Brain Drain as Economic Development, Akron Edition


If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I don’t believe brain drain is the problem it’s been made out as. Often talent export can actually itself be a form of economic development.

A recent New Yorker profile of the Silicon Valley firm Glassdoor, which allows employees to post reviews of their employer, made this point implicitly in passing. Robert Hohman, the CEO of Glassdoor, is from Akron.

"One day last fall, I met with Robert Hohman, Glassdoor’s C.E.O., at the company’s Chicago office. He had just hosted a ted-like conference (tagline: “Winning with informed candidates”) where C.E.O.s and talent recruiters took notes on how to operate in the new era of corporate transparency. Hohman, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, resembles the actor Jeff Daniels; friendly and rumpled, he wore jeans, and his blond hair was slicked back. According to Glassdoor, ninety-one per cent of employees approve of Hohman’s performance. The other nine per cent include a former sales director, who recently griped about a “culture of blame” at the company’s Mill Valley, California, headquarters and advised Hohman to “stop standing up in meetings dropping F-Bombs like a 6th grader with a head injury.”

When he needed help with his startup, he looked to friends and family back home:

"In 2008, shortly before Glassdoor’s launch, Hohman called his sister, Melissa Fernandez, in Akron. She had just given birth to her first child and wanted to work from home. He enlisted her to read every review that was submitted to the site, scanning them for violations of the Community Guidelines. When the workload got to be too much, Fernandez recruited Cara Barry, another stay-at-home mom, who recruited a third mom, her neighbor. Eventually, this group—the content-moderation team—grew to include twenty-six people, several of them men, although for years employees at Glassdoor’s headquarters referred to them as “the wahms,” for “work-at-home moms.” During the past decade, Glassdoor has built machine-learning algorithms to screen for fraud and profanity, and the members of Fernandez’s team read anything that users have flagged; these days, they also read half of all reviews submitted to the site regardless—a step that Yelp and TripAdvisor don’t take, Hohman said."

This turned into a Glassdoor office in suburban Akron, complete with Silicon Valley style perks.

"From Chicago, Hohman returned to San Francisco. Dawn Lyon and I went to visit the content-moderation team, which works in an office park in Green, Ohio, five miles from the Akron airport. Melissa Fernandez met us at the door. She has a “Rachel” haircut, wire-rimmed glasses, and an even-keeled demeanor. She introduced her team of moderators—twenty-one other women and four men, working at adjustable-height desks. According to Glassdoor’s Glassdoor page, the Ohio office is the happiest of the company’s six locations, beating London and San Francisco, with a 5.0 rating—a perfect score. Fernandez explained that this is in part because the team has a great culture, and also because its San Francisco-style startup perks—yoga classes, dogs in the office, flexibility to work from home—are virtually unheard of in Akron, where the biggest employers are factories and call centers. Laura Beth Mercina, the team’s head of community care, previously worked at Arby’s. She said, “I tell people about my job at Glassdoor, and they’re, like, ‘Is this place real?’”

It’s not clear how many people Glassdoor employs in Akron. It sounds like a very small number. But any amount is more than they would have been employing if Hohman hadn’t left Akron to ultimately end up starting the company. Brain drain turned out to be gain for the folks who are now working for Glassdoor in Akron.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Akron, Ohio from Sleepydre, Public Domain