About The Rural Futures Podcast

As our high-tech, globalized world continues to collide with the values, principles and ethics of humanity, the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska is breaking into the currently polarizing narratives of the rural-urban divide, technology development and the future of work through its weekly podcast, “Rural Futures with Dr. Connie.”

Exploring the intersections of technology and what it means to be human, this podcast is for achievers to expand their perspective for social justice, economic growth and leadership through the lenses of exponential change, disruptive leadership and the evolution of humanity. Guests include futurists, business innovators and researchers who are smashing barriers for the sake of a thriving rural-urban future.




Your Host

Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild is Interim Executive Director & Chief Futurist at the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska. She is also an entrepreneur, researcher and consultant with expertise in strategic foresight and future-focused leadership.

Get to know Dr. Connie



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Season 2

Episode 13: International Futurist Thomas Frey intersects technology, underpopulation, higher education

October 10, 2018
              Referred to as the “architect of the future,” “IBM’s most award-winning engineer” and “Google’s top-rated futurist speaker,” Thomas Frey, corporate consultant, international speaker and creator of the Da Vinci Institute, makes predictions and asks bold …






Referred to as the “architect of the future,” “IBM’s most award-winning engineer” and “Google’s top-rated futurist speaker,” Thomas Frey, corporate consultant, international speaker and creator of the Da Vinci Institute, makes predictions and asks bold questions to generate ideas and actions for the future. In this episode, he and Dr. Connie dig in to the technologies that will bring rural and urban together; underpopulation versus overpopulation around the globe; and the evolving roles of leadership and higher education.

Before we brought Thomas on the show, we knew he worked closely with companies such as John Deere, AT&T, Pepsico and so many more. What we didn’t know is that he grew up in rural South Dakota driving a John Deere tractor. We continue to be inspired by rural-raised and rural-living futurists — there is definitely a theme emerging!

Thomas Frey, futurist
“It’s almost as if we’re walking backwards into the future. My job is to help turn people around.”
Thomas Frey
Executive Director and Futurist, Da Vinci Institute

About Thomas


Over the past decade, Futurist Thomas Frey has built an enormous following around the world based on his ability to develop accurate visions of the future and describe the opportunities ahead. Having started seventeen businesses himself and assisting on the development of hundreds more, the understanding he brings to his audiences is a rare blend of reality-based thinking coupled with a clear-headed visualization of the world ahead.

Predicting the future has little value without understanding the driving forces behind the trends, subtle nuances that can be leveraged, and implications for both the people directly affected in the industry as well as others farther down the technological food chain.

Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer. He is also a past member of the Triple Nine Society (High I.Q. society over 99.9 percentile).

As part of the celebrity speaking circuit, Thomas continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come. His keynote talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, Disney, IBM, Federal Reserve Bank, TED, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Visa, Frito-Lay, Toshiba, Dow Chemical, KPMG, Siemens, Rockwell, Wired Magazine, Caterpillar, PepsiCo, Deloitte & Touche, Hunter Douglas, Amgen, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, Korean Broadcast System, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more.

Thomas has been featured in thousands of articles for both national and international publications including New York Times, Huffington Post, Times of India, USA Today, US News and World Report, Popular Science, The Futurist Magazine, Forbes, Fast Company, World Economic Forum, Times of Israel, Mashable, Bangkok Post, National Geographics, ColoradoBiz Magazine, Rocky Mountain News, and many more. He currently writes a weekly “Future Trend Report” newsletter and a weekly column for FuturistSpeaker.com.

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining me today is Google’s top-rated futurist, Thomas Frey. And I’m so excited, I’m a huge fan of his work, and I think you’re going to be a huge fan, too, after this interview. But I wanted to give you a little bio, he works as a senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute, a futurist think tank founded 21 years ago. But what’s more, he also grew up on a farm in rural South Dakota and spent his childhood driving a John Deere tractor. Welcome to the show, Thomas.

Thomas Frey: All right, thanks for having me on.

Dr. Connie: Thank you. Tell us a little bit more about what it means to be a futurist.

Thomas Frey: That’s a great question, because I think of my role as expanding people’s understanding of what the future holds, and I do that primarily through technology-driven change. I do it through the lens of technology. We can predict the future in lots of different ways that are highly probable. I mean, with a high degree of probability, I can predict that the building that you’re in right now is still going to be there six months from now. I can predict that with a high degree of probability. I can predict that the Earth’s going to travel around the Sun in roughly the same orbit even a hundred years from now. I can predict that with a high degree of probability. I can predict that 50 years from now, we’re still going to have the summer, winter, spring, and fall, we’re going to have the rising tides. You put a handful of seeds in the ground, a percentage of them are going to sprout and spring to life. And I can predict so many aspects of the world around me that I can plan a birthday party two weeks from now and have a lot of assurance that I can pull it off because most of our future’s being formed around slow-moving elements that we can predict with a high degree of probability. The things that are most unpredictable are the things like the weather, things like animals and people, and to the degree that we can get better at predicting the actions of people, then that gives us a huge edge. And so the technology-driven change is a huge component of predicting how people are going to act and do things in the future.

Dr. Connie: Thank you for that. I think that’s a great description of you as a futurist. I’d like to dive a little bit more into you as a leader. So tell us a little bit more about Thomas Frey, the leader.

Thomas Frey: I tend to experiment with a lot of things and try things, and I’ve attempted to set up lots of different businesses in the past and a lot of them are still actually in existence in some form that are out there. But I like to push people’s thinking on different areas. So I try to use different techniques to push their thinking in one way or another, asking provocative questions, probing their understanding, and then establishing scenarios and predictions about the future that will help draw our thinking forward in some interesting ways. There’s a lot of futurists out there that don’t want to make any predictions because invariably, when I make a prediction, it’s going to be wrong. There’s some aspect of it that’s just not going to be right. The timing’s off, or you get some details wrong, but the true value in a prediction is that it forces us to think about the future. It forces us to think about this time and space sometime in the future and that, then we can start drawing our own conclusions. Even if I would give a prediction and just totally nail it, I get every aspect of it right, somehow, when we get to that point in the future, it just feels different and so there’s all kinds of pluses and minuses making predictions but I like to do it in that it begs questions in our own minds that, “Is this the way it’s going to be,” and “From my vantage point, how would that be “a little different than what he is saying?”

Dr. Connie: A lot of times when I talk about futuring or even strategic foresight, I talk a lot about there are many possible or plausible futures. It’s not necessarily about predicting the future, but I really appreciate the predictions you make, and making a few of those myself off and on, again I feel like I need to do more of that. Because I think it’s a bold move and like you’re saying, it also helps people think very differently, but also really forces you as a futurist to get out there and be a thought leader in this space.

Thomas Frey: Yeah, it challenges assumptions, and that’s kind of the big advantage to it. And that’s what I think my role is. Everybody figures out how they have to fit in society in some way and that’s my role. I have something of a gift to give the world, and so my gift is to be something of a professional conversation starter around this idea of what the future holds.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: We know that you work with a lot of companies and a lot of leaders, helping them think about the future and plan for the future. So tell us a little bit about the companies and leaders you’ve worked with as a futurist.

Thomas Frey: I tend to do about 40 to 50 talks a year. I’ll travel to somewhere between eight and 12 countries every year, and it’ll be on topics ranging from, everything from the future of agriculture to the future of education, future of banking. I had a conversation a few days ago on giving a talk on the future of the beer industry, so that’ll be a fun one. I might want to dive into that one at some point.


Thomas Frey: Yes, it’s interesting. One thing that caught me off guard, I didn’t realize this, but we always thought it would be the tobacco companies and the pharmaceutical companies that would be investing in the marijuana industry, but it’s actually the beer industry that’s making heavy investments right now up in Canada into the marijuana industry. And the key thing that they’re interested in is the CBD oil and growing thousand-acre farms up there just to harvest the CBD oil, which is the by-product that is used in 300,000 different products right now, and that’s something that’s kind of missing from most of the conversations. But the marijuana stocks right now are becoming the new bitcoin, which is kind of a fun thing to watch.

Dr. Connie: It is fun to watch and I think it’s something, too, as we think about the future and the future of agriculture, the future of rural, it should really be part of the conversation. I actually was the keynote at  Nebraska’s Rural Healthcare Conference last week and talked about the future of rural healthcare, and I actually was handed a book on hemp (chuckles) and marijuana, and so it’s exciting to see people talking about it here, but it’ll really be fun to watch the evolution of that industry.

Thomas Frey: About a month ago, I was over in Australia, speaking to the cotton farmers in Australia, which is a much larger industry over there than I realized. They specifically asked me to do research on are there any people doing research on 3D printing with cotton and the cotton farmers are very interested in how the cotton industry’s starting to evolve in the future. It was rather fascinating, because I could find people experimenting with 3D printing with hemp fiber, with the nylons and the rayons and all of the synthetic fibers, also with bamboo fibers and so it led me to believe that we’re getting into the fiber wars right now. And that anything we can feed into a 3D printer is going to carry a higher level of prominence in the future, but we may end up having with as many as 10,000 different products that we can run through a 3D printer in the very near future and so agriculture’s going to play a big role in that, but the oil industry wants to play a role in it as well, so that’s where we’re going to get into these fiber wars on some level.

Dr. Connie: It’s really interesting to me how history sometimes repeats itself and enhances the future. I grew up in West Point, Nebraska. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my grandparents did, and my grandpa used a lot of hemp rope, and he swore by it. He said it was the best rope they ever had and it, as a fiber, has always had this unique place where it’s very durable, it’s sustainable, et cetera. And thinking about fibers and more sustainable futures using these types of fibers like hemp I think is an interesting conversation for agriculture, but also just this rural-urban interface as well, how we’re all so interdependent on one another.

Thomas Frey: Exactly, exactly. The rural communities have so many advantages. I mean, it’s the wide open spaces. They can try things without irritating the neighbors. There’s freedom of thought. You just don’t have people breathing down each other’s necks like you do in some areas. I was having a conversation this morning about the typhoon that hit in Hong Kong and how these apartments they’re building there that are 250 square feet, a lot of them got their windows blown out because of the typhoon and how durable these buildings are and whether or not they’ll last 50 years or they have to be torn down before that. It becomes kind of an interesting question. The rural communities who don’t have to worry about building things 50, 60 stories tall just to accommodate all of the people that want to live there, you can spread out a little bit, you have room to grow.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, and I really appreciate in our pre-conversation how you talked about how many times our conversation globally has been about overpopulation, but perhaps it’s the under-population that we really need to start focusing on.

Thomas Frey: Half of all the babies born in the world are born in Africa. That’s where the population is still growing. The medium age in Africa right now is 27. The country with the lowest birth rate in the world right now is South Korea, followed by Japan. Neither one of them believe in immigration. A couple of years ago, I gave a talk in South Korea, and I told them that the rate that they were going, that the last Korean would be born in 2300. The birth rate is declining so much it’s under one person per female, and we need 2.1 kids per female in order to maintain an even population. So they are currently under one, and by 2300 at the rate that they’re going,they’ll be down to a population of under 50,000 for the entire country. So this whole supply and demand equation starts getting out of whack as a result of that, and it starts first showing up in the real estate area. But something will have to change, and we’re already starting to see cracks in their no immigration policies. So we’ll see how all this evolves. It’ll be very interesting to watch.

Dr. Connie: One of the leaders from the United States is actually heading to Japan here in later 2018, and it’s going to be interesting to see a little bit more of their culture up close. They actually contacted the Rural Futures Institute, and I received an email, this is not verbatim, it said, “Dr. Connie, what’s the future of rural Japan?” because they’re curious and (laughter) the country has made a national effort and initiative and declared it a national priority to focus on its rural areas, and redeveloping those areas because they are nervous about exactly what you’re saying. Will Japan really even exist in the future? And in this hyper-urbanization they’re experiencing, they’ve already seen the challenges associated with that, if they don’t have a diverse population spread across the country, because they’ve had enough disasters in different locales that they understand what that means to their population.

Thomas Frey: I had to do a study on the difference in millennials in the United States and India and China and how they make decisions and that was kind of a fascinating study, and it’s all based on the different types of technology that you’re exposed to as you’re growing up. You see, right now, all the young people in Africa are growing up and they have smartphones that they have access to. One thing that never gets talked about very much is that with the Internet, it’s increasing our awareness of the world, and so when you’re looking on your smartphone and you’re much more aware of things happening all over the world and you look at the stuff happening and you say, “Wow, there’s many cool things happening in the world, but it’s not happening here,  I think I want to go there.” And so this idea of migrating to other countries, of trying to move to Europe or trying to move to the United States, or South America—we’re becoming a much more fluid society, and it’s driven by this notion that I have control over my own destiny, so I can go anywhere I want to, and why would I want to stay here, wherever that might be? And so that’s why we’re starting to see all of these refugee issues around the world. Some of it is driven by wars and famine, but other aspects of it are driven just by people wanting to venture out and explore the world. And so that’s creating much other issues going on in the world.

Dr. Connie: I find it interesting, sometimes in the world of rural development, traditionally, we’ve sent young people graduating from high school off to college and then we’re hopeful that they’ll return and become a professional in those communities and help grow the population. I’ve really been talking a lot lately about maybe that’s not the right model. Maybe we need to quit (chuckles) expecting that or wanting that, and I think we have moved to this very mobile society. People want to go have experiences. So I think it’s encouraging people to go where they want to go, be who they want to be, but always have the invitation extended. Come back wherever you come from, and make your life here if you desire to do that. We can help you create that opportunity.

Thomas Frey: The driverless technology is going to have such a profound effect on tentative divisions between rural and urban areas, because I think it extends out their urban areas in such far distances in every direction. If I have a job that I have to commute to in the city, and I don’t have to do the driving, I don’t have to fight traffic, I don’t have to do any of that because the car does it all for me, that’s a whole different way of thinking about a morning commute because I can stay productive, I can get a lot of things done inside this vehicle on my way to work and maybe I’ll only have to go in two days a week, so maybe I’m willing to actually commute two hours each way, and then some of that extends out this urban community suddenly is extended out a couple hundred miles farther than it ever was in the past. That changes our perspective in so many ways. It changes the pricing of real estate, it changes where we want to live, our houses, and all that. So when you start adding some multipliers to that as to what cities will look like in the future, then we start getting some really interesting scenarios of what could happen. Now we don’t have any good evidence of that yet, and the whole driverless technology thing will evolve over time as it gets better and better, but there’s certainly a lot of interesting speculation as to some of the possibilities.

Dr. Connie: Personally I’m excited about that. I drive about an hour and a half one way, and I’d love to have the autonomous vehicle where it’s kind of a spa, but also productive and entertaining all at the same time. I can only speak for me personally. I cannot speak on behalf of the State of Nebraska. We have so many commuters here from our rural areas into our urban centers. Love to see us be kind of a real testing site, but also an innovation bed for this type of technology because I think we could also provide insights on what those commuters might need.

Thomas Frey: The one thing to keep in mind is that the cars we drive today have actually been in development for 120 years. And so it’s taken that long to get to a vehicle that’s this good. So once we move into driverless technology, it’s going to take quite a while to work our way through what I refer to as the crappy stages of all this emerging technology to get to the really good stuff. So we’re going to go through this awkward transition of having drivers in some cars and no drivers in other cars, and so we’re going to have things that go wrong. We’re going to have accidents. We’re going to have edge cases. But those are on the fringe. I think overall traffic is going to get much safer. I mean right now we end up having 38,000 deaths every year. We have 12.4 million injuries in car accidents. We spend right at half a trillion dollars a year repairing people after car accidents. One out of every six dollars in the healthcare industry goes into fixing people after car accidents. If we could be more like the airline industry, the airline industry becomes the safety metric for transportation because virtually nobody dies in airlines any more. And so if we can get even close to that in the car industry, we’ve just saved countless lives, there’s nobody that can argue against that, but it’s funny to watch all the newspaper headlines. “Oh, they had an accident in the driverless car world.” Well, yes, we’re going to have a lot of them leading up to the fact that we’re getting to a much safer form of transportation some time in the future.

Dr. Connie: I think that what you’re saying is so important. It’s not like this is just going to happen tomorrow. It is going to be a process, much like many technologies have been over time, so it’s not something that just instantly happens, and I think sometimes when people get in conversations around these types of technologies, they do get a little nervous, and I don’t blame them, but at the same time, these things are going to have to get worked out along the way, and they will.

Thomas Frey: We had one of our Mastermind groups working on this topic of what things will be coming in their life in 2030 that don’t exist today. And to put that in perspective, we’re looking at, “Okay, what things do we have today that weren’t around 12 years ago?” And so 12 years ago, in 2006, we didn’t have any mobile apps. We didn’t have Twitter. Facebook was just a tiny little company then. And it becomes kind of amusing to actually start going through all these things we just take for granted today that weren’t even around 10, 12 years ago.

(music transition)

Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rock star students from the University of Nebraska who are making a difference in rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hey, podcast listeners, it’s Katy, production specialist of the Rural Futures podcast. With me today is Tyan Boyer, a senior exercise science major at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Welcome, Tyan.

Tyan Boyer: Thanks for having me, Katy.

Katy Bagniewski: It’s so nice to have you on the show. Start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Tyan Boyer: Like you said, I’m a senior exercise science major at UNK. I am from Wayne, Nebraska, which is a small town in northeast Nebraska, about a thousand people. Something that I’m wanting to do with my future career is to go to PT school, become a physical therapist. A little slogan that I live by is positive infinity I’m just a very positive person. I try to instill a little bit of that in everybody’s life, everybody that I’m around. I just try to be in a good mood all the time, even when it doesn’t seem like there is a way to, you try to find the little things that pick you up to maintain that positivity.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, at RFI we really value that positivity that you bring to the narrative around rural communities. So tell me, why do you care so much about rural?

Tyan Boyer: Rural means everything to me. I’m from a very small town, like I said. I think a lot of my characteristics and the things that are important to me and the values that I have are because of the rural aspect. I love the closeness with rural, I love the know your neighbor aspect that we have, that I think tends to be forgotten in bigger cities, and that’s something that has always stuck with me and something that I want for my kids, too.

Katy Bagniewski: Now I know you got the chance to directly impact a rural community through RFI’s Student Services Program. Tell me a little bit about that.

Tyan Boyer: Not only this summer, but last summer, I was in McCook, Nebraska, doing a serviceship, and we ran health and wellness camps for middle school kids. Fitness, nutrition, physical activity, and then some of the more cutting-edge stuff, like technology—tying that in with fitness and nutrition and then also aquaponics and incorporating sustainability aspects of that as well.

Katy Bagniewski: What a cool connection between your field of study and the real world opportunity to impact a community. How else has RFI impacted your college career and development?

Tyan Boyer: The opportunities and the people that I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had. I would not have been able to have those without this serviceship, not only this summer, but the summer prior. I met so many great people from all over the state, so many contacts for the future, building those friendships and those bonds that I had with this year’s interns and also last year’s are something I’m going to be able to access in the future. And I hope that they feel that they can use me as a resource in the future as well. I don’t really think that there’s a price you can put on that. I feel like that is something that is completely invaluable, and those friendships will continue to last for the rest of my life.

Katy Bagniewski: I know you’ve really invested in this network, and I truly hope that you will continue to reap those benefits in the future. Thank you so much, Tyann, for being our Bold Voice this week.

Tyan Boyer: Yup, thank you for having me, Katy.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well, I know that part of preparing for the future is education. There’s a thread of education and learning through all of this, and recently you’ve published an article that listed 52 future college degrees. So tell us a little bit how you see higher education evolving into the future as well.

Thomas Frey: We’re all looking for quicker, better, faster ways of getting smarter, and that gives me a huge advantage. I mean, if I can suddenly overnight, I can go take a couple classes and then I’m suddenly an expert on this new topic tomorrow, that gives me absolutely a huge advantage over somebody else that might be looking to get that job. We’re still in a world where we’re short 18 million teachers in the world. 23% of all kids growing up in the world don’t go to any school whatsoever, and if we have to insert a teacher between us and everything we have to learn in the future, we can’t possibly keep up with the demand for the future that’s going on in business and industry. So how do we arrange things in ways that are faster, better, quicker? At the DaVinci Institute that I run, we were exploring this idea of what I refer to as micro-colleges. In 2012, we started a coding school where we’re trying to teach people how to become computer programmers and 12 to 14 weeks. And we were the second in the country to actually launch that type of school in 2012, and then last year, there was over 550 schools that had cropped up around the country. So this a really fast mushrooming area. Now when I think about micro-colleges, I think of that as post-secondary education done in a short period of time. In the future, if we want to teach somebody how to design parts for 3D printers or how to become a drone pilot, or how to become a crowdfunding expert, or even how to become a brewmaster in a brew pub. We can do those things in a short period of time, and we’re going to have huge demands for that coming up in the future.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: How do you see leadership evolving so it’s meeting the needs and demands of the changing world?

Thomas Frey: Business and industry has to find ways of being nimble and how to access the right people at the right time. Now, it’s no longer possible to anticipate the business, the educational needs of business, four to five years in advance. So that’s where education has to become nimble and somehow dovetail with the needs of business and industry and that’s where the real struggle comes into play.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Now, in putting on that futurist’s hat, knowing that you’re a thought leader in the futurist area, and thinking how higher education, other industries are going to evolve, how do you see the area of futuring evolving in the future?

Thomas Frey: The fact that we don’t know everything is what gives us our motivation. It gives us our drive and our energy, because we have the ability to change the future. But there are certain techniques out there that give us much better clues, much better appreciation for how the world is unfolding, and so as I mentioned before, the Internet is giving us higher levels of awareness than we’ve ever had in the past, so we’re much more aware of things happening around the world. And we get to a point where we’re frustrated if we don’t know. Having better models, this idea of participatory thinking protocols, the ability to create frameworks for thinking that help give us better clues as to what’s coming around the corner, we’re constantly developing those. So we’ve done a few of those at the DaVinci Institute ourselves.

Dr. Connie: Can you give an example of a time you’ve done other industries specifically that you’ve studied and have some information on?

Thomas Frey: In the banking world, in 2014, we had the peak number of branch banks in the United States, a little over 94,000 branch banks in the US, and since we’re able to do so many more things with our phone, we’re going to start seeing a declining number of branch banks in the world to the point where I think we’re going to start closing the real estate associated with banks at a rate far faster. We’re closing about a thousand banks a year right now. I think that jumps up to somewhere between five and 10,000 in the very near future, and so we started looking at, “Okay, if these are going away, “what’s going to replace those facilities “in communities and are we going to go “strictly without facilities,” and it raises lots of interesting questions about that. We don’t have all the answers just yet, but it’s ways of driving the conversation.

Dr. Connie: I think it is great to think about what those futures might look like and how technology’s definitely impacting the future and really helping leaders think through their industries at this point in time.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: With that futurist lens on, Thomas, what parting words of wisdom do you want to share with our audience?

Thomas Frey: I think that we would all be better off spending a little more time exercising this part of the brain that thinks about the future. We’re such a backward-looking society, and it’s just human nature that we think that way, because we’ve all personally experienced the past. As we look around us, we see evidence of the past all around us. In fact, all of the information we come into contact with is essentially history, so the past is very knowable. Yet we’re going to be spending the rest of our lives in the future, so it’s almost as if we’re walking backwards into the future. So my job as a futurist is to help turn people around, give them some idea of what the future holds, and I hope maybe some of the things we talked about today have done that for people.

