After building a successful career in healthcare administration in New York, Rachel Meyers recently made a big life change when she moved to Detroit to pursue a new business venture. As she worked to find a part-time job and acclimate to her new surroundings, Meyers knew she needed to talk with someone local who understood the community.
“I wanted a Michigander’s take on which companies are doing innovative work and who the players are in Detroit,” she said.
So when she found Text a Detroiter, it seemed like a perfect fit. The new service from the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Let’s Detroit program lets people submit questions about the area to local experts – volunteer “ambassadors” – who respond directly through a messaging platform.
After choosing some simple filters to help sort her questions to the best contacts, Meyers sent her queries and was connected to ambassador Zain Ismail. After some text exchanges, the two ended up talking by phone. Ismail eventually referred Meyers to one of his friends who works in her field, whom she also talked with.
“Once we were connected, we had really good conversation and then it was really like personal networking,” Meyers said.
By putting the focus on these personal connections, Let’s Detroit organizers hope to make the city and region more attractive both to young talent who might look elsewhere for work and to newcomers interested in moving to the area. Although it’s just getting started, the new approach to local engagement is also gaining attention from other cities across the state and country looking to do the same.
Let’s get started
The Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan is working in conjunction with the Detroit Regional Chamber on their talent retention and attraction website that will be available for other communities that want to build their own similar talent website. The Let’s Detroit site, which launched in September 2018, provides job seekers with more career and lifestyle information specific to metro Detroit. The Let’s Detroit campaign also brings with it the first-of-its-kind Text a Detroiter program.
The effort is led by Sarah Craft, manager of the chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees program. Craft says during two years of focus groups, surveys and conversations about keeping more college graduates in the area after graduation, the message was consistent: The chamber shouldn’t be telling people what to do or how to get connected. Detroiters should.
“What we’ve heard over and over again in our research is, ‘You can’t sell Detroit; you can’t sell our region,’” Craft said.
Working with existing organizations like Detroit Young Professionals, Black Young Professionals of Detroit and the Detroit Experience Factory, the chamber has built a base network of 120 ambassadors and is looking to add more as it rolls out a marketing push in spring and summer 2019.
Using technology similar to Uber or Lyft, the platform filters questions by type to relevant ambassadors who respond on a first-come, first-served basis. Once an ambassador responds, the individual “owns” the question, so users don’t get bombarded with multiple responses.
Although Craft says the service is still very much in a pilot phase, she’s already had interest from organizations around the state, as well as Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Denver, that want to know more and possibly adopt the same approach.
One potential adopter is Grand Rapids’ Hello West Michigan. Founded in 2007 by a group of companies looking to solve the region’s local talent shortage, Hello West Michigan was officially launched in 2010 as a website with more than 1,000 links to local resources for people looking to relocate to the area.
At this point the site is well-established, with more than 40,000 annual visitors. But Executive Director Rachel Bartels says the goal is not only getting people interested in the region, but also keeping them there once they decide to relocate.
Bartels said going beyond marketing to help candidates and hires make lasting connections to their new community is key.
“Every person is unique, and every person has that one thing they need from the community to feel like they’re being engaged,” she said.
She sees a texting ambassador program like Text a Detroiter as one more way to help make that connection in West Michigan.
Hello West Michigan also offers a weekly resume pack program that lets users submit their materials for distribution to partner companies, free of charge. The organization also recently launched a Candidate Concierge program that lets users talk with volunteers from those companies about what they are looking for in a job.
Ask me anything
As president emeritus and board chair of Detroit Young Professionals, texting ambassador Whitney Griffin helped with the research behind Let’s Detroit and in getting the word out about it.
A self-described “military brat” whose family returned to the Detroit suburbs from abroad when she was in middle school, Griffin says she wanted to stay close to family while her classmates were eager to leave after graduation. While attending Wayne State University, she fell in love with Detroit, and she’s since seen many of her peers return and get involved in the city’s rebirth.
With so much new development and focus on attracting new talent, Griffin says Let’s Detroit helps plug people into what’s already happening on a more personal level.
“It’s a lot harder to leave a place once you’ve built your life there and met friends who are genuine and people you can do the things you like to do with,” Griffin said. “I think this is a way to help strengthen those bonds and help people really put down roots.”
Griffin has seen questions ranging from what new restaurants to try to where to see live jazz. But people are also looking for places to volunteer at and organizations to get involved with – ways to “build a life” here. For Griffin, that’s what it’s all about.
“It was always my goal to help build this connected Detroit, and one that’s representative of people my age, because I know we have lot to offer the city,” she said. “For me, it’s basically about making Detroit the city that we all know it can be.”
Ismail says volunteering with Let’s Detroit was a natural extension of his personality.
“It was really exciting to me, because one of my personal passions is networking and bringing people together,” he said.
Ismail works for Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System and spends a lot of his free time in the city. Although he was invited on as an ambassador for his healthcare background, Ismail says the text conversations he’s had often turn to other topics, including the local arts and nonprofit scenes.
“People have heard rumors that the city is turning around, so they’re really interested in hearing an insider’s perspective on what’s going on – where are all the cool spots to hang out, what are cool places to live, and things like that,” he said.
He’s fielded only a handful of questions so far, but Ismail would like to see Let’s Detroit become the go-to source for information on getting involved in the city.
“I’d love to see my phone blowing up every day with inquiries or emails or phone calls from people wanting to understand what’s going on and connect,” he said.
Meyers says just having conversations with Ismail has been helpful, and she enjoys the ambassador program’s open, creative approach to networking.
“I do love Detroit,” she said. “I love how it’s attempting to be as open and welcoming to newcomers as it can be.”
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Rachel Bartels photo by Adam Bird. All other photos by Nick Hagen.