Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Urban Alumni Networks

If you didn’t read the comments on my recent posting “Our Product is Better Than Our Brand“, I strongly suggest clicking through to see them. There are some very thoughtful and insightful contributions from readers that are very worth checking out.

One thing a couple people suggested was tapping into people who moved away. This is a great idea. Jim Russell has been exploring the concept for quite some time over at Burgh Diaspora. There are a few examples out there of cities that have done it. Boston is working on one, for example. But this is still fairly virgin territory and I think there are still first mover advantages to be had.

Part of the challenge is that treating people who left as an asset instead of a loss is counter to the conventional wisdom of “brain drain”. The other is that this one of those “fertilizing the soil” type of programs I mentioned. It doesn’t necessarily have an immediate term ROI. This makes it a hard sell politically. But all the best ideas require long term commitment and staying power.

I actually wrote up a one-page “pitch” for an “alumni association” for Indianapolis. I wasn’t sure who to look to for sponsorship, however. Nor was I particularly ready at the time to drop what I was doing and try to launch such an organization myself. In the belt-tightening world we are in today, this is likely an idea that, whatever its merits, isn’t going to make the cut for funding. However, I’ll present it here in the hopes that readers find it useful. As always, this would apply equally well to any Midwestern city.

Every university in the world promotes itself through the personal relationships of the people who studied there. But to my knowledge, no city in the world has ever attempted to create the same kind of massive, information-sharing community on behalf of a city.” – Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Boston

Indianapolis should create an alumni network. Universities like Harvard and companies like McKinsey have long recognized the value of cultivating their alumni as a source of new business, donations, and engaged supporters. The emerging economies of places like China and India have been powered by connections to the global economy fostered by their diaspora networks. Cities should likewise be able to cultivate connections to those who left and leverage them for similar results. It is a way to fertilize the soil and build a better climate for the city’s future growth. Benefits include:

  • Building connections to the global economy. In an ever more globalized world, city alumni can be the foot in the door in places like Silicon Valley, San Diego, New York, London, China, and other key business centers around the world. It is easier to do business when there is an existing connection and the common experience that breeds trust to leverage.
  • Creating ambassadors for the city. Former residents are Indy’s field sales force. They are marketers and cheerleaders for the city in their new home, providing free exposure to the good things happening in Indy. Who better to sell the city abroad than its expatriate community?
  • Opening a pipeline of ideas. Cities today cannot survive on internally generated ideas alone. Ideas flow faster than ever and change happens more quickly. Getting new ideas transmitted sooner, and knowing what is working and not working out in the world, can help keep Indy ahead of the change curve. Alumni can help better plug Indy into the great global conversation that is increasingly shaping our world.
  • Easing the path of return. Keeping people who leave updated on local happenings and showing them their engagement locally is still welcome makes it more likely they will think of and choose Indy as a place to return to. To the extent that Indy helps its people succeed wherever they go, that will only build loyalty to the home town, whether they return or not.

This network is a near whitespace opportunity for Indy. Cities have not yet looked to tap their diaspora communities in the way that other institutions have. Indy has the chance to gain early mover advantage. But this opportunity will not last forever. As the quote at the top says, Boston is looking to set up something like this. In the future, it may be that every city will need to have an alumni network just to keep up with the competition.

The template for a successful alumni program is well-understood via successful examples in the academic and business communities. The concept also lends itself to small scale startup and incremental investment over time.

Topics: Economic Development, Talent Attraction

13 Responses to “Urban Alumni Networks”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is an intriguing idea that could yield significant long-term returns for the city and the state at a relatively low start up cost.

    I suggest a signature event–an Indianapolis-style humanities festival–to kick start the action.

    The festival does not have to feature 100% Hoosiers or Hoosier expats. In fact, the festival could help expats make new connections and expand their social network.

    For example, expats in Boston or California with an eye for talent could endure themselves to future movers and shakers for a lifetime by cadging an invite to speak at the festival through homegrown connections. Helping someone on the way up find an audience is a win-win opportunity for everyone. These featured guest could provide native Hoosiers with a remarkable and contemporary window to the world through direct engagement.