Dr. Connie: Oh, they absolutely have, and I think one of my favorite quotes in the information you submitted was, “We have only taken the first step in a trillion-mile journey, the next few steps, in my opinion, will be nothing short of spectacular.”

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Thank you for being on the Rural Futures podcast. Tell our listeners where they can find you.

Thomas Frey: you can find more about what I’m doing at futuristspeaker.com. I have all the columns that I’ve written posted on there, a little over 400 are there right now. And the stuff we’re doing on DaVinci Institute is just davinciinstitute.com, and I’d love to connect on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter—I’m on all the social media, feel free to contact me and say hi.


Episode 12: Founder Ali Schwanke intersects marketing, entrepreneurship, rural myths

October 9, 2018
              Dr. Connie gets down to business with Ali Schwanke, Founder and CEO of Simple Strat, a growth marketing agency headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. Ali shares some of the nuts and bolts of what …






Dr. Connie gets down to business with Ali Schwanke, Founder and CEO of Simple Strat, a growth marketing agency headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. Ali shares some of the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be successful after the startup phase. She sprinkles in some insights into what small businesses can do to amplify their voice and their story. And she gets real about what it’s going to take to create a culture for female entrepreneurs — starting with them finding the time between running a business and life’s demands to take their seat at the table. For those of us in the Midwest, Ali also challenges to own the misconceptions of our region and start telling our story better.

Ali Schwanke, CEO Simple Strat
“You start to understand the myths and preconceived notions that exist in the Midwest, and it’s up to us to change those. We can’t get angry about someone not hiring us, because we are part of the story that’s being told in our region.”
Ali Schwanke
Founder and CEO, Simple Strat

About Ali


Ali is the founder and CEO of Simple Strat, the marketing agency for companies that are serious about growth. She’s a sought-after speaker, consultant and content creator; a Pipeline Entrepreneurial Fellow; and a member of the National Practitioner’s Council for the American Marketing Association. She’s a wife to Bryce, a fifth grade teacher, and mom to two boys.


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome to the Rural Futures podcast. Joining me today is Ali Schwanke. She’s the Founder and CEO of Simple Strat, the marketing agency for companies that are serious about growth. She’s a sought-after speaker, consultant, and content creator, a Pipeline Entrepreneurs Fellow, and a member of the national Practitioners Council for the American Marketing Association. She’s also wife to Bryce, who’s a fifth-grade teacher, and mom to two boys. So you’re doing it all. You’re doing the whole  work-life balance, and all that good stuff. But I’d love to dive into a little more about you, Ali, so tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Ali Schwanke: Sure! Well, I’ll definitely correct the not-doing-it-all-well.


Ali Schwanke: Before we started-


Dr. Connie: I just had to say that.

Ali Schwanke: Before we started recording, we were just talking about how I burned a pan with Pam spray in it, because I forgot that it was actually on the stove. So, most days I try a little bit harder than that, but I, but it’s true, being a mom and being a wife and those things are important, but I have a similar passion for running a business. And my first ever business, per se, was probably when I was six or seven. I was selling these greeting cards, door-to-door. So, it would have been, in the probably, early ’90s. And back then, everyone had stationary and greeting cards. And I wanted to earn this tent, and so I went around selling these cards, door-to-door. And I had decided this was so easy, that I’d make my own catalog. And so I drew myself a catalog with clothes that I knew I could purchase from the local, like, Shopko, and nobody bought anything, but-


Dr. Connie: That is awesome, though! What a great story! So do you feel like you’ve always kind of had this entrepreneurial bent to you?

Ali Schwanke: I do, but I didn’t start my business right out of college, and I did work for other people, which I think gave me some of the, “here’s what I wouldn’t want to do”, sort of perspective? I often wonder if I had started earlier, what the world would look like, but I’m really thankful for the people that went before me and showed me a bit of the ins and outs before I actually had to kind of take the hard knocks myself.

Dr. Connie: So, it wasn’t something that you did right out of college, but what made you ultimately decide to become an entrepreneur and build a business? Yeah, I actually did have a photography business right out of college, and so I did that as a solopreneur. At that point I didn’t have any employees, and I kind of got sick of the schedule with that, and decided to morph into marketing, but every time I worked for somebody, I had this sense that it was mine. And a couple companies, I got to the point that I was ready to buy in, as a partner, or an owner. And one time, I actually sat down with one of the companies I was working with to talk about becoming a minority partner. And this is one of those times that, you don’t ever really talk about the ugly that goes on in business, and I remember this person just yelling at me and calling me an unthankful person because the number I proposed to them was not what they thought the business was worth. And they were kind of valuing sweat equity, which doesn’t really have a numerical value sometimes. And at that point, I’m like, you know what? If I’m going to build something, it’s going to be for me.

Dr. Connie: Right. And so how long have you been building Simple Strat? When did you found it? And really, tell us a little more about what Simple Strat does.

Ali Schwanke: So, Simple Strat is about two-and-a-half, as of the recording of this, at the end of this year, it’ll be nearing three years old. But prior to that, I had a couple of years where I was a solo consultant and really went in as a CMO for hire. In that experience, I discovered that a lot of businesses, they really struggled with marketing, although I think I have a very well-rounded marketing skill set, because of all the things I’ve done. I’m an okay designer. I’m an okay content creator, but when you have a team around, you can do it so much better. So Simple Strat was birthed out of that realization that I can build this skill entity with teams and people, and then that allows me to go out and really, kind of push these big changes in the industry, as opposed to doing all the kind of grunt work. So we focus on companies that are looking to grow through marketing, and that means you have to be forward-thinking and putting the consumer first and thinking through all those different types of things that are going to draw someone in to your story, and then get them to act instead of just interrupting them and hoping that they pay attention.

Dr. Connie: Well, I love how your journey has progressed and it sounds like you’ve had a lot of experiences that have led to this moment, but you’ve really embraced all those experiences as well, and learned from them.

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Dr. Connie: Alright, Ali, so one of the reasons we brought you on the podcast is because you are a maverick, and in our world, you are a rural maverick, right? So, tell us a little bit more about why Simple Strat is located here, and what advantages, and maybe disadvantages, that really entails?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, so Simple Strat’s headquarters, I guess I could say, if I use the HQ. We’re in Lincoln, and one of the reasons why Lincoln’s such a great community to build a business in, is there’s this really interesting ecosystem of startups, and that’s not just quote unquote tech startups. But, it’s really anybody who’s trying to be innovative with their business and make things happen. So there’s the tie that you have to people and other people that are doing things like you, is incredible. We have a strong presence of Internet connections here in the city. We have the strong presence of legal support, and financial support, and that kind of stuff. But the challenges it presents in the Midwest is probably related to talent. Typically, when you’re looking for people with certain skills and you have a certain size of the population, how many of the population out there are certified inbound marketers with experience in B2B marketing, that have automation and lead generation on their resume? Ugh, not very many. So, that’s probably the biggest challenge that I’ve seen so far in building a business here. And then there is, I don’t know how we’re going to get over this, we’re working on it but, there’s still the perception when, I went to a conference in Boston, and I remember someone, I told them I was from Nebraska. And they kind of like in the South, they’re like, oh, bless your heart, you know?


Dr. Connie: Right?

Ali Schwanke: That’s what it felt like! They looked at me and were like, good for you! And I was like, good for me, what? Like, we don’t get out of our cattle call! I didn’t understand what that was supposed to mean. So we had this conversation about what their perception of the Midwest was. And yeah, they’d never been here. So I think building a business here, I can help us bring people to the region, and then they leave and go, “Holy cow, there is amazing stuff happening in Nebraska.” Then we can be part of that change. But until then, we’re just going to continue to build this ecosystem, because everyone here recognizes that it’s super powerful.

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Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rock star students from the University of Nebraska who are making a difference in rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hello podcast listeners, my name is Katy Bagniewski, and I’m the Production Specialist of the Rural Futures podcast. With me today is Amber Ross, a junior agribusiness major from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Welcome, Amber.

Amber Ross: Hi, Katie.

Katy Bagniewski: Okay, Amber, so give us your elevator pitch. Who is Amber Ross?

Amber Ross: So, Amber Ross, is just your typical small-town girl. I grew up in Callaway, Nebraska, graduated from Callaway High School. Callaway has 500, a little more than 500 people in it, and honestly, Callaway taught me most of what I know now. So, I carry what Callaway taught me as I go through life and I refer back to it pretty frequently.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, so talk a little bit about that. Why do you care about rural so much?

Amber Ross: I am your typical farmer’s daughter. I learned all about hard work, about teamwork, about dedication, about perseverance, all that kind of stuff on the farm. But then, I also learned a lot growing up in a small town. I mean, it was, our high school was K-12. Everybody was in one building, and that puts a lot of pressure on high schoolers to do everything. I did speech, I did one-acts, I did volleyball, basketball, I rodeoed. I did it all, and there’s not a lot of free time there. And so I came to college, and I wasn’t used to having free time. I was so bored, I actually went out and got a job, so that I didn’t just sit in my dorm room. You do, you just learn how to time manage. You learn about hard work and, that kind of stuff is invaluable to a college student like me.

Katy Bagniewski: So, how would you answer the question of, why rural, why now?

Amber Ross: So, we’ve seen through the patterns of history that, as we go through, people either want to live in the city for a time and they revert back and they want to live in the smaller community, in the rural community, and I think, right now, we’re really heavy into that. Everybody wants to live in the city where it’s convenient and everything’s right there where you need it. But I think we’re going to start seeing that go back to small-town feel, in just 10 years or so. I think we’re really going to see that change, again. And rural communities are going to become the trendy place to live. It’s going to be cool to be in rural. I mean, I was there before it was cool, so I kind of already am on the trend, but—


Katy Bagniewski: Because rural is cool.


Amber Ross: You right, You right!


Katy Bagniewski: So with that mindset, how has the Rural Futures Institute impacted your college career and your future plans for beyond college?

Amber Ross: So, the Rural Futures Institute just has offered me a lot of different opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way. I mean, I’ve gone to West Point and Columbus for serviceship experiences. Just those kinds of opportunities, I wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t work with RFI and work here in the office, and so, meeting those kinds of people who are real movers and shakers and doing some really cool things regarding rural, has just changed my outlook on a lot of things, and so,  in the future, my goal is to be a community developer of some sort, whether that be through the chamber work, or through economic development. And so, I wouldn’t trade my experiences with RFI for anything.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, thank you, Amber, I think that was really valuable. And thank you for being our student spotlight of the week, and giving hope to our generation of future leaders who want to make a better world for all.

Amber Ross: Thank you, Katie.

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Dr. Connie: So, one of the areas we like to focus on at the Rural Futures podcast is leadership, and obviously you’ve had a lot of experiences that you’ve learned from and you’ve used to develop as a leader. Tell us a little bit about your leadership philosophy and how you’re using that to grow Simple Strat, but also your presence in the entrepreneur ecosystem.

Ali Schwanke: Sure. So, a lot of people who have gone before me have given me a glimpse of what is good leadership, and then there’s definitely those that, when I was working for people, I always kept a never note file, called things “I will never do when I have a company”.

Dr. Connie: That’s awesome.


Ali Schwanke: And it was filled with things—it’s funny, because now, there are things on that list that I know I didn’t understand the context at the time, and I think oh, I’d never do that! And then when I get in a leadership role, I think, oh, that’s why they did that. And so I think that being a transparent leader and letting people know you have faults, but balancing that with the confidence and reassurance that here’s where the company’s going. To be honest, every day is not great, and every day, I’d love to say: we had this amazing team meeting, and we all high-fived, and everyone is clear on the vision, and it’s amazing. And you could still ask one of my team members, “What’s this thing over here?” And I’d be like, we just talked about that! But talking to someone and talking with someone and having them understand are two completely different things. So, I think it’s always a learning process.

Dr. Connie: No, I agree, I think it is a learning process, and I loved how you talked about the context, too, because I think sometimes, as an employee, you don’t work to understand to maybe what that other person’s going through or what their needs are, so how can I also support that while also growing as a person and growing as an organization serving customers, et cetera. The whole idea of gender and leadership is such a big conversation right now, and as well as gender and entrepreneurship. How would you envision this evolving in the future? Being a female who’s a strong leader, also an entrepreneur, how do you see the future of leadership for women?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting conversation. It’s one that actually myself personally hadn’t had too much up to this point, and I’m not the first person to sit out in the middle of the street and say, go women entrepreneurs. Not because I don’t think that’s important. It’s just, I was asked by a reporter, “What is it like being a woman entrepreneur,” and it’s just kind of like, what is it like to breathe?


Ali Schwanke: It’s just this thing that I do! But if you take certain situations and break them down, there definitely are times that you start to think, Oh, maybe there are some disadvantages that exist. I have a couple people in my business that are men, and it’s not been uncommon for people to assume that I’m working with them or for them. And I don’t think that that’s— I don’t think anything negative about that person for thinking that, but it’s just a natural thing that happens. I’ve done some social experiments myself, where like, does it matter if I wear glasses? Does it matter if I wear my hair is up? Does it matter if my hair is down? Do I wear a startup tee with a blazer? Do I wear a dress? All of those things affect your first impression and what people think of you, and I always want someone to think, “She is damn smart,” versus, “Whoa, I wonder if she knows anything” because of the way I’m dressed. So, that’s something that I’ve thought through, but there’s definitely a need to have more conversations about it and it’s getting women after work away from their families to talk about it.


Ali Schwanke: That’s probably the bigger challenge is, we have so many things to worry about, that having a conversation requires strategic effort.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s just this time thing is such a big one. And we have women leaving the workforce in droves right now, to start their own businesses, because they are thinking, “How do I have  more flexible schedule that I can control somewhat?” “How do I continue to be involved with my family?” All these different things and also, the organizational cultures that don’t support, what the modern lifestyle is and I think that’s true for women, but also for men. We see more men wanting to be parents, and full-on, as well, Or just, couples in general, trying to figure out how to balance all this, or single parents, all of that. What advice would you give to women who are in the workplace right now who are thinking about starting their own business?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I have a book on my shelf that’s called “Secrets of Six-Figure Women”, and I thought it was interesting because I didn’t know this until I started reading it, that women typically don’t make more than $100,000 in their business. And I don’t know what the number was, don’t quote me on it, but it was something like, more than 80% of women don’t ever break that $100,000 mark. Just like any statistic, you can look inside and say, let’s figure out why this is, and it might be because the number of businesses counted included part-time businesses, or Etsy businesses, or whatever, but at the same respect, why aren’t women earning more? And if you go to any women’s entrepreneur event, you’ll notice a very interesting thing. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of women who have a business that’s a solo business, it’s them.  And 1099’s or them and a VA, or something like that, because the idea of building something bigger, where you have to like, “I’m responsible “for six people’s salaries.” Every month when I write the check or press the button or whatever for payroll, I’m responsible for other people’s livelihoods, and that’s a big risk, being responsible for just my livelihood isn’t as big of a risk. And I think that’s one of the challenges, and I want to help people figure that out, but it is one of things that I struggle to find other women that have businesses that are employing people. I think that’s a fascinating sort of aspect of entrepreneurship, because I think sometimes, we see this growth in what we call the gig economy, the 1099 employees, they just want to do gigs, maybe to support their family a little bit. But you talk a lot about this whole issue of the side hustle is easy, what’s hard is the growth, what’s hard, is saying you know what, I’m going to put my stake in the ground and I’m going to build a team, and I’m going to go after this bigger business model, a bigger business concept. What would you tell people that were wanting to say, “You know what, maybe I need to go bigger?”

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think that one of the things that’s difficult from a side hustle perspective is a lot of side hustles start as just that— they’re just a side hustle, they’re just a way to make some extra money. They might be kind of this random idea, but it’s not like they’ve thought, “when I hit revenue x, I’m going to do y.” “When I hit revenue this, I’m going to do this.” When you’re building a business, you have some of those benchmarks and milestones already laid out because you kind of, even if you didn’t put together a plan, you still have somewhat of a, “In five years, we’re going to be this.” “Okay, to get there I’m going to do this.” When you’re side hustling, you’re still just kind of in the motion every day and you’re not really thinking strategically. So when it becomes overwhelming, in the podcast where we were interviewing local entrepreneurs, one of the gals there said, “I either had to grow, or I had to get scaled back.” And people often have the fear of the unknown, even if it’s better, they want to stick with the known. And even in marketing I’ve noticed a lot of people now, it’s so easy to start something. Seth Godin says, “It’s easier than ever to start, it’s harder than ever to finish.”

Dr. Connie: Yeah, and I think that’s interesting to hear some people who have lived this whole experience as more of a lifestyle. Like you said, it’s like how you breathe, almost. It’s not necessarily just something that you, I don’t know, do part time, or just kind of dabble in. It’s just how you, you’re wired, and how you decided to live and make your living. But, I too, would like to dive a little bit into your podcast, because I think the other thing is, you have this message, not only with your business, but you as a person, as an entrepreneur who has scaled, and is employing other people. And we have so few female entrepreneurs in the US, and even, internationally doing this type of work, and scaling like that. I’d love to learn a little bit more about your Bar Napkin Business podcast, and why you started that, and what the message is behind the podcast.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah! The podcast is a local podcast, to the Midwest at this point, and we’ve interviewed nearly 50 entrepreneurs and small business owners. It’s really about the, we call it the down and dirty details of running and growing a business. Because I think we were a little bit over the fact that there’s all these, startup x y z guys, venture capital funding, and they don’t even have a product yet. There’s a lot of really great things happening that require a lot of investment, but there’s a lot of really just people that are grinding it out to make things work that provide a pretty good business, so it might be like one gal was building a candle business. And she was at the point that she was outsourcing production, and how does that all work. And another guy developed a patent for something that he and his buddies had just kind of ran with and now it’s a business and they’re selling online and shipping everywhere. It’s more like a Shark Tank sort of feel, but it’s happening right here in the Midwest.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, absolutely and I think sometimes when people think of rural, they think of the entire Midwest. And so this is something we’ve talked a lot about with our audiences, and I get asked a lot, “How do you define rural?” And I’m like, “Well, it really kind of depends on the context, right?” And so if you’re on the East Coast or West Coast, you define the whole Midwest as rural, where a lot of times people in Omaha wouldn’t define themselves as rural, or Lincoln wouldn’t define themselves as rural, if you’re thinking about just Nebraska. I think, though, the hyper-localization of what people want to hear and know is such a key part of while we see everything grown exponentially and get bigger, at the same time people need to know how that applies in their own life. And so it’s awesome to hear about Steve Jobs and the next big company, as in Gazelle, but I think what it missing sometimes is the conversation you’re having and that podcast. You don’t have to get a multimillion dollar investment deal to do well in business.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, one of the things that we found was that people wanted to hear like, we talked about the story of ZipLine Brewery and how that started. And when you hear someone else that is kind of like you or not just looks like you or acts like you but they could be your neighbor down the street, if they did it, I could probably do this. So it was designed to show some of the, I mean there’s also a lot of hard stuff that goes into building a business, and we didn’t want to sugar-coat the fact that you have to pay attention to the numbers. We started to see trends that came out of conversations. Matt and I, my co-host, would just look at each other and kind of be like, “Yep, here we go again,” because they’d talk about people, or they’d talk about financing, or they’d talk about needing lawyers, and I appreciate good lawyers, it’s just essential and you can’t look over that.

Dr. Connie: Well, I think even if you’re doing just your own thing, getting started, you have to have that team in place. I mean you need to have an attorney, an accountant, people that can help you through the fine print of owning a business and the legal issues and the accounting issues that you’re going to have if you’re going to take an income for a product or service and try to get that out.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I mean the day that I realized that I didn’t have to know the answer to every accounting question, I was ecstatic. Chad, if you’re listening, you’ve been a lifesaver. It’s been amazing and we went through some legal paperwork in our operating agreement lately and Bart Dillashaw helped us out with that and he just, he understands the Midwest entrepreneurial culture, he has experience in the valley, it’s just—that sort of resource available here in our rural Midwest, I guess, for people that are on the Coast is amazing.

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Dr. Connie: One of the things we’ve talked about in our rural communities is the need for more entrepreneurship. We’re not going to pull in a lot of big companies, there are fewer and fewer big companies that even exist. How would you envision more of what’s happening here in I would say our Lincoln startup community? Omaha is a great startup community. How could you see rural and urban connecting through entrepreneurship, and helping maybe support more entrepreneurship in our rural areas?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think one of the challenges that we have with rural, and even in the Midwest, entrepreneurs still learn from each other. And someone asked me if I had to give advice to someone about entrepreneurship, what would it be? And my advice is find a powerful community that can push you and challenge you and is going to know the things that you don’t know. Ithink, though, the fact that we have access to all information also makes it very hard to know what information we should pay attention to. And when I’m living in a rural community of maybe 300 people it seems like my world is very small and there’s no resources available, but in fact you are connected by the Internet and it just requires a little bit more strategic navigating to find the people that you would call your people, and then don’t disregard the fact that being together in person is super-valuable. So if there’s an entrepreneurship summit in the middle of your state, go, use it as a chance to go and meet people.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, absolutely. I think what we’ve found, I used to work with the Entrepreneurship Club down in southeast Nebraska, and it was always amazing to me, great groups of people getting together, and everybody knows that you have a business, I have a business, but they didn’t know a lot about one another’s businesses, or how you could, “What are those partnerships?”, “How can we leverage what each other’s bringing “to the table so that we’re winning together, rather than thinking we’re competing?”, or “There’s no partnership potential here.”

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, people in the Midwest, what’s interesting, we work with clients from all over, and I spend a lot of time in other cities doing either speaking or we’re a HubSpot agency so we work with a lot of software, but people in different communities tend to have a different view on what competition can and can’t do. I love competition because it pushes us the be better, but it also means that most companies can find out pretty much everything that you do because you put it on your website or they can ask around. So, they’re so shy about sharing what they’re doing, which means they don’t connect with other entrepreneurs, or they don’t seek out communities because they’re just afraid of connecting to the point that it’s going to be a detriment. When I think that we’re now at a point in our world that you should be connecting because if you don’t, your next opportunity is going to come from a human being versus from some sort of a Web search.

Dr. Connie: And I think that’s a critical point. Businesses grown by human beings and those relationships are still incredibly important. I know you’ve also talked about this challenge we have sometimes around not hiring the people we know or the people around us— the local businesses not always getting hired. Tell our audience a little bit more about that experience and how you think just employing one another, doing more business to business work and investment with one another could help spur on our own economy.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, this is like a catch-22, because I think, I don’t know who, someone smart, said it once, but I don’t know who it was, but you’re always an expert 60 miles outside of your market. What they basically meant is you have a chance to establish your reputation for one or two specific things that you’re known for and outside the market, because you’re an unknown, it’s somewhat shiny and new and you can, that is actually a lot easier than doing it in your local market. The interesting thing is, a lot of times the people that are looking for the services that are local, they don’t know that they exist here, or they assume they don’t exist here. So why would you hire a development company out of Lincoln, Nebraska, when you could go hire the company that helped build some software out in Silicon Valley? Well, why wouldn’t you? And you start to break down some of the— you start to understand the myths and preconceived notions that exist in the Midwest, and it’s up to us to change those. So we can’t get angry about someone not hiring us because we are part of the story that’s being told in our region.

