Why the "brain drain" is awesome for Iowa

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I gave my first Ignite!-style pitch at EntreFEST in Iowa City on May 20. I scripted most of the words I spoke, so it made sense to re-use them as a post as well. Images are the slides I used, as appropriate. — Geoff

For most of my adult life, leaders in our state have been talking about the “brain drain”. The idea that so many people who graduate from colleges in Iowa immediately leave the state that it needs a label: brain drain.

Its a real thing. Data was published earlier this month that said 50% of the students at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa and 15% of the students at the University of Northern Iowa will leave the state after graduation.

Everyone thinks about this as a problem — how could you not when it’s called “brain drain”?

The real problem isn’t losing recent graduates — its that we aren’t attracting people to Iowa fast enough to grow significantly. But I’m not here to talk about that.

I’m talking about people leaving—and how it is awesome for Iowa because the 8000 or so graduates from our state universities plus their counterparts in private schools and community colleges have the potential to immediately become ambassadors for everything that it means to be an Iowan.

We need to flip the idea of brain drain on its head and celebrate theseIowans, we need to create a culture where people value that Iowa is a part of their story, part of their journey. We want them to embrace that having lived in Iowa helped to shape them into what they go on to become and what they accomplish after they leave.

We need to change the idea of “I can’t wait to get out of Iowa” into “I’m glad that I was there”. We need to make the point that whether you were born and raised here, educated here, or worked here at one point in your life — you are always an Iowan. You have Iowan heritage.

There are more Irish pubs around the world than any other type of bar. Why? Because the Irish people had their own (much more severe) “drain” event in the potato famine. They went all over the world and they carried their heritage with them. It still exists today and as a result we can celebrate by drinking a Guinness anywhere we go

We need an attitude and culture like the Irish. To some extent, we have this — if two people from Iowa meet somewhere in New York or Chicago or Dublin, they’ll talk about their shared connection to Iowa. Its natural. Its expected. I’m sure that it’s happened to all of you.

The same isn’t true for every state. Do you think to Californians ors Texans would do this? Maybe — but it’s not a given. Those states are too big. Their experiences are too diverse. The relatively small size of Iowa makes this shared experience all the more unique.

The so-called brain drain has created a vast and well educated Alumni-base for the State of Iowa. They represent every industry, every ethnic group and both genders. They’re in all corners of the world and they’re doing some pretty awesome things.

Think about technology. Ben Silbermann, a Des Moines native, founded Pinterest. That company currently has a valuation of over 11 billion dollars.

Steve Van Roekel, a Cherokee native and Iowa State grad recently stepped down from his post as the second CIO of the United States.

Aayush Phumbhra earned his MBA at Iowa State and while there founded Chegg the Netflix-for-textbook rental company that IPO’d in 2013.

And in comedy, you have people like Steve Higgins. A Des Moines native, Saturday Night Live producer and the announcer on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Brooks Wheelen of Manchester is a former cast member on Saturday Night Live.

Robin Thede, from Davenport, is currently the head writer on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore

In television and film you have folks like Michelle Monaghan, from tiny Winthrop in northeast Iowa. She was the female lead on True Detective, Mission Impossible 3 and Gone Baby Gone.

Jason Momoa fromNorwalk was Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones and will soon be Aquaman.

Elijah Wood — who is no relation to me — from Lord of the Rings fame and my hometown of Cedar Rapids.

In Music you have Nate Ruess from the band Fun. who was born here in Iowa City.

Nora Kirkpatrick from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is from Johnston and was also on The Office.

Dave Keuning of The Killers is from Pella and alumnus of the University of Iowa.

We have investors like Ashton Kutcher, from Clear Creek Amana High School, an actor and investor in companies including Airbnb, Skype, Uber and Dwolla.

Marc Andreesen, the founder Netscape and managing partner of Andreessen Horowitz, and has been labeled “the most powerful man in Silicon Valley.” He’s originally from Cedar Falls.

What do these people all have in common? They’re all eligible to join the unofficial State of Iowa Alumni Association, called The Iowan Project.

Its an online map and database where anyone who was born, raised, educated or worked in Iowa can self identify and share not just their Iowa connection but where they are and what they’re up to now.

You should encourage everyone of your expat friends to join the Iowan project. Not now but as soon as I’m done, text them all iowanproject.com

Its not going to convince them to move back. Its not going to convince them to start companies here. Its not going to solve the underlying problem which is that we don’t yet attract enough new to people to our state. What it will do, is start to change the attitude and the culture around having a connection to Iowa as part of your life story.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix — from [Not Iowa] — has a famous quote about building company culture at Netflix:

He said, “Let’s create a company that will be a great place to be from.”

I say everyone here should think of our state, that “Iowa is a great place to come from.”

I invited Ben Silbermann to speak at a conference in Des Moines in 2011 — many of you were probably there. Pinterest had been live for about 18 months, he had just raised his first really big round of funding and his talk was awesome. He talked a lot about how Iowa has influenced his company.

It was inspired by the bug collection he kept as a kid in Des Moines. His friends in Iowa understood it much faster than his friends on the coasts. Iowans were disproportionately over represented as users on the site.

Ben will probably never move back here. He’s probably never going to open a branch office for Pinterest here. But every time he tells that story — how being an Iowan is key to the success of his company — its a win for all of us.

Thats why the brain drain is awesome for Iowa.

NOTE: Cross posted on Medium.

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May 4, 2015

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Geoff Wood has been helping tell the story of the Iowa startup community since 2009. In addition to writing here, he hosts a podcast, speaks at conferences, organizes events and runs Gravitate—the entrepreneurial center of gravity in downtown Des Moines.

May 4, 2015

Geoff Wood

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May 4, 2015

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