Blog: Brian Balasia

Brian Balasia is our guest bloggers this week. Brian founded Digerati Solutions, a company that builds electronic medical records for hospitals and private practices, while an aerospace engineering student at U-M. He currently sits on the board of directors for the Detroit Regional Chamber, WIRED, and the U-M Alumni Society.  

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Post No. 4


Most people that I have presented my economic development plans to are expecting big costs.   We are fortunate in the region to have a number of large companies and significant foundations that frequently loosen their purse strings and donate heavily to community development initiatives.  Maybe this is why we concern ourselves less with new creative ideas in the region and more on funding and spending money.  In my short existence I have found that conversations in our community typically start off with discussion on funding.  Our culture of big business, in many ways, hurts our creativity.  Most redevelopment efforts start by creating a vision statement or identifying a problem.  Then we hop right into committee building.  The committee’s early tasks typically revolve around loosely identifying how to address the problem or build the vision, but mostly we focus on funding.  This bothers me.  I firmly believe that many of our community’s struggles can be addressed through difficult thinking and blue collar work.  Throwing money at the problems rarely creates results.  Instead of thinking about financing first, we must focus on our goals and the under-utilized resources that we have within our community.  I am not suggesting this concept because our region has a lack of funding sources.  In fact, we have lots of money in the region.  Don’t let the economic downturn fool you.  People are still making money, most people still have jobs (the unemployment rate for college graduates in Michigan is ~2%).  It is not money that we seem to lack.  What we lack is creative thinking on how to use that money.  

This hunger for new creative thinking is what makes living in Detroit exciting.  Most people might not see it yet, but there is a transition that is taking place within the business community that is pushing younger, creative people to the forefront.  This change has been dramatic even in my young career.  Old boys’ networks are opening their doors to fresh ideas.  The media outlet I am writing in right now, points to this change.  It is no secret within the global artistic community that the region breeds creativity.  Until recently, the hierarchy of our business community prevented much of that creativity from flowing within its confines.  Economic pain has shifted our thinking towards new ideas.  As long as we can build logical paths to accomplish these creative initiatives, it is possible to rally support from the reaches of the community previously untapped.  The average passerby might not see it, maybe the typical resident hasn’t been touched by it yet, but there is a change underway. 

Post No. 3

Initiating Change
The changing economy seems to have caught all of our major institutions off guard. We had become so comfortable relying on the Big Three and our other corporate giants that we failed to adapt our infrastructure to the changing economic conditions. I can't say that I blame the parties involved. When things were going well, why would anyone want to change the system? If we zoom in from the macroeconomics, you see that "they" are comprised of normal everyday people laboring to get their job done and keep their organization/company/ sector rolling. Most people do not have the time or the energy or, frankly, the need in good economic times, to rock the boat.

That being said, the economics have now changed. We are no longer in a comfortable situation. This can not be the time to cast blame. We all enjoyed the good times. The fact that we all were idyllically floating along is not surprising. It is what it is and now we must change. Enough of the finger pointing, that doesn't rewind the clock, or fix the current situation. 

I have learned through this experiment that changing the system makes people uncomfortable and changing an existing system leaves people feeling as though you are attacking the work they have previously completed. Disarming this condition has not been a simple task. In this instance, the university has run a placement office in accordance with the manner that placement offices are run at major universities across the country. The problem is that the model is no longer functioning in a way that supports the state's needs. This is not to suggest that the university has neglected their duty or that U of M is turning a blind eye to needs of the community.  This simply means that it is time to change. Showing a need for change and pointing at dysfunction is a fine line. If I have leaned anything through this process and through operating Digerati Solutions it is this; change management, more specifically winning buy-in from all parties, is more important than design, funding, or goal. 

As an engineer, logic and I are close friends; emotion and I are not buddies. So I figured that my best means of operating was to build a plan that drew a logical path from goal backward to current state. If I could sell each invested party on the goal then walking backward through the required programming to achieve that goal seemed like a logical means of winning support. To a large degree this has worked. When you initially identify the need for change, most people still feel attacked and consequently emotions drive their decision-making early in the process. I have found that persistent logic always trumps emotion in the long run. This may not work in personal relationships and other areas but the rule seems to apply in business.  Without this buy-in, I have found that you have nothing. When you can get each group to buy in with logic, people start to see challenges as issues to work through as opposed to deal breakers. As my business partners and I have started to rally people around our plans, we have found funding and commitment is beginning to come easier.