Dr. Connie: I love that. I love how you’ve so strongly come in as a leader and an entrepreneur and really has, in a short time, you’ve experienced so much success and growth. But I’d love to know, too, about your experience as a Pipeline Fellow, and some of what you’re doing to just not only grow your agency but also, really just grow the capacity in thinking in general around entrepreneurship and innovation.

Ali Schwanke: Pipeline is actually accepting applications for next year,

Dr. Connie: Oh, great.

Ali Schwanke: through October 22d, but the organization itself is designed to help high-growth entrepreneurs, and there’s a whole application process that accompanies it and they’re there for the entrepreneur, yes the businesses too, but they recognize that entrepreneurs typically have multiple things they’re involved in their lifetime. And it’s backed by the Kauffman Foundation, so they want people who have amazing entrepreneurial talent to stay in the Midwest and build businesses here and build capital here. I’m involved now this year, we start Module Three actually tomorrow here in Lincoln and Omaha, and it’s designed to help us go through all the different things that you would go through, it kind of feels like my MBA. I never got my MBA. It very much feels like that. But we’re building a software product that has a much higher scalable model to it than an agency, so we’re actually using a lot of the learning that’ll apply it to that specific product right now. And it’s just a wealth of people and it’s, I mean, pardon my French but it’s a good (bleep) kicking, it really is.


I’m prepared tomorrow to get everything that I turned in for homework absolutely ripped apart because I need to get better, and I need those people to challenge me in places that I think I’m already set.

Dr. Connie: Well, it sounds like a strong network, though, just like you said earlier, those relationships are so important, and what a great way to say, “You know what? I don’t know it all.” I mean, you’ve already said this in building a team, so you’re building a team at the agency and outside of the agency to help you continue to grow and help the firm continue to grow. I think that’s just brilliant. I’m a huge fan of Pipeline and everything they’re doing, and just appreciate that, but I also know that this is a prestigious program. You do have to apply, get accepted, and so it’ll be exciting to see where you go from here and where the agency goes from here.

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Dr. Connie: I also want to go back to something you said, you don’t have your MBA. I think sometimes what stops people is they, especially women, they don’t feel like, “Oh, I need this certificate or training, I need more, more, more, before I apply for maybe that higher position, or I launch my venture, or grow the venture.” And I think that can really be tricky for a lot of people, but I know that research says more women, they want to be perfect at something before they execute, whereas men sometimes will just execute and learn it, and not be afraid to learn it along the way. So I’d love to know how do you think not having that degree has been a benefit to you?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think there’s definitely drawbacksto not having an MBA specifically in business, because there’s some things that I struggle with, there’s a lot of emphasis on finance in your MBA, and that’s all, that’s wonderful. I’ve gotten a lot of that through Pipeline, as well as just sitting down with mentors and getting a former CFO, who’s been a CFO for a long time, sitting down and actually talking through things and asking me, “Why do you do this?” “What’s going on here?  So really getting some of that feedback has been helpful. So I think that when you look at business, there really isn’t a, I mean there’s definitely models, and there’s things you have to know, but so much of the theory is tested  when you actually put it into practice. The best businesses have come out of people that were going to Harvard Business School or going to Stanford, and they had an idea, and they were able to act on it. It wasn’t the other way around where they were like, “I better get this degree, and then I will get something and then I can get move in this super-linear fashion.” It’s very abstract, and there’s no checks that you can check off the boxes to be able to get where you need to go.

Dr. Connie: Well, I think that’s such an important point because I know here at the University we have a lot of students and they’re always wondering, “Well, how did you get to where you are?” And it’s so funny as you talk to more and more people, it isn’t a linear path. It’s generally pretty windy, you just have to learn what you want, how to get it, but that also to roll with it a little bit when things get challenging, or things don’t go the way you had expected them to go and that resiliency is such a huge part of it all. But it’s also growing this whole life.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I’m really fascinated by how you’re running a business, a successful firm, having a family, but also really connecting and still learning and growing as a person, a professional, as an entrepreneur. So tell us some of your secrets to, I don’t even want to call it work-life balance any more. I know now the word is work-life integration, but how are you just maintaining and growing your success?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think some of it comes from modeling. A lot of times you don’t have a person you can look to as to what things should look like. So if you grow up in a home where your mom stayed home, you don’t know what it looks like for your mom to work. If you grow up in a home where your mom owned a business, that’s going to be much different. So myself, my dad’s always been in IT, and I remember when I was a little girl, I’d go into their bedroom to say good night, and I’d look over on my dad’s night stand, and I remember the book to the day. I’m sure he had tons of books there on any given day,  but on this day, the book there that said Intro to Visual Basic. And if you know what Visual Basic is, it’s a programming language, and my dad was in IT, and he had to constantly be learning new languages in order to continue to provide value in his job. And I just, I would look over at him and he’s reading this Visual Basic book at night before he went to bed, and that was just what he did. And so now my kids know that I’m always, if they walk in, they’re like, “Oh, mom, are you taking a class right now?” “Oh, mom, are you on a webinar right now?” If I have my headphones in and I’m on the computer, it might be Spotify, but my kids think I’m always taking classes. And I think normal for us is just that we’re always going to be learning, we’re always growing, and my kids always know that I’m going to expect them to earn or build a business out of something. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, but kid, you want to go buy some new shoes, let’s talk about mowing lawns and how that can lead to some revenue. He made his own babysitting flyer and I made him use Microsoft Word and made him write it, so it’s funny, because he writes, “I will watch your kids while you go holiday shopping,” and I was like, “Interesting.” He’s like, “I Googled that.”


Ali Schwanke: Like, great!

Dr. Connie: I love it! I love that you’re making that your own flyer! Awesome! But it’s just going to become the new normal for us, and I have to admit that some days, if you come to my house, there’s going be like eight baskets of laundry that people are just living out of, because I don’t have time to put them away. I’m not going to be that Martha Stewart, I’m going to be the Sara Blakely, from Spanx,


Ali Schwake: that’s my thing, so…

Dr. Connie: Oh, that’s awesome. I think it’s great, but I think these are other conversations that have to happen, right?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah!

Dr. Connie: I mean, this whole idea of doing it all is totally exhausting and I think even if it looks like you’re doing it all, something’s not happening that’s quite right. I think you’re trying to keep your marriage alive and going, trying to be a good mom to the kids, but also this modeling and setting a new example of what life looks like moving forward, because for this next generation, it is going to be very different than previous generations.

Ali Schwanke: Right. Yeah, and helping everyone around you understand, that’s probably the hardest part for me, is when you are in an environment where people aren’t familiar with women entrepreneurs, you constantly face this interesting dynamic where they just don’t get you. I think when you have conversations with someone who maybe works part-time, which is fantastic, versus the, “I can’t go to that school thing, because I actually have to be gone for a work trip.” And they’re like, “Well, you’re your own boss, Ali, why do you have to be gone?” If I have to explain this to you right now, we’re not going to have this conversation.

Dr. Connie: Well, it’s great that those options are available for anybody. I mean we see more and more parents that aren’t even living together, but making things work, single parents making things work. I think more dads are staying at home with their kids and, or starting to work for their wives’ businesses, so we’re seeing a lot of different dynamics around that, and I think technology enables much of that. I think we’ll see more of that in the future.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well, Ali, I’d love to hear from you. What are some words of wisdom you’d love to leave our audience with? I think one of the things that I end up talking with most entrepreneurs about is the idea of marketing always feels like because there’s so many things you can do, there’s always more opportunities and platforms than you can execute on. It’s always going to take twice as long as you think it will, so because you can launch, let’s say, a Squarespace site overnight— growing the traffic to that website doesn’t happen overnight. Growing the leads in your business, growing the effect on social media, you can buy fans, but those aren’t authentic, so why would you do that? So I think we talk a lot about the idea of building this marketing foundation and having a why behind everything, and once that happens, when all those pieces are in place, it is so fun, because it feels like when you start pushing that boulder forward, and the inertia gets going, it feels like you are moving so quick. That’s what it feels like for our company now, but holy cow! We spent a year putting so much in place that now it feels like the inertia has finally caught up with us. And it just equates to that “there’s no such thing as an overnight success”, and it sounds so simple but it’s so hard to do.

Dr. Connie: But it’s an excellent point because I think we hear about the successful person after they’ve put 10 years into being successful, so you see how big they are now, but it took that work and that effort and that focus to really get it done.

Ali Schwanke: If you’re a new business and you want to get started, even if you’re a startup, you probably should go claim all of your handles on social media so no one else goes out and gets them, but then just pick one to be active on, or one to run ads on where you figure out what your message is and you figure out if the audience is there and then you can start to kind of expand outward. But I think it’s this kind of like all in one buffet, and then everyone kind of gets mediocre in their content on all those platforms, or in their approach and they just can’t do one thing really well. So paring it down and focusing, and again that sounds so simple, that I almost feel bad saying it, but it happens so much that I think it needs to be driven home.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I mean it’s hard to be everything to everybody and everywhere, especially on social media.

Ali Schwanke: Well, everyone will say, the worst answer to a, “Who are your customers,” I asked this in email this morning, and he replies back, and it’s super-genuine, it’s from the heart, but he says, “Actually, we can sell to everybody,” and he lists like all these examples, and I was like, “Okay, I didn’t ask who you could, who do you want to and who is the most profitable?” So those types of business questions when it comes to marketing you might have a service that you’re really passionate about. When I look at the numbers and I might see

that your profit margin in that particular service area is 2%. “Well, we just like that a lot more.” Yeah, okay, do you want to feel good at the end of the day, or do you want to drive value and revenue? If that’s the case, we’re going to have to focus on this kind of boring business over here because that has a much bigger potential for you to grow. A lot of people want to breeze over that part and they just want to get started doing the stuff, because it doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything. But that critical thinking, there’s been a lot of research that has come out in the past, at least probably five, ten years that critical thinking and strategic thinking is that skill that everybody needs for the next generation of business, because we have so many things that are automated now. How do we critically think so that we make the right decisions with the tools and the automation? And if we sidestep that, then we end up just having this vanilla approach to everything else, and if there’s another company out there that does what you do and you don’t have a clear why— why are they in business, why are you in business?


Episode 11: Rural broadband expert Roberto Gallardo intersects digital parity, mindset, rural potential

October 2, 2018
              In the Season 2 premiere episode, nationally known rural broadband researcher and RFI partner Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., Assistant Director at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, passionately challenges rural communities and national leaders …






In the Season 2 premiere episode, nationally known rural broadband researcher and RFI partner Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., Assistant Director at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, passionately challenges rural communities and national leaders to take action for digital parity, and not just in terms of logistical technology — but also in mindset.  In his work with rural people in Nebraska and across the U.S., Gallardo has seen communities with the best technological advances, but without the mindset to embrace the opportunities the digital age has to offer. It is time for not only providing access to everyone, but for empowering those individuals to use the technology to its fullest potential.

Check out Dr. Gallardo’s work with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Nebraska Extension and the Nebraska communities of Ashland, Nebraska City and Ravenna! “Increasing Rural Civic Engagement in the Digital Age” was funded in 2017.

Roberto Gallardo, Assistant Director, Purdue Center for Regional Development
“I see communities start thinking and acting digitally when they understand the potentials and the benefits and the challenges of the digital age and they are brave enough to start trying different things. They will fail, but then they will get up and they will try it again and that tells me that the community is now in a digital mindset.”
Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Purdue Center for Regional Development

About Dr. Gallardo


Roberto Gallardo is Assistant Director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a Purdue Extension Community & Regional Economics Specialist. He holds an electronics engineering undergraduate degree, a master’s in economic development, and a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration. Gallardo has worked with rural communities over the past decade conducting local & regional community economic development, including use of technology for development.

He has authored more than 70 articles including peer-reviewed and news-related regarding rural trends, socioeconomic analysis, industrial clusters, the digital divide, and leveraging broadband applications for community economic development. He is also the author of the book “Responsive Countryside: The Digital Age & Rural Communities”, which highlights a 21st century community development model that helps rural communities transition to, plan for, and prosper in the digital age. Dr. Gallardo is a TEDx speaker and his work has been featured in a WIRED magazine article, a MIC.com documentary, and a RFDTV documentary. He lives in West Lafayette with his wife and two daughters.


Some (of many) Publications From Dr. Gallardo


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m your host Dr. Connie, and joining me today is Dr. Roberto Gallardo. Welcome to the podcast, Roberto.

Dr. Gallardo: Thank you, Connie. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Connie: Well, I’m really excited to have you on. So, just a little bit more about Roberto, he’s the assistant director for the Purdue Center for Regional Development, and a community and regional economics specialist at Purdue Extension. But the other thing about him is he’s been conducting research in extension regarding the impact of broadband in rural communities, and this is a huge issue right now. Roberto, tell us a little bit more about what you’re doing in that space, and why.

Dr. Gallardo: Sure. Thank you. I agree. It’s a trendy topic right now. I’ve been involved in this for the past 10 years, or so. I love extension work because I call it applied research, right? You go in there, you do research, it’s research-based, and then you come down to the trenches and you kinda apply that research, that knowledge. You extend it. That’s kind of very good to do because you get feedback. You get very important feedback that many times is missed if you’re only solely looking at the research side. So, I’ve been doing a lot of secondary data crunching on broadband access and adoption in rural communities. Its impact, socioeconomic impact, et cetera, et cetera. But recently, we’re working with communities actually to learning how they can leverage digital platforms to increase civic engagement, for example, which is a project that is funded through your organization. And we also are doing surveys to better understand how households and rural households are using the technology. So, we’re moving a little bit beyond the access conversation and trying to focus more on the utilization and adoption.

Dr. Connie: And why do you think this work is so important? I know we hear a lot of times here at the Rural Futures Institute, well, people choose to live in rural, so it’s a choice they’re making. Do we really need to make the investment necessary to connect people? So, why do you think this work is important in terms of helping people living in rural be part of this wave of technology?

Dr. Gallardo: Well, as you know, the digital age is unfolding. I use the analogy that it is in diaper stage right now and the train has not left the station. And so, we’ve got to make sure that everybody that can, should board that train. And if not, you’re going to be left out of a really, truly transformational time. I’m sure if there were internet and video back in the day when everybody was moving from ag to the industry in the cities, this level of transformation was taking place. So, I believe that the digital age is doing the same now, and so the digital economy is only a part of what you hear, and of course, that’s what drives many policymakers. But I think that overall the technology, the digital age has a lot of potential for rural communities. So, working on helping these rural communities board that train, right? Before the diapers become a toddler, and then they become children, or a teenager, we need to make sure we get onboard now because one of the characteristics is it moves really quick. The digital age does. So, if we miss a train, trying to catch on later on is going to be harder.

Dr. Connie: Now, what if rural communities do miss that train? I mean, as a futurist, I love to explore these possible scenarios and what’s possible, and a lot of times we focus that work on why this is important, but what would you see happening if our rural communities miss this opportunity?

Dr. Gallardo: In a very positive spin to things, I think they’re going to go through a very slow death.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: I think they will still remain a core of whatever towns are left, but we’re already, you know, youth is moving out and our population is becoming older. That’s not sustainable. And if we do not plug in into this digital ecosystem, we will surely be left out and we will surely experience a decline.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: Now, the question is out to the jury regarding if we do plug in, what’s that going to do for rural? I think that that’s another question, future-looking, that we need to address, but we know for a fact now that if you do not have the connectivity and the know how, right off the bat, you’re out. So, I would rather worry about okay, we have the connectivity. How can we improve the know how, and how can we then turn our rural communities around? Not necessarily in growth, but in development, right? That’s one of the key differences I teach my students. Many rural communities don’t want to grow, and that’s fine. But what about develop? What about improving the quality of life of those that remain, or those that have young families like me, who want to return, or want to live in a less chaotic situation or environment like it is in big urban areas?

Dr. Connie: I think that’s such a key point, right? In terms of thinking about okay, if we can transform these communities, and it’s totally possible. I mean, the possibility is there, what could that look like? Now, that might not be population growth, and I think this is very key because I think part of the challenge we have working in this space right now is a lot of decision makers still want to see numbers. They’re like, we want to see the numbers grow. We want the population to grow, and that’s not where we are in the present state. What are those other metrics, measures, characteristics we can use to see how these communities are thriving and can even be better in the future?

Dr. Gallardo: I think it’s a no-brainer. The quality of life of rural communities can improve if we have access to education that’s only given in certain areas. We can do that virtually. We can also take advantage of telehealth, and tele-work, and other applications without having to move necessarily out of that rural ecosystem. There are some challenges there, right? It’s the death of distance. This argument has been around for 40 years since the information communication technology came online, but I believe this time, it’s a different situation because the technology’s so mature. It’s so sophisticated and we don’t even know what’s coming down the pipe. So, that’s why I’m hopeful. But rural communities will miss out if they, number one, are not connected, and number two, do not have that knowledge, that insight of how to leverage that technology.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: The other thing I really appreciate in your work that you talk about is this whole moving from the industrial age mentality to a digital age mindset, and how important mindset is. Could you expand on that a bit?

Dr. Gallardo: Yeah, definitely. Many communities that I’ve worked with may have fiber optics, right? But if they don’t have the correct mindset, they’re not going to do anything with that fiber optics. And that change in mindset is not easy. I wish I had a step-by-step process to follow, but it’s really, really location-specific and context-specific. What I see communities kind of when they start thinking and acting digitally is because they understand the potentials, and the benefits, and the challenges of the digital age, and they are brave enough, in a way, to start trying different things, and they will fail, but they will get up and they will try it again. That to me, tells me that the community is now in a digital mindset. I have noticed that the previous step to that change in mindset is awareness, and many times, many times, awareness is overlooked, easily. So, that’s public policy 101, right? If we do not agree on the problem, let’s not even discuss strategies and solutions.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: That awareness to me, is a big, big part of my job, and the extension side is that awareness can lead to that change in mindset. Rural communities need to stop thinking about “oh, the industrial age, let’s go ahead and hopefully attract the next big manufacturing facility.”

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: In futuring, we really talk about that important mindset, as well. Like, so what you believe happens is what will happen. Ultimately, that’s where you put your energy. That’s where your energy flows. Here at the Rural Futures Institute we’ve talked a lot about that, as well. So, if we don’t change the narrative around what’s possible in our rural communities and how rural and urban really need to collaborate in order to create a more sustainable future for everyone on the planet, and not just people, but the ecosystems, the animals, everything, then we’re missing out on an opportunity to create a better future for all. And I think, this mindset even of everything has to be very competitive, or the mindset of a lack is sort of unfortunate, in terms of a world of abundance and what is possible. I think technology, while also having its challenges, can really usher in an era that’s more positive for more people.

Dr. Gallardo: Totally agree. Scarcity has been the commodity that’s been driving everything. Potentially, we can now reach that age that you’re describing, and that’ll change the dynamics completely. It’ll change our assumptions, it’ll change our vision, it’ll change everything. But again, the first key step is that awareness, right? What is this digital age? What are you talking about? What do I need to be looking out for because I can’t predict the future? I can’t tell you go down this route, but that awareness is something that I think is often overlooked.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: I think leadership is an essential part of this conversation, so tell us a little bit more about you as a leader. What’s your philosophy style? How do you lead in this space?

Dr. Gallardo: I appreciate that. I don’t consider myself a leader though, but I appreciate that. I think that empowerment and trust are key things that any leader should look at. You cannot babysit, you cannot micromanage. I think that people have potential, and if you empower them correctly, I think you can unleash that potential, and that’ll free energy that otherwise would be tied up with menial tasks or trying to micromanage. At a community level, that’s what I shoot for with the communities I work with, is you will not depend on me. This is a show, and this process is totally driven by you. I am here, and I will dance at the tune that you play. That is very important for sustainability purposes. Make sure the community is comfortable and is empowered, right? Then they will take it. And if you couple that with a mindset change, I think the community can do just fine.

Dr. Connie: Now, what type of leadership do you think it’s going to take to make these types of things happen? How do you see leadership evolving so that we do help shift the mindset, and we do help empower people in the future?

Dr. Gallardo: I think that many leaders in rural communities are doing so many things all the time. They’re putting out fires all the time, right? They’re just responding. They’re reacting. They don’t have time to be proactive. It’s just the context, right? The situation. I think leaders need to incorporate feedback. I’ve seen part-time mayors that also have a full-time job. It’s different dynamics in an urban leadership or situation, but I think that’s the key step, Connie, is first and foremost, the leader needs to recognize, I’m busy as it is, but I do need to get additional feedback and incorporate this and collectively reach a vision that will then drive and really nurture this future leadership.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, we’ve really been, here at the institute, talking about sort of this process of co-creation because you can’t just go to a community and you’re just not just going to swoop in and help them. It’s their future, right? So, the goal really is to empower their future and help them achieve what they desire, but on the other side of that, I think as a university one thing we’ve really been working on is how do we then listen to what’s happening in that space? How can we co-create not just the future of that one community, but these communities of practice as a whole? Like mental health or childcare through that feedback, create better experiences for our students here, and really learn as a university how to evolve ourselves in an era that’s full of exponential change. And I think that co-creation really comes from that deep listening and not just doing what we’ve always done.

Dr. Gallardo: Correct. Totally agree. That co-creating, that ownership dynamic, I think, is critical.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: I appreciate in your work how you bring out the evolution of so many industries with this connectivity. Can we deliver more online, or use different technologies to create almost virtual experiences wherever we are so that we can not just earn degrees, but those credentials, badges, whatever competency-based education might be there, or skills? I know you’re a person who like to learn by doing. So, how do we create these experiences using technology so people can live where they choose, but also create the future they want? I would love to know what you think about the future of broadband. What do you think it looks like, and what is it going to take really to connect everybody on the planet?

Dr. Gallardo: There’s still a billion people without electricity, when you look at it. It’s a matter of priorities. The future of broadband, I think more technologies will come out to play, but what I hear from providers and what I know is that the laws of physics, we have reached that point, especially wireless, right? Many people tell me, oh, the solution will be wireless, don’t worry about it. It’s like, well, there are no leads, right? If there are no bodies of waters, or lakes, or whatever, we can’t get past that laws of physics. So, I think that the technology, I’m hoping, will continue to evolve where it’ll be a lot more efficient and where it’s not as costly to connect. Because when you think about it, Connie, the electronics and the actual fiber is not expensive. What’s expensive is the labor, right? It’s those capital costs to actually install, or run it, or run the wire, but the actual electronics as you’ve seen in the exponential behavior, I mean, they’re going down, they’re going down. They’re cheap. The future of broadband is yes, a worldwide, all world is connected. I mean, just imagine. I think that the worst waste of human talent and creativity is poverty. I think that humans are created by nature. It’s just that we are not exposed to the same things. We don’t have the same opportunities. We are in different contexts. Imagine how many creative folks, because of their poverty situation, right? Imagine plugging that creativity into this digital ecosystem where you have worldwide information at your fingertips. What can we solve? What ideas will come out of that? And yet, we have not tapped into that because they’re not connected, right? Imagine a world that’s connected, all low income people join this bandwagon. I think it’s going to change totally how we see the world, the ideas that we have. That feedback, that co-creating will be really, really powerful then, I think. It’s going to be a huge, massive brain, really, that’s going to be connected.

