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Stopping the Brain Drain :: Video

2/23/2011 --

Alumni panel explores ways to keep graduates from fleeing the region to the coasts.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Some young professionals and entrepreneurs building growing businesses in the region have a message for current students — stick around after graduation.

Or, at the very least, consider staying in the region and stemming an alarming drain of young talent. As their stories show, the area has a lot to offer and the headlines don't tell the whole story.

Seattle native Sara Jones, MBA '10, said staying in Michigan to launch her jewelry line, Heart Graffiti, was one of her best business decisions.

''I had so much support for my business here at the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor,'' she said. ''That was one of the reasons I made the decision not to go back to Seattle. I had so much support here and people willing to help — more than I've seen in any other place.''

Jones was part of a Feb. 16 panel at Blau Auditorium that also included Mike Miller, LSA '96, head of Google's Ann Arbor office, and Luke Song, owner of Mr. Song Millinery in Detroit and designer of the hat worn by singer Aretha Franklin at President Barack Obama's inauguration. The discussion ''Don't Go! What Will Keep You Here?'' was moderated by journalist and author Micheline Maynard, senior editor of Changing Gears and former New York Times correspondent. She also is a former adjunct lecturer at Ross.

Their ultimate goal is to get others to follow their example and reverse the flow of college graduate-age people from the Midwest. The problem is especially acute in Michigan, which has seen constant growth in young people leaving the state while other states, such as Washington and Colorado, are seeing an influx.

Maynard, during her time at Ross, said she'd often ask MBA students if they were staying in Michigan. Too often the answer was no. She said while it's great to master a city like New York or Washington, D.C., there are some advantages to the Midwest. She urged students to ''keep your mind open to the Midwest because it has a lot to offer.''

Both Song and Miller worked in other states and came back to Michigan. Both are glad they did.

Miller said Google discovered great talent in the area and sees a lot of successful small and medium-sized businesses flying under the radar. About 40,000 Michigan companies use Google's advertising products.

''There is a strong economy out there in the middle market,'' he said, noting the region has all the culture a coastal city offers without a lot of the hassles.

Song initially came back to the Detroit area because he simply ran out of funds in Paris. He stumbled into the hat-making business and initially sent his manufacturing to London because he couldn't find anybody locally who could make hats.

When that became too expensive, he moved the manufacturing to Montreal, then to China. He also considered moving his entire business to New York.

But then he decided to bring the manufacturing back to Michigan. It changed what his products looked like for the better — ''less mass-produced.'' Moving to New York also would have increased his real estate, tax, and overhead costs.

After he moved the production back to Michigan, Song's hats started getting picked up by designers all over the country. Then came the famous inauguration hat.

''To this day, I think it was the best decision I ever made,'' he said of producing and staying in Michigan.

Jones found a very nurturing environment for someone starting a business. People were willing to lend their time and expertise and she was able to find grants and other sources of start-up funding.

She and Song both said the area could use more of an organized network of young professionals and noted they and their colleagues should lead the effort.

They also talked about the area's image, which has taken a hit with the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler and the general image of the Midwest as the ''rust belt.''

Business people who share a passion for the area should meet often in groups to keep the energy going, they suggested. Song said perceptions change little by little over time. He thinks the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem and the tagline ''Imported from Detroit'' moves the needle in the right direction.

''Just one little spark changes perceptions,'' he said.

The perception battle has to start ''at the dinner table,'' Miller added. Business leaders in the region have to make sure they do their part to make sure companies are growing here.

One student asked the panel why they should stay in the region when, after graduation, it seems like now or never to try living someplace else.

Miller said that decision doesn't have to be made right away and that local companies offer jobs abroad. Several Michiganders working in Google's Ann Arbor office have taken jobs in other parts of the world and have since returned.

''So even with a company in Michigan, take advantage of the opportunities they have to go elsewhere,'' he said. '' don't think you have to make that decision right now.''

As for Jones, her first concern was finding where she could build a successful business.

''You want to go where the opportunities are, and the opportunities for me were here,'' she said.

Graduates have to make a personal decision, said Maynard, but she challenged them to think about working where they could do the most good or in a place where they can make a bigger impact. The Midwest is transitioning from an old economy to a new one.

''This is now or never for this region,'' she said. ''We need our best and brightest here.''

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Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,