Brain Gain by Virtue of Entrepreneurship


In 2001, I left my home in St. Louis to embark on a journey to a foreign destination known as CleveLand. I came for the purpose of attending Case Western Reserve University, with no intention of achieving an engineering, law, medical or business degree. In 2005, I graduated Case with a B.A. in Psychology (much to the mockery of my over-zealous classmates), thinking I was taking a chance by studying something that actually interested me. I had no further intention of pursuing psychology, therein having no intention of formally counseling troubled patients or engage in the field in any professional way whatsoever. Instead, I made another “fatalistic” decision: I stayed in Cleveland.

Now, two years into the professional world, my friends and college companions (who have since hurriedly left Cleveland in pursuit of bigger dreams in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco) keep asking me, in condescending fashion: “Dude, why are you still in Cleveland?” to which I respond, “Dude, how much is your rent in New York?” Rent prices, cost of living and quality of life aside, the real answer is: entrepreneurship.

When I say entrepreneurship in Cleveland, OH I am still met with dumbfounded looks and sneering conversational tones. I mean, I must be one stupid psychology major to think that there is anything even remotely entrepreneurial about Northeast Ohio. But, at the end of my tenure at Case, I realized something – everyone around me wanted to leave. Being that my ultimate goal in life is to start a business, I felt that if I stayed in Northeast Ohio, I would have the chance to interact with professionals at the top of their games. With less peer competition and less levels of hierarchy and bureaucracy to wade through, I would be surrounded by business and civic leaders and new and veteran entrepreneurs.
As much as I wanted to sit in cubicles for 10 years before I got a promotion to a bigger cubicle, I felt it more suitable to apply myself in new exciting developments that, down the road, would pay off handsomely. And by pay off, I don’t mean financially – I mean the pay off of accomplishment. To look back and say, “I was a part of THAT and look where it’s come.” I look around and I see a lot of THAT going on.

Which brings me to my point of Brain Gain by Virtue of Entrepreneurship. I believe that I am not the only one who wants to look back and feel a sense of pride for having changed the world in some significant way. In fact, I believe there are a great many young students, many exiting the doors of the many regional universities, that feel the exact same way. They are full of energy, creativity, and skill and are eager to use the tools (you know, like that thing called the internet) and methods they learn in the classroom in real world applications. Their minds and spirits have yet to be crushed by the notion of impossibility, bureaucracy, and politics. They are fueled by diversity, growth, change, differentiation, and uniqueness. To whichever frustration or problem young people express, the elders will say, “Get used to it. That’s the real world.” And the young people will think to themselves, “Not if I have anything to do about it.” Call it naivety, arrogance, ignorance, privilege, whatever. We can spend time trying to understand their mentality, or we can spend time harnessing their potential and using it to fuel our economy. If Northeast Ohio wants to keep its young and talented, it will present more professional opportunities for them to make a difference and still be able to pay off their college loans. It will create an environment wherein they are working on bigger issue projects, working side-by-side with high ranking professionals. It will differentiate itself from the notion of the “corporate ladder,” and engage them in new businesses and non-profits. It will show them that unlike Chicago, New York, Boston or San Fransisco, NEO will surround them with the resources they need to make an immediate impact. Above all, it will nurture their “fatalistic” notion of hope. Otherwise, the $1500/mo 300 sq. ft. apartment in New York will still look mighty appealing.


Interesting comment. Although from the tone I assume you don’t think the young are embraced in Cleveland, I’m hoping you might be a little more explicit in your experience. Where have you felt welcome, where have you been stiff armed?

You don’t have to name names, but with the plethora of young professional networking groups and growing evidence that entrepreneurs are succeeding in Northeast Ohio (such as increased venture deals) I’m hoping that it’s not all gloom and doom out there for the young. But then I’m a 45-year-old white guy working in an office building and may well be way out of touch. What do you and other young entrepreneurs have to say?

