NOTIONS: Fighting mountains, oceans with human connections

During the 1992 presidential campaign, H. Ross Perot used the phrase “that giant sucking sound” to describe what he feared would be a rush of American jobs into Mexico should the U.S. approve the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In Indiana’s 2006 economy, “that giant sucking sound” describes the rush of Indiana talent across the state line to anywhere but here.

In a phenomenon known as the “brain drain,” Indiana exports more young talent than it imports.

But suppose we reversed the flow?

Suppose some of the young intellects at our universities got a thorough look-see beyond campus?

Suppose they got a healthy dose of Hoosier hospitality?

Suppose they could translate our native niceness into a sense of connectedness in a too-often isolated world?

Suppose they discovered they could quickly get involved in shaping their world, influencing organizations and advancing causes, rather than playing pawn until they were 40 or 50 in some major metropolis?

Suppose they found people like themselves-genuine people preferring simpler lives without all the gloss and hype of a bottled brand?

If they discovered that, might it increase the odds they’d forego the mountains, oceans and skyscrapers to stick around? And even if they left to get their fill of such stuff, might they be more likely to one day return?

Back in 2003, Lilly Endowment Inc. wagered that Hoosier higher education could play a critical role in such a strategy. So it approved grants totaling $40 million toward that end. That five-year funding, ranging from $750,000 to $5.5 million per institution, was awarded to 37 Indiana colleges and universities, based on enrollment.

The Endowment said the grant recipients were to “design programs that would provide educational experiences and help identify and develop economic opportunities- internships, work experiences and ultimately jobs-to help reverse the pull on Indiana’s pool of young talent.”

One of those grants went to Butler University in Indianapolis.

Butler used part of that $750,000 to keep Monticello, Ind., native and former Butler basketball player Julie Schrader on Hoosier soil.

Now Schrader’s running a summer “brain gain” program designed to encourage Butler students to stay in Indiana after they graduate-or, at minimum, to plant a positive first impression so they might, one day, return.

Now in its second year, Schrader’s Summer Brain Gain Program provides discounted campus housing to 21 Butler students-mostly sophomores and juniors from outside the city or state (one’s from Australia)-while they do internships or other experiential learning.

In addition to formal learning, the students attend eight off-campus events that expose them to Indianapolis culture, sports, professional networks and more.

Schrader said the program is designed to get students off campus and into a city they too seldom explore during the school year.

“We call it the Butler Bubble,” said Schrader, who attributes that isolation not to elitism, but economics. “It’s often because students don’t have the money, resources or time to get off campus and see Indianapolis,” she said.

By tapping Butler’s Lilly Endowment grant, negotiating discounts and forming partnerships with other organizations, Schrader removes the fiscal restraint and gives students a new perspective on the Circle City.

As one participant in last year’s program put it, “Butler has been my home since my freshman year, but Indianapolis didn’t become my home until this summer.”

Schrader knows she faces big barriers: Students who think Indiana is boring, students who think the best opportunities aren’t here, students seeking corporate headquarters jobs that are few and far between in Indiana.

But by showing participants fast-growing, small-to-medium-sized businesses, making connections with employers, and opening the door to community involvement, she hopes to put Indiana “on their radar screen.”

And mostly, there’s her secret weapon: Connecting students with like-minded people who come to matter in their lives.

“Even if they don’t stay here,” Schrader said, “they’ve made that connection with someone who knows someone who knows someone. That will make them better leaders in the work force when they graduate and better ambassadors for Indianapolis.”

On June 8, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Butler will work with two other organizations-the IndyHub young professionals group and Indiana INTERnet-to stage Get Indy-volved!, a networking event at Murat Centre’s Corinthian Hall.

Get Indy-volved! is billed as a chance to “mix and mingle … and learn more about the endless opportunities the Circle City has to offer.”

In short, Schrader and her cohorts are battling other places’ dazzling amenities with livability and human connections.

“We can’t compete with mountains and oceans,” said IndyHub Executive Director Molly Chalmers. “But we can compete if we have companies that let their young professionals have a say, and community mentors who take young people under their wings and people with connections who are willing to share them with newcomers.”

If you want to engage in any of the above, you’re invited to strut your stuff at Murat Centre Thursday night.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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