Dr. Connie: I think just even understanding where people are, how they’ve experienced life, and they’ll be able to create solutions we aren’t thinking about, you know? Because they’ll have different experiences and different knowledge to bring to the table. Now, I know you’ve worked a lot with the speed issue because it’s not just about the access. It’s also about the quality of the access. A lot of what we’ve learned is the FCC data is not accurate, so really, it seems like there’s a lot more people connected to high-speed internet than there are. Could you expand on that a little bit and tell us what you’ve found in your work?

Dr. Gallardo: Data-wise, we are not where we should be. The FCC does the best it can with that data, which is carrier self-reported. It’s not validated or cross-checked in any way. So, we’re trusting entirely on what the providers are telling us. There’s a granularity issue where a block, which is the lowest census geography, you’ve heard this, if one household is served, the entire block is considered served– that raises some issues. And on the speed thing, I think the next divide really is on speed because if you look at that data, for example, here in Indiana, 100% of blocks are served or advertised with 10/1 speeds, right? Assuming we can believe that data, but what difference does it make? And that’s where the research should be taking us now. What do you do with a 10/1 connection, and what do you do with a 100/100 connection? Because, and that’s what I tell communities, is that the web evolves accordingly, okay? Try browsing the web today,not streaming video or doing any of those things, just try browsing the web today with dial-up. It’s crazy. But other areas or locations in the world are already fiber. They’re experimenting with higher speeds, and guess what? The web is going to evolve, the speed is an issue. We don’t want rural US to be left at 10/1 speeds, or even 25/3 speeds, when all these applications are expecting faster speeds. So, that’s a big, big, I think that’s the next hurdle is aside from connectivity like you said, is the quality.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: What makes you so passionate about this work?

Dr. Gallardo: I just believe that digital platforms can really unleash that creativity that’s kind of suppressed, that will of communities to improve themselves, to see that they may have been over the past 20, 30 years, under a bad situation economically speaking. It makes me passionate because I believe that it has the potential to level the playing field, like you’ve read my articles about digital parity, and that rural 2.0, that rural renaissance, that’s why I’m passionate about this. It’s because I believe, I truly believe that this technology, there’s a lot of issues and there’s a lot of other stuff that we’ve got to address, but I think that it truly has the potential to start a rural renaissance. I have lived in rural areas. So, imagine on the healthcare side, on the education side, on the entertainment side because of mixed reality, and digital reality, and all these applications. So, that’s why I’m passionate about it is because I think rural community, to understand this potential, they need to take conscious steps towards this future.

Dr. Connie: I love that. Taking those conscious steps towards the future. Can you share some stories, success stories you’ve had working with communities in this space?

Dr. Gallardo: I’ve been to a Boys and Girls Club, and I’ve got iPads with me, and we got the ScratchJr App. Low-income minority kids that have never seen a tablet, have never had one, it’s amazing Connie, how within 20 minutes they’re just tapping away. That confirms what I see is that the potential is there, the creativity is there. That’s a specific example. I’ve seen other rural businesses that depend entirely on their online sales because otherwise they would’ve gone out of business within their 2,000 town. I’ve seen in, like we’re working on the project with the RFI on the communities, how they can become more responsive. How can they become more responsive, so that way their quality of life and their civic engagement improves? So, I have bits and pieces of examples like that in my work, and it’s very gratifying to see. That’s when you realize Connie, remember that mindset change? That’s when I go, that’s very interesting. They made that jump, and now I’m starting to learn from what they’re doing.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: I also know you’re a family man. You’re married, you have two children. So, what do you enjoy doing, and how do you continue to sort of evolve as a leader yourself through doing some other things outside of work that spark your creativity and passion?

Dr. Gallardo: Yes, I’ve got two daughters. One of them is 11. She’s pushing hard for a smartphone. She’s not getting it yet.

Dr. Connie: Hey, that’s my 11 year old daughter, too! I am with you on that. So, when you give that a yes, tell me.


Dr. Gallardo: Yeah, so I think that what I enjoy the most is getting some piece of knowledge, and then kinda see if it truly materializes in the trenches. That’s what gets me going every day, is when you show up to a community, you tell them this, that, and then they look at you in the eye and they say that, that doesn’t make sense. This makes sense. And then you go, oh. That feedback is phenomenal. I’m passionate about that. On my daughter’s side, I’ve shown them a couple of the stuff I’ve done, and my little one who’s eight, always tells me, “daddy, I know you and technology get along really well.” That’s kind of how she’s grasping it now, but I see that all their homework is online, and I cannot even imagine what a family that cannot afford, right? Or they’ve reached their data plan, or they’re not connected, or they have to drive to a library. I, as a parent, totally empathize about that. It’s like, wow, I totally, totally understand why you’re frustrated, why you’re mad. Why your children are at a disadvantage that they didn’t even create themselves.

Dr. Connie: That’s such a critical point because when you think about the future, and I think when you have kids, or grandkids, or other young people you care about are in your life, you do want to envision a better future for them, and for them to have that mindset themselves of anything is possible. I literally at my fingertips can create whatever life I want. I can solve things. I can be a social entrepreneur. I can start a business. I can raise money for a cause. There’s just all these pieces and parts to it. We’ve always been very excited about the work you do, but I think hearing it now today in terms of how do we make it also a great equalizer in this world, I think, is just such a powerful message.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: So, tell me, and share with our audience a little bit what parting words of wisdom do you want to share?

Dr. Gallardo: What I tell communities left and right, and colleagues, and everybody is do not tell me how it cannot be done, that I already know. Let’s instead focus on how it can be done, and that again, goes back to the mindset. I’ve seen communities that once it becomes a priority, whatever barriers seemed unsurmountable before are surmountable now. That just, attitude is really at the individual, at the group, at the community level, what I tell communities every time is I can come and present and talk to you about this everyday, but if you do not as a community, as a group, as a leaders, whatever it is, do not really feel that this is the way you need to go, or this is what you should be looking at, there’s nothing I can do, really. I can share with you resources, but you will always tell me why it cannot be done because you do not have that attitude towards it can and will be done. It’s amazing, Connie, I wish I could document all this and do a study on that, but it’s amazing how really, funds, which is the number one issue, right? Financial, it really becomes secondary and a technicality once this attitude is in place. Because when you want it, you will mobilize to get it, but if you’re wired or if you’re thinking, oh, it can’t be done because of this, oh, it can’t be done because of that, well, we know that, but that’s the question. How can it be done? Or the question then becomes, do you want it done, or do you have the will to do it?

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: I understand there are other issues. There are other community issues, it could be health issues, it could be crime. And so, I understand that the connectivity part may be pushed to the side, and that’s understandable. I would only ask that you do bring it back into the radar because the train will leave the station, and it’s going to be harder to catch on because that exponential behavior. We don’t know what the future will bring, but if you don’t kind of understand the characteristics and the behaviors now, and hop on that train, it’s going to be really hard down the road. It really will, because then frustration will kick in, and then you’re going to this downward cycle where the community’s being left out, most of your youth are out they’re not coming back. Today is the time we have a very narrow window, so I would encourage communities that listen to us that we understand there are other issues at play, but please, please make connectivity, or digital mindset, or digital parity, a priority.

Dr. Connie: I think that sense of urgency is a very important piece of this. Let’s do this, let’s get it done. Thank you so much, Roberto. We really appreciate your time and expertise, and we look forward to following your work and continuing to share that with our audience, as well, and just appreciate what you’re doing in this space to not only connect people, but really help them create their future.

Dr. Gallardo: Thank you, and thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for that other project that we’re working on, we’re learning a lot. I think the communities are having a blast. And so, thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for being colleagues in this venture, that’s important. Nobody can do it alone, so I truly appreciate your interest and your own resources and mindset that you bring to the table. I appreciate that.



Season 1

Episode 10: Futurist Dr. Connie intersects strategic foresight, women, gender

August 3, 2018
             In the Season 1 finale of Rural Futures Podcast, Dr. Connie goes solo, discussing the future of women and gender. She explores the future-user concept with her 11-year-old daughter, shares her personal background, …





In the Season 1 finale of Rural Futures Podcast, Dr. Connie goes solo, discussing the future of women and gender. She explores the future-user concept with her 11-year-old daughter, shares her personal background, provides context of women’s ability to succeed professionally in the United States and offers her immediate advice to professional women of all generations, but with a special focus on Gen X.

Show your support for Season 2 by rating and reviewing our podcast where you listen!

Connie Reimers-Hild headshot
“There are many possibilities and plausible futures. The trick is to decide which one you want to pursue.’“
Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D.
Interim Executive Director, Chief Futurist & Podcast Host, Rural Futures Institute

About Dr. Connie


Researcher, entrepreneur and high-touch futurist, Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D., CPC, helps leaders and organizations reach their desired futures through strengths-based innovation and strategic foresight. She currently serves as Interim Executive Director of the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska, assuming the role in July 2018, to purposefully carrying forward her mission with business, hospital and community leaders around the globe. She joined RFI as Associate Executive Director and Chief Futurist in May 2015. She is also host of this podcast!


Resources Mentioned In This Episode

In order of appearance


Show Notes

Hello, and welcome to the Rural Futures Podcast. Let me start by describing strategic foresight and futuring.

(Music Transition)

According to Peter Bishop and Andy Hines, who’s actually been a guest on the Rural Futures Podcast–


Strategic foresight and futuring do not predict the future. Rather, they help leaders better understand current and potential situations while creating a roadmap for innovation that guides inspired actions.

(Upbeat Music)

Futurists use strategic foresight to both expand knowledge and to explore many plausible futures. Foresight acknowledges the ambiguity of the future while preparing leaders to anticipate changes and minimize surprises. One quote about foresight that says this beautifully is from the Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation, which was published by Stanford University.

“Foresight is the ability to plan for the future. It is a mix of mindset and methodology, a view of the future, and the practice of looking forward.”

No one can predict the future, and that is really the point. Futurists do not predict the future. Rather, they help people understand what is possible, and also plausible. According to Bishop and Hines, futuring is different than forecasting, and I think that’s a critical point.

(Upbeat Music)

Futuring is different than forecasting. That relies on two key assumptions.

Number one.

The future consists of many possible outcomes rather than one predetermined future. Obviously, there are many things that can change.

Number two.

People have some capacity to influence future outcomes. Meaning, people really do have the ability to control their destiny, or at least elements of it. I like to add the point that people definitely influence the future through their beliefs, mindsets and behaviors. What we think about, what we focus on. That’s what grows.

(Music Transition)

It is now common knowledge that entire industries are pivoting in the new economy. We see these transitions in every industry, ranging from retail to healthcare education. While we focus a great deal on industries, what do all these changes mean for the global ecosystem? What do these changes mean for humanity itself? The Rural Futures Podcast will continue to explore these types of questions in future episodes. Specifically, I have become very curious about exponential change and continuous disruption, and what it means for women. But also, for all people, as new cultural norms continue to evolve and traditional roles are questioned.

(Music Transition)

One tool is called future user. Future user is used to expand thoughts and perceptions about customers. It can be used to identify and anticipate the needs of target markets by examining changes to the customer segment over time. For example, what is an 11 year old today going to be like in 10 or 15 years? What will they need? What will their values, attitudes, behaviors be? How can we anticipate these changes by thinking of their personas now, and again in the future? I decided to try the future user concept with a real life example. I’m gonna try it with my 11 year old daughter Raquel.

(Raquel Laughs)

So, tell us a little bit about who you are. Who is Raquel Hild? Well, Raquel Hild, slash me, I like to play basketball, and sometimes softball. I’ve also played volleyball.

Lately, I noticed you’ve been taking up crocheting.

Oh yeah.

How did you learn to crochet?

Well, I just taught myself.

How did you do that?


YouTube? (Mouse Click)

I also noticed you use YouTube a lot to braid your hair. Just today, what did you learn from YouTube?

Oh, beauty hacks. I did some aluminum foil with toothpaste and baking soda, and folded it up and put it on my teeth, and that should’ve whitened it.

So, beauty hacks, life hacks, crocheting, braiding your hair. A lot of things that you learn from YouTube. You talked about the fact that you like to play sports, but it also sounds like you like to spend a lot of time on your phone. (Texting) True or false?

True. (Connie Laughs)

If you could spend all day on your phone, would you?

No, it kinda gets boring on there sometimes.

Does it?

Yeah, ’cause I have no games.

(Music Transition)

Where do you see yourself in five years? You’re gonna be 16. What do you think 16 looks like for you?


Driving what?

A car.

A car? What kinda car do you want?

A bug.

Yeah? What color?


So, what makes you want a blue slug bug?

Well, it’s a small car so it’s pretty easy to drive.

Okay, so let’s fast-forward another five years, when you’re 20, 21. Early 20s.

Well, I’ll go to college to become an actress.

You also wanted to be a veterinarian.


What are you thinkin’ about that right now?

It’s kinda weird, but if you really liked an animal and he or she died, then it would be hard.

Well, that’s okay. It’s good to kinda discover and think about those things about yourself. Okay, so obviously, things are gonna change in the future. Life’s gonna change. Where do you envision yourself living in the future?

I told grandma that I wanted to be an actress, and she said, well then, you’re gonna have to go all the way to Hollywood. But maybe when I’m older, then I can do acting anywhere.

Right, but what are we? Like you and I, what are we doing right now?


Yeah, where?

At our house.

At our house, right?

In Nebraska.

Yeah, in Nebraska. This wasn’t possible when I was 11. It is different, it’s a different world.

(Music Transition)

What else do you want to experience in your life?

I just want to grow up and have a good career.

What else do you want?

A family.

A house?


Where? Still in Hollywood or New York?

I thought about Arkansas.

Arkansas? What made you think about Arkansas?

There was a video that the teacher showed at school, and it had a diamond on the Arkansas state. Is that a good– On YouTube.

On YouTube, of course. (Connie Laughs) Of course, because that’s the world you live in, isn’t it? YouTube.


Pretty sure. So, when you’re my age, what do you want your life to be like?

Probably different ’cause people have been thinking that the world will probably go back then when people had to walk to (Snake Hisses) school with snakes chasing them with a stick.

My grandma, she always talked about that, didn’t she?

Or it could go to having robots. (Robotic Beeping)

What would you prefer, snakes or robots?

Probably in the middle.

Really? What do you mean?

Well, I don’t really like all the technology people are using now, ’cause it just takes over their lives.

Explain what you mean by that. What do you see happening?

People crash cars ’cause of phones, and with car that drives itself, there was a crash with that.

Would you like to have a driverless vehicle instead of driving yourself?

No, I just prefer driving myself.

You’d prefer driving yourself? (Engine Turning)

So, you like technology. You like having access to YouTube and doing all those things, but at the same time, you don’t want to live a life where technology takes over your life?

Yeah, it’s kinda confusing.

It is a little bit confusing. The reason I wanted to have you on is because we really need to think about what that future looks like for young people. Who are you now? What is your life gonna be like in the future? And the truth is, we don’t know, right? The truth is we don’t know.

Why do you think I know this?

Well, I don’t know that you don’t have all the answers, but I think you have some ideas of what you’d like your life to be like.

Do you think I saw the future?

Maybe. Maybe you’re a futurist. You ever thought of that?

No. (Connie Laughs)

(Music Transition)

As you can hear, sometimes it is difficult to see exactly what you want in the future. After all, age 11 should be a time of self-exploration and dreams. However, there are many possibilities and plausible futures. The trick is to decide which one you want to pursue. The conversation with Raquel gave us a brief glimpse into the mind and experience of one young woman. A few changes from her generation to mine, well, as you heard, there are many. She finds all the information she needs using her cellphone. (Texting) I grew up with a rotary dial phone attached to a wall. (Rotary Phone Rings)

She learns constantly through YouTube (Mouse Clicks) which of course, did not even exist when I was her age. And she assumes she will go to college and have a career. (Cash Register Rings) That was definitely not a daily conversation in my household. My parents were totally supportive and absolutely amazing people, but college was a pipe dream, not a predetermined destiny. My dad worked two jobs, and my mom stayed at home with six kids. I always knew that I wanted to have a career, however, I didn’t have a single life experience that prepared me for the realities of being a working mom.

I used to play Barbies with Raquel when she was little. I was deeply sad when Barbie dropped her kids off at daycare so she could go to work all day. She would then pick them up, and go home. Ouch. That hurt. As Raquel got older, she started talking a lot about what her career would be like. She keeps changing her mind, while also expanding the possibilities, which is actually a really good thing to hear and see. I mean, an actress? Okay, let’s just go with it and see how that feels for a while.

(Music Transition)

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, (Ambient Music) approximately 20.4 million students attended American colleges and universities in the fall of 2017. Nearly 11.5 million of these students were female, and 8.9 were male.

So, young women are attending college and obtaining degrees, but are still not earning the same amount of money (Cash Register Rings) or being promoted at the same rate as their male counterparts. They are also leaving the workforce in droves.

(Upbeat Music)

A report by Gallup in 2016 (Ambient Music) estimates– 73.5 million women are currently in the workforce. And 48% of them are actively pursuing other jobs and opportunities.

This is happening for a number of reasons, but it’s also happening even though these women are more engaged than their male counterparts, and are good for business, and the bottom line. Gallup notes that gender diverse business units in retail and hospitality actually have higher revenues and net profits compared with their less diverse counterparts. So, diversity is good for business. It’s good for the bottom line. (Cash Register Rings)

Further, a 2016 article by American Progress reported that (Ambient Music) 42% of working mothers are either the sole or primary breadwinners of their families.

Also of note, this is a continuation of a trend. More and more women are becoming primary breadwinners over time.

(Upbeat Music)

Recent publications from the American Association of University Women on the gender/wage gap in the United States revealed great challenges of course, and we’ve all heard a lot of this, right? (Ambient Music) New projections estimate that at the current rate, women will reach pay equity in 2119. Yes, 2119. That is 101 years from now.

I find it interesting that more women are becoming primary breadwinners, while still getting paid less. How do we expect families to thrive in this current economic reality for women?

(Upbeat Music)

The report also states that pay equity decreases with age. The older women are, the greater the gap in pay. More on this in future episodes.

(Music Transition)

Entrepreneurship also continues to be an area of challenge and opportunity for women. (Ambient Music) FitSmallBusiness.com actually ranked Nebraska 50 out of 50 states for women entrepreneurs. Georgia and Florida ranked number one and number two, respectively.

So, this is just a shout out and call to Nebraska. Okay, we can and need to do better. I mean, after all, we are the home of many great entrepreneurs, but all states and countries need to do better for women in this space.

(Music Transition)

Now, what does the future hold for women? Endless possibilities. Women have more opportunity now than any other time in history. Progress has been made, but there’s much more to do, and this conversation goes way beyond women. As cultural norms and rules change for women, they also change for men. Men help raise children, stay at home with children, and are not always the primary breadwinner, which causes a new set of social rules of engagement. Further, people don’t always fit so neatly into the boy/girl, female/male gender boxes we have artificially created.

(Upbeat Music)

I want both my daughter and my son to be able to pursue any future they choose. I want them to think any scenario is both possible and plausible, and that they themselves have the capability and capacity to shape their desired future through their beliefs, behaviors and mindsets. Just as I want Raquel to be happy, healthy and strong, and a woman who freely pursues her desires, I want the same for my son. I want the same for people. I want them to support and respect one another in their pursuits. It takes everyone, not just a predefined gender to make the world a better and more equitable place for all.

(Music Transition)

We examine the future user concept looking forward, and what would I tell my future self when I was a younger woman, and what do I share with my children and others now? I’m approaching this based on my definition of leadership, which is the ability to lead one’s own life while bringing out the best in others and making a positive contribution to the future. I believe and champion the concept of self-leadership. Don’t let others lead you where you don’t want to go. We must recognize and develop our inner leaders to truly thrive.

(Upbeat Music)

So, a few points of advice that I like to share.


Pick an amazing partner. If you choose to marry, marry well. Very, very well. There’s no glory or win in trying to save or change anyone. Don’t waste your life or precious time on trying to change someone. In my younger days, I was that type of woman. I finally discovered that it is better to be with someone who creates a two-person mastermind with you and for you, who compliments you, and sees the world as an abundant place where we both can and should win. Whatever that means to you. You have to define success for yourself, and you want someone who will help you work towards your version of success while enjoying the sweet ride through good and bad times. Having an incredible significant other on your team is priceless. Thanks Jim, for being mine.


You are an amazingly unique being who has the freedom to pursue your purpose and live in joy. One way to achieve this is to develop and capitalize on your unique strengths to pursue the future you want to experience and achieve. I really do believe the power of the subconscious mind in making these dreams happen. More on that in another episode.


Love yourself. And love yourself enough to listen to your inner voice. That amazing intuition we innately possess, but rarely trust or develop. Trust and love yourself enough to say yes to the best and no to the rest, and it really needs to be a hell yes to count. Move forward with the hell yeses, and trust others with the nos. This means you have to trust your intuition, not care what others think, and take some risks with absolute certainty and bravery. It also means that happiness is a key to success. Science has demonstrated that your happiness in life doesn’t suddenly increase after you get a promotion, raise or new title. Happiness actually comes before success, and should be an everyday experience. It is something you can improve over time, so joyfully and confidently take a seat at the table and use your voice to speak your truth. You’re going to mess up from time to time. I do. Learn from your mistakes and move forward. Know that it is all okay. It’s really just a process, and that you deserve to be loved by yourself and others.


Slow down and enjoy the ride. In my generation, generation X. You know, the one that is barely ever mentioned? We’ve had more opportunities than the boomers because they and other generations before had paved the way. However, the conversation about having a full life really got missed somewhere along the way. We are very career-oriented and egocentric in the US. One of the first things people ask is, what do you do? And if you can reply with a big title, you automatically score points on the social scale. If you can’t, most people will react to you just a bit differently. We need to learn to stay out of judgment around people’s choices and value whatever it is they bring to the table. So many women in my generation did not have children. Some by choice, and some didn’t have a choice. I was a very late bloomer in the parent department. As the second oldest of six, I helped a lot with my siblings and knew what it was to struggle financially. I didn’t want that for myself. And we really related that to having a big family, so I never wanted a big family. I even debated about having kids at all. Thankfully, I had a great female mentor who encouraged me to have a family. She was the only female in a leadership role at that time in my career who also had a family. She was the only one I knew that had kids and was married. She still asks about my kids every time we meet, first thing. I’m eternally grateful for her advice and wisdom. If you want to have kids, do it. If you don’t, that’s okay too. Make your choices and own them. I’ve seen too many women my age regret not having children because of their career.

Work is only one aspect of life. It’s such an important thing I’ve learned over time. Jobs change. People change. The situations change. Getting married and having children were the best two decisions I ever made. I only agreed to join the Rural Futures Institute if I could have the freedom and flexibility I needed to one, stay married, (Smooch) two, be a mom, (Baby Laughs) and three, live in our current rural community. (Birds Chirping) Thankfully, the organization was very supportive and we’ve worked together to shape what that really means. Ask for what you want and need, and help organizations evolve to be more flexible, diverse and inclusive because a lot of times they simply don’t know what that really even means or how to do it. We need to support stay at home parents and part-time employment, too. We as women, need to help shape this future.

