Metro Detroit Organization Aims to Curb the 'Brain Drain'

If Detroit is going to forge a brighter future, it needs all the difference-makers it can get. It needs all the enthusiasm and energy it can get. Every strong shoulder, every drop of sweat, every bold idea.

And it really needs young college graduates to stop leaving Michigan with their degrees to seek opportunities elsewhere. Statistics reveal that more than half of Michigans university students leave the state after graduating.

The situation is dire. Metro Detroit is in the top five Greatest Brain Draining regions in the United States.

According to a survey by Fusion, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerces young professional organization, nearly a quarter of Detroits young professionals plan to leave the city within two years.

Fusion was formed three years ago to reverse that trend.

Its all about engagement, says Christianne Simms, the organizations director since its inception. People engaged are less likely to leave. The question we ask is how can we engage talent here in the hopes that theyll stay?

Initially envisioned as offering social and network programming, with its launch last year of Operation Impact, Fusion began focusing on civic engagement and partnering with area nonprofits to offer members hands-on volunteer experiences.

We can actually step up and be part of the change instead of sitting back and hoping someone changes it for us, says Simms.

In addition to monthly events staged in the tri-county area, Fusion also offers members an affordable rate to attend the Mackinac Policy Conference, an attractive benefit to young professionals priming themselves for leadership roles in the future.

Were at a time and place where leadership is needed, says Simms. Its an opportunity for us to make a mark on this area.

Young lawyers are among those Fusion members looking to assume positions of greater responsibility in a metropolitan area desperately in need of their skills, talents, and vision. Here, we introduce you to eight who are ready to make a difference.

The Transplant
Name: Richard Zmijewski Sr.
Firm: Berry Moorman
Age: 33

What Detroit Needs: A greater sense of safety
Quote: The divisive mentality that were in the suburbs or were in the city has to go. This whole area is in it together.

Growing up in Erie, Pa., the primary exposure Richard Zmijewski had to Detroit was the few times he attended the
auto show.

The other impression he had of Detroit came from the drug trade that ran between the big city and his small lakeside town.

He now has a chance to become more familiar with the full picture.

A graduate of Penn State with a degree in political science, Zmijewski moved with his wife Gina to Michigan in 2004 to attend Ave Marie School of Law.

Practicing law was a career consideration early on for Zmijewski, but it moved to the background after college as he turned his hand to a variety of ventures, including selling insurance, developing web sites, playing drums in a band, even toying with the idea of entering politics.

I figured out I needed something that challenged me, says Zmijewski. The idea of law school came back to me.

He and his wife initially moved to Canton. Their third week in town he and his wife went out to eat at the Oslo, a sushi restaurant on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.

I liked the idea of going into Detroit, Zmijewski recalls.

What we thought downtown was going to be, it just wasnt. It was eye opening. Thats when I was introduced to the dynamics of downtown.

Now a business law attorney with Berry Moorman, Zmijewski wants to see people wanting to go downtown. When his two brothers visited recently, Zmijewski took them downtown for a Tigers game and a bite at Lafayette Coney Island.

Zmijewski and Gina live near Ann Arbor where they are raising two boys, 3-year-old RJ and newborn David. If they consider their move to Michigan as temporary when they first came, that has changed.

I had no intention of staying here, says Gina. Before we knew it, and I dont even know how it happened, Michigan became our home. Now we cant imagine leaving.

Zmijewski joined Fusion in December.

I want to help promote business, he says. Fusion gives you the opportunity to network with other professions. And theres the sense that we have the responsibility to help our community.

The Mentor
Name: Shanta McMullan
Firm: Honigman
Age: 31

What Detroit Needs: A change in mindset

Quote: Fusion is a good avenue for me to meet people who are bright, young and interested in making Detroit better.

This fall, Shanta McMullan will take on the role of mentor to a Detroit-area student, dedicating at least four hours a month over the next four years to help guide the student through graduating high school.

A year ago, McMullan joined the board of Student Mentor Partners, an organization that works to support the educational opportunities of at-risk Detroit-area youth by providing mentors and trying to make private school affordable for low-income families.

McMullan, whose father died when she was 8, feels the need to be a role model, the way the young attorneys mother was a role model as she raised her own three daughters and two sons.

Ive always had someone along the way that Ive been able to go to with questions and not be afraid to do it, she says. I feel I can show under-privileged youth that they can fit the mold of an attorney or anything else they want to be.

A native of Muskegon and a big sports fan, McMullan studied communications and sports management at the University of Michigan. She had her eyes on a marketing career and following graduation worked as a coaching staff assistant for the Detroit Lions for four years. It was that experience, however, that turned McMullans attention to getting a law degree from Wayne State.

I decided to go to law school to help athletes, she says.

