my wife."
She sauntered over almost on cue, emerging with a smile from the sweaty crowd to join her husband in his refuge at the back of the room.The 6 p.m. event had been underway for roughly an hour and a half, and she named at least one person with whom she imagined she would keep in touch.