The best part of my education at Case was my internship in the Department of Human Resources. I was extremely fortunate to work with the Director at the time, who was a progressive-thinking, empowering individual. While I was assigned the mundane tasks inherent in any HR work, he assigned me projects that were directly associated with major HR initiatives for the University. As an intern, I helped him shape the format and process for a program called the Employee-Assisted Housing Program. Any employee that relocated to the City of Cleveland would be assisted by the University between $10k – $15k over 5 years towards their new home. While an intern, I realized a need for more internships throughout the University’s non-academic departments. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if more students were working in the Government Relations, President’s Office, General Counsel, External Affairs, Development offices?” What a great way for students to gain practical experience for the “real” world by working for their own University! What a cost-effective way for the University to have talented students working on major initiatives! What a great way to retain talent here in Northeast Ohio by connecting students with other leaders in the community! The Director believed in me and my idea, had me perform extensive research on the Best Practices of other Universities, businesses and organizations, and write a formal proposal. He pushed the proposal through, and a meeting was scheduled with the Provost, CFO, and VP of Student Affairs. They accepted the proposal, and my idea became a reality. At the age of 22, I was employed by Case to run an initiative I had proposed.

The point of my story is that I was very fortunate to have a boss who saw my potential, who pushed me to exceed expectations, who mentored me when I didn’t understand things, who recognized my passion to make a difference. A few months later, he was recruited by Harvard. I left the department shortly thereafter – there was no one there to pick up the progressive moving ball (and due to financial constraints, I was let go.)

The professional networking groups you are referring to are at the mercy of their big corporate sponsors. Should any one of these groups make a radical decision or action that is unfavorable to the conservative ideals of its money bearers, they will lose funding and close up shop. Therefore, these organizations do the same events with the same people talking about the same topics. There have been times that I got excited at one of these engagements, because it seemed that people were ready to take action. Instead, they were ready to go home because there seemed to be an aire of consensus that starting a new initiative wasn’t worth it – it wouldn’t be supported. It was just nice to vent about it.

Which then leads to the issue, as I see it, as one of increasing awareness, engagement and empowerment. Take a survey of college students in the region, and ask them if they’ve ever heard of JumpStart, Civic Innovation Lab,, Nortech, BioEnterprise, the City Club, Cleveland Foundation,, or even the Fund. Ask them if they’ve ever heard of any of the middle-market and start-up companies in Northeast Ohio (or if they even know that such exist!). Actually, don’t spend the time or money: I can unequivocally say that, en masse, they have no idea.

So, how do you get those who don’t know engaged? A mass marketing campaign? I would say no on this one too. I think the youth of today (like me) are turned off by mass marketing efforts – they are interested in something exclusive and different. They want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. They want to be close with leaders, visionaries, movers and shakers. They want to be where their friends are. They want to tell their friends and families that they’re working on this awesome new initiative with (insert CEO’s or Civic Leader’s name here) on a huge new convention center known as the Medical Mart, or working for a start-up company that is innovating a new device to alleviate brain trauma, or a new non-profit like E City that works with inner-city youth on education and entrepreneurship. I find myself being the champion for these efforts among my friends, who have no idea these organizations or initiatives exist. And if they have heard about it, they will say, “So what? It’s not like they’re going to hire me. I don’t have any experience and it’s not like I know anyone who will get me in there.”

I think the onus lies on the leaders of this community, like my internship boss at Case or the Founder and President of my current concern, to acknowledge the energy and talent in their own backyard. To take on young people as their personal interns, not the interns of their managers. To train and guide these interns in their respective fields. To establish strong direction and deliverables for them to achieve. To set them free to explore their interests and champion their initiatives. To show them firsthand what it means to be a driving force in not just Cleveland, but society.

As for me, my personal experience has been fine. I am fortunate to be in a position where I can engage with some of the region’s leaders and be a part of new exciting initiatives. When I tell my peers about my job, they usually tell me I’m lucky and that they wished they could be doing something similar. When I talked to some interns at various big companies here in town, they said how they wished they didn’t have to sit in a cubicle all day and stare at spreadsheets. There are some real gem organizations to be a part of here – I am merely expressing my sentiments for more of these gems and means by which to get more young people involved.


