Graduate from Penn; Stay in Philly

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Class of ’00 | Like a lot of young people these days, Jonathan Grabelle Herrmann W’00 was only briefly out of school when he faced news of a pending layoff.

A year earlier, fellow alumni Nihal Mehta C’99 EAS’99, Vijay Chattha C’00, and Malik Wilson C’99 had followed a dot-com dream and founded Philly2Nite, a local website for college students and young professionals that reviewed and promoted city nightlife. As a Wharton senior, Herrmann became their marketing manager. It was an ideal transition from his work as the president of SPEC (Penn’s student-run Social Planning and Events Committee) and his internship with the vice provost for university life, during which he helped initiate and maintain the “Penn in Philly” website, part of a University campaign to connect Penn students to the greater Philadelphia community.

Shortly after graduation, however, as the dot-com bubble neared its bursting point, Philly2Nite shuttered. Herrmann had 30 days’ notice. 

On day 30, Herrmann was invited to attend WHYY’s Collegetown Conference. Wilson, Philly2Nite’s executive editor, was supposed to attend as part of a panel discussion; when he couldn’t, Herrmann took his place.  

“We were the token young people invited to the conference,” jokes Herrmann. “I was the only 20-something in the room.” Fellow attendees included the city’s commerce director, the head of the Pennsylvania Economic League (now the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia), and various political movers and shakers. The conversation centered on the glut of college grads in the area, and the brain drain that occurred when they opted to relocate to cities like New York, Washington, and Boston.

“Before we even started talking about what Philly didn’t have,” Herrmann recollects, “we realized we needed to tell college students what Philly did have. Because they mostly didn’t know. Unlike a city like Boston, in Philadelphia none of the big schools are actually downtown. At the time, each seemed to have a ‘campus bubble’ that separated it from the downtown, Center City scene.”

Suddenly all eyes were on Herrmann, the one person with the fresh, recent-graduate perspective. The organizers of the initial conference formed the Greater Philadelphia Collegetown Project, which hired Herrmann to run student focus groups. Soon Penn chipped in as well, along with the city and several other colleges and organizations. Herrmann turned to Mehta, his former business associate, and purchased the old Philly2Nite website and mailing lists, then recruited students to write Web content chronicling their Philadelphia stories. Soon he had put together a full-fledged coalition of local colleges and universities.

Before long, Herrmann had a much deeper understanding of the factors that influenced recent graduates and their plans to relocate.

“Contrary to popular belief at the time, they weren’t making their decisions just based on a job,” he says. “Whether they liked a city was almost more important than whether they could find a job there. Many of them planned to move first and then find a job. We came to believe that if they got to know Philadelphia better, they’d like it. And if they liked it, they’d stay.”

In early 2002, the first version of what would become the Campus Philly website launched. It represented a merging of the Collegetown Project with another regional effort, the Philadelphia College Student Retention Committee, but soon other organizations started parallel initiatives of their own, including Innovation Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, and the Economy League—which in 2003 joined with the city and Campus Philly to form what was then called the Knowledge Industry Partnership. In 2006, thanks in part to a $1 million grant from the city, all such initiatives folded into Campus Philly, whose executive director is Herrmann.

Today the organization’s mission is three-fold: to increase enrollment in the region’s colleges and universities, engage students with the greater Philadelphia community, and increase and promote local employment opportunities. Its success so far has brought Herrmann a number of plaudits, including being named one of the Philadelphia Business Journal’s “40 under 40” and Leadership Philadelphia’s 101 Top Connectors. 

Herrmann—who now lives with his wife and young daughter at 45th and Spruce streets in University City—is bullish on the city’s future, especially for college graduates.

“Philadelphia is a better city today than it was 10 years ago,” Herrmann says. “Polls have shown that more young college graduates are living downtown. Meanwhile, Penn deserves a lot of credit for improvements to West Philadelphia, and really every neighborhood surrounding Center City is safer and has seen marked revitalization.”

In the end, his own story is perhaps the best Philadelphia sales pitch he can offer: “It wasn’t easy to find my dream job right away, but the connections I had from going to school here in Philly enabled me to create one.”

—Rachel Estrada Ryan C’00

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