    The festival could also help to connect in-state institutions of higher learning and academic talent to a variety of other talented in-state professionals who might help them find broader markets for promising research or cultural endeavors.

    All in all, it could be a focal point, a mixer if you will… a great annual party that highlights serious cultural themes… for the state’s “in-house” leadership, its expat talent and all their worldly connections as well.

  2. thundermutt says:

    I don’t think Urbanophile was suggesting an “event-driven” network, and I think another big ol’ party is not what’s needed in Indy. We’ve got plenty of events and parties, with motorsports, Expo, Colts, Final Fours, Spirit and Place, annual festivals like Jazz Fest and Penrod, and the “signature” events of all the local cultural entities.

    No, I understand this as something more high-concept, with newsletters and blogs and webinars that create links that bind expats to the city and provide two-way opportunity for those who are here and those who might want to be here.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 10:27, some cities have done events. For example, Louisville has done a “reunion tour” where the mayor and various other leaders travel to places like Tampa with local products such as Maker’s Mark and try to woo alumni back. All of these, as near as I can tell, are focused on trying to get people to move back, not keep them engaged where they are.

    That is the absolute key to this. An alumni network is not primarily about boomerang migration. It’s about making people into assets no matter where they are. Many people in various cities want to contribute to their hometown, but aren’t necessarily able to move back.

    Two other things. First, don’t underestimate the cost of staging an event. It can be higher than you might imagine. Second, Indianapolis already has a humanities festival – it is called the Spirit and Place Festival. While it is not exactly something like the Chicago Humanities Festival, it still has a number of great programs that clearly fall into this area.

    thunder has got more of what I was thinking. I actually think there’s an opportunity to start really, really cheap leveraging existing platforms like Facebook and Linked In. No one wants to be forced to join yet another social network.

    Thanks for the ideas.

  4. Ahow says:

    After I moved to Seattle, I had a friend from Southside Indy who moved there as well. His roommate was an Indiana native as well. We slowly started connecting with other Indiana natives and began getting together for Euchre tournaments and Colts games — things you can’t find with native Seattle folks.

    I think if you could start pure and simple alumni clubs (no humanity festival garbage) you could really get people motivated to find others in their same shoes. After not playing Euchre (a Purdue staple) it was refreshing and nostalgic to get back into it.

    Since moving back, another guy I met has been talking non-stop to be about now wanting to move back after being completely content for 10+ years. The main difference was meeting another Hoosier and talking about familiar stuff.

    Heck, after writing all that, why not make your first point of contact the 4 big universities in the state (ND, PU, IU, BSU) and use their alumni groups already in place?

  5. SpeedBlue47 says:

    This is truly a great idea. Actually, my first blog here on Blogger – Speed Blue Nation – was supposed to be a front page for a similar sort of diaspora network. But SBN looked to connect Indy expats through a common bond – the Colts.

    My thinking was that at first offer a simple newsletter that would allow expat Colts communities to expose their activities to interested party and give suggestions to fans in other communities. Then I was going to sell special merchandise that avoided copyright issues, but allowed people to show that they were part of a true transnational(maybe international) fraternity of fans.

    The crescendo was to tap leaders of the various groups to operate a franchise establishment like Blue Crew in their communities to allow them to benefit materially while providing a sort of “safe haven” for expats and fellow fans of other origins to socialize and cheer on their favorite teams.

    I am currently going through a divorce myself, and am just getting resettled in the Indy area after living in Texas for 2 years. I wanted to make something like this happen so bad because I longed for things from home (thank you for the Euchre example), and I wanted SBN to succeed because I thought it was a way to attract new fans to the Colts and allow the team to be a small market team that pulled in Big market local revenues through things such as merchandise sales.

    Maybe if I can set up my business here and get some work under my belt, I could devote some time to working on more ideas for this. BTW, The INDYpendent should be back in action in the next week. I know I have said that before, but my number one impediment is no longer an issue.