Post No. 2

Identifying the Developing Crisis

I was fortunate enough to be able to sit on a number of boards and committees while still a student at U of M. At these meetings I was frequently asked why we couldn't keep graduates here. Companies would lament that no matter how much they offered, they couldn't recruit scientists and engineers to stay here. While talking to the students they lamented that most of them wanted to stay but that there were no job opportunities available. Clearly there is a match making issue here (last week's Free Press and News showed just how big the problem has become). This problem, if not addressed, will quickly erode our talent base and our R & D economy (Michigan ranks 2nd nationally in all R & D spending). Without retaining scientists and engineers we can not expect to generate new innovations and the high tech industries that will grow the region.

Economists and futurists commonly agree that the long term health of our country is dependant upon our ability to continue to lead the charge as the innovation capital of the world. With China and India both producing more than ten times as many engineers as the United States per year, this is a staggering challenge. Further widening the United State's developing innovation gap with China and India is our aging population. It is expected that there will be inherent labor shortages developing within our economy that will place a greater demand on educated scientists and engineers. These high-paying jobs will have to be outsourced to other regions or countries if we cannot fill them ourselves. We have several nationally recognized institution of higher learning within our borders. These universities have access to thousands of students within these critical disciplines. While they are here we would be ill advised to waste this opportunity to aggressively integrate them into our workforce.

The State of Michigan cannot risk losing the engineers it cultivates. As the shortage of scientists and engineers throughout America continues to grow, the states and cities that manage to attract and retain the largest numbers of technically proficient minds will have the strongest economies.

So if this is such a big problem "they" must be working on it. I started to look at U of M to see how this was being addressed. I picked Michigan because I have the best connections there and because the university has historically been seen as a non-team player when it comes to Michigan economics. This seemed like the best place to really understand who "they" were and how "they" drove the culture that I live within.

As I dug deeper and deeper the players making up the "they" seemed to be the State, the Universities, the students, and the business community (including business associations). Tomorrow I will outline what I discovered each of them were doing to fix the problem and how the changing economy has caught them all off guard. From there I can get into the good stuff….solving the problem quickly and on the cheap.

Post No 1

Finding the "they" 

Why don't they do something with these vacant buildings? Why don't they have a better cab system downtown? Why don't they build a mass transit system? Why don't they make a grocery store downtown? Why can't they fix the economy? When are they going to create more jobs? When are they going to improve our schools?

As a Detroiter I am asked these questions on a daily basis. I am certain that I can not be alone. I suppose I can understand the questions when they come from out of state. But most inquisitors seem to be local. It doesn't seem to matter where in the region you live. Almost my entire life I have heard people hunting for answers to the questions that only "they" seem to control. For a long time I have been able to write these questions off, ignoring them and passing them off as generic grievances on our current condition. This was until I noticed that my very own brother (older and much wiser than myself) seemed to be starting his own crusade to blame the "they." It is for these reasons and for my own piece of mind I have begun to look for "they." I just want to understand why in the region so many people feel as if their own destiny or plight is under the direct control of the group called "they". 

As with every great journey of intellectual discovery I had to start by identifying possible root causes for this condition. At first I thought that we might have a lack of visionaries in the community. I considered that we might not have enough intelligent, well-educated people in the community. From the newspaper articles I have been reading I was led to believe we might be a region without any jobs, money, or sustainable economy. Was this the cause? 

As I stared thinking about all of the possible causes I caught myself using "they" to describe the group of people not working hard enough to retain students and innovators in our area. I blamed this group for not trying hard enough to create an environment of innovators and entrepreneurs. Surely if "they" had been doing things correctly our economy would be better and our city more vibrant. With these thoughts I realized that I needed to come up with my own plan to address these issues. I needed to roll up my sleeves and attempt to change the culture and the community of which I am a part. 

With that, my business partners and I embarked on a project to change how the state's major research universities retain talent and empower innovation. Over the next few posts I will explain the project, how the experiment is progressing, and the lessons I continue to learn about who "they" are, and how we find ourselves in our current predicament. 

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