Thanks for keeping the conversation going. One of the organizations in the region that is trying to reach out to young adults is the Youngstown Business Incubator, which has developed a MySpace page with some interesting results.

Would there be any merit in setting up a MySpace or Facebook site for the region’s young adults to connect/comment on the issues you’ve raised?



Thank you for the info about the YBI – certainly enlightening and refreshing to see that kind of activity going on. I’d also like to bring the forum’s attention to this article in today’s Akron Beacon Journal:

There will be more where that came from.

By age I’m probably just about in the middle of both of you. By sentiment, I lean perhaps away from you both though. My concern is that it’s not so much a “intern/new graduate” dilemma but one whereby self-diagnosed progressive thinkers/doers have difficulty finding their place in Cleveland’s circles. Whether it be coughing up the thousands for the “leadership” or “builder” programs because your company won’t front the money for you or trying to pushing professional organizations to be more innovative, emerging leaders need environments to thrive and elements that are supportive enough to take risks. We keep the faith because Cleveland is such a great city; but it’s not easy when you can’t get a job that’s satisfying and pays your worth.

A few years back — two careers ago — I spoke to one of the “builder” program you referenced and advised attendees that they shouldn’t just kick down the doors of traditional Cleveland to “find their place,” but they should jump on the desk and demand their place.

The point of my excess was that there is no need to wait one’s turn to drive change. If the existing institutions won’t accept you, find a few like-minded souls and take the challenge on yourself. The landscape is full of people who saw a need and a found a way to meet. Indeed, Bridge Builders was one such organization back in its formative stages. As was Green City, Blue Lake; Cool Cleveland; and so many others.

The job issue you raise is much tougher. We recognize the need to foster more business startups and more high-growth industries. Partners in Advance Northeast Ohio are committed to creating more of the opportunities you seek. But those opportunities will not be created over night. Not much solace, I realize, but we are pushing hard.

Indeed, mobilizing young people toward entrepreneurship is key for our future. Their values, knowledge framework and lifestyles almost imply ALTERNATIVE work experience, and their thirst for meaningful living demands it. Certainly, those in the brain-drain population will be our next set of new business visionaries.

But I’d really like to stretch us all to think BIGGER about the Entrepreneurship Agenda….something bigger then ‘brain drain prevention’. I’d like us to think about brain preservation, with an emphasis on those real people who are living real lives – just trying to make it day by day.

Entrepreneurship just might save THEM, and simultaneously rebuild our neighborhoods.

I’m specificially referring to those “invisible” populations we tend to not like to think about: the poor, women in life transition, early retirees, mothers taking a break from traditional work, men and women released from prison, children transitioning out of the foster care system, gang leaders, at-risk teens (ages 14-17) the disabled, women on welfare, the underemployed and the unemployed. You would be surprised how many in your own neighborhood comprise these categories.

Our Entrepreneurship Agenda had a space dedicated to this type of grass roots mobilization? Dedicated to those in the brain preservation population?

Within this vision, we value all people as learners who honor them as not “yet done” with learning or improving their lives. We breathe life into their need for hope and move them toward self-determination. Most importantly, we REMEMBER that they exist as a vital part of our community.

I’ve got lots of ideas here. Here’s one vision we hope to mobilize, called WORKSTART and WORKSTART PLUS:

Every time someone applies for welfare or food stamps, offer them a small business development workforce option, too. However, do not “penalize” them by taking away their food stamps for 1-2 years, while their business vision is forming and being implemented. Host these business innovation centers right AT THE WELFARE OFFICES and pass out literature to everyone waiting to see their workers. This is a particularly powerful strategy for the growing number of immigrants utilizing the public assistance program, too. Workforce Plus combined entrepreneurship with whole life support services.

We forget that ALL PEOPLE (rich, poor, educated, homeless, victim, etc…) have a creative life force inside of them just waiting for someone to notice. Look deep into the eyes of those who are suffering: they cling onto every word that might shine hope into their life of challenge.

The tip of the entrepreneurship iceberg rests in those who dream of rebuilding their lives.

Author: advance759