I attended the Make / Happen conference in Omaha last week. The theme of the conference challenged attendees to become “doers” because, as the event’s mission statement says:
Only you can make leadership happen. Be the leader you’ve been waiting for and shake up the status quo.
Lol, OK. Challenge accepted.
Look out for brain drain
At the opening session, facilitators asked the crowd: “What would you do to solve the brain drain problem in Omaha if you had $100 million?”
Brain drain, of course, refers to the movement of human capital away from a particular area. In other words, our young, educated, talented people are leaving Nebraska and not coming back.
If you pair this issue with a lack of “brain gain” — attracting talented people to a particular area — then the lack of human capital in Nebraska means we’ve got a serious economic problem on our hands. Businesses won’t move here. Businesses can’t stay here. Jobs go away. You get the picture.
But I found the “$100 million” aspect of the question to be kinda odd, as solving the brain drain problem cannot be done with money alone. We must consider how the experience of living here influences why people leave, or why they stay.
4 ways we can make Omaha a cooler place to live
I write this from the perspective of someone who fits the precise demographic that Omaha is hoping to attract/retain: techie, millennial, well-educated, successful. Here’s what I think we need to do to reverse brain drain and increase brain gain in Omaha — and by extension, the Heartland in general.
1. Reshape our corporate culture
Omaha is a corporate town. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but we must recognize that the hip millennials we’re trying to attract here don’t want to be corporate. Even supposedly edgy conferences like the Make / Happen conference featured a lineup of all-white, all-male corporate CEOs as the highlight of the event. This 100 percent supports the status quo that the conference begs us to challenge.
It’s not that Omaha has to become less corporate, but we do need to reshape corporate culture to better match the values of the millennial generation. For instance, I would have loved to see a panel with those very same Fortune 1000 CEOs sitting next to women and people of color who are local CEOs, all having a lively conversation about leadership in the Omaha business community.
Millennials are socially conscious like no other generation, and we care about things like inclusion and diversity. Further support of cultural events (like Maha) as well as support for the startup community can also chill out the corporate-y feel in Omaha.
2 . Embrace the fact that we’re not perfect
In conversation, Omahans rarely speak ill of their city, and when someone says something negative about Omaha, others will quickly follow up with a positive comment.
Even though I’m from the Midwest, I’ve always found the Nebraska Nice mindset to be a little strange. Our insistence to say only nice things or say nothing at all is problematic because we cannot begin to solve problems in our community if we refuse to talk about them. Our unwillingness to challenge one another — whether that’s friendly debate or constructive criticism — stifles creativity, innovation, and progress in our city.
But it’s more than just that. Young, ambitious people need problems to solve, and if we feed them the message that Omaha is perfect, what incentive would they have to stay or to move here? What if our messaging to young people is more like “Hey, Omaha isn’t perfect, we have real problems, and we need your help to solve them”?
3. Take the lead on racial equity
It wasn’t long ago that Nebraska was ranked the most dangerous place in America for black people to live, which is a tragic truth that we so often leave out of our conversations on how wonderful it is to live in Omaha. Institutionalized racism has ensured that the American Dream is often out of reach for people of color in our city. Just read this quote from a black young professional, as cited in this recent survey:
I would choose to live somewhere else because my children cannot be what they do not see. My child would not have the ability to see Black doctors, lawyers, CEOs, community leaders, etc. Why would I choose to raise a family in this environment when there are other cities that do not struggle with this representation?
We all must take ownership of racial and social equity in Omaha because it’s the moral and ethical thing to do, and because we can’t have a conversation about talent in Nebraska without recognizing that the absence of a successful, healthy black middle class is a problem of our own making.
4. Create a civic innovation strategy
Imagine if Omaha’s public schools were all brand-new. And we had beautiful, updated libraries. And the best parks of any city in the country. What if Omaha was a “smart city” with city services and programs seamlessly integrated with technology?
The livability of our city directly affects whether people stay or go. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to civic innovation, because we can steal best practices from other cities across the country that have already solved the problems that we face today.
On the other side of that coin, we can look at what isn’t working in other cities to create a competitive advantage in attracting talent. Silicon Valley, for instance, has a serious problem retaining women in the tech sector. What if Omaha implemented a citywide strategy — possibly through shared policies and training — to establish Omaha as the most female-friendly business environment in the United States?
Don’t tell me that the exhausted, underappreciated, brilliant women in the tech field wouldn’t flee the coasts for the opportunity to have a better life here. Identifying specific ways we can differentiate Omaha from other Midwestern cities will give us the edge we need to attract talented people to our city.
Rebecca Stavick is the executive director of Do Space, a community technology library in Omaha, Nebraska dedicated to empowering community through access to technology and innovative learning experiences. This post first appeared on her Medium blog.