Attracting high tech talent to metro Detroit means combating negative perceptions

Attracting young, professional talent from outside the state can be tough for metro Detroit firms looking to hire the best and the brightest. Lifestyle is as important as job fit. That means overcoming the negative perceptions non-Michiganders have about a state many have never visited.
Perception. It's the overarching theme Jason Raznick has to battle against whenever he tries to recruit talent.

The CEO of Benzinga, a financial news startup, argues against a lot of perception issues that have long plagued metro Detroit and Michigan: The perception of the Great Lakes State as flyover country. The perception that there isn't much in the way of job opportunity here. The perception that metro Detroit is one endless suburb where automobile ownership is mandatory.

"They don't want a car," Raznick says. "They don't want to drive everywhere. They are used to New York and Chicago and taking the train."

If Raznick ruled the region and could create change with the wave of his hand, he would change the way people think about Detroit. He would turn those preconceived notions of 1970s Rust Belt malaise into the reality of the Detroit as the early 21st Century's hot commodity of urban opportunity.

"We need to better market all of these great companies that are being built here," Raznick says.

Bringing the Mann to Detroit

Benzinga is one of those success stories. The Southfield-based startup is rapidly growing into a must-read online publication for financial and economic news. It has grown from Raznick's Oakland County basement to 35 employees and plans to move near Campus Martius in downtown Detroit early next year.

A big reason for the move is to attract a young, talented workforce to his company. Raznick subscribes to the idea that Millennials want to live in vibrant urban cores, preferably in big cities. They want to go to places where their peers are building their visions for tomorrow, where they will feel secure in easily finding another job in case the one they have doesn't pan out.

The recently announced move is already paying dividends for Benzinga. The company's most recent hire is Jake Mann, a 24-year-old Chicago transplant who left a gig at The Motley Fool to become Benzinga's senior editor a few weeks ago. In a manner of days he moved from Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood (the Windy City's Millennial Mecca) to a penthouse apartment in downtown Detroit, and never felt like he missed a beat.

"I really like just being in an urban environment," Mann says. "I like being around where everyone is moving. I just feel the most comfortable there."

Mann and his wife, Jordan, considered several different locations, both inside Detroit and in the suburbs. They looked at Midtown and downtown Royal Oak, among other urban places. They choose Detroit's Central Business District for its unique personality and close proximity to his job.

Detroit wasn't on the top of the Mann family's list of places to set down roots but it didn't take a lot of convincing when Raznick and Mann began trading emails in earnest earlier this fall. Mann's parents were hesitant about the idea because of preconceived negative perceptions about Detroit. There was no immediate family connections in the region. But Mann sat them down and laid it out why the decision made sense as the best opportunity for him at this point in his career.

"The first conversation (with Raznick) sold me on the company," Mann says. "I could tell how passionate he was about the company. ... I told Jordan we have to move here right away. It just feels like the right thing to do."

Opportunity perception

Chris Rizik is one of the big names in venture capital in metro Detroit. The CEO of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund (a fund of funds that invests in smaller VC firms) has worked in venture capital for 16 years. Before that he served as a partner at Dickinson Wright law firm.

In his decades of trying to sell people, young and old, on the opportunities available in Michigan, he focuses on convincing them that the word "opportunity" should be plural.

"One of the biggest challenges is convincing them there are multiple opportunities in the region," Rizik says. "It's almost instinctive for them to think they need to go elsewhere to pursue opportunities. ... It's a hurdle we need to get over. There are a lot of jobs here."

Overcoming that is easier said than done. Again, high unemployment is joined at the hip with the classic Rust Belt perception. Rizik also points out that sometimes Michiganders aren't the best ambassadors for the opportunities here because of that.

However, that is yesterday's reality. Today the national economy is rebounding largely thanks to the surging automotive industry. Michigan's unemployment rate has been cut in half since the height of the recession. Jobs and a growing diversity of them -courtesy a more entrepreneurial local economy- are more plentiful today than they have been in more than a decade.

Rizik says the MiTalent online job portal is the sort of thing the state needs to combat that perception, and it is making strides, but it's far from there. Raznick agrees, saying his out-of-town hires come from him and his team hustling LinkedIn profiles and networking rather than resumes coming from the state's online job portal.

"They are coming from us doing the hard work and finding them," Raznick says. "It was never the other way around."

Seeing is believing

Gongos, a decision-intelligence company, recruits dozens of people each year to fill its ranks. The 23-year-old company employs 130 people and hired 22 over the last year. Of those hires, about one third came from outside of Michigan.

The Auburn Hills-based firm's CEO, Camille Nicita, has one requirement for interns, new employees, and highly valued prospective hires: Go to the west side of the state when its warm.

"If you do nothing else, you have to see Lake Michigan," Nicita says. "They always say that is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen."

Negative perception is the biggest challenge Gongos faces when recruiting out-of-state talent. A vast majority of the time those perceptions were formed because the perspective hires have no firsthand experience with the Great Lakes State.

"Many of them have never come to Michigan before," Nicita says. "They don't know what the state has to offer. The growth and energy in the state."

She adds that many of the people who fall into this category are college graduates from neighboring states. Many of the hardest sells are made to Ohio and Indiana natives who have never ventured north.

"Once they come they are often pleasantly surprised," Nicita says.

Randy Brodzik runs into the same perception problems when he is recruiting talent. The president & CEO of Plymouth-based testing firm RedViking has won awards for grooming young engineering talent. Brodzik notes that the Rust Belt perception attached to Michigan and metro Detroit is lessening, but it still has a strong grip on outsiders' point of view.

"It's really the perception of the area," Brodzik says. "That's what we need to attract the younger crowd that will enable us to grow."

Jon Zemke is the Innovation & Jobs News Editor for Metromode and its sister publications, Concentrate and Model D. He is also the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

 
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