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    Memphis Connections

    Leadership Academy program works to recruit, retain talent

    By Andy Meek - The Daily News -

    After graduating recently from Middle Tennessee State University, Memphis native Danielle Nathaniel came back home to start the next chapter of her life – the post-college job hunt.

    By chance, she met someone who’d gone through the Leadership Academy’s yearly program called “Memphis – The Summer Experience,” a series of events in which college undergrads and young professionals are immersed in all things Memphis, learn about the city’s assets, are introduced to peers and meet local movers and shakers.

    For those reasons, many of the participants are choosing to launch their careers here after finishing the program, according to annual surveys from the Leadership Academy.

    Likewise, the program left an indelible mark on Nathaniel. She’s now working toward her master’s degree in human resources at Christian Brothers University. She found the Summer Experience – this year’s version of which kicked off earlier this month – so beneficial that she’s going through the program again this year.

    “Getting involved with the program really opened my mind about the city,” she said. “It shines such a positive light on the city. I will say – sometimes it’s hard to stay positive about that next move in your life, particularly with the economy now. But getting in the program definitely took pressure off thinking about, ‘What is my next move?’”

    That’s because the program no doubt helped answer some of those questions for her.

    It puts participants in the same circles, for example, as some of the city’s biggest corporate names. Corporate sponsors of the weekly events include the First Tennessee Foundation, Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp., AutoZone Inc., Henry Turley Co., Duncan-Williams Inc. and others.

    The program includes a financial literacy workshop, a young professionals mixer, leadership training and a crash course in Memphis history.

    “They’re trying to show, ‘We are doing what we can to provide jobs for you all to stay here,’” Nathaniel said. “It’s great to just know there’s stuff here in the city you can take advantage of.”

    The Leadership Academy, a nonprofit focused on leadership training and development, and the business leaders who lend their time to the summer series of events do it partly because they know the significance of the after-college years. It’s when big life choices are made, and long-term decisions get set in motion.

    Not surprisingly, Memphis – The Summer Experience marks an attempt to help as many young people as possible lay a foundation on which they could build a life in Memphis.

    Of course, it’s not the only arrow in the Leadership Academy’s quiver. But it’s one that frequently has a direct correlation cited by young people who stay in the city to launch their career who might not otherwise have chosen to do so.

    “Memphis – The Summer Experience is part of the Leadership Academy’s larger work to recruit and retain talent in the city,” said Mya Donald, a communications specialist with the Leadership Academy. “We call it our Memphis Connect Toolkit, and it includes other things, such as our Memphis 101 presentation, positive Memphis talking points that we give to HR professionals, our blog memphisconnect.com, and executive newcomer receptions where we invite executive-level newcomers to come have a cocktail reception with alumni and ambassadors from companies.

    “There’s also our Celebrate What’s Right luncheon. And all of this is part of our bigger work to help Memphis recruit the best and brightest.”

    Those recruits the city prizes include people like Amanda Wheeler, who went through the Summer Experience in 2011.

    Last year at this time, she was in the master’s program for public administration at the University of Missouri. She found a competitive internship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and after applying for it she got it. Up to that point, she’d never been to Memphis before.

    “I joined the Summer Experience through my boss, who told me I should try it out,” Wheeler said. “I did and ended up meeting pretty much my whole friend group basically last summer through the program. And I love Memphis so much. Loved it so much, that when I graduated I wanted to come back.”

    Not just come back – she got a job here, working as a community relations manager for Literacy Mid-South. She’s been in her new job for a few weeks now. It’s a perfect outcome for the Leadership Academy program – entice a young professional to fall in love with the city, and they might just stay here.

    “It was a really great program to show me what Memphis is all about, and I just thought it was amazing that it was free, first of all, and that companies are willing to put in the time and effort supporting that program,” Wheeler said. “There’s just a feeling about Memphis. I know that sounds so cliché. It’s either the culture, the people or just the city itself, how it looks, I don’t know, I love everything about it. I love living Downtown. I love seeing the river every day.”

    This is how Wheeler described the experience of visiting Memphis in a recent blog post at Memphisconnect.com:

    “To borrow a line from Springsteen, Memphis ‘had a hold on me right from the start, a grip so good I couldn’t tear it apart.’ Before March of 2011, I had never once set foot in Memphis, Tennessee. My arrival in the city was brought on by a lust for something new, something outside of the realm of my Master’s program for the summer: an internship in a new city, in a new organization, with new people to meet. Little did I know that Memphis would grab onto me as my car rolled over the bridge from Arkansas the night I drove in for my internship interview. I remember looking at the skyline and saying out loud, ‘I could live here.’”

    Staunching a “brain drain” of talent from the area’s workforce of tomorrow is a top priority for city and county leaders. Not long after he took office as Shelby County mayor in 2010, Mark Luttrell’s transition team – which included more than a dozen business and civic leaders – suggested a range of changes and government tweaks that spanned crime, economic development and other legislative efforts.

    Part of that mix was an emphasis on developing and retaining a 21st century workforce.

    “Shelby County has been suffering a net loss of 5 young professionals per day AND 5 middle class families per day for the last 20 years,” Luttrell’s transition team spelled out in its report. “Shelby County has lost close to $2 (billion) in income over the last 13 years, with almost (one-third) of that money going to DeSoto County. This ‘brain drain’ has left Shelby County unprepared to meet the demands of the 21st century global economy.”

    Recommended changes included collaborating with programs designed to increase college attainment in the county and engaging young professionals to serve on local boards and commissions. That would give the young professional demographic a stake in the community – something the Leadership Academy’s summer initiative is doing in its own way, by helping those same young professionals enrich their ties to the area.

    Likewise, Memphis Tomorrow – a group of local CEOs that supports local economic development – is focused on its own plank of initiatives, one of which includes the recruitment and retention of young professionals in the city and county.

    “Memphis – The Summer Experience is a free program that offers unique networking, community and leadership development events that help connect college and graduate students to our city’s pulse,” said Rashana Lincoln, director of community engagement at the Leadership Academy. “We ideally target those who are interning at companies across the city. However, due to the economy, we understand there may not be enough internships available for students, so we don’t restrict participation on that basis.”

    It averages about 10 events per year.

    “Last year, we had students from colleges and universities from over 100 different hometowns outside of Memphis,” Lincoln said. “It’s a wonderful way for them to not only meet some of our city’s business influencers, but to connect with their peers.

    “I think across the country, cities are realizing you just can’t take for granted that your college talent will stay there or choose to return to a given city after they graduate. We have to be proactive and really get out there and compete for this talent.”

    The Leadership Academy’s work in this area is close to Lincoln’s heart. She came back to Memphis after attending college in Atlanta and law school in Knoxville.

    “We are developing more and better leaders who are committed to moving Memphis forward,” Lincoln said.