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By Sara Ramaker

A chance encounter and a shared love for their community-that's what led two Kalamazoo business women to create KzooConnect.

At face value, Sheri Welsh and Heather Isch collaborated to create a blog celebrating what makes Kalamazoo a great place to live and work though the site is much more than that. KzooConnect is designed to strengthen Kalamazoo's talent pool by highlighting what makes young professionals stay in or return to Kalamazoo.

The idea for KzooConnect began with Welsh, the owner of Welsh & Associates, based on her initial experiences within the community nearly 30 years ago and the relationships she has cultivated in Kalamazoo while in the process of settling down and starting a business.

"In the spring of 1985, I landed in Kalamazoo as an intern," Welsh said. "I rolled up in my pickle green 1979 Chevette-no FM and no AC-knowing no one in town except my boyfriend at the time. I was a stranger in a strange land. I was a Chip from Central Michigan University landing in Bronco territory.

"Was I ever in for a surprise! In short order, I was embraced and mentored by my co-workers, made many good friends, and began to realize that Kalamazoo was the place I now wanted to call home. The boyfriend became my husband, so I guess following a man to Kalamazoo was a really good move for me."

Some years later, Welsh had the opportunity to be part of Leadership Kalamazoo. She cites that experience with revealing and igniting her community-based passion.

"I discovered a deep love for my city and my community and unlocked a desire to play a role in helping ensure success for all through economic development and a thriving business community," she said.

"Less than a year later, I opened Welsh & Associates with the mission of helping good local companies become great by connecting them with top talent."

An executive search and professional recruiting service, Welsh & Associates has been based in Kalamazoo since its inception 12 years ago. In that time, Welsh said the recruiting world has changed tremendously.

"Welsh & Associates became increasingly involved in conversations around the 'war for talent.'" Welsh said. "By the very nature of our work, we were thrust into finding talent attraction and retention solutions for local companies.

"I looked around our community and inventoried the assets we could leverage in winning the war for talent. Two major assets stood out: The Kalamazoo Promise and our colleges, namely Western Michigan University," Welsh said.

Kalamazoo is also home to Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Davenport University.

"I wondered how we could encourage those graduates who already have a soft spot in their heart for Kalamazoo-to consider staying or coming back home and see Kalamazoo as the ideal place to build their career?" Welsh said.

"As a recruiter, I then confronted the reality of how recruiting had changed in our post-recession world. How young professionals choose opportunities based on a community's quality of life, how social media has forever changed the way we communicate, and how the emergence of something called talent communities will shape the way we develop relationships with the next generation-and potentially recruit them-in the years to come."

After months of conversations and brainstorming it became clear: someone needed to step up and leverage Kalamazoo's assets in a new and creative way in order to secure the talent needed to sustain a healthy and economically vibrant Kalamazoo. That's where Isch, vice president of LKF Marketing, came into the picture.

Although their offices are just two blocks apart in downtown Kalamazoo, Welsh and Isch met in Detroit.

"We both attended the governor's Task Force on Workforce Development two years ago," Isch said. "Sheri and I were both from Kalamazoo, but we didn't know each other."

Over the course of the two-day event, Isch said she and Welsh bonded.

"We definitely liked each other, but the idea to develop a model for building a talent pipeline in Kalamazoo didn't materialize until an afternoon on the patio of Burdick's last September," Isch said.

Six months later, KzooConnect was officially launched at an invite-only event in downtown Kalamazoo. The who's who of the Kalamazoo community and business scene were lured to the event with invites that read, "Psst! Be the first to know about our secret asset for community growth and development in Kalamazoo for the next generation."

Nearly 200 people attended the unveiling and KzooConnect has continued to generate local interest ever since.

With nine months under its belt, KzooConnect continues to gain momentum and engage the local community and far-flung Kalamazoo fans. The blog's messaging and content are a true community-wide, collaborative effort with the potential for many partners to share in the mission.

"By developing relationships with young professionals through this online community, we know they'll notice the great job opportunities that we have to offer," Welsh said. "That's what we call the new wave of talent attraction."

Welsh and Isch are confident that connecting young professionals with Kalamazoo will help young professionals engage with and create new business opportunities in Kalamazoo, much like they connected two years ago.