(Upbeat Music)

Just make sure to enjoy the precious moments life provides. If you are too busy, make new and different choices. Being too busy does not make you productive. It takes away from experiencing the joy of life.

(Music Transition)

There is much more to this conversation and to the future of women, so stay tuned for more. In the meantime, tell us what you think. How would you describe the future for women? Let us know, and then ’til next time, thanks for listening to the Rural Futures Podcast. Now, go out there and make your future happen.


Episode 9: Entrepreneur Seth Derner intersects learning, purpose, next gen economy

July 31, 2018
           Growing up on a ranch in Nebraska, Seth Derner has a deep passion and appreciation for nature, wildlife, agriculture and rural communities. He is also the co-founder and co-CEO of Vivayic, a learning solutions …




Growing up on a ranch in Nebraska, Seth Derner has a deep passion and appreciation for nature, wildlife, agriculture and rural communities. He is also the co-founder and co-CEO of Vivayic, a learning solutions design company that works around the country to help organizations reach their human potential. With a clear sense of purpose for himself, his family and his company, and an explicit admiration for the human brain and the role of technology to unleash it, Seth encapsulates the attributes of the “rural mavericks” Dr. Connie seeks to highlight and learn from on this podcast. He shares actionable insights, advice and lessons learned that entrepreneurs, community leaders and students will certainly appreciate.

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“Communities and organizations should challenge themselves to ask, ‘Who is it that we are called to be?’“
Seth Derner
Co-Founder & Co-CEO, Vivayic

About Seth


Seth has spent his career focusing on important outcomes that lead to measurable success. As a teacher, he more than tripled enrollment in his program within three years. As an education specialist for the National FFA Organization, Seth completed the revision of nine national student programs in two years, and led the design and production of a comprehensive leadership skill curriculum adopted by over 2,000 career and technical teachers.Seth co–authored the book, “Strategies for Great Teaching” with Mark Reardon. The book, like Seth’s approach, is filled with practical strategies for getting better results.

The passion for results, learning and new ideas led Seth to help create Vivayic. Seth believes in leading by example. You’re just as likely to find him designing an elearning course as meeting with a prospective client. He believes deeply that Vivayic is only beginning to realize its potential and that there is a lifetime of great ideas and satisifying successes to pursue.


Show Notes

Hello and welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining me today is Seth Derner. Seth is the co-founder and co-CEO of Vivayic, an amazing company based here in Nebraska, but with presence all over the world. Seth, that’s just a little bio about you, tell us a little bit more about yourself and your company.

Thanks Dr. Connie, I appreciate being a part of the podcast, a big fan. So a little bit about myself, I grew up a ranch in Wheeler County. My parents are still up there. I came down to the University of Nebraska and went back to up to Antelope County, where I was an ag teacher. I have since worked for non-profits, state government, 13 years ago started the company, my wife and I moved back to Lincoln when we started the company, and it’s just been an adventure ever since. So, my wife, and two sons, and I live here in Lincoln, but like you said, we’ve got 20 plus full-time employees, all the way from California to Florida. And, you know, we have a great time doing the work that we do helping other organizations be successful.

Well, dive into that a little bit more. I know you’re a leader of purpose and presence, and do things in very meaningful ways. Tell us a little bit more about Vivayic.

So I always tell people, we’re in the training and development business and immediately people think, oh you do a lot of stand and deliver, like sales trainings, and actually we don’t. (laughs) As much as I used to love being in the front of the classroom, we are the people behind great training and development at other organizations, or great curriculum developed by other organizations. So most of our work is helping with the strategy, the design, and the planning of new training programs for employees, onboarding programs, knowledge dissemination, or curriculum for non-profits, or for we do some work with state governments. So yeah, our folks, we come alongside other companies who have a big idea, or a big need, but they need capacity, they need people who have outside perspective, and who have design skills to make those things happen. And that’s what we help them do is map out the best way forward so that people can really be impacted. We exist to help build the capacity of those organizations that are doing good in the world, and we define that in four areas, organizations that are helping feed sustainably the planet, those who are committed to making education more relevant for young people, organizations that are working in international space to help small, older farmers be more successful, and then the fourth is any organization that is deeply committed to making sure that their employees have opportunities for growth and development. So that purpose helps us get real clear about the work, the kind of clients that we work with, the kind of work that we want to do, it’s been awesome. We recently just updated our vision, and our vision is mostly about the impact that we wanna have. It’s not about how big we wanna be. Like, we don’t really care if we end up being a 200 person company, or if we stay a 25 person company. Like, that isn’t what drives us. What drives us is saying, are we doing the kind of work that we love to do, are we making money doing it, and are we doing it with the kind of people we want to do it with? That’s kind of our guiding principles as we move forward in this adventure that we’re on with Vivayic.

Well, and I really appreciate that about you. I mean you’ve had such an instrumental impact on so many things here in Nebraska, not just your company, but the leadership you bring to the table, but also around the nation, around the world, with that extended outreach you have through technology. I love that history of being a ranch kid that now works in the tech space, right? And you were a teacher, so I mean that’s just all this wonderful sort of history and adventure all in one. But what about that name Vivayic?

When we were thinking about starting the company, my partner Doug and I, we’re meeting with some folks who were kind of mentoring us, people who had started their own companies, and we were at dinner one time in Minneapolis meeting with a gentleman who was giving us some advice and his wife happened to be with them. And they were both originally from India. And she was a linguist, both her and her mom were trained linguists in India, and she was listening to the conversation and then she just pipes up all of the sudden and says, “You know what you’re talking about is this thing from an ancient Sanskrit word which loosely sounds like vivayic.” We had no idea what to call the company and we’re like, well that sounds interesting, and the website was available, and that was really all the thought we put into it. (laughs) But the way she described the word was it’s the ability to impart wisdom not through books but through experience. And I think that’s what drives us is this idea about how you help organizations give people meaningful experience so that they can learn and use that learning to apply to be better employees, or better customers, better shareholders, whatever it is that they’re trying to improve upon, how do you give them meaningful experience? You talked about technology, I think that’s the thing like we work with a lot of technology but I have no more idea about coding, and networking, than my dad who’s still on the ranch. But what I learned early in teaching is I was one of the first teachers in the state who taught using the distance classrooms. So this was old school, these were hard wires, 17 classrooms, and I taught in a classroom where I’d see three televisions, and I could see kids in these communities, and they could see my students, and me, and what was eye-opening and awesome to me was the fact that here were students who prior to this technology didn’t have a way to access learning about agriculture. And they lived in communities where agriculture was the life blood of their community but for whatever reason they didn’t have an ag teacher, or an FFA chapter in their community, and all of the sudden technology made that possible. What I learned quickly was just because technology makes something possible, doesn’t make it effective because standing in front of a television teaching it’s just different. You have to think differently to make that a successful experience. And so, that’s kind of been our mantra throughout is technology allows a lot of great things to happen. People have access to information like they’ve never had access before, but learning is more than just being able to access information. It’s giving people an experience, it’s putting them in situations, it’s challenging them to think differently, it’s giving them a chance to get their hands on a real world situation and figure out how to solve the problem, and I think we’re still in the process as a society shifting from this idea that teaching and learning is about getting people the right information. The teaching and learning being about how do we get people the right kind of opportunity to practice, or to learn something new, and then be there to coach and guide as they start to make sense of it on their own and see how it plays out in the world? We love technology because it makes things possible, but we don’t say technology solves the problem, technology gives us the venue to solve the problems.

Well, how do you see that sort of evolving? Right now, I think when we talk about the future and the evolution of humanity and technology, are people gonna be replaced by robots, or AI, will we no longer have a purpose as people? From your perspective how do you see the evolution of technology and humanity together?

That’s a great question. And I don’t know if I have any special insight, I guess I have perspective because we work with lots of different organizations across crops, livestock, high tech, finance, so we get to see lots of different businesses and kind of what they’re doing, and how technology is changing their world. It’s probably, it’s the same question just a different version of the question as was asked for the last 80 years about technology. Over Memorial Day, went and visited the cemetery where my grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great, you know the whole lineage is buried, and you start thinking about we’re dealing with technological change, but the first tractors were introduced like talk about automation.

Right, that’s so true.

That was a gigantic change in society that automated and even the telephone and the ability to communicate, so I don’t know that our challenge is any different than past generations, to say how will technology, it’s gonna supplant some jobs. There’s no doubt about that. But we’re gonna be able to automate some things that currently people are hired to do. But that’s always been the case. What I always remind people, the human brain is so amazing, it is so powerful, especially when we unleash it and we give it permission to learn, and adapt, and create. When we really allow people to figure out how to solve problems and we look at human resources and organizations not as people doing tasks, but of people solving problems for your organization, then you start thinking about well how do we position people to solve the problems we need solved in today’s world with the kind of technology we have versus what we would have been doing 10 years ago? It’s exciting, it’s scary, but I think it’s always been exciting and scary, it’s just a different version of that for communities today.

I agree and I think the other thing is we hear so much more about it. I mean, it’s this sort of inundation of information and data and even though we see things changing at this exponential pace, there has always been change. But just like as you said with the telephone, when I go back to my own parents’ house my dad’s house, he still has a wall phone. My kids are eight and 11 and they’re just sort of like this is so cool, because it’s a phone that’s connected to the wall, but I’m also not quite sure how to use it. (laughs)

How do you get on Facebook with this thing?

Right, (laughs) why do you want to connect it to the wall? Of course the cord is just stretched out for miles, because it’s the same phone my family’s had for eons, and I had to take it down to the stairs to have a private conversation in our giant family. So it’s stretched out pretty long. But it is an interesting time in terms of technology, there seems to be a lot of drama in that space. But what I appreciate about what you said, is that human element as well. And I think sometimes that’s forgotten in these sort of futurist perspectives, is that the human brain is amazing, humans are amazing, our emotions are amazing. There’s so much that humans have to offer.

So this is what I know about is with this kind of change is there are companies out there who are very centered on taking care of their people and at the same time looking at automation because they know that in order for the company to sustain they’ve got to continue to be profitable. It’s being two-minded to say, if we don’t make profit, then we can’t exist, and we can’t offer anybody employment opportunities. So we have to automate in order to stay efficient, to stay profitable, but we really care about people. Now, there are some companies that stay profitable and really maybe don’t care about people and that’s a whole other conversation. I’m hoping those kinds of organizations will eventually go away and are replaced by really purpose-driven values-based organizations, where they put their people at the center of everything they do. But those are our role models are those kinds of companies. And those kinds of companies, what they’re saying is there may be a point in time where we have to transition people out of employment. And if there’s an opportunity to transition them to other employment in our organization that looks differently we’re gonna do everything possible to help discover how people can grow their skills to play a role in a different organization. And if they can’t, those organizations are typically helping the people transition to other kinds of roles outside of their organization. And I just think, if more companies were more intentional about talking about that so that if it is automation is gonna change the future, but it’s also we’re committed to helping people be as successful as they can be, or choose to be, and then I think communities as well, we all probably can think of somebody whose job got replaced at some point in our history by something got automated, and it’s like what do we as communities do? Do we just look at them and say, gosh well too bad you don’t have the skills to get something else? Or do we figure out how we collectively think about well what is it that as a community we need to do to lift people up and prepare them for different opportunities in the future? And I think education has a role in that, and I think communities have a role in that. If you wanna be proactive because leaving people behind, I think that’s what creates resentment and that then drives the fear that people have, they’re gonna be one of those that get left behind in the future.

Well, you know, we’ve talked a lot about that here at the Rural Futures Institute, like how do we obviously partner with other organizations to connect our rural areas? But then, also, help our rural people, our rural communities, really thrive in this next generation economy? In some ways people still have that stereotype of rural that, oh it’s all negative not a lot going on, and I’m not saying there’s not challenges because there are. But in so many other ways I think there’s these amazing opportunities in front of rural communities, and specifically there’s more partnership with urban and we start creating different models and different questions that are more positive in nature and bringing on that abundance mindset that I know you talk about a lot. And really thinking about how do we as leaders make sure that we’re positioning ourselves, our communities, to where we want to be and need to be? How do we serve a purpose in this evolution of the world and how can we do better in the future so people are prosperous and thrive wherever they choose to live?

I truly believe that’s what makes us human to compare and to try and compete. I mean that’s the natural order. But what make humans unique is the ability to imagine what would it look like if we collaborated, cooperated, and helped each other out? I continue to hold this belief that it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. That there isn’t enough for everybody, and if there’s not enough for everybody, then I’ve gotta make sure that I get mine first, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure I get what I think I need, and if other people don’t, well that’s their problem. I’m all about free markets because our company wouldn’t exist without a free market that said, here’s a niche nobody’s doing this well, and if we do it better than other people, then we should be able to grow and enjoy the opportunities that provides. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that when you look at the world and think that there’s scarcity, that there’s a very small pie and I have to compete to get as much as I can, that leads you to think about everything in one way. You think about the people that you hire, you think about your competitors, you think about opportunities, it’s all based on this scarcity mindset. In the long-term it leads to a lot of negative behaviors and it leads to a really toxic culture, I think bad decision making, and sometimes I think people aren’t intentional about that, that’s just how we’re wired. Like when we started the company, we’d go to these networking things and the first question out of people’s mouth is how many employees, what’s your revenue, how fast are you growing? Which are all legitimate questions, but they’re questions I don’t really care about. To me it’s well, are we making enough profit that we can do the things we want to do as a company? So if our revenue is 100 million, or one million, if I was generating the margins necessary to do what I want to do, how big doesn’t matter it’s are you doing the thing that you are set out to do? And that means you have to define success in your own way and that you believe that just you being successful doesn’t prevent anyone else from being successful. So when somebody who’s maybe in your space doing similar work to you has a success, you don’t gnash your teeth and get angry and envious, you say gosh that’s awesome. Like look what they did, what can we learn from them that might be able to help us drive to the success that we want? You talk about next generation economy to me that’s the next, next generation economy is how do we build an economy full of businesses which say this is our purpose, this is what we want to do, and we’re gonna measure our success based on what we believe is important? That may mean we only have two employees, but we’re doing good work in the world, meaningful work, and that work is having impact. Or it might mean you have 10,000 employees because that’s what it takes in order to fulfill your purpose. We have organizations that are purpose driven, that are people-centered, and where we celebrate everybody’s success, we don’t always worry about if we’re coming out on top. But I think that same message applies to communities. You know, how many times a small town, you’re in a small town they complain because another town got a new store, or a new mill, or a new ethanol plant, and they didn’t. It’s like, well, what do you want your community to be? Be intentional about your purpose, and your character, and lean into that, and then when another town has a success celebrate that and then learn to say, well what did they do that we can learn from that could help us be who we want to be? I think a lot of organizations, towns, or companies, non-profits, they don’t have real clarity about what their purpose is, why did they exist, and what are they shooting toward? Because I think once you get that, then it becomes a lot easier, and it becomes a lot more fun to work towards something and to call people to be part of something as opposed to just worrying about some of the things are out of your control, market conditions, prices, those kinds of things.

I agree and I think it just generates that natural flow. As I’ve done a lot of executive and leadership coaching, even if they seem externally successful, internally they’re not always very happy because they’ve lost that sense of purpose or weren’t very clear on it from the beginning. And I think in so many ways, especially in the U.S. we’re very socialized to win everything, to be first at this, to go out for every sport, to be this and that just like you were talking about with the revenues and employees we have so devalued small businesses, or solopreneurs, kind of this negative mom and pop store, like that’s a bad thing. And, you know, it’s unfortunate that we’ve sort of characterized things in that way. I mean I think that’s changing a little bit, but to really value the purpose individuals bring that can then spring into what does that mean for an organization or a community? I think it’s so important and I think this starts when people are very young and very little. Just as you said, with many communities I think part of what’s happening in the rural landscape is you know a lot of those communities were established for railroads and other purposes, they had a purpose, when they were first founded. Well, when that purpose went away the struggle has been very real. And so, it’s really important to redefine that purpose so that people want to be engaged in that community and people are attracted to whatever that purpose is especially as people can live, work, play all of of that wherever they want to go.

The one thing that we’re just continuing to see more and more of is people are drawn to authenticity, because we’ve been so inundated with advertising, social media, messaging, messaging, messaging. I think we’re all conditioned to think pretty much everything you hear is a load of BS, like there’s a story behind. (laughs) And so I think when people find something that really feels and smells authentic, like they’re just, it’s almost a relief that that can still exist in the world. And to me, that’s where small businesses, rural communities, have such a leg up over large organizations and large communities. They can choose to quickly lean into their authentic self and their authentic purpose. And again, you might not be for everybody, I tell that to people who call me and want a job every time. It’s more than likely we’re not the organization you’re gonna like hanging out with, ’cause we’re a little zany, we’re a little nerdy, we’re goody two shoes, we work virtually, like you have to work damn hard for us, I mean you don’t miss deadlines, you have to be really nice to customers and clients, even when they’re grumpy with you. Like there’s a lot of people who we’re like, you probably aren’t gonna like it here. But that’s okay, there’s some place that you will love. You just need to find the place where you will love to be and that way the people we have they don’t spend time thinking about the grass being greener on the other side. They know that they’re in the place that aligns to who they want to be. I think communities and organizations should challenge themselves to say, who is it that we are called to be and how do we be okay with not trying to be all things to all people? Because when you try to be all things to all people, you end up being really nothing to no one, so.

Well, that’s so important. I think when you really think about that, that’s why you attract the right employees. And I think this comes from your abundance mindset, right? It may not be right for you, but something else is. So if it’s not this it’s A-okay. And I think that’s where it’s not like a win lose thing all of the time, or if I win you lose. And you know what we can be happy for the success of others, but this also takes a little bit different leadership style than what we’ve seen in the past. We’ve been getting away from the command and control, I need to look good, and if you’re too nice, I get that one a lot (laughs), if you’re too nice you’re not that effective. So I’m really excited that authenticity and being nice actually is starting to be a good thing, rather than a negative thing. Just to build on this a little bit, Seth, I’d love to hear about yourself as a leader. What is sort of your leadership style and philosophy to help support this type of very mindful growth?

It continues to evolve because I think leadership is one of those things that is an abstract concept, it sounds really good until you have to put it into practice. (laughs)

You know it’s true, I think. That’s why learning it from a textbook is hard isn’t it?

Right, yeah, and then it’s like you think you’re good at it but it’s a point in time and then like in six months you’ve got a different situation and you realize, I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m probably screwing things up. And so, it’s like one of those never ending things where you’re always learning. But this is what I would say is, this was some, I don’t remember where I heard it many years ago, but the talk about when your people don’t have clarity about what’s important to you, what your purpose is, what your values are, they won’t be able to choose to engage with you. They’re always going to be guessing. And so, I think that’s probably my biggest leadership philosophy is I know I’m an imperfect person making imperfect decisions every day. And I tell the people on my team, I don’t know that this is the right decision. I’m making a guess, it’s the best guess I have. But I believe that it’s moving us in the right direction and if it’s not we’ll change course. And then, when I make a mistake I own it. So that I think is part of it, is if you want to be an authentic organization, it starts with you as a leader being really honest with yourself about what you care about, where you’re trying to go, what’s important to you, and then being vulnerable enough to share that with the people around you. Our organization’s really unique, because Doug and I are co-founders, we’re co-owners, it’s a 50/50 deal, there are no unilateral decisions at Vivayic. I can’t wake up tomorrow morning decide to hire, fire, or change something, like everything we have to collaborate. And we’ve gotten told multiple times by other entrepreneurs, like you’ve gotta change that. That’s gonna be the thing that keeps you from being successful. And what we continue to find is it’s the thing that keeps us from failing, is because some of the flat sides I have are Doug’s strengths, and some of Doug’s flat sides are my strengths. And when we trust each other enough to believe that we’re both trying to make the best decision for the whole organization, that when we trust each other, and we allow, we give each other permission to move forward on things based on like somebody just strongly believes this is the right thing to do, and then we forgive each other sometimes when it’s not (laughs) that that has made us a very resilient organization. We have survived a lot of ups and downs, and have we missed some opportunities because it takes us a while to make decisions? Probably, but have we kept ourselves from making dumb decisions? Definitely. We have this goal that Vivayic will be around for generations after we’re gone. Not because it’s an ego thing for us, but because we believe that the purpose of Vivayic could have generational impact. And that we need to make decisions that ensure that there’s an opportunity for that to happen for years to come.

(Music Transition)

Not only I think do you have a strong purpose in your business, but you’ve really combined that with your life, your wife, and your working so closely together, the kids, everything, but not only you and your immediate family, the families of all of your employees, as well. Can you share with our listeners how you work at that type of culture at Vivayic and some of the things you do to really engage people in their own lives?

We do lots of things, it’s really important to us that people not only believe that we care and that we want them to be successful, but we have to demonstrate that time, and time, and time again. So our leadership team which is Doug and I and both of our wives work full-time for the company, which that just then blows people’s minds. Like wait–

That really does (laughs).

You’re 50/50 partners and both your wives work? And we’re like, yes, that is the leadership team for the company which it’s like having a double marriage but not in a weird way, like in a cool way. (laughs) I always tell people not in a weird way, the great thing is across the four of us we each bring different strengths, but we have a shared commitment of taking care of people, so. We do that at a collective level, we do that at an individual level, so for instance because we’re virtual everyone works from a home office. We have four or five people who are living on a family farm, their spouse is farming full-time, and then we’ve got people in Chicago, so we’ve got people everywhere. We get together three times a year in person to build community. For a small example, we always make sure that no one has to travel on a weekend, so that nothing that you do for Vivayic should require you to sacrifice the time with your family on a weekend. Now, does that mean that our people don’t occasionally work or travel on a weekend? No, ’cause they do, but when we get to choose to make things happen, we’re gonna choose to honor people’s ability to be with their family, or be in their community. So we try to be intentional. The thing is I think that being your own business leader is you know when you need to make an accommodation because somebody’s got something going on in their world, you get the ability to make that decision. For instance, in January one of our team members in California felt compelled that she needed to run for the United States Congress House of Representatives District One. And she called us and the first thing we said is you bet, what do you need? And she needed to cut back hours, she needed flexibility, and we talked about it as leadership team, we felt it was something that we needed to do and also we were really transparent with the team that says these are the decisions we’re making and why we’re making them. I think the reason our team no one complains, in fact they’re all very supportive and excited, a lot of them contributed and helped her campaign. What they know is that, we’ve had people who’ve needed extended maternity leaves, just because of situations, or people who wanted to take an extended mission trip. So they know that we would be that concerned about all of them in the same way we would for Audrey. And does that make things hard? Sure, as a company, yeah, because the easy thing to do is say nope. You signed up, here’s the deal. If you want to leave your job, leave your job, but that’s the easy thing. But we say, we’re flexible enough, we’re adaptable enough, we can work around that. And I just think that is part of what we hope we’re modeling for the people on our team, because you know I have this dream that some people on our team will be inspired and think of an idea of a business they want to start and we can help them be successful and we’ve given them a model and a blueprint of how to be authentic in their own leadership as they start an enterprise. That’s our personal purpose is to try to create an entity that can do this for people and model a different way of having a company that both makes money and does good in the world.

And I think the next generation workplace also requires next generation leadership.