She clerked at the National Football Leagues headquarters in New York and at the Library of Congress, which is where she decided to focus on labor law because at the end of the day, professional sports is about employment.

McMullan is a newcomer to Fusion, having only joined earlier this year at the encouragement of a friend.

I was attracted to the types of things they were doing, says McMullan. I wanted to be a part of the improvement and development of the Detroit area, to bring about some change to the city.

Shes thinking that in addition to her legal expertise, she may be able to contribute her marketing skills to Fusions efforts to reshape and revitalize Detroit.

Ive always felt the need to give back to the community Im a part of, says McMullan. If Im going to be here and theres a need, I should be part of the solution.

The Advisor
Name: Bill Lentine
Firm: Kerr, Russell, and Weber
Age: 33

What Detroit Needs: Broader career opportunities for young profesionals

Quote: I think theres great diversity here and if people can build on that in a positive way, I think Detroit can be as successful as a Chicago.

When Grosse Pointe native Bill Lentine graduated from Michigan State University, he did what thousands of young graduates have been doing for years: he left the state.

He headed west and took his skills and talents to Chicago, seeking opportunity. He was not alone. There were plenty of MSU grads pulled to the Windy City by the same magnet that attracted Lentine.

Chicago has a broader economy (than Detroit) and with that theyre drawing the young talent away, he says.

The opportunity Lentine sought, he found. He became a certified public accountant and worked as a financial analyst for an international law firm for some half-dozen years.

As a teenager, Lentine had considered becoming a teacher, maybe a math teacher who coached soccer or basketball. His parents, after all, were middle school teachers. In college, though, he explored going into engineering. It was the words of an advisor that changed Lentines focus; the advisor said the person he trusted the most was his CPA.

I realized that I wanted to be that trusted advisor, says Lentine. I get my satisfaction in the job in knowing people can rely on me and trust my advice.

Lentine says he truly believes a good CPA is worth his weight in gold.

Working at the law firm in Chicago peaked Lentines interest in a career in law and in 2005 he returned to his alma mater to earn his law degree.

By then, he had married his wife Kim, who also is an accountant and grew up in the area. After Lentine finished law school, the pair chose to live in Metro Detroit near family, and he began practicing at Kerr, Russell and Weber.

Lentine first heard of Fusion in connection with the Mackinac Policy Conference. He was not quick to buy into the buzz he was hearing.

I was a little skeptical, but I thought I would go see what an event was like, he says.
He liked what he found, a group of young professionals passionate about making Metro Detroit a better place. Hes since attended events in both downtown Detroit and in the burbs, which he thinks is important to help break down geographic barriers that have hindered Metro Detroits progress.

Fusion creates a good opportunity for people to mingle with people they may not otherwise meet, says Lentine, who is now a member of the Entrepreneurship Committee chaired by his colleague, Bob Dindoffer.

If you have the career opportunities here, people will stay, says Lentine. Michigan has a lot of great resources.

The Positive Thinker
Name: Zana Tomich
Firm: Tomkiw Dalton
Age: 33

What Detroit Needs: A focus on arts and culture

Quote: We all have this sense of pride in our region and want to see it return to its former brightness.

Zana Tomich grew up in Dearborn Heights and Northville, spending countless hours in her parents restaurant that the family has owned for more than three decades.

Im a lifelong Metro Detroiter, says Tomich in her downtown Royal Oak office. I havent gone far.

Growing up experiencing a successful family business, it might seem natural that Tomich should consider studying business when she enrolled at the University of Michigan. But that was before she took a political science class that piqued her interest. And before taking a series of aptitude tests that all pointed her to a career in law.

Tomich changed course and went on to earn her juris doctorate from Wayne State University Law School in 2002, becoming the first lawyer in her family. She may have been a trailblazer and trendsetter her younger brother is a lawyer too who also obtained his law degree from Wayne Law a few years later.

Tomich joined Tomkiw Dalton nearly eight years ago, focusing on corporate transactions involving businesses, religious organizations, and financial institutions.

Two years ago, Tomich was asked to speak at a Fusion event.

It was her first introduction to the group and she liked the positive energy it emitted. It was good timing for Tomich, who was ready professionally and personally to become involved in a service-networking organization.

At some point, when youve got all your ducks in a row, you think, okay, its time to give back, she says.

Giving back to Tomich means in part helping to bring about the transformation of Metro Detroit.

I think we all want to say when we travel that were from Detroit and not get that scowl, says the young lawyer, who is also a member of Fusions Entrepreneurship Committee. We all have this sense of pride in our region and want to see it return to its former brightness.

Mother of a 4-year-old daughter, Tomich also appreciates the social aspect of Fusion, where you have the opportunity to develop networking skills.

