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Big Ideas 2011: Stop the brain drain 

A plan to put Arkansas's best graduates to work.

click to enlarge Kristian Andersen image

Where kids wind up out of college usually determines where they spend the next 10 or 15 years of their professional career. The question is, how do we keep them in Arkansas? The way we're doing it now doesn't work. By and large, high performance students follow the opportunity and the money. Our best kids go to San Francisco, Austin or New York because that's where the best jobs are.

But if you can grab those kids and keep them in Arkansas for a couple of years, introduce them to mentors and high-horsepower networking, get them civically engaged and create their professional center of gravity in say, Little Rock, the odds of those kids leaving diminishes tremendously.

That's the idea behind the Arkansas Fellowship Program — to attract and retain the best Arkansas college graduates every year. Right now, I'm talking to innovative companies in Arkansas, from large corporations to startups, about serving as the 10 sponsor organizations of the fellowship. Each will commit to fund one student for two years by agreeing to hire a graduate and commit to circulating the fellow through high-impact jobs inside the organizations, projects in which a recent college grad wouldn't normally be involved. The CEOs of the sponsor companies will also agree to spend a significant amount of one-on-one time with their fellows and meet once with all the other fellows in the program. And monthly, there will be mixers and a speaker series.

By the time two years has elapsed, the fellow will have developed a relationship with an entrepreneurial, high-growth corporation. They'll have relationships with nine other CEOs. They'll have deep connections to the other fellows. They'll have been engaged in the community. And they will have 10 years of experience, from a cycling perspective, crammed into two years.

These fellows might be sacrificing some initial earning power, but in return they're getting an unbelievably high level of access. Meanwhile, the host organizations get to help curb the brain drain in Arkansas, and they get to hire rock stars for at least two years.

It's a high-impact, efficient, inexpensive way to juice the start-up economy in Arkansas. A similar program in Indianapolis, that I'm very familiar with, has a long list of host organizations hoping to participate in the program. There've been dozens of startups launched by past fellows from the program.

We'll be looking for maybe 20 fellows in the Arkansas program. These won't necessarily be the 4.0 GPA students who come from business school. They'll be graduates who've shown an extraordinary level of entrepreneurialism, the sorts of kids who in third grade were selling candy bars to their classmates.

We're not going to have a problem attracting 20 rock star graduates. Arkansans have a long history of punching above their weight class when it comes to entrepreneurialism, and a program like this will go a long way toward building upon that legacy.

Kristian Andersen is the president of KA+A, a brand and design consultancy group in Indianapolis, and the managing partner of Gravity Ventures, a seed-stage venture fund active in Indianapolis and Arkansas. He is working on the Arkansas Fellowship Program thanks to a feasibility grant from Innovate Arkansas. He lives in Conway with his wife and four children. You can find him online at www.kristian.vc

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