(Music Transition)

I’d love to dive in as we close here, any words of wisdom you would like to share with our audience?

The biggest word of wisdom I have is I think collectively as a society and individually we’re all answering the questions of do I matter? And I think the hard part is is that we all think we’re doing it by ourselves, and the companies and the communities that are successful in the future are those who can answer the question with a resounding yes. And I think that’s probably the biggest piece of advice is try and find the like-minded people who are affirming the positive answer to that question. I think we all get stuck in the cycle of listening to the negative voices and believing that things aren’t gonna get better, and that I am just a number, I am just someone who’s a customer to an organization, I’m just somebody who’s target marketed by a political campaign, like I don’t matter, and I don’t believe that. I believe that everybody has within them the ability to discover what it is that they’re intended to do here on Earth. But most of us aren’t given the time, or permission, or encouragement to figure that out. And so that’s my piece of advice is be a person who’s trying to figure it out and when you do have a sense of what yours is, then turn around and try and help others figure out what theirs is as well. Because I think that would make a tremendous difference in the kind of businesses that are created, how we treat each other, and the kind of communities that we could create if there was more of that mindset.


Episode 8: Futurist Andy Hines intersects purpose, work, tech

July 24, 2018
                Foresight is a key characteristic of leaders of the future. In this episode well-known author and futurist Dr. Andy Hines discusses how leaders can incorporate various futuring strategies to bring people into …







Foresight is a key characteristic of leaders of the future. In this episode well-known author and futurist Dr. Andy Hines discusses how leaders can incorporate various futuring strategies to bring people into the future with optimism and a mindset of abundance. Andy is assistant professor and program coordinator for the University of Houston’s graduate program in foresight. His openness to the possibilities of the future and his commitment to practicing what he preachers, make him a maverick across industries—from exploring the future of RV parks to communities large and small to the future of waste. Tune in!

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“If you’re a technology innovator, you ignore people at your own peril.“  
Andy Hines

About Andy


Dr. Andy Hines is Program Coordinator and Lecturer at the University of Houston’s Graduate Program in Foresight, bringing together the experience he earned as an organizational, consulting, and academic futurist. He is also speaking, workshopping, and consulting through his firm Hinesight. Before that, he was Managing Director of Social Technologies/Innovaro, and served as an Adjunct Professor with the university since 2004. Hines enjoyed earlier careers as a consulting and organizational futurist.

Hines is motivated by a professional hunger to make foresight practical and useful, and he believes that foresight can help deliver the insight that is so needed in today’s organizations and the world. His goal, he says, is to infect as many change agents as possible with this message. Thus, he has honed a skill set designed to make foresight more actionable in organizations. His dissertation focused on “The Role of an Organizational Futurist in Integrating Foresight into Organizations.”

In this pursuit, he has authored five books:


Show Notes

Hi, I’m Dr. Connie, your host of the Rural Futures Podcast, and joining me today for conversation is Dr. Andy Hines. He’s assistant professor and program coordinator for the University of Houston’s Graduate Program in Foresight and is also speaking, work shopping, and consulting through his firm, Hinesight which I think is a clever name, Andy. That, I mean that was pretty darn good. His 25 plus years of professional futuristic experience includes a decades experience working inside first the Kellogg Company and later, Dow Chemical, and consulting work with Coates and Jarratt, Inc. and Social Technologies Innovaro. Okay Andy, so that’s a little intro about you, tell us a little bit more about who Dr. Andy Hines is.

Well first of all, thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about the future, that’s always a lot of fun for me. For my background, basically I’ve worked in different aspects of introducing people to the future saying look, there’s a way that we can think about a plan for what we’re gonna prepare for, influence our future in a more systematic way with a few simple tools and concepts. And so I’ve looked for different venues and opportunities and ways not only to introduce people to the future, but then to help them actually do something about it. One of the benefits of working in different spots, different organizations and with different kinds of folks is you get a sense, oh, you know how does that effective translation take place? How do we translate the future into something that we can do about it today?

Well and you do that through a lot of different avenues, just like your bio said. I mean obviously consulting, but also teaching, a lot of writing and really prolific in this space in terms of being a futurist and really helping others develop this sort of strategic foresight ability that we now know leaders need, in this day and age. So could you define for our audience strategic foresight and future-ing to help them understand the lens you approach this through?

Well, the simplest way to think about it is I started out as a history undergrad and we have all these tools and approaches for studying the past, and I said well why can’t we do the same thing for the future? And there is a lot we can learn from history, that at the same time part of what we’re trying to understand when we look to the future is not necessarily continuity and patterns, that’s part of it. But where are the disruptions, major surprises that might influence the future? One of the things that we’ve learned is that most people have a view of the future that you know tomorrow’s gonna be much like today, and don’t really want to think about the potential surprises and that’s kind of where the futurists come in. We are pretty good at identifying those potential disruptors.

Absolutely, what do you see as some of those surprises right now that maybe other people are not seeing?

One of the ways I think that foresight has changed is now there’s so much information out there about not only the present, but the future as well. It’s a little bit less about, we call it finding the hidden gem, I mean somebody has probably found it, somebody has probably written about it, and so a lot of what we do now is kinda sift through and synthesize that world of information and try to come up with what we think are those major themes, so and certainly artificial intelligence is one that again, it’s a really big deal the impact of automation on jobs, it’s a big deal. A lot of people are talking about it. Even we have automated vehicles, so there’s a lot of interesting technologies that are coming and part of our job is to kind of help translate that, like what does that mean for what we should do in our job?

Well what I appreciate about being a futurist is, a lot of people are talking about technology and some of those disruptive technologies, but I happen to know from our pre-convo that you know we’re also looking at the people’s side of future-ing. What does it mean to live with more purpose? What does it mean to and want to frame your own future as an individual? And how does that shape the future itself, in terms of technology now enabling people to live where they wanna live, create the life that they want, and not just working in a job anymore, forever, but, really creating this life of purpose? So what’re you finding around this whole concept of these Winnebago Warriors? (laughing) I think is the term you used in our pre-convo. Tell us a little bit more what you’re finding in some, these population patterns.

Yeah, sure, so first thing is, I’ve looked at technology a lot for the last 30 years and there is a graveyard of really cool, innovative technology concepts that failed to kind of pass the we’ll call it the people test. That is ultimately a technology has to be used by people in order to kind of survive, right? So, if you’re a technology innovator, you ignore people at your own peril, so it’s really the interplay of how does technology meet a social or people need? And those two things have to come together and as we explore the future, one might argue that it’s actually that people social needs that are actually the more compelling and interesting. You talk about automating jobs, there’s less need for people to do jobs. So what are we gonna do, you brought up a good point, that it sort of causes us to reflect on what is our purpose?


Now for many, almost centuries now, our purpose has been to work. And we say, this is a pretty extraordinary change that we’re living through, as we start to question that may not need to be our primary purpose anymore. And so, you combine that with some technologies that say, many of us can work from wherever we want using technology much like we’re using here today. For me to be in the same room with you virtually from Houston, so then this is if we can work from wherever we want, where do we choose to live? Doesn’t have to necessarily be close to our job anymore. And we look for a kinda weak signals of change and one of those that we’ve found, we call them the Winnebago Warriors, and it’s this some people have said, well why settle anywhere at all? Let’s go to where we want, let’s spend some time in different parts of the country, get to know different cultures and we don’t need those permanent routes.

Well and let’s just, yeah, create this life experience we’ll make a little money along the way, we’re gonna figure that out, but now that we can be completely mobile why buy a home? Is that now the American Dream, anymore? To own a home with a picket fence and two point five kids and a dog orr is it, you know what, I just wanna go do some really cool stuff (laughing) and create this experience that really calls me? And find my purpose differently, because we know that through research purpose, adds about seven years to people’s lives. But we also know in the US, after people retire they tend to have health challenges or even we lose them, because they’ve lost their sense of purpose because it’s been so tied to their job. How do you see some of that flowing in terms of what it means for people, but also locations? We talk about this a lot with the rural future, like, could this be a positive thing for the rural future? If we have people that are connected or do we have to kind of even rethink that a little bit, to make sure people can create that life in those rural communities?

Yes, I think one of the really interesting strategic questions will start with the rural area, but it’s also true of urban, is historically or even recently one of the big factors is, can we get Amazon to put a headquarters or put a branch in our area and you know what do we have to give away to get the big company to come and provide its jobs. Like, that’s been a lot of focus of economic development rural and urban. And again, if we believe this trend towards automation and less reliance on work, it sort of creates a different set of criteria for what’s the identity of our community? Not only ourselves, right? The more progressive schools are helping children think about, it’s gonna be a multiple career world and really think through what are the skill sets, what do I want to do, like preparing individuals for many changes. And I think it may be a community can think of itself the same way, like what’s our identity what do we want to be known for and recognize and that too, may change over time. Can we develop a robust sense of community that can evolve along with the changing times? So the quick example we talked a little bit yesterday easy one to think about, let’s look at what happened in Detroit, right? Along with a lot of the other declining industrial cities, who have gone through a major identity crisis and are now trying to rethink, who should we be? How do we get people to come back and what people do we want to come back? And I think that kind of a process of thinking through who we are, who we want to be, is really the right one and not just assume it’s we wanna be the site of a major big company so we can have jobs, may not be who we are.

I think communities themselves also need a purpose now. So, what’s your purpose for being and existing we say that about companies, we say that about people, but also translates into communities, because like you just said, how do you want people to experience living here? Why would they wanna choose this? Do we also need to rethink about maybe people will only be here a short time? And maybe then they wanna go have another experience, right? And so, it may not be a lifelong let’s have everybody live here for 40, 50 years. Maybe we should be building more RV parks, instead of homes. (laughing)

That’s such a great idea. (laughing) That’s such a great idea, one of the things that I’ve been talkin’ about publicly about millennials, which I’m kinda sick of talking about millennials, but you kinda have to do it, right? Is that they don’t wanna stay at the same job for 20 years and work their way up the ladder. I brought up the idea, well why not make sort of a deal that says look, you come work for us for three to five years go outside, go somewhere else, get the experience you want, stay in touch, and maybe you can come back in 15 or 20 years when you’re ready and then you can become our leader, so have a strategy that says, we know you want to go out there, instead of fighting that, let’s enable it. Now could a community do the same thing? Like, yeah, could we have a piece of our community that acknowledges, not everybody wants to stay in one place forever, but you know we’ll keep the lights on while you go somewhere else and you’re always welcome to come back.


It’s not a failure if we haven’t kept somebody in the same space for 20 years. So I think I love that idea of stop by and come on back.

Well and we all learn when we go have different, new experiences, right? And so, we can bring such a richness back to those companies like that model you’re talking about, or even those communities. It takes a different frame of mind, but also leadership skills that are very growth oriented and different as well. And I’m a proud alum of your program in Houston, your certification for strategic foresight and that’s where we met and I was just so impressed by all these companies that are there, trying to really think about what the future needs to look like. And I also always have to add I was the only person from a university there at the time, so I’m hoping more universities get on board with what you’re doing down there, because I think it’s so critical. The other part you really touch a lot on is leadership and the importance of not only having this plan and being able to put this sort of framework together about the future, but also leading that. Would you tell us a little bit more about leadership now and how you see that evolving in the future to make these types of things happen?

Yeah, we think that the combination of foresight and leadership makes a whole lot of sense. If you think about what does a leader really all about? A leader is about bringing people into a future that is typically a little bit different, right? I mean, the real challenge of leadership is persuading people to come on a journey that involves change. And we have said, right when people join us for the first day, we say, look you are going to experience resistance to change, because it is a natural human phenomenon. Let’s have five minutes of complaining about it right now and then let’s just stop it, right. I mean, because complaining about people resisting change is it’s complaining about the sun going up and down, I mean that’s the way it is. So we do spend a lot of time thinking about how can we embrace it, work with it, and sort of bring it on our side so to speak. And that’s really what a leader has to do. How do I get people to change? And make that case to them in a way that seems favorable to them, right? And so I think that’s a lot of what we do is try to paint the picture of how the future could be better, here’s what the path looks like, so we try to make the future not a scary, unknown place. But, we shed some light on it. Say here are the possibilities, here’s what it looks like, it’s not that scary, come on the journey with us. I think that’s a lot of what foresight can bring to the leadership, is really some tools to help leaders do the difficult job of bringing people into a different future.

And speaking of those tools, what are some practical tools that you help leaders understand that they can use to kind of frame up the desired futures and those different scenarios that they might wanna think about in more detail and really choose to pursue, once they have a better understanding of what’s possible?

Sure, I think the fundamental concept that we talk about is, the idea that the future consists of multiple possibilities, that we just call it alternative futures. That is, even though we may be able to someday plug all the data in the world, all the variables into this huge super brain and hopefully press the button and out comes the answer, our view of that is that there are just too many factors to get the future right. But what we can do is, talk about the major kinda plot lines or stories about how the future could be different and that we’ve proven over time we can do. We may not know which, exactly which one’s gonna play out or exactly how it’s gonna look. We can definitely provide organizations with a preview of what the future might look like, such that as it arises that you start to see that future merging, you’re not surprised. We say the worst thing that can happen regarding the future is when you’re caught unprepared. You hadn’t seen it coming, we were blindsided, just that’s disaster, right? The idea of alternative futures is saying like, we want you to be ready, agile, prepared to respond, if you will, no matter how the future emerges. I think that would be one key tool that we think is important.

(Music Transition)

Let me put it this way, I think we create this line that there’s leaders and followers and I think the mega trend in that space is the blurring of the leader, follower line that we may be leading one moment and following the next. And kind of shifting or passing around that leadership role is really I think where we’re heading. And that does require that one is out in the field doing things and experiencing, if I’m trying to lead a group of people to a certain place, do I really understand what they’re going through? Do I know what their daily life is about? And can I experience that and really be a more effective leader from that perspective? So I’m not somewhere up in a hill, thinking big thoughts. I’m right in amongst the daily hubbub, kind of coming at it from that perspective. So I think that’s one of the changes that we might see coming in the leadership space.

Agreed, I mean I think, a lot of leadership was developed in that industrial age as well and so, it’s now an area that needs some fresh disruption itself. So I even have to question sometimes this whole idea, why would I want somebody else to lead me? (laughing) I mean, why would I want that? I mean I think if I’m really wanting to develop my own personal future, which I would hope more people would want, to take control of, I really have to question that whole concept of leadership and the way that you’re talking about it. That traditional context, just seeing. And I like to talk a lot about developing your own inner leader, your self-leadership, as well. And working in these sort of networks and working very differently, I think for people to want to live their life in a different way, much like we’ve talked about, how do we get away from still the more traditional command and control style, which is still very prevalent? And be okay with people in their independence and the way that they wanna live? And create these new models for the future.

It’s interesting in doing project work, especially with larger organizations and it can be private, as well as public, government agencies or education if they were involved, but they’re not, right? A lot of times, well you know, we can get this senior leadership if we can get them on board and we can get them involved and I agree that there is a point for that, but my experience is most of the work of change, the actual work of changing an organization doesn’t come from the top. It comes from somewhere between the middle and top, right? That’s the group that we need to be targeting. Who is actually going to lead the charge in real life? Like, who’s actually gonna implement this stuff? And I would much rather work with the implementers, the doers who are going to actually have to do it, and I’m not trying to knock senior leadership, but I mean, I think we have this almost this worship of you need to get the leaders onboard and a lot of times the leaders, they may set direction, and they may less, but they’re not actually doing it.


My own bias is to get with those leaders who are out in the field making the future happen, whether it’s an entrepreneur from the outside or it’s an intrapreneur from the inside. I think we can translate our foresight tools and say, all right, let’s do this. And then in a sense you present the le fait accompli to leadership. Like, we’ve not just talked about it, we’ve actually created this future. Here’s what it looks like. Here’s how we do it. Forgiveness rather than permission kind of approach. Let’s not worry about whether every single senior leader’s on board, let’s get enough support that we need and let’s go make the future happen and show ’em.

Well and that’s what we love to say about the Rural Future’s Podcast, is it’s for doers. It’s for doers, just people out there bein’ a maverick in some ways and creating the future, that one day at a time. But, really looking to create the future that they want and that they see is possible.

(Music Transition)

As we’ve talked about strategic foresight and future-ing, and as I’ve told you, I use a lot of your material for citations. (laughing) Because you have this great content, that really substantiates strategic foresight and future-ing, as a discipline. One lady thought I actually was looking at the stars trying to (laughing) figure this out. I’m like, no, nope, there’s actually tools and there’s strategies that we use, but you know this whole mix of methodology and mindset, I think is something too that in your materials comes out very clearly, I think. And a lot of prolific futurists really talk about, so blending that mindset and methodology, I think is such an important part of that. I know you have this huge network of alumni now, that have graduated from your program. What do you see your alumni doing as a result of work you’re doing at Houston? And also, in your consulting practice?

Yeah, I think one of the other key tools that kind of informs what people do with our work is we spend a lot of time sensitizing people about how do you recognize a signal of change? So we call it horizon scanning.


One of the things that all of us do is we’re always on the lookout for something that makes us go, hmm. And if you find yourself when you’re looking over however you get your daily information feed and you kinda go hmm. Like, we pay strict attention. So, we really have a method of doing that more systematically, but that’s the kinda thing we look for. When you see kind of a break in the pattern that makes us kinda give that funny head hmm. And make that funny sound, we go ah-ha, something has challenged our way of thinking and we need to make note of that. So a lot of what futurists do, our alums do, in the real world, once they’re outside of our academic program, is work in very much the typical organizations that I’m sure many of your listeners are in, inside a large organization, we often have little units of folks that are really trying to stimulate a whole organization to think about the future. So, for instance we’re working with the consumer products company right now that’s looking at the future of waste. What’re we gonna do with all that trash? The landfills are closing down, they’re filling up. Recycling is a little bit in trouble, because we can’t figure out how to make it economical. So what futurists do is we really try to think ahead to the future kind of problems and issues and say, look, now’s the time for us to think about this issue, where we have some, we have some wiggle room. We have some space to act. You don’t want to wait until the last landfills close to think about where we’re gonna put all this stuff.

Yeah, I mean, and do you think about the prolific growth of online shopping and delivery, and all the waste that creates, it’s just a totally different concept of how do we make this more sustainable over time? I don’t see that slowing down. What are the changes we need to make as a society to still support, especially as jobs go away, Andy, as we see this decrease in jobs people still like to buy stuff and use stuff. How does this whole economic model change? How do consumer patterns and behavior change? And how do we bring that to the forefront to create those preferred futures that affect communities, businesses, and people?

Yeah, I mean we shouldn’t scare people that jobs are going away, I remember I was talking about this with my daughter who’s going first year freshman, she’s like, I don’t know what to think. Look, we’ve got time, kinda the change that we’re talking about, where work becomes sort of less central to our identity. I mean, this is a decades long, this is a big process. It’s not gonna change overnight. Another thing that we’ve learned, even though we hear a lot about super rapid change again is that people will tend to slow that down. Even though, yes, we could automate all the jobs we won’t, right away, right? We have to integrate that into social policy, so even though we can see the end point, we know it may take a little longer than you think to get there. So, people are still at the center of this. So I’m actually working on a book called After Capitalism and it’s trying to look at the longer term future. Now keep in mind it’s definitely the longer term future of what does a world look like where we don’t have to go to work every day? Now the good news is, we’re still gonna be as wealthy and maybe even wealthier than ever before.

I’m so excited about your book. I mean, I think this’ll be great to see a long term view on some of this and like we’ve discussed, people don’t think you’re a little out there, you’re probably not doing this right. (laughing) So, I know you’ll have some really good stuff for us to all start thinking about. And I think “the sky is falling” is sometimes where this whole idea of futuring gets a little stuck. And that no, not everybody is gonna see their elimination of their jobs. Many times you’re really paying attention or if you’re talking to futurists, you can see these patterns emerging over time. These wild cards happen, but usually they’re not as sudden as people think, like you said, and new jobs will be created. New industries will be created. So, it’s not like the sky is falling, but also when I think about my grandparents generation and my parents generation, now ours. And specifically I guess I can refer to this in the United States, it’s amazing to see how well we live but still sort of take almost a negative view of that.

Oh my God, I won’t be able to work anymore. What a horrible future, right? I mean, it depends on how you view it, right? Obviously it’s viewed as a problem, because it’s our income is tied to it. But if we could deal with that part of the problem, I don’t think a lot of the folks would think, boy if I don’t get to that factory today I am gonna be so upset, right? I mean, you were talking about mindset, so as futurists we’ve learned to kind see both sides of it and that’s part of what we have to help people with, to see that the future isn’t either all bad or all good. It’s a really kind of a complex mix, and we try to kind of shed some light on those possibilities and say which ones do we want? Which ones do we want to avoid?

Well and that’s what we really been trying to do here, because a lot of times at rural we hearand I’m not discounting the challenges of rural, because they’re many and they are greatbut we have to learn to find the opportunity within that as well. And really have I think those conversations around what is possible here. It’s not gonna be what it was, but what do we want it to be? And so, I think those are the conversations that we can continue to have and I think people like yourself add a new lens to this. I mean even what you brought up about Detroit, I also have to learn that it’s not just rural points or challenges. It’s not just urban, but there’s this intersection of rural and urban where we could lift all tides, all boats together if we really had some strategy around that and some foresight to think about the possibilities.

Absolutely and I think that sort of reframing is kind of a good way to think about the mindset that a lot of what futurists train folks to do is to look at a situation and come at it with a different perspective, right? Can we reframe this from oh, this looks like a horrible problem to see the possibilities and opportunities in it? Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. So we don’t wanna minimize, oh, we can make every problem go away, but a lot of times we get stuck in a certain frame of how we look at things. Part of our job is to come in and kinda jog that frame and say hey, challenge the assumptions, challenge the model and say, can we think about this in a different way?

Yeah, I so appreciate that process. I so appreciate futurists like yourself who are really I think expanding the field itself and adding that credibility, but also have that experience of helping companies and even communities think through this. And so, that marriage I think of what you do in your business world, you know, you’re an entrepreneur yourself and I think that’s so incredibly important to have in our higher educations system, so I’d like to touch on that just a little bit. How do you see higher education evolving in the future?

We did actually look at the future of higher education a couple years ago, from the perspective of the student. Which is kinda funny that it’s noticeably absent perspective, most of the work on the future of higher education is from the institutional perspective. What does the institution need to do? So we thought it’d be fun to just kinda say, what are students likely to want from the institutions? And so I think there’s always a small minority of institutions that are at the forefront of change, and they see it coming and they’re doing what they can and usually there’s a mass of any industry, higher education, doesn’t matter what the industry is, as change comes at it will tend to hold on tighter to what got it in trouble in the first place. So, I think the mega trend in higher education is sort of opening up the possibilities of learning. Tearing down the walls of this is a classroom, this is a curriculum, and it’s kinda saying, what do I need to learn and I don’t need to be kind of confined by what’s in the established curriculum, right? So that’s this mega trend that’s been sweeping across and part of the response of the established institutions say, oh let’s make it harder to get in to school. Let’s make the tests more rigorous. Let’s do all the stuff that’s made us great in the first place, right. It’s what we’ve built our reputation on, so let’s stick to our knitting even harder in the face of a change, except it’s going in the other direction. So I think there’s a lot of that going on.

You start to see a lot of our sister and brother universities, other institutions double down on what they’ve always done. Maybe make it more rigorous, how do we add to this experience in the same way we’ve done. Like you’re saying, rather than how do we disrupt ourselves. How do we think about that end user? And think about what they want and desire? You know we have an online high school, here at the University of Nebraska. Which is a great thing for us to have, because even with this whole population piece that we see all the shift, there’s more of our people questioning even sending their kids to traditional elementary schools or high schools. Because if they’re traveling if they’re a Winnebago Warrior, they want their kids to learn what life can look like beyond the traditional norm and standard. And so how do we create this mobility, not just for adults, but for whole families in some ways?

There is a really important role for, if you will, established traditional institutions to provide some kind of common core, right? So it’s not that every organization needs to be entrepreneurial and different and experimental. But it’s more like, what’s my niche in the ecosystem? And we do need some organizations that are providing call it the stability and continuity to compliment the innovators who are around the edges of the ecosystem. So I think we could totally see a healthy kind of higher education ecosystem that has both, right, it has some established institutions providing that kind of core knowledge and it has the innovators around the edges, who are providing kind of the new and interesting and experimental stuff. And I think those things can co-exist. Gotta kinda acknowledge that first, right? It doesn’t have to be one or the other, it’s both.

It’s kind of finding your niche and your purpose again. Like, why do we need to exist? (laughing)

Here we are right, right back at purpose.

That’s right, very full circle. I’ve got a personal question, I would love to know from you Dr. Hines, how do you keep your futurist brain fresh?

It certainly helps to have a group of really intelligent creative graduate students to have to teach. (laughing) So I think that definitely, that keeps you going. One of the things that’s really been fun for me in the last few years, is I’ve really, we’ve done a lot of work around the sustainability stuff. I mean, that’s just been a huge theme. And I’ve kinda taken that into my fun time, where now I’m doing composting, I’m out gardening, doing a lot of sort of nature stuff. And I just love it! And I love kinda practicing and seeing, how does natural systems work, but it’s just great to kinda unplug from the world of overload and just have some time to kinda refresh, reinvigorate, and kinda let it all soak in. And I find that we come back to our work a little more fresh and revitalized.

Well I love that you’re doing that in Houston. (laughing)

I know, right?

I think that’s just, that’s awesome. Because I think too, we can kinda see this weak signal right, where people are wanting to unplug. We’re on all the time, so how do we unplug? As somebody with both a hard science background and a human social science background, the intersection of those disciplines and those sciences I think is so critical in terms of creating you used that word ecosystem a lot, in this interview and in so many ways we can learn from nature and those natural systems. Not only on how to build different models in that future, but also how to take care of ourselves I think in ways that always existed and we need to reconnect with in some ways.

Yeah and we actually teach, part of our curriculum, we teach called personal futures planning and it’s basically taking the same principles that we use with organizations, or government agencies, whoever it might be that we’re working with and doing that ourselves. Maybe as I’ve gotten a little older and more reflective, I’ve really tried to think about am I practicing what I’m preaching? I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different sectors, industries, and groups of people and I’ve learned a lot from them and now trying to apply that more in my personal life.

(Music Transition)

Okay Andy, obviously I could talk to you for hours, because I always learn so much from you, and we so appreciate you taking the time to be on. We know you’re very, very busy. But I’d love to know what your parting words of wisdom for our audience are.

Well, I would say that thinking about our own personal futures is, I can’t think of a better advice, because I think if we have our own sense of purpose that we talked about. Having that sense of purpose and some sense of direction, it really helps you when it comes time for those pivotal choices, where should I go left or right. Having that sense of purpose can help guide you, kind of along those choice points, right. So I think having our own sense of how we would like our journey to go and then when we bring that to our organizations, that’s gold for the organization. Having a bunch of folks who have a sense of what they wanna do, where they wanna go, I mean give me a group like that and I think we can conquer the world.

I love that! That’s a perfect, perfect note to end on and I really appreciate that you’re using that strategic foresight, not just to teach so many others, obviously you’re making a huge dent in the world, in this space, by the work you’re doing. Again, you’re walking that talk, you’re using it personally, and you’re seeing the fruits of that purposeful, planning and thinking about your own future. So, that’s very cool I think to think about how others could use those tools in their own lives and really make things happen for themselves. That they desire to have happen, not just letting things happen to them. Andy, one last question I have for you before we sign off is, where can people find you?

Sure, couple different places in the web. HoustonFutures, all one word. Is a site that describes the academic thing that we’re doing that week-long trainings and things like that. So there’s way you can kind of learn about how to do this. And then my own stuff, I have a little blog which is really fun by the way, I gotta say, I really enjoy putting together my weekly blog post, and that’s at andyhinesight.com.


Episode 7: John Roberts intersects healthcare, tech, rural-urban dynamic

July 17, 2018
            Rural healthcare access, overall wellness in rural areas and the future of rural hospitals are consistently present challenges discussed in the national narrative. In this episode, Dr. Connie asks John Roberts, Executive Director of the …





Rural healthcare access, overall wellness in rural areas and the future of rural hospitals are consistently present challenges discussed in the national narrative. In this episode, Dr. Connie asks John Roberts, Executive Director of the Nebraska Rural Health Association, to weigh in on these areas, but also talk about the opportunities of the future. As a member of the board of directors of the National Rural Health Association and with more than 35 years of experience in rural healthcare, John’s perspective on policy, technology and rural-urban collaboration is important for all of us to consider and understand as we shape the future of healthcare as a country. For example, did you know that rural hospitals are actually penalized for incorporating wellness centers? Did you know that rural healthcare providers earn the same level of outcomes in their areas of service but at 4 percent less cost than urban counterparts? Educating our rural leaders and residents along with our urban partners is critical, John says.

We hope you will listen in, rate our podcast and give us a review!

“Too many times I think we focus in on urban or rural, and you really can’t separate the two. Rural providers need urban counterparts for specialty services or services we can’t provide in rural settings and vice versa. When urban areas are being moved to this value based system, too, their incentives shift to try to make sure they get the patient back to rehab or other areas of rural Nebraska because they can do it as well and cheaper.“  
John Roberts
Executive Director, Nebraska Rural Health Association

About John


John Roberts is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Rural Health Association. He has more than 36 years of professional healthcare experience. John has been President of Midwest Health Consultants, Inc. for the past 16 years. He is responsible for the overall management and technical expertise of the consulting firm including business development & strategy, marketing, customer service and over-all project management


Show Notes

Hello and welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m your host Dr. Connie. And joining us today is John Roberts who has over 38 years of professional healthcare experience and serves as the Executive Director of the Nebraska Rural Health Association, and he’s done that for the past 14 years. But John, I want to hand it over to you. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Well I’ve started my career in hospital administration back in 1980. I graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center with a health services administration degree. Went from there from Omaha to a little town in western Nebraska which was Ogallala Community Hospital and spend six years there as business manager, eventually the system administrator. It was a great way to get your feet wet, and I learned a lot about rural healthcare. And I think that’s really where my passion begins to develop and really love the people in rural areas. I really believe what rural providers do and the quality of life that they can create for their communities. So I left there in 1986 and came back to Lincoln, Nebraska. I worked for Nebraska Hospital Association as one of their lobbyist and your point person on small rural healthcare issues. And did that for about 12 years and then left there and started my own consulting company. We managed a couple of different associations. As you mentioned we managed the Rural Office Association, and I also managed the Dental Hygienist Association of Nebraska. So we do a lot of work with those organizations, do a lot of work with communities all across the state of Nebraska. I think I worked in every rural hospital in the state over the last 30 years or so so labor of love for sure. I also served on the board of directors of the National Rural Health Association. We’re critically involved with policy and things that are happening at the federal level and legislation and hopefully to improve the condition of rural health across the country.

Now we’re gonna get into more of that in just a second. And that’s a lot of the serious stuff about John Roberts. But I want to know too, I know our listeners want to know, what do you do for fun? Because I know there are some things that you do that I think everybody would be very interested in hearing about.

Well I like the usual stuff like golf and I do a lot of wood working in the winter time. But I love playing with my nine grandchildren who range in age from two to twelve.

I know you love the great outdoors and your family has a cabin on Lake McConaughy which is also Nebraska. One of our wonderful bodies of water. So I know you have that compassion for rural and hospitals but also this experience of rural and what that has to offer.

Yeah, I love getting out to western Nebraska. There’s a certain beauty to the Sandhills of Nebraska that you just cannot find anywhere else in the country, and I just love the culture. I love the communities in the greater part of Nebraska.

Well, here at the Rural Futures Institute, one of the things we’ve been exploring this last year are the questions of why rural, why now? You know, why should anybody care about rural that doesn’t live in rural? Rural population across the U.S. and in other places around the world is much smaller than it is when we compare to those urban centers. But I think your enjoyment of those great outdoors and the natural resources and beauty rural has to offer is part of the answer to that question. You can’t go just anywhere and have the experience that you can have in Nebraska Sandhills which I agree as is like a great secret, right? But if you truly want to experience the outdoors and what nature has to offer, that’s one of the great places Nebraska has to offer in terms of rural. With this question of why rural, why now, you know, rural health is definitely part of the huge conversation around rural right now. Why should we continue to have all of these hospitals or should we? What does the rural population need to look like and how do we provide health access and health care to them with those dwindling populations? So when you work throughout Nebraska and throughout the nation, how do you frame that? Why is investing in rural important and specifically in healthcare sector?

The way I look at it is that agricultural part of what happens in ruralnot only rural Nebraska but in rural America—is critical to our infrastructure and our way of life in the United States and, quite frankly, around the world. Rural areas of this country, including Nebraska, basically feed the world and the amount of agricultural food that comes out of rural areas is very important. And we’ve got to be able to support people who live in those rural areas, who serve them rural agricultural economy. And we need good healthcare for those folks in addition to the good schools and other things, we just need to have the infrastructure there to be able to allow those people to do what they do.

And speaking of the rural scene right now and healthcare, how would you describe yourself as a leader in this space?

I really think of myself kind of as a servant leader. My philosophy of leadership is unless you’re willing to serve those you’re leading, you’re probably not the most efficient and effective leader. So I really view things through that lens and I think that allows my leadership style to be able to get in and do the work and not really care about who gets the credit for it. But to really focus in on the outcomes and we want to get for rural America and creating a better and more sustainable rural health in Nebraska.

And speaking of that. I know you’re one of the leaders in Nebraska that’s really working on reinventing our rural healthcare sector. Please speak about some of the innovations in the leadership going on in that space right now.

About a year ago, several of us thought leaders in the state got together informally and started to talk about what we saw currently with the healthcare system in Nebraska and across the country, and then more importantly, what we could do about that as we move forward. We’re currently in a situation where, over the last five to six years because of several different policy changes at the federal level, we’re seeing a pretty rapid decline in the profitability and sustainability of many of our rural healthcare providers. And so we took a look at that and thought we can continue to go down this road we’re on, which the future doesn’t look real bright for many rural providers. Or we can do what Nebraska is kind of known for doing, and that is how do we collaborate together to create a better system? One that has higher quality and lower cost because that’s what government. That’s what business—that’s what insurance companies—they’re all looking for that and that’s what we’re seeing, a major shift in the last several years at the federal level. And I think we’re seeing a lot of states getting into this innovation of how can we recreate and build a better system?

So when you think about recreating and building that better systemI actually just published a paper called Strategic Foresight Leadership and the Future of Rural Healthcare Staffing in a journal, and part of that is to think about the disruption of healthcare, in particular rural healthcare. This is a three trillion dollar industry that the tech firms are getting involved with. You know, we see a lot of entrepreneurship, growth in the healthcare sector but a lot of it not necessarily focused on rural. A lot of it is focused on technology and technological solutions, and we’d love to see a little more innovation in the rural sector around some of this, particularly our rural areas and of course we’re focused on Nebraska because we’re both working and living here in many ways could be such a great playground of innovation for what could happen. Not just in rural but in urban settings as well, because there is so much going on in healthcare. So if you would look in your crystal ballI can always look in mine as a futurist. But if you look in yours John, how would you see our rural healthcare sector changing in the next three to five? What would that ideal future look like?

Well we’re definitely on a path of what we call volume to value which is changing the payment system for rural providers—not only rural providers but all providers across the country. And it goes back to this issue that we have a healthcare system spending that’s not sustainable over the long term. So we’ve got to look at ways we can increase the quality and the outcomes that we give for our patients, while at the same time lowering the cost of care for those outcomes. And so, we’re really seeing this big shift in looking at how providers can be reimbursed and incentivized to be able to take this value idea and provide high quality outcomes and high patient satisfaction, and when they do that, they will get reimbursed accordingly. The opposite effect too is if you’re not meeting those outcome standards and the patient satisfaction standards, you’ll be penalized. And so the incentives are beginning to change pretty quickly over the next probably three years.

So is that why I keep getting all those patient surveys after I visit a doctor? (laughing) Is that what’s going on there John?

Yes that’s part of it.

That’s what I’ve heard. But the one thing I wondered, and I’m sure you can shed some light on this is because it is shifting to more of a values based sort of approach and method, could we be using things like artificial intelligence, big data to help us understand those outcomes more broadly and more robustly? Are there some things happening in that space that you know about that are emerging?

If you look at over the last five years the number of venture capital that’s gone into healththese aren’t health related organizationsthey’re data and information systems, people like Microsoft, Sysco, a lot of different folks are looking at the issues you just talked about, on how we can use this data and information to do a better job with what we’re trying to accomplish and that’s high quality outcomes for our patients.

What advice would you give to somebody like a Rural Futures Institute? We’re part of the University of Nebraska, we’re system wide, and we know that healthcare is one of the—if not themajor issue facing our rural communities today. Now what advice would you give us in terms of how we could help organizations like the Nebraska Rural Health Association and others, to help find some innovative ways to provide solutions for our citizens and help keep people where they want to live and live the high quality lives in our rural communities?

I think slowly but surely rural health providers are understanding what we have to do to make this shift. But what we really need probably and probably what the organization could help us with is we really need to help communities understand what the shift is and what things might look like in the future. And that includes rural hospital boards, government leadership, community organizations to be able to make this transition and be able to do some innovative things in the state. I think we need the support of those community leaders and board of directors to be able to step out of the comfort of what they know and really start to look at what could be and how could we really redesign this system to better fit our communities. That may mean that all communities may not have a hospital, there may be different services that can provide in different regions of the state and that all takes a lot of time and energy to kind of sort through. And you have to have at least a basic understanding of where we’re trying to get to and how communities and leaders across the state can help us get there.

I appreciate that insight. I know that you’re a big proponent of sort of the co-creation with communities and having communities be part of this process and that’s so important for that innovation to happen. The future will look different then the present, and we all have a voice and a contribution to making that space. I was really interested when we had our pre-convo to get ready for this podcast, you mentioned that when a hospital puts in a wellness center they are penalized and so thinking about hospitals as economic drivers but also as center points for communities. I think it’s so important but then when you shared that with me, I thought wow. You know, here we have a lot of hospitals that are really trying to focus more on wellness not just sick care, thinking about what that might look like. But the system isn’t quite set up for that yet is it?

No, it’s really discouraging because I think everybody understands we need to move to this value based system. There needs to be more emphasis put on prevention, care coordination, chronic care management, all those types of things and yet. Currently, our reimbursement systems, mostly by the federal government because you have to remember a typical rural Nebraska hospital, 75 to 85% of their business will be Medicare and Medicaid. And so whatever reimbursement policies are implemented in those two programs has a tremendous effect on what we do and how we do it and how we get paid. The difficult part is making that transition to this new system where we might look at things like home healthcare or other types of wellness or preventative activities. But when we do that as rural providers right now, we’re penalized under the rules that currently preside over this reimbursement system. And so even if we have hospitals that want to make the right decision to do right for what’s in their community, they’re penalized for doing that. That’s the things we want to change as we’re moving forward.

You know John, I just think that’s so critical. You talked about the importance of communities and leaders being involved in embracing sort of this change in innovation, but it’s also the policy, right? And so I think that point you’re making is critical. I think it’s really great for listeners to hear that and think about that even as we see hospitals wanting to transition, sometimes the policies that they’re needing to abide by and live with are not really supporting an area of wellness and more positive living and lifestyles and that’s where we need healthcare to go.

We’re really interested in approaching the federal government which in this case is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, their innovation part of their department looking to develop a plan in Nebraska to really approach them to say give us an opportunity to make the changes that make sense for our state and our communities to try a different path of reimbursement system and policy and let’s see if it works and let’s see what we learn from it and take those learnings and apply those to other states across the country. We’ve seen that in a couple of states here in the last couple of years. Maryland has gone to a global budget and a policy. They are in their second year of that innovation project. And they’ve really produced some pretty meaningful results. The other state is Pennsylvania who just started in January 1 of 2017 in their innovation project and they’re gonna work over the next few years to try to get 30 rural hospitals to participate in their program and again it’s a global budget concept. It shifts the incentives for what providers do and like we talked about. Those incentives shifts go towards more prevention, more case management, looking at the things I think we need to go to.

I think it’s so great to have leaders in our state and around the nation really focused on innovation in this space. I actually have worked with several rural hospitals—one in particular in southeast Nebraska—did a year long leadership engagement with them focused on innovation. How do we, as leaders within those hospitals, innovate? Because we have leaders in those hospitals, and a lot of our hospitals do provide great paying professional jobs, they are a hub of our communities. They’re an economic driver as I said before and I think so much of the conversation about rural has been if the school closes we lose a community. I’m not disputing that there are challenges around that, but I think if people were concerned about depopulation before, if we see a closing of a lot of hospitals with nothing else to replace it and people don’t have access to healthcare, we’ll see even more people need to move to areas that have that healthcare access or choose to live there in any case and not choose to locate in a rural community.

Yeah, absolutely. Over the last 10 years about 80 to 85 rural hospitals closed across the country, and that’s more than we’ve seen in the last 20, 25 years. And a lot of those have happened in the deep south and so when you look at states like Georgia, where they’ve had probably 10 to 12 rural hospitals close, when you go back and look at those communities later, it has a devastating effect on their culture, their community, access to healthcare. But as you mentioned, most of the time hospitals are either the first or second largest employer in the community and they draw money from outside sources into those communities. And so it’s really devastating to the community to lose their hospital and lose access to those healthcare services.

I often think of our hospitals and healthcare systems as places where people can connect as well. When my father in law had to start dialysis they could no longer live on their farm in southeast Nebraska, and it was hard for them to uproot everything they knew, everyone they knew, their whole community to relocate. Not that other communities aren’t great but when you’ve lived somewhere for your whole life and then suddenly have to make a change like that just to have access to healthcare, it has other consequences for your mental and emotional and psychological well being as well.

You know, we can tally the direct cost of a hospital closing in a community, but there’s also the secondary or the intangible costs of driving an hour or two to get the medical care, taking off work to be able to do that. All those things are cost to not having those providers in your community. And the other aspect of it is data at the national level that shows that for the services we provide versus urban. It’s usually right around 4% less in cost and yet we produce the same kind of outcomes. And so when we see these rural hospitals close, you’re shifting people to other higher cost services which cost the Medicare and Medicaid program even more over the long term so that’s why we think there’s a significant policy that needs to be worked on at the federal and state level to kind of insure that these rural providers have the opportunity to be successful and sustainable long term.

You know that’s really fascinating just think about the interplay between rural and urban in terms of healthcare. I think there’s a technological aspect of that where technology is developed in urban can be used in rural and that’s a lot of the conversation around this but you bring to light something completely different. And that’s thinking about if we can keep people in rural and have that positive ROI in those rural facilities. It actually benefits the rural community but also the urban communities that don’t have to take on those additional loads so the work load is distributed a little bit differently. But then also federally in terms of the financial ROI to the government but ultimately the taxpayer is even better. So that’s a great piece of information for us to all learn and know about in terms of why rural, why now? How urban and rural work together in so many ways but also how this is a larger ecosystem in play here and I think so many times we separate rural and urban. But as we thought about it more here as the Rural Futures Institute, we really see it as a dynamic ecosystem where we all need each other. And what you’re talking about there really proves a point even in the area of healthcare so going beyond agriculture.

You’re absolutely right. Too many times I think we focus in on urban or rural and you really can’t separate the two. Rural providers need urban counterparts for specialty services or services we can’t provide in rural settings and vice versa. When urban areas are being moved to this value based system too, their incentives shift to try to make sure they get the patient back to rehab or other areas of rural Nebraska because they can do it as well and cheaper if you’re on a fixed budget.


(Music Transition)

Let’s dive into the technology aspect just a little more here in the conversation. What role do you see in terms of this technology being developed in healthcare? We know it’s a huge space right now, a lot of investment in this space. How do you see the potential of holograms, for example, used in rural healthcare?

Yeah, I think we’re on the verge of some major changes. We’ve gone quite a ways with what we call telehealth services in rural areas of the country which helps us provide services that we may not normally be able to provide or allows us to get consultation from outside experts which really helps our rural providers feel like they have a backup in Nebraska. We’ve implemented quite a few of what we call tele-emergency services where if you come and present yourself in a rural hospital emergency room, they can connect that to urban facility where you have a specialty physicians that are board certified in emergency medicine, consult on the patient and be able to provide those rural providers with consultation on how best to treat the patient. The other thing I think is gonna be really disruptive as we move forward is the whole smartphone technology. We’re seeing some real major trend shifts in rural areas of the country of people dropping their home internet services and relying strictly on cell phones, smart phones or their information and internet connection and again as I mentioned earlier, we’re seeing a lot of investment by folks in this area looking at how they can use technology to improve the health of people across the country.

Yeah, I think that’s really exciting. We have dropped our land line at home actually several years ago. We live in a rural area and our internet still isn’t that fast, and we thought it was gonna get a lot faster, still not that fast. My cell phone is my best source of connectivity, so I’m really excited about things like Doctor on Demand, lab-on-a-chip technology where you could potentially even diagnosis something in your home. I think that’s a tremendous development and seeing more of his happen at home is really exciting. Singularity University is a group I follow quite intently and they have this whole XPRIZE concept where they get this big purse of money together and crowd source from all over the world people that can develop it. And one of the things that they had actually funded, Qualcomm actually funded the purse, but a team actually developed the first tri-quarter. So if people remember back to Star Trek when you could scan your body with this instrument and it tells you what’s wrong and so now the first prototype has been developed and launched and they will continue to make that better and it’s actually developed for home use. It’s not necessarily, the intent wasn’t just for hospitals, it’s to have cheap accessible affordable healthcare wherever you are. And so thinking about the smartphone and other tools like that and how that could potentially help people all over the world and specifically in our rural communities when they don’t have access to a lot would be awesome or even in those crowded and congested urban areas where you can’t always get into the provider. Because we do have such a shortage of doctors and healthcare professionals around the world, technology could be a huge help.

I ran across the dermatology app not too long ago and thought, well I’ll give it a shot, see how it works. So I took a picture of my skin or some imperfection and sent it off to someone and within 24 hours I had a diagnosis of what it was, what the treatment was. It took care of the situation. I didn’t have to go to my primary care physician. I didn’t have to be referred to a specialist. I didn’t have to take time off work. What started as kind of curiosity at the end of it was really looking at wow that worked pretty well and I probably would do it again.

Oh absolutely. I mean I think anything that can save time and money but then also just create more accessibility and affordability is such a huge win. So I think healthcare is one of the most exciting spaces right now in terms of innovation in the future because we all need our health. Health is the basis of life and I think to be healthy is such an important part of who we are. We take that for granted a lot of times until something does happen and suddenly you’re sending a picture to a lab or getting a procedure performed or you find yourself on crutches and you forget how important health is. I think sometimes until something like that happens and it inconveniences you or worries you or even thinking about more long term challenges such as a cancer diagnosis. You know health is life and I think keeping that at the top of our mind is so important. That’s why making sure we have investments and great leaders like yourself in innovation. The space is so important. We thank you for that important work John.

Yeah we’re excited. I think one of the things that Nebraska is known for around the country is our collaboration with each other with providers and different communities, something we take for granted in Nebraska that a lot of other states just don’t have and we’re really gonna use that and test that as we look at how we can develop innovation to really solve these issues as we’re moving forward in rural health.

Well I would just make a plug for Nebraska out there to anyone that might be listening in the tech space. We’re a small population which actually makes us kind of like a start up for a state. I think our small population is actually an advantage right now and we are highly collaborative as you’ve mentioned, John. So thinking about how do we position Nebraska to be the place where innovation and rural healthcare happens and in a big way? So it starts here but actually can then expand to other states and other nations as well. You know we have a strong medical center, we have a lot of research but we also have a lot of people and a lot of leaders who are willing to do some innovative creative work around this to provide access to people and to communities.

(Music Transition)

I’d love for you to leave our listeners with sort of your top three leadership tips that they could use in their lives.

You know I think that when I’m counseling a lot of our providers and when I go to across the state, one of the things that they need to do is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We know we’re gonna go through a pretty major change in the next three to five years and not only rural Nebraska but across the country. And I truly believe that it won’t be the strongest that make that transition the best or the one’s that are most financially strong at this point. I really believe it’s gonna be the ones who can adapt to change the best and who are able to manage that change as we go through this process. So that’s one of the tips I kind of give them. The second one is to really look at what it is we need in our communities and really go back to that. Trying to break down our mental models of what we think the way things should be. For instance, we know that we can provide additional services outside of what we would call a traditional hospital. And to really begin to look at what is it that people really need? And how can we provide that? And get away from kind of the mental models that we’re kind of used to. And then the final thing is, I mentioned earlier is getting everybody in the community and across the state to really think about what’s happening. How we could take this apart and put it back together in a way that works for our communities and works for our state? And hopefully eventually can be a model for other states across the country as we make this transition to this value based system in healthcare.

I so appreciate your philosophy about the co-creation of the future with communities with people, with those end users and partners involved and I think definitely in this area of disruption of healthcare. That’s such an important piece of all of this. So thank you John.


Episode 6: Dr. Helen Fagan intersects diversity, leadership, neurology

July 10, 2018
            Diversity in our rural areas is going to continue to increase. Through this episode, leaders learn actions they can take to make this transition positive for themselves, their communities and those who they are …





Diversity in our rural areas is going to continue to increase. Through this episode, leaders learn actions they can take to make this transition positive for themselves, their communities and those who they are welcoming. Featured guest is Helen Fagan, Ph.D., a U.S. immigrant whose experiences in three countries and five U.S. states shaped her perspective and informed her future. Dr. Fagan shares personal stories about her time in the U.S., navigating who she truly is as an Iranian immigrant while striving to be accepted. Difficult times and encounters inspired her to pursue research, teaching and consulting in the areas of diversity and leadership. Through her work she explores the definition of inclusive leadership and what actionable steps leaders can take to shed their implicit biases to create teams of people from various backgrounds and experiences for the sake of innovation and genuine personal growth. 

“For me, an inclusive leader is someone who is emotionally intelligent, who has the developmental capacity to bring people from all walks of life together and help them innovate and create things that didn’t exist before.“
Helen Fagan, Ph.D.
Diversity and Leadership Scholar and Consultant

About Helen

Helen has a BA in Human Resource Management and Economics from University of Nebraska in 1996, and an MA in Management with emphasis in Leadership from Doane College in 2008. Helen also studied International Economics and British Political Economy at Oxford University.  She finished her Ph.D. in 2014 in Human Sciences with emphasisin Leadership Studies at UNL. She has over 25 years experience in the Human Resource Field and has worked in many areas of the HR Field including Training, Benefits, Payroll, Recruitment and Diversity.  Helen became a Certified Diversity Trainer through the Society for Human Resource Management in 2001 and qualified for administering the Intercultural Development Inventory in 2006.


Show Notes

Hi, welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining me today is Dr. Helen Fagan, a leadership and diversity scholar and educator whose passionate about developing global leaders to create better tomorrows. Thank you so much for being here, Helen. Please tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Well, hi, Connie, I’m so excited to be here. It’s so fun. Well, I am from Iran originally. I have lived in three countries, five states in the U.S. This summer, I will celebrate 35 years of marriage to my favorite human, Scott. We have two incredible sons who I am just delighted to be their mom, and they married just brilliant women that I love that I have girls in my life as my family now, and I’m a nana! I became a nana last October, and Beckett is my pride and joy right now. He’s giving my husband a run for the favorite human spot.

I can imagine that. You know, I also appreciate, not only your expertise in leadership, but the way you live your life and let yourself in. Having your family as such a top priority for you is so impressive. But also even the way you’re speaking about your daughter-in-laws, now that doesn’t always happen with mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws, and I just have always honored and appreciated that about you, because you really walk the talk when it comes to leadership.

Oh, well thank you, you’re very generous with your words, and I so appreciate it, Connie. I think one of the best things we can do as women is to support other women in our lives. I believe that’s one of the things that leaders, especially, need to be doing, whether you are a person in a position of leadership, or you are just an influencer in other people’s lives, it’s important.

I so agree, and I think it’s such a great time in history to really bring forward the fact that our families are important, even if we’re in traditional job settings, or leadership roles, or we’re entrepreneurs, or whatever the case, I’ve been recognizing that people want whole lives. And in being in a leadership role or spot in an organization shouldn’t exclude family and life. In fact, I think as we transition, we’ll talk about the future of leadership, through our conversation, embracing this whole living, especially as we have more dual working couples, is just so important.

Absolutely, and one of my firm foundations in leadership is that we need to get away from either or thinking. Either I am a leader, an executive, a professor, whatever I am, or I am a mother. We have to embrace it and we have to give space to both of those to exist. People, I think they get the idea that it means going 100% all the time, and that’s not the case. I need to give time for each of those things and that doesn’t mean I can be all things to all people at all times.

That is so true, and I think we need to help organizations understand that, what it means to be truly flexible and not just say it. That’s why we see women leaving traditional jobs to create their own so often. They need that flexibility, but they also need the autonomy to do what they want to do how they want to do it. They create environments that really are supportive of them and them building their own futures. I’m a huge proponent of developing your inner leader, you know, leading yourself. I think for too long we’ve seen as leaders what you’ve just described. It’s the CEO, it’s somebody with a title, and everybody else is just supposed to follow along. That was a very industrialized view of leadership for scholars and practitioners like yourself to come forward and really champion, not only in organizations, but with students, the next generation, new paradigms of leadership.

Absolutely, and I am right there with you that we’re in a new century. We are in an opportunity to where we don’t have to have a start time and an end time to our work. We can be fluid in that, but we also need to be setting boundaries that are healthy, boundaries that say that it’s okay for me to appreciate and enjoy my family at the same time as giving out of my expertise and my passion. I don’t have to choose one or the other or sacrifice one or the other. There was a research study that was done that was looking at women who had been stay-at-home moms not seeing themselves as leaders. It was really helping them to understand that leadership, the definition of leadership, is about who the person is and how they’re influencing other people. And so I think if we can do that for women, if we can model that for young women who are coming up, my students, graduate students, being able to say, “It’s okay, you can enjoy motherhood, and you can contribute from your professional life and your expertise and your knowledge and your passion.”

And you know, that’s what a lot of students are asking. What we found at the Rural Futures Institute is that students intern here or wanna be part of a serviceship experience in a community, which you’re leading for us here at the Rural Futures Institute, but at the same time, they’re really wondering how adulting works. What does it look like to grow up and live my own life and build what I wanna build? We’ve seen a few students graduate and go out into the workplace and come back, and they’re like, “Oh, Dr. Connie, I didn’t expect this. It’s not like working at RFI (laughs). How do I deal with this difficult boss or this culture I don’t enjoy or fit into?” And I think sometimes we’re still in this transition era of what does it look like to be inclusive, which is an expertise area of yours. But also does this future of work look like? Just like you’ve mentioned, this whole idea of clocking in and clocking out doesn’t work because first of all, we’re expected to always be on. There’s really, I think, a global shift in how this is all gonna continue to change and we need people that are willing to step out and do it differently with our students, but also our own children and grandchildren, right? I mean, teaching them how the world can be in a different way is so important.

Absolutely, I have a sister who’s 16 years younger than I am, and so she is in her late 30s and a new mother. Her baby just turned a year old and she is really struggling with how do I remain passionate to the pursuit of medicine as well as remain a mom and be able to give to my daughter and model the way for my daughter, and in so many respects, she’s looking to me for that. I was late in life getting my Ph.D. I worked and went to school and was a mother and was trying to balance all of that, and I remember when I worked at Bryan Hospital, I remember saying to my boss when I got a promotion, “I need to work only four days a week. I want to be available for my family.” And it was the first time someone in a position like mine had requested that, and he was totally open to it, and he made it work for me. That was one of those places that it gave me this internal confidence that if people want what I have to offer, they need to be able to work with that flexible schedule that I’m offering. At the same time, I am very driven and committed to being available when necessary, but I do have concrete times when, one of the things that I talk about leaders is that leaders have to be able to be still. They have to remain present, they have to practice that, so I have to practice that. So I don’t want people to think, “oh, I’m available 24/7.” There’s a part of me that is available then, but then there’s a part of me that says, “No, I’m gonna turn everything off, and I’m gonna be fully present here.”

I think that really questions this sort of era we’re coming out of and you’ve gotta be the all things to all people, you have to multi-task, and sort of this over-busy, like “Oh, I’m so busy. I’m so busy,” and thinking that’s a badge of honor, somehow, because in reality, you aren’t as productive, you’re typically not as happy or engaged, and eventually you burn out if that’s truly the path you’re on. And I know in our case, my husband and I both work, I’m late to motherhood because I had the opposite sort of trajectory as you did in terms of focusing on school and career first and having my kids later in life. But then I found I was still married to my career, like it was a huge part of my ego and my self-identity, and that’s challenging, too, because then suddenly you’re having to let go of that and think, “How now to do I make this family work in a different way,” much like your sister is asking and I’ve had to really rely on a lot of co-moms, I call them, in my neighborhood, because my family doesn’t live close to where we live, either, so I have co-moms that help in every single way, and I’m able to support them and they’re able to support me, but it’s having that community that’s so critically important in making all this work, but then also, what I appreciate about what you said there, Helen, was the power of the ask and the confidence you had to say, “You know what, I am worth this, and if you need this, this is what it’s gonna take for it to work for me.” And I believe that when we do that, we empower other women to step into that as well, and that’s part of our role as leaders in this sea sort of life. Helen, we talked a lot about women and really the changes that are needing to happen in the space of leadership and female power and really being inclusive in that arena. But what are your thoughts about the changes in the dynamic of families and cultures as well where we see dual working couples now for almost the first time in history, and having kids or choosing not to have kids, and how all this is evolving, so that we’re even seeing stay-at-home dads?

That’s a great question, Connie, it’s actually really an exciting thing, because I love seeing families being creative in how they’re addressing this dual working or who’s gonna stay at home or what will that look like, and I’ve seen multiple things. I say we give permission to people to say, “We need to do what works best for us.” And so, societally, we need to stop shaming men who stay at home as fathers and shaming women who work to provide for the family. So I feel like as a society, we need to be supportive of those creative ways that families are making it work.

Families just happen so many different ways now. Being open to how that works and what people’s lives are about, I think is just so critically important.

Absolutely, and if it works for a family to do the traditional thing, where it’s mom who stays at home, or mom doesn’t work and chooses to stay home, hey, if that works for that family, that’s equally great. So I don’t want people thinking, “Oh, we’re gonna throw out traditional way of thinking in light of this other way,” that’s again, either or thinking. What I wanna say is, we need to be okay with any type of format that a family chooses to take to make it work for that family, and the best thing we can do is come alongside them and support them.

I tell you what, some of the hardest working people in our world are single parents. I so admire what they do to support their family, financially, emotionally and everything else, and it’s just so timely to have experts like yourself working on these big issues to say, “What does this modern life look like? What does this modern era look like? How does this evolve into the future so the future work changes, the future family continues to change, the future of society continues to change as people are looking for more passion and purpose and trying to make all these things work together?”

(Music Transition)

For me, an inclusive leader is someone who is emotionally intelligent, who has the developmental capacity to bring people from all walks of life together and help them innovate and create things that didn’t exist before.

Can you provide for our listeners an example of how you’ve done that in your consulting work?

So I will give you the example of one particular person that pops out in my mind, an individual that I have worked with, an executive. He is a police officer, he’s a chief of police in his community, and basically during his graduate program, he had to go through some coaching, and by coaching I’m not talking because he wasn’t doing things well. I’m talking about helping to increase his capacity as a leader, and so being able to coach him, to help him to understand how do I shift perspective? And one of the ways that I challenged him was to say, “Who wouldn’t you want your children to bring home as their future spouse?” You identify that individual, that population, so to speak, and that’s your implicit bias. And if you can hold yourself accountable in situations where your implicit bias is getting in the way of you being effective, then to me, you are stepping into that inclusive leadership zone. And that takes vulnerability, it takes courage, it takes a certain level of self-awareness, awareness of the impact I have on other people, which ties into the whole emotional intelligence piece.

Yeah, I think coaching is growing in popularity and I think people are starting to understand the impact that it can have. I mean, I have a coach myself, and I do coaching. Really, a great coach can help you uncover those things you aren’t seeing yourself. And it sounds to me like that’s exactly what happened with this individual.

So I’m not gonna be his coach for the rest of his life, right? My hope is that the lessons that he gleans through that process, he will be able to use that same process to glean new things about himself as he has new experiences. That’s always my hope when I coach executives and also in the classroom. One of the things I do is I ask that same question of my students, and they will list off everything from someone who’s homeless, someone who’s got a criminal record, someone who’s transgender, someone who’s of a different religion, a wide range of things. And I say, “Okay, great. Now I want you to go out into the community and I want you to serve that population.” Because it is extremely difficult to serve and get in close proximity and keep my biases.

Why is that, Helen?

Because most of the time, our biases are formed based on little information, overgeneralization. One of my areas that I absolutely love is neuroscience and what we’re learning about the brain and the human capacity to exclude without even recognizing that they’re excluding. And so the idea is that we wanna develop the prefrontal cortex in these young adults, because that is where inclusion begins to take shape. Our limbic brain is the part of our brain that says, “Hey, I like things that are like me, and I wanna hang out with people that are like me, and I want things to be easy.” So that’s where we form these biases. But when we actually encounter who are different than us, that destroy those preconceived notions that we have, we begin to question, is this bias true? And it’s hard to be loyal to that bias for any length of time once I’ve had exposure to a particular population that I’ve spent time with, that I’ve gotten to know them, gotten to know their story, gotten to know their challenges, their life history. I’ve gotten to walk a mile in their shoes, so to speak.

I think that’s where this great awareness of experiential learning, neuroplasticity, you know, that brain science piece and how these things relate is so important. So, not just talking about the importance of all of this, but actually doing it, experiencing it, rewiring your brain through those experiences, to make yourself a better leader and person, but ultimately, to help others as well. There’s such an exponential effect when we expand. So okay, I wanna expand on that a little bit myself, Helen, and I have a question for you that I really appreciate your insight to. What advice would you give the Trump Administration right now in light of all that’s happening with immigration?

So I wanna preface what I say with the idea that I am not in their shoes. I don’t know how they’re seeing the country. They have access to information I do not have. They have access to content I don’t have access to. Given all of that, I also would challenge them to walk away from what they know for a short season of time and spend time getting to know individuals and people’s stories. I really want to have them to move away from this polarizing thinking of either this is good or it’s bad. I want to get them to a place they’re thinking both and. We can have a good rich U.S. and value immigration. We can have a good relationship with education as well as business. So the idea of and both, I want them to get away from the polarizing. In my work, in my data that I’ve been collecting with the intercultural development inventory, the continuum, I have seen a shift from one developmental level to a lower developmental level, which we call polarizing, in people that I have been assessing. So I’ve been doing this for over a decade, giving this assessment to my students at the beginning of the semester, at the end of the semester, giving it to graduate students, giving to individuals that hire me for coaching, organizations I work with. What I’m seeing is this shift, a societal shift, to this polarization, and I cannot help but think that is as a result of the message of the leadership that we’re hearing. It’s either this or that. Either we’re a good, strong, Make America Great Again, or we’re for immigration.

Everything seems to be so extreme. It’s not a thought of abundance, it’s of lack. But I also appreciate what you said in the beginning. How do we understand this in a deeper way? We don’t know exactly what’s happening and why the decisions are being made, but at the same time, if we would take some time to spend time in the shoes of other people, to think about how this might look, we would come out with more innovative solutions and ideas that could potentially just be better and more robust than the either or back mindset.

Absolutely, in the work that I’ve been doing, I have seen us being able to shift that. We can develop in this area. We can grow in this area. I’d like to share a couple of stories with you of how I got interested in all of this. My dad was an executive for the national Iranian oil company, and he traveled all over the world, and he wanted his kids to be educated in another country and that’s the reason we moved to England when I was very young, to go to school. And then later I moved to the United States to go to school, so the U.S. wouldn’t give visa for my parents to stay. It was only my brothers and I got to stay in a boarding school. And two months after we got here, the U.S. hostages were taken in Tehran, and all of us Iranian students were loaded up on a bus and taken to Orlando International Airport, and we had to report in, and all that stuff, and getting to stay in the U.S. wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. There were people that were “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” and all kinds of stuff going on. So I hid who I was for a very long time. I hid that I’m Iranian, when people would say, “Where are you from?” I’d say, “Where do you want me to be from? Where do you think I’m from?” And I was where everybody wanted me to be from. I learned to assimilate, what I call forced assimilation. It was forced upon me as a way of getting along with people here, so that sense really impacted how I saw myself, how I saw my heritage, how I saw how I could contribute to society. I had to hide a part of myself in order to be able to contribute to society. It wasn’t until this event happened with my father that I really stepped out into it. My dad came to visit me for a month. I hadn’t seen him in a few years. He had a heart attack and then later a stroke after he left my home and he was in this hospital. He had the kind of stroke that was called the locked in syndrome, so a piece of plaque from his carotid went into his brain stem, and he was locked inside of his body until his death eight months later. He couldn’t understand any other language except our native language, even though he was multilingual. He was an executive, he traveled the world. So here he is in this bed, and we’re trying to communicate with him, he couldn’t move any of his body parts, he couldn’t speak, he could nod just a little bit, and he could blink yes or no to our questions. So I’m speaking Farsi to my dad, I’m in the room, and in walks this nurse who’s training another person and the nurse is asking questions and I’m speaking Farsi to my dad, and I’m kind of thinking, “Okay, I think I know what he’s saying based on his look,” and I’m giving the information back to the nurse, and she gets frustrated, and as she’s walking out of the room, she says under her breath, “I wish they would learn to speak English. It would make our job so much easier.” It triggered something deep within me. I followed her out of the room, and I laid into her. I tell people I verbally vomited on this poor nurse. And I’m sharing that to not say, “Hey, I’m great, and I was justified in what I did.” I’m sharing that to say that it triggered something in me and at that point, I thought, “I wanna do everything in my power to ensure that that doesn’t happen to my father again,” or to any other person’s father, or to anybody else’s family member, whoever that person is. So then when I moved to Nebraska and began working at Bryan Health, I created this Diversity Cultural Competence, and doing the training and the work in that arena, fast forward several years, and we have a situation that really got me thinking, “Wow, how did we go from the situation with my dad to the outcome of this situation?” That particular situation was a 12-year-old boy had been hit by a truck while riding his bicycle in his community, and he was brought into our trauma center. Our hospital had a trauma center, and by the time the family arrived, they were told that their son was brain dead, and the chaplain that was working with this family was on the diversity council that I led at the hospital. He approached the family about organ donation, and the family requested to have a family member in the operating room at the time of the retrieval of the organs. Well, this was against hospital policy for multiple reasons. But here’s this chaplain, instead of saying, “I’m sorry, it’s against hospital policy,” he says, “Help me understand what makes this important to you.” Just that simple question got him access to information. What he found out was this family was Native American and they believed that the spirit of their son rested in his heart. They wanted the heart to stop beating, the spirit to be set free, and they chose the uncle to be in the operating room to be able to say prayers so that the spirit wouldn’t go on living in someone else’s body. That was their belief. The challenge for us was to get people from different parts of the hospital, decision makers, to come together and agree to allow this to happen. When that happened, we were told by Nebraska Organ Retrieval System that that was the first time in the 25-year history of organ donation at that time, that a Native American family had said yes to donating the organs of a loved one.

Wow, I mean the power of seeking to understand, and not making assumptions is just so incredible, isn’t it? And I admit I had to grab a Kleenex when you were talking because if you have to hide who you are to fit in, I think is something that is a struggle for so many in so many different ways, but I also think it’s been a gift in so many ways, too, as well, and to all of us, to be honest, to have somebody like you who has taken that experience and really has just turned it into a prolific practice in both your business, but then also what you do at the University of Nebraska, here at the Rural Futures Institute, and so many ways beyond that. I mean, you’re even consulting for movies. (laughs) Yeah, I think that fascinating, but I also think it’s helpful in terms of moving away from this culture we seem to have right now of polarization to that inclusive culture that really is more global and really finds innovations that are workable for everyone so it’s not a lose-lose, but it’s more of that win-win.

Absolutely, and so that is exactly what got me interested in researching this. How do we get people to come to that level of understanding? How do we do that? And I have found a process for making that happen, and it’s so exciting to watch these young people who have hidden part of who they are for up to the time they enter my classroom, anywhere from 19, 20, 21, all the way up to 55, 60, 70-year-olds, and it’s giving them a place and a space to fully step into who they are and accept that other people, when we allow others to be who they are, fully who they are, we create opportunities. We become more innovative in our thinking, in our problem-solving, in our approach to how we increase participation in the community, in an organization. It just totally changes the way we engage with the world around us. And that’s what’s so exciting for me is, one of the areas that I really want to study is how do parents who level of self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, and their developmental readiness for engaging with people who are different, how does that impact the way they raise their children?

Right, because even as a parent, I want my kids to be global in their perspectives and their thinking, very inclusive, but also very brave and being able to stand in their own power, because parenting is an interesting experiment in itself, right? I mean how do you do all of that as a parent to make sure your kids are the best of who they can be, not just to themselves, but to others, and really, then preparing them for a world that’s gonna be much different than what we grew up in.

Absolutely, in our grandparