Mike and I were recently visiting my grandmother and various aunts, uncles and cousins in Florida. As my mother’s Pontiac born-and-bred family are wont to do, we decided to have a Michigan-y night, so we ordered pizza and gathered ’round a DVR’d episode of the Smithsonian Channel’s Aerial America featuring Michigan. It’s a cool concept, and we generally had fun virtually zooming around our state from above.
But it left me feeling…off. I didn’t notice anything incorrect in the show’s coverage (besides totally missing Grand Rapids, a metro area of a million-ish people), and they did a fine job showcasing the natural beauty of Michigan’s coastlines, inland lakes and the Mackinac Bridge and Island. Unlike most of the complaints found on the episode’s website, I wasn’t upset by the disproportionate coverage of Detroit to the rest of the state, so much as what was shown of the area. Yes, the decline of the automotive industry is an engaging story; yes, there are a lot of sadly vacant facilities there at which to ogle. But telling the story of how those buildings came into such disrepair without even touching on what’s happening now – the next chapter in the story – seemed downright unfair.
I sort of get it. The problem with telling Michigan’s story on Aerial America is that it’s not the big buildings (occupied or otherwise) or the natural splendor that makes the state such an exciting place to be right now. It’s the people. Despite our famed battle against the brain drain, we’re still producing ridiculous quantities of amazing brains here, and real story about Michigan today is that more and more companies are finding ways to plug the drain. And the bathtub is starting to fill.
This week I wrote a story on the Royal Oak company Vectorform. You’ve probably never heard of them, but you’ve definitely seen their work. Their client list includes Microsoft, Nokia, KAYAK, Volkswagen, Jeep and the Associated Press, so…yes, you have seen their work. The employ about 100 workers worldwide and have offices in Seattle, Brooklyn, Germany and India. Their headquarters in Royal Oak is there not only because the two founders are from the area, but also because that’s where they’re finding the talent. The automotive industry may not be what it was before, but our universities are still churning out the talent that served them well for so many years. We’ve got engineering grads coming out of our ears here in Michigan. When we can keep them here, they’re just making different things. Apps don’t require acres of warehouse space, but that doesn’t make them less meaningful to our economy.
Another case in point is the Lansing-based manufacturer of superconducting accelerators, Niowave. What is a superconducting accelerator? I’m not a super sciencey person, so the best way for me to describe them is that they’re super advanced, university research people need them, they currently cost about $100 million and are super, super sciencey. Niowave is about to start producing the first commercially-available superconductor accelerators in Lansing (reducing their cost to a mere $10 million per), and the CEO told me he couldn’t be doing this anywhere but Lansing. Between the science and advanced engineering talent being developed at MSU and the stockpile of engineers and already-trained machinists from the auto industry, he says, “we have the manufacturing capability that nobody else has.”
So maybe “manufacturing capability” is something that is difficulty to catch from an aerial camera. Perhaps I can’t fault the Smithsonian Channel too much for not showcasing the intangible nature of the very real entrepreneurial renaissance happening in Michigan right now, or the huge wave of human capital here that is teaming with talent here. But if you show the empty buildings where our talent was born, I do think the story of how that talent is being redirected and reenergized is a necessary piece of the story.
Here’s why: In an email from one of the founders of Vectorform, his first response to my question of why Royal Oak is still the headquarters of his now global company was that this is where the talent is. Plain and simple. He went on to explain, however, that while he initially stayed for the labor pool, he is constantly surprised by the number of clients he maintains in the Metro Detroit area.
Of course, that outcome is a direct result of other CEOs like him, who were determined to stay here and utilize Michigan’s talent pool. Now those businesses are there to service each other. When the talent is here, so then follows economic vitality. We even surprise ourselves sometimes, which is another charming theme stitched into the fabric of our Michigander DNA. The talent, the brains and the willpower of the people who live in Michigan is so unassuming – so very Midwestern – that it’s easy to overlook, whether you’re flying by with a camera or driving down I-75. But it is here. We’re here. We haven’t stopped working just because everyone stopped paying attention, and we’ll likely keep our heads down and nose to the grindstone when the world starts to take notice of how far we’ve come. That’s just how we do things here.