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Panel: Rebranding Michigan as a Place for High-Tech

December 9, 2022

On Thursday, Dec. 8, top leaders in Southeast Michigan’s automotive and mobility industry gathered at the 2022 MichAuto Summit to discuss accelerating the region’s tech-talent future. Keynotes and panels explored topics ranging from building a magnet for the future workforce to inclusion in the mobility and new energy economy.

One panel moderated by Dustin Walsh, Senior Reporter at Crain’s Detroit Business, focused on enabling Michigan’s innovation and tech talent, exploring the state’s population loss and the need to rebrand for talent and startup attraction and retention. The panel included: 

  • Ronia Kruse, President and Chief Executive Officer of OpTech and Co-founder of Digital Lakes, 
  • Rob Llanes, Senior Vice President of Business Development at The Right Place, and 
  • Trista Van Tine, Executive Director and Co-founder of Michigan Founders Fund 

 The Importance of Collaboration for Population Growth 

According to Walsh, Michigan is one of 17 states whose population is declining. This can be partially attributed to COVID-19, which has contributed to 77 of the state’s 83 counties having more deaths than births. It can also be attributed to the exodus of Michigan’s college graduates. 

Yet, the Grand Rapids region has seemingly been immune. For more than a decade, it has experienced population growth. 

According to Llanes, much of this growth can be attributed to the region’s diverse economy and the mindset the community has about collaboration. 

“It’s due to the community that lives there. They’re a philanthropic community. They’re very interested in helping the community grow,” Llanes said. “They have a philosophy that essentially by the business community helping the community, they all can thrive.” 

Kruse agrees that collaboration is important to driving population growth. 

“There’s a lot of competition going on, but we really need to come together and collaborate,” said Kruse. “I love what Grand Rapids is doing. We need to do it statewide. We absolutely need to bring all parties to the table, come together, and bring the best minds together to think outside of our own companies and think about the state as a whole.”  

Rebranding Michigan as a Place for High-Tech 

In addition to collaboration, Kruse cited rebranding Michigan as a place for high-tech as a way to drive talent to the region. 

According to Kruse, about 40% of Michigan’s college graduates leave the state, with many being in high-tech industries, and over 50% of students graduating with degrees in engineering or IT are international, yet they do not choose Michigan to start their career. Much of this is due to lack of awareness of opportunities within the state. 

“It really is a branding issue. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here in Michigan, but what we need to do is, we can’t be so automotive focused,” said Kruse. “It’s, of course, mobility, but there’s also technology. It’s embedded in every company, in every industry. We really need to showcase all the technology that’s happening across all the industries – in health care, in finance. There’s so much technology that’s happening; people just don’t know about it.” 

Not knowing about opportunities in tech is one reason why Van Tine left Michigan after graduating from the University of Michigan in 2005. She only returned to the state in 2020, and that’s when she realized what Michigan has to offer for those in the industry.  

That’s also when she realized that Michigan needs to rebrand – both to drive talent to the state and to attract high-tech startups. 

“We need to do a better job of telling that story and making sure that when we do that, we’re rolling out the welcome mat to people and saying, ‘In Michigan, for the startups, for these founders, we see you, we want you here, you belong here, and we will support you to be successful. And, when you fail, we’ll help you start again,’” said Van Tine. 

Retaining Current Talent Through Innovative Exchange 

While attracting talent and startups to the state remains crucial to driving population growth, retaining existing talent is also important. At Digital Lakes, Kruse shared they are developing a micro-internship program, where they reach freshmen and sophomores interested in tech. She also cited upskilling Michigan’s aging workforce and leveraging the engaging K-12 curriculum as other retention methods. 

“As a community, we really do need to come together to rebrand, to have innovative exchange across all industries, and to collaborate to build this pipeline of tech talent so that we don’t lose those businesses in Michigan,” said Kruse.