  6. thundermutt says:

    Now there’s a really nice way to dis your ex:

    “my number one impediment is no longer an issue”


  7. Jefferey says:

    I blogged a bit on how Louisville expats fluff their former home-town and create a buzz about the place.

    I find myself doing that to at my blog. Though its ostensibly about Dayton sometimes it seems a third of the posts are really about Louisville, where I’m unintentionally a Louisville evangelist (and probably pissing off my few Dayton readers).

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Ahow, this is exactly what I’m talking about. People don’t join university alumni associations because they like writing checks to the school. They do it to a great extent to tap into the networking opportunities it provides. Heck, many school’s MBA programs are prestigious partly because of the value of being able to join the alumni network. (They don’t call it an “old boy’s” club for nothing).

    There are already at least two organizations of this type I’ve been able to identify, btw, the Indiana Society of Chicago and the Indiana Society of Washington, DC. These groups spontaneously decided there was value in a networking club.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    Ahow, another point. When I suggested that the university alumni associations might be a good place to start, or even just potentially outsource the thing to, some people expressed skepticism, saying that these groups treated their alumni networks as proprietary fundraising lists.

    I don’t know, but it does make an interesting test case of the thinking in Indiana. Somebody once described Silicon Valley as something like, “Hey you’re doing something cool. I’m doing something cool. Why don’t we team up and do something even cooler?” “Yeah, great idea”. This in contrast with the “What’s mine is mine and I’m not sharing nuthin’ unless you sign my toxic NDA and non-compete agreement” prevalent elsewhere.

    It would be nice if Indiana could show a little tech center type thinking and figure out how some existing orgs could collaborate to make this happen, which could conceivably lower the cost even more.

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    Speed, I mentioned Pittsburgh earlier. As any Colts fan can tell you, there are huge numbers of Steelers fans in every city. I believe one reason that Russell thought Pittsburgh was an ideal place for an alumni approach was that it had huge forced outmigration in the 70’s when the steel industry crashed, plus had the Steelers Nation to tap into.

    I don’t think the Colts have quite the drawing power, but look at the message boards out there for the Colts and Pacers and you find plenty of out of town fans. Go to a city like Chicago and find bars for every college and pro team you can name. There’s something to this.

  11. SpeedBlue47 says:


    To be fair, I really wasn’t trying to dis my ex. It’s not that kind of divorce – just one of those “this is better for the both of us” type of things. I just meant that I devoted the lion’s share of my free time to her, and now I don’t have to.


    I could see that with Pittsburgh, especially since their diaspora grew exponentially at the height of the Steelers’ dominance. My honest belief is that if you can create an identity and foster a sense of community to some product or brand, it will not only engender loyalty to such, but make other people want to be “in” as well. This is largely what is responsible for the continuance of Raider Nation from NY to Miami.

    Sports teams are intimately linked with their city, and you can follow their success live on TV, on the internet, and on the radio. And you are given as much info and analysis about them as you can stand. The city itself, not so much. Sports teams get a lot of free exposure, and that sort of marketing clout could easily be leveraged at little to no cost by the city. And I don’t mean “The City of Indianapolis” when I say city. I mean the individual businesses and people who benefit and take pride in seeing their city look beautiful and prosperous to people around the nation.

    I believe that if you built such a network, you tie in not only Indy expats and their families, but also people who may have never been in the same time zone as Indy, but already have a personal connection to the city through the team. If it sounds silly, getting to go to Colts’ home games and tailgate was in the Top 5 reasons I moved back to Indy.

    I like this idea because this is almost an “Army of Davids” approach to obtaining a goal long thought to only be accomplished through some kind of Marketing and Tourism czar. It is also nice because it engages people voluntarily through offering entrepreneurial motivations to help in building it. And in end, it is the actions of the individual residents of this city – and those who have left or whom we wish to move here – that will decide what direction this city will take; Not a bureaucrat.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I thought the Louisville reunion tour was kinda of a joke. I would hate to see Indianapolis do somethhing like that.

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Speed, shoot me an email if you ever want to exchange ideas on this topic.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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