They dont teach networking in law school, says Tomich. And you never know what business might come out of a social situation.

Tomich last year went to the Mackinac Policy Conference and was energized by the exchange of ideas and the powerful optimism she encountered.

With Fusion, you all have the same energy and thoughts about the region, she says. Theres a feeling that youre all in it together. Positive thoughts and positive behavior breed positive results.

The Newcomer
Name: Erin Behler
Firm: Nemeth Burwell
Age: 26

What Detroit Needs: Stronger schools

Quote: I feel as a young professional working in Detroit I have many opportunities to make an impact.

Erin Behler has lived in Metro Detroit all her life, but in
some ways the young lawyer feels like a newcomer, really experiencing the city for the first time since joining the
downtown firm Nemeth Burwell.

Raised in Troy, Behler rarely had cause growing up to journey south to Detroit.

I feel Im sort of an outsider, she says now. Until I was 20 years old, I didnt know what Detroit had to offer.

A graduate of Michigan State University, Behler initially entertained a career in advertising but decided early on to go to law school at Wayne State. She witnessed the brain drain phenomena the city and much of the state is struggling to stem as her friends from school went anywhere but Detroit.

Behler was one of the few who stayed and some of her friends at times question her choice.

I find myself defending my decision to stay here, admits Behler, but for me this felt right.

She says she is not looking for the first exit out of Detroit.

Im committed to staying here. I dont see myself going anywhere soon.

Her reasoning is simple: she believes young professionals who leave the state in pursuit of their careers will only to return years later when they are ready to raise a family.

If Im going to spend five, 10 years in a place and not stay there, why not get ahead of the game and invest those years in the place I want to be for the long term, says Behler.

She also liked the fit at Nemeth Burwell, where she law clerked before joining the firm last year.

The work is very, very interesting, says Behler. I got lucky in that respect. Im happy to come to work every day.

Now that she has chosen her city, she is ready to get out and explore it more. Much of what she has learned about Detroit while working in offices with a view of the river doesnt quite match up with her perception of the city that built up over the years.

I would be extremely proud to bring friends to my office, she says. I think of it as my job to bring my friends into the city and show them they can have a great time.

She joined Fusion last fall, in part because she wants to know more about the city and what it has to offer, but also to network and make connections across the professional spectrum.

You need to start some place building professional relationships with future leaders, says Behler. I want to position myself with those individuals who are going in the same direction I am.

The Traveler
Name: Tiffany Buckley-Norwood
Firm: Dickinson Wright
Age: 28

What Detroit Needs: Mass transit

Quote: I enjoy getting to know other people who love the city the way I do and getting reacquainted with the citys businesses and opportunities.

Tiffany Buckley-Norwood is a bit of an explorer. She loves to travel and tries to get out of the country at least once a year, whether its to Korea or Japan or honeymooning in Mexico.

This year she is headed off to Italy and Greece with girlfriends.

The Detroit native brought the same sense of exploration to choosing a career. When she started studying for her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, she had in mind becoming a doctor.

But that changed when she grew less keen about the idea of medical school and so she began exploring other options, inviting and investigating other opportunities.

I thought if I tried a little bit of everything, Id figure it out, she says. It was a good philosophy.

Taking a class on women in the law sparked her interest in a legal career. After ultimately majoring in psychology at Michigan, Buckley-Norwood emigrated east to attend Boston College Law School.

She continued to explore while in law school, volunteering with a domestic violence program and served an internship with Greater Boston Legal Services. She found that labor and employment work clicked with her.

Next to family, theres nothing more personal than your job, she says. The workplace can be a little like a soap opera. There are so many interesting stories.

Buckley-Norwood loved her time in Boston, she says. The city appealed to her sense of adventure, but she never seriously considered staying and building a life there.

Boston was not home, she says. It did not feel like home.

And so home to Michigan she returned, ready to launch her career and create an impact on her community.

Its much easier to become involved as a young professional in Michigan, she says.

Buckley-Norwood joined Fusion not long after starting at Dickinson Wright five years ago. She was referred to the group by a co-worker and was immediately attracted to its connection with the Mackinac Policy Conference. Fusion made it possible for Buckley-Norwood to attend the conference, and her experience there cemented her involvement with the newly launched organization. She recalls spending time at the conference that first year brainstorming about what Fusion should be to bring new life to Detroit.

Theres definitely an energy to Fusion, she says. It combines the social aspects, the service aspects, and the professional aspects that young professionals are looking for.

Buckley-Norwood is now a member of the Fusions Social and Service Committee convinced that the connections Fusion members make now early in their careers should serve them well as they move higher up the totem pole.

Its organizations like Fusion that help young professionals find their place in the city, she says, and show us there are places for us to help stop the brain drain.

