Chris Bennett was born at Mercy Hospital, grew up in Miami, graduated from Coral Reef Senior High, and then put South Florida in the rear view mirror.
Bennett always had the entrepreneurial bug — starting companies in middle and high school as well as at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he majored in economics. But the 29-year-old never really thought of entrepreneurship as a career path until he decided to move to San Francisco about two years ago. His startup Soldsie.com helps small businesses sell on Facebook and Instagram.
"I never thought of my future as being in Miami," said Bennett. "To put it into context, there was nothing going on [in tech] in Miami at that time — at least I didn’t know about it."
Variations of Bennett’s story are told all over South Florida. Young professionals talk about how many of their most promising high school classmates left and never returned. Many in the tech community can rattle off dozens who left South Florida to start or grow entrepreneurial businesses.
Such “brain drain’’ has been a problem for South Florida for years. Though the region ranks seventh in the nation when counting college students per capita, the Miami metro area measures poorly when it comes to residents aged 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree — just 29 percent in 2012, or the bottom quadrant among the top 50 metro areas, according to Census data.
Many young people see South Florida as a poor place to launch a business or career, even if they are from the area. Diane Melville, for instance, grew up in Miami and went to Miami Dade College’s Honors College before graduating from Babson College in Massachusetts. She spent several years in Chicago before moving three months ago to Austin, Texas, an affordable startup town. She is building transferbootcamp.com, an online program that automates the process of transferring from a two-year to a four-year school.
Why didn’t she grow her business here? "It’s great to go back to visit and spend time with the family and enjoy the beaches, but professionally going back would feel like a death sentence," Melville said. "There are not a lot of examples of people who have built something for themselves and made it big."
Whether that’s reality or perception, community leaders hope to change that thinking. Brain drain is being attacked on multiple fronts. University presidents meet regularly to address common challenges and collaborate. Young leaders of the creative class are taking the reins at the grassroots level, trying to enhance young people’s connection to the community. Foundations and business groups from chambers of commerce to the Beacon Council, the county’s economic development agency, all have initiatives to try to stop the exodus. Universities are reaching out to their alumni who have left and inviting them back.
As the community tries to emerge as a technology hub, the challenge has become all the more acute. More companies are starting up or growing their presence in South Florida — Facebook for instance has been growing its Latin American and U.S. Hispanic offices here — and that means a greater need for talent.
Fortunately, recent improvements in Miami’s urban core, including a vibrant arts culture, make the destination far more attractive to young professionals and entrepreneurs. In the past year, co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators have opened their doors, too. That’s impressed Bennett, who has family and friends here and visits often: "I think what is happening in Miami will cause some dramatic shifts in the culture there and I think it is awesome."
Such initiatives have also uncovered barriers to progress, including the lack of public transportation options. A query to the Miami Herald/WLRN Public Insight Network yielded more than a dozen responses, many from young professionals expressing doubts they would stay in South Florida because of fewer job opportunities, lower salaries and rising rents. "You can’t talk about talent retention if your talent can’t even afford to live there," said Fabiola Fleuranvil, who has expressed her views in Herald op-eds.
Fleuranvil, 31, grew up in Miami, went to college at Florida A&M and grad school in Atlanta before returning in 2009 to Miami, where she runs her own marketing company. At first, she wasn’t sure she’d stay but saw Miami as a place of opportunity where young people could shine more than in established cities like Atlanta that are saturated with talent. She said she and other black professionals were having difficulty finding each other at the time, so she started a Historic Black Colleges Alumni group that now draws 100 to 150 people to its mixers.
More recently, she helped the Miami-Dade Chamber’s Young Professionals Network secure funding to give black entrepreneurs memberships at The LAB Miami, a co-working and education center in Wynwood for the tech and arts communities. “We want to address the severe black brain drain by helping our young professionals and entrepreneurs succeed here and navigate the local scene,” said Fleuranvil.
The Beacon Council’s New Leaders Taskforce Fleuranvil leads held a summit last summer about brain drain; as a result, she and others are visiting colleges to spread the word that South Florida can hold a future. To that end, the Beacon Council formed an Academic Leaders Council, made up of South Florida’s university presidents and Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who meet regularly and are “making changes in their curriculums ... so students are better prepared for local jobs and internships when they graduate," said Joe Hovancak, who leads the One Community One Goal initiative for the Beacon Council.
Many of these grassroots efforts sprout from a fertile urban culture, where art, tech, business and entrepreneurship intersect and flourish. The forward-thinking seven/50 project, an outgrowth of two regional planning councils that is guided largely by millennials, is designing a growth and prosperity blueprint for the region’s seven contiguous counties. Combatting brain drain and creating a tech hub are an important part of that blueprint. Another very new project called Our City Thoughts, founded by 25-year-old Binsen Gonzalez, is a digital media platform aimed at telling inspiring stories of local millennials. The underlying goal: Create connections to South Florida that will result in talent retention.
And Benji Power, a 31-year-old Chilean-American who bucked the brain drain trend and returned to Miami after getting degrees at University of Pennsylvania and MIT, started the New Leaders Council, one of 32 chapters around the U.S., to aid in the development of a stronger future leadership for Miami. The NLC provides a five-month training program to groom future leaders in business, civic enterprises and government; it recently named its third leadership class of 20, he said. "We’re training the bench."
Power said multi-cultural Miami was, is and always will be “home” and it is also “a city that needs me to help it grow and become a better home for countless generations of diverse communities to come."
Natalia Martinez, 27, certainly believes that. When the Harvard graduate returned to South Florida in 2012 after working in New York and Boston, she saw that Miami didn’t have an Awesome Foundation — a nonprofit that awards 1,000 grants to people to pursue their projects — so she started one. Now Martinez is working on bringing in a World Economic Forum Global Shapers chapter, which are hubs for people under 30 to work on local projects with the help of a giant global network.
"I think people in Miami feel that the city is unfinished but they think that in a very positive way. The topic of what’s going on, what are we doing about this problem, what are we stirring up -- that conversation comes up all the time. Young people here are excited and invested,” said Martinez. “This is our all-hands-on-deck moment to lunge forward.”
And for those who have left, the welcome mat is out. John Stuart, associate dean of Cultural and Community Engagement at the FIU’s College of Architecture + The Arts, said for many leaving provides fruitful world experiences but when alumni are ready, universities will help reacquaint them with the dynamic arts-infused city.
“Yes, you can leave and you can then think about coming back and creating a life here,” said Stuart. “We would like to to see alumni come back to Miami and bring their expertise, their contacts, their knowledge base and help improve the city.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg