Networking with fellow Ann Arborites: A conversation with Engage's Brooke Boyle

By Matt Giles - Associate Producer

Credit: Katie Alexis Photography

ANN ARBOR - If you live in or frequently visit Ann Arbor, chances are you've heard of Engage, or you've possibly met its founder, Brooke Boyle, at any number of events. For the newly initiated, Engage helps connect people all around Ann Arbor who are interested in widening their networks, personally and professionally. Boyle started Engage in August of 2017 to address the "What's happening in Ann Arbor?" problem and since its inception has grown into what Boyle calls "Ann Arbor's central hub for authentic connection with people, organizations and places." 

We first met Boyle at an author event at Literati Bookstore, where she asked very intriguing questions of the author while also making it known who she was and what Engage's mission is all about. We knew instantly that she was a fascinating person who we wanted to learn more about. We met in person several weeks later and conducted a follow-up interview via email to spread the word about the "Engage Affect." 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did the idea for Engage originally begin?

Engage began in August 2017 after a few convincing local business leaders in the arts and tech sectors asked me to own the, “What’s happening in Ann Arbor?” problem. And quite honestly that’s not an easy problem to solve. There’s a lot going on.

Did your previous experiences, either professionally or personally, lead you to developing what eventually became Engage? 

Isn't that how life evolves for all of us? A series of what can seem like are unconnected events or jobs all provide us with experience to draw on. For me, Engage is the most clear "next stage." I've lived in seven different U.S. states. Engage is grounded in a mission to support newcomers and make finding that next professional opportunity or community interest so much easier to identify. I collect life experiences and the people in them.

Honestly, I've had some pretty darn difficult life experiences, and my openness about them helps others feel comfortable articulating what they are really struggling with -- and what they really want next in their lives. And I love connecting people to each other and the resources that help them on their journey. I think it also helps that I really love Ann Arbor, and my first three professional roles in Ann Arbor resulted in some wonderful depth of understanding about what Ann Arbor has to offer compared to the many other places I've experienced. 

Was there something specific about Ann Arbor that helped in Engage's formation? I mean that compared with other cities. For instance, you mentioned you lived close to Silicon Valley -- could Engage work anywhere or does Ann Arbor lend itself to the company thriving?

Ann Arbor is absolutely uniquely in a situation to benefit from Engage. After all, Engage was designed for Ann Arbor's people. Here, it is natural to end up in a conversation with the guy stocking produce at your local grocer and realize that when you see him again, you will both nod and say "hello." You are a part of this community. 

In Ann Arbor, I remember being really humbled by how many people were willing to not just have a coffee with me during their very busy work day, but then make multiple introductions to other people they knew who would be interested in me and my interests. It is my belief that the culture of Ann Arbor, our willingness to reach out to a neighbor, whether we know them or not, is ripe to benefit from Engage. But I also believe we are learning something about the unique political climate and the drive of individuals in their early professional lives to create the communities they can be proud of. And I believe our findings here will position us to trial some of the Engage programming around our campaign for "Connection and Belonging" in other southeast Michigan communities and beyond. 

How has Engage changed since its inception?

We just hit our "6 monthiversary" at the end of February. Initially, we intended to be a bridge for companies who were looking for how to "do the right thing" for their employees and their community by investing in what makes Ann Arbor a great place to work and live. We still do that. But what we continued to hear from local employers and decision makers, and the makers and doers of Ann Arbor, is the very persistent desire to attract people to this place we work and live in, and ensure that we are providing every opportunity for them to become rooted in this place we call home. The primary block for being able to make that happen is a symptom of our significant, high growth in the arts, tech and hospitality industries. There is just so much happening, you can't find it. So that's what we remain focused on. Engage is Ann Arbor's central hub for authentic connection with people, organizations and place.

When we spoke in person, you mentioned that there are three different types of networking events that Engage puts together. Can you explain what they are, how they're different and the goal of each one?

Engage is driven by a mission to attract and root individuals to the region by giving them rich experiences with one another and for one another. And our programming supports our first and foundational campaign for "Connection and Belonging," which is focused on welcoming newcomers, supporting individuals through transition and stewarding the owners of our community.

The Engage Connector Program is based on the globally renowned, award-winning Halifax model and has been adapted to help individuals establish a network in Ann Arbor -- based on professional and community interests. The Connector Program acts in concert with all of our other programming and events, like our (almost weekly) event series Community Coffee, which are designed to help individuals diversity and expand their networks.

Generally speaking, what are some of the takeaways -- or if that's too broad, a major common takeaway -- that you've learned from meeting people at these different events?

Overwhelmingly, the feedback from our events and programming confirm that people feel welcome. Introverts and extroverts. Newcomers and regular participants. As a baseline, Engage allows individuals to participate in a moment or interaction that is intended to be new for everyone. It is our moment to say, "Huh! I didn't know about that. Tell me more." Rather than having to be informed and "one up" each other in our conversations. Everyone involved in Engage shares the desire to learn something new and participate in their community. When someone joins the conversation, we make room for them. That is a very freeing experience as we grow as individuals and as a community. And it allows us to reflect on how well we understand the person across from us before we decide how we can contribute.

For those who are interested in expanding their network, personally or professionally, what would you want to tell them about how Engage can help?

Step one: Come to Community Coffee. We change day of the week and location to fit as many people's availability as possible and to continue to push ourselves out of our normal routines and comfort zones. We run a few different series within community coffee in order to:

  1. Feature a local maker or doer who you wouldn't have met otherwise. 
  2. Develop interpersonal skills related to conversation, conflict, peer mentoring, etc.  All the things we need to walk away with new skills to incorporate into our daily lives that make us better citizens as we learn how to go beyond small talk in our interactions with people who don't look like us or have similar backgrounds and experience to us, and
  3. Open networking with facilitated introductions and a hot topic or two to discuss with whomever attends.

Step two: If you recognize yourself as someone who is in the habit of having a coffee with a newcomer and introducing them to your network, become a connector. Or, if you know someone who is new to the area, or looking for that next step to being more involved in the area, refer them to Engage as a Connectee. 

Would you mind discussing your background a little bit? This might line up with question 1. How did you get to where you are now, what brought you to Ann Arbor, etc.? 

My background is in psychology and music. I started out as a vocal performance major in college and then switched to my other love -- people. Professionally, I've worked in executive recruitment for non-degree programs at Duke University's School of Business. I've recruited human subjects for psychology studies (also at Duke). I ran my father's executive search firm specializing in development officers, provosts and deans.

When we moved to the Silicon Valley for my husband's post-doctorate at Stanford, our daughter, Clara, who is now 8 years old and healthy, was diagnosed with leukemia at 4 months of age. We were in isolation restrictions for 2.5 years as she went through treatment -- including a bone marrow transplant at 9 months of age -- and recovery. Clara is now doing beautifully and lives with such great joy. Her parents are a bit broken, but we do our best to follow her lead and are now able to find joy and hope; something we didn't see for a long time.

Since then, I've consulted with families with infants going through a medical event, providing in home and in hospital support. And after we moved to Ann Arbor, almost 4 years ago, I did a little adjustment by moving away from my higher education experience and looked to see if I could fit in the tech startup scene as someone without coding skills. I ended up working for two different tech companies in Ann Arbor, one of which was focused on community engagement, brand ambassadors and corporate philanthropy. It's because of watching these incredible entrepreneurs in Ann Arbor that I began to realize that my own desires to make a difference, support others and grow roots in Ann Arbor made me uniquely qualified to launch Engage.

I am a flawed human being who believes in lowering the threshold for others to access what's next in Ann Arbor. I believe in sharing our messy lives and lifting each other up. When we are fallible, when we can share in our ignorance, when we ask for help, when we invite someone into our lives, when we reach out to offer help, when we participate, we make this a community we can be truly proud of. 

What are your immediate and long-term goals for Engage, if you're comfortable sharing those?

Right now the Engage membership base is growing so rapidly, we are looking to expand our people resources in the next few months, and transition from a soft launch of our Connector Program to a complete launch later this month. Our goal is to add 150 Connectors to the program this year and put 100 Connectees through the Engage Connector Program. And while we have over 120 companies represented in our membership (membership which is entirely free for individuals), we are looking for employer partners who understand the value that the Connector Program provides the region related to talent attraction and retention. 

We're All About Ann Arbor (A4, for short). What does your perfect day in Ann Arbor look like, or, if you'd prefer this one: what is that makes you love the city of Ann Arbor?

My perfect day in Ann Arbor is mid-summer and starts early with my dot journal, includes a gathering at my house with our close friends that we call our chosen family, time at the Westgate Library with my kids, macho nachos for dinner at Isalita on Liberty, attending a UMS performance with my husband, and a walk around downtown as the very late sun sets. Oh, and don't forget the Summer Festival. We'd have to weave that in. And a ride on a Boober Tours ("it's the only way!") pedicab to Blank Slate for a waffle cone and single scoop of Balsamic Strawberry.

To learn more about Engage, visit engageaffect.com. 

Check out more Ann Arbor events on the A4 Community Calendar 

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