Western students lead strategy development to keep young professionals in Kalamazoo

Western Michigan University
10 Min Read
Contact: Erin Flynn
Two students stand in front of a projection screen.

Students from the Biz Rizz team present to young professionals as Fritz Brown from the Monroe-Brown Foundation looks on. (Courtesy: Madison Rose Photography)

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Keeping talent in Michigan is among the state’s top priorities, and a group of Western Michigan University students is driving strategy development in Kalamazoo.

Students in Dr. Doug Lepisto‘s spring 2024 leadership and business strategy practicum, in partnership with peers from Kalamazoo College, are working with the Monroe-Brown Foundation to help retain young professional talent in the city.

Doug Lepisto stands at the front of a room.

Dr. Doug Lepisto explains the project to a large group of young professionals. (Courtesy: Madison Rose Photography) 

“The governor created a Growing Michigan Together Council that brought together all kinds of people. And what did they say the central challenge facing the state is? How to get more young people to want to be here and stay here,” WMU President Edward Montgomery told students and 160 young professionals during an event designed to gain input from current young professionals in Kalamazoo.

“The brain drain: How do we solve this?” adds Lepisto. “We have tasked these incredible students to employ a design-thinking problem-solving approach to diagnose, prototype and implement a solution.”

Throughout the course, teams of students have researched, hypothesized, connected with city and business leaders and surveyed professionals to generate ideas ranging from incentivized networking events to new downtown housing options and infrastructure. The Monroe-Brown Foundation is committing up to $400,000 over four years to support successful initiatives with aspirations to eventually create a foundation or consortium of collaborators to keep the mission going.

“Kalamazoo is a special place. It’s affordable. It’s a university town. We’re getting an arena. There are a lot of special things happening here,” says Fritz Brown of the Monroe-Brown Foundation. “I’m so proud that we have Western and Kalamazoo College in this community, and we can come up with some good ideas to help propagate the idea that Kalamazoo is cool and that you should make it a definite choice when you graduate and start your family or start a business.”

A student raises her arms in excitement while another talks into a microphone.

The Kalamazoo Konnect team gets the crowd excited about their concept. (Courtesy: Madison Rose Photography)

The high stakes of the project give students added motivation to deliver innovative ideas.

“This is a real client with real money that wants to make a real impact, and we get to really help them do that. So, it’s pretty cool. I’m very excited,” says Anastacia Green, an entrepreneurship and leadership and business strategy student.

The nine projects that have materialized include:

  • Kazooters: To better connect and engage college students with downtown, this team proposes investing in a flock of Bird electric scooters, something hundreds of cities across the country have implemented as a sustainable way to get around town.

  • Zoo Prise Residences: This team has a vision for a modern, affordable apartment complex that serves as a hub of community for young professionals and puts them in walking distance to Kalamazoo’s vibrant downtown businesses, restaurants and entertainment offerings.

  • Kalamazoo Rising: Students aim to create an event coordination organization that hosts bimonthly events aimed at both professional and social development for young professionals in Kalamazoo.

  • Students to Suits: By creating a nonprofit organization matching student mentees from local colleges and universities with mentors from small businesses, this team aims to give employers a hand in developing future talent while connecting students more deeply with the Kalamazoo community.

  • Kalamazoo Konnect: This team is pitching a cross-university student organization aimed at bridging the gap between students and downtown by hosting interactive events highlighting what Kalamazoo has to offer and incentivizing getting engaged by giving students who participate Downtown Dollars that act as discounts at local businesses.

  • Students make a presentation and hold up a sign that reads

    The Kalamazoo Rising team gets applause for its idea.

    269 Link: Building on the population’s deep connection with social media, this team envisions a social network on Slack connecting young professionals in Kalamazoo and bolstered by in-person member events to cultivate community.

  • Biz Rizz: This team wants to create a virtual platform to connect Kalamazoo-based companies with potential employees—a cross between LinkedIn and Tinder where job applicants and businesses can swipe until they find the perfect match.

  • Do the Zoo: By introducing the first cross-campus event-planning nonprofit run by students for students, this team builds on the importance of creating fun events for future young professionals in Kalamazoo.

  • Kzoo Keepers: This team reimagines traditional career fairs and fosters connections between students and young professionals who they can see themselves becoming in a few years.

“I have been very impressed with all of their presentations,” says Brown. “They understand everything involved, from how you set things up organizationally to what the budget should look like, so kudos to Doug and the program for putting together a fantastic class of students.”

Brown says he’s seen promising ideas from every group and anticipates teasing several of them out for the final initiative that his foundation invests in.

“The fact that we have gotten the chance to do this and really make a difference in the community while we’re still students is just really exciting,” says Ashlie Roth, a dance student with a minor in leadership and business strategy and member of team 269 Link.

“It’s opened my eyes to what is here in Kalamazoo, and all of these ideas are super exciting to hopefully see in the future,” adds Emilee Cramer, a finance and leadership and business strategy student and Kazooters team lead.

IMPACTFUL EXPERIENCE

The leadership and business strategy practicum takes Western’s focus on experience-driven learning and runs with it, tasking students with high-stakes, real-world projects for industry clients.

a group photo of three students.

Cramer, left, and her Kazooter teammates.

“In our program, we look to make impactful change. This semester, we’re looking to solve retention,” Lepisto says. “In the past, we’ve launched a purpose-driven wine brand called Bronconess. We’ve done projects for companies that really move the needle for them, so we want to be on the cutting edge of experiential learning. And I think this project really showcases that.”

“We’re working with real clients with real money and getting real experience,” adds Roth, who’s seen noticeable growth in her professional skills over the course of the semester. “In our first client meeting, I was so nervous I was shaking. But in our last meeting, I felt entirely comfortable and confident walking in right away. You have to have the experiences and then the skills will come. I think that’s been the most rewarding thing about the class. I’ve just felt those skills build up more and more as the semester has gone along.

While she isn’t a business major, Roth says the course has helped her build a professional foundation that will set her apart as she begins auditioning for coveted dance company positions after graduation.

“Because we’re working with a nonprofit on this project, there’s a lot of grant funding, which is super important in the arts. So, I’ve been really happy that I’ve gotten exposure to that and can develop those skills as well as the organizational skills and being able to connect with people. I can see how all of these skills I’ve developed professionally will add to a dance company, so it gives me a leg up walking into auditions.”

Green, who is team lead for the Students to Suits group, aspires to start her own business and says the practicum experience has given her solid foundation to take her dream to the next level.

“I’m hearing all this verbiage and language when I’m in my classes, but actually hearing it and seeing it in a real-world, clinical setting is totally different. It just gave me this experience that I would never have gotten anywhere else, and I feel like I’m going to be way more prepared now going into the workforce,” she says.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.