Here is what panelists had to say during a Journal Live discussion about what can be learned from a heartland community’s efforts to embrace entrepreneurship.

Collaborate. Build relationships. Acknowledge the naysayers but don’t let them derail you. Envision your goals and work to achieve them.

Those are some key patterns that emerge in revitalized communities that nurture entrepreneurship through public and private investment and in the process stabilize their populations, create an economic base, attract young and older people to live and work there, and serve as models for other communities.

The Journal discussed these facets of heartland entrepreneurship on June 22 in the third of three livestreamed events about the topic. Executive Editor Chris Green moderated a panel that included: 

  • Don Macke, senior vice president of e2 Entrepreneurial Ecosystems in Lincoln, Nebraska, hosted by NetWork Kansas.
  • Caleb Pollard, co-owner of Scratchtown Brewing Co. in Ord, Nebraska.
  • Trent and Heidi Proskocil, co-owners of Valley Thunder Rods and Restoration in Ord.
  • Mike Sherry, a Journal contributor whose story “Could more entrepreneurs help revive the heartland?” is featured in The Journal’s Summer 2022 edition 
  • Alejandro Arias-Esparza, the Kansas Leadership Center’s custom civic engagement manager, and Julia Fabris McBride, KLC’s chief leadership development officer, who toured Nebraska communities to learn more about entrepreneurship

YouTube video

In the past 20 years, Ord and the surrounding area had $25 million in public and private investment, which led to the creation of more than 100 businesses and 350 jobs. Nurturing entrepreneurship was key to this growth and to making Ord a desirable place to live, Macke and others in the community say. And the lessons of Ord might apply to any small community.

“This is a conversation about Ord, Nebraska, … but … also about all of rural America and all of the heartland and all about revitalizing these communities and helping them prepare for a stable and prosperous future,” Green says.

“Ignoring the naysayers” is the most important lesson for entrepreneurs to embrace, along with “grit and determination,” Sherry says. Creating an inviting environment for young people feeds on itself and becomes self-sustaining. And esprit de corps among entrepreneurs and the broader community sets the tone for growth.

A broader, less formal definition of leadership is also at work in entrepreneurially vibrant communities like Ord, where “we don’t ask permission to roll up our sleeves and get things done,” Pollard says.

This approach requires that everyone exercise leadership by contributing ideas and acting — not waiting for elected officials to act, though they can facilitate positive change and are “accountable and depended on as assets to challenge the status quo,” Pollard says.

He cited the example of Ord’s sales tax program to fund entrepreneurial growth and infrastructure to boost economic and community development, which “make Ord and Valley County a better place to live.”

Ord’s entrepreneurial approach yielded “probably the most telling statistic,” Macke says: Rural Nebraska lost 12% of its population in the past 20 years. Valley County’s population stabilized and Ord’s grew. Rural Nebraska lost 9% of its workers, but Ord gained 9%.

Despite Ord’s success, other communities sometimes see success differently, Arias-Esparza says. He countered any notion that finding capital is easy.

“That’s not what I heard in some of the communities we went to,” he says, adding that “Spanish business owners do not hear about capital investments or they don’t hear about capital loans in the present. They always hear it in the past — ‘You should have applied for that loan; you should have accessed those resources.’ It’s a pretty important role in rural communities, in those Spanish-speaking demographics that are growing.”

McBride says the “guiding light for people in Ord is diagnosing their situation from strength and aspiration.”

Pollard emphasized two other key points: Entrepreneurs and others should acknowledge that burnout happens. Taking a step back can energize their return.

“One of the big reasons I took a big step back is we had high school kids,” Pollard says. That freed up time to watch his children in science competitions and playing sports. But stepping back also allows for volunteering at the library or coaching teams. Choosing to live in small towns grows from a family focus.

“We balance our business needs with those of our family.”

Watch the full discussion about Ord, Nebraska, by visiting the Kansas Leadership Center’s YouTube channel. The virtual dialogue was the third in a three-part series of discussions called “Signs of Revival,” which focused on the role of entrepreneurship in creating stronger heartland communities. Watch a replay of The Journal’s magazine launch event and a recap of the Kansas Leadership Center’s Heartland Together tour.

For more coverage of entrepreneurship and community vitality, read the stories from The Journal’s Summer 2022 edition.

Cars driving at sunset in small town

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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