The Connector
Name: Anne-Marie Vercruysse Welch
Firm: Clark Hill
Age: 29

What Detroit Needs: More public transportation, continued expansion of the Dequindre Cut, and better schools

Quote: You cant get to understand the people of Detroit until youve worked side by side with them and listened to their concerns.

Perhaps its not surprising that Anne-Marie Vercruysse Welch is a labor and employment lawyer. After all, labor and employment appears to be a running theme in her family. Her father, Robert Vercruysse, is the president of the boutique labor and employment law firm Vercruysse Murray & Calzone; her mother was a director of human resources at the University of Michigan; an uncle was president of a bricklayers union; and her sister Nicole is a labor and employment lawyer in Illinois. Even her husband, Rob, is an attorney.

As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, Welch studied history and communications with the idea of entering academia, but her parents encouraged her to get a law degree and once at Michigan State University College of Law, she fell in love with law.

While working during law school, I was drawn to counseling people in their day-to-day concerns, she says.

In law school, Welch was a whirlwind of involvement, serving as an associate editor of the law review, as a research assistant, as an intern to the Honorable Avern Cohn and as a member of the Phi Delta Phi executive board, among other activities. She carried that passion for participation into her legal career when she joined Clark Hill.

In the legal community, she currently serves as the secretary/treasurer of the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association Barristers, as a member of the State Bar of Michigan and the American Bar Association Labor and Employment Law Sections, and more. In the community at large, she sits on the board of directors for the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroits Camping Services and The Community House and as chair of The Uptown Group the young professionals arm of The Community House.

Its important not to be isolated and to be aware of whats going on in the community and in other industries, says Welch.

The depth of her involvement as a young attorney she attributes in part to working in the Detroit area where there is a great demand for positive energetic leadership. That demand, says Welch, provides young professionals a ripe opportunity.

I find myself more connected with more opportunities to get involved than my counterparts in Chicago and New York, she says. There are more opportunities to make meaningful connections in the Detroit area. People really pay attention to you and work to mentor you.

She became involved with Fusion two years ago at the encouragement of her mentor at Clark Hill, Reginald Turner, who is himself acclaimed for his civic contributions.

Like so many of Fusions members, Welch was initially intrigued by the opportunity to attend the Mackinac Policy Conference, but she was hooked when she discovered a group of likeminded professionals.

Everyone was friendly and was really looking to network, learn and share ideas to move this region forward, recalls Welch. I immediately felt comfortable and felt incredibly more connected to and invested in the city.

The Entrepreneur
Name: Bob Dindoffer
Firm: Kerr, Russell, and Weber
Age: 28

What Detroit Needs: New business

Quote: Detroits not going to rebuild itself without some real substantial entrepreneurship. To the extent we can get people growing businesses in this city and this state, well be on our way.

Bob Dindoffer was probably destined to be a lawyer. His parents are attorneys father Fred is a partner with Bodman and his mother Joan is vice president in the Wealth and Institutional Management Division of Comerica Bank.

Plus, hes always had a penchant for debate.

My parents always thought Id be a good lawyer because I could break down arguments well, says Dindoffer.

A 2008 graduate of University of Michigan Law School, Dindoffer now works in downtown Detroit, just like his parents.

Politically dynamic, Dindoffer is active in several civic and professional organizations, including serving as a board member for the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association Barristers, the board of The Community Houses Uptown Group in Birmingham, and as treasurer of the Oakland County Young Republicans.

He discovered Fusion two years ago, drawn by the opportunity to attend the Mackinac Policy Conference. What he found in the group and the journey north was a source of energy and common purpose.

There was an amazing sense of optimism, recalls Dindoffer of his first trip to the policy conference. We were all together. We went up together, came back together. We had a shared experience.

Fusion offers Dindoffer an avenue of access to the power players, movers and shakers who are intent on ushering Metro Detroit toward a future of greater promise and higher reputation. And he plans to be a force in that movement.

What I like about Fusion is it promotes dialogue among young professionals across the region, says Dindoffer.

As chair of Fusions Entrepreneurship Committee, Dindoffer sees new business as a central component to Detroits revitalization. He envisions the Entrepreneurship Committee as playing a key role in the generation of start-up businesses.

Many people who have great ideas dont have the knowledge- and support-base to start their businesses and that is where we can help, says Dindoffer, who is an entrepreneur himself, owning part of a business with college friends in Ann Arbor.

After graduating from college, Dindoffer considered law schools nationwide, but in the end he turned his eyes on home.

There was never a time I thought Detroit was not the place for me, says Dindoffer. To the extent I can stay here, Im here for the long haul.
With Fusion, Dindoffer is working to make that possible.

BY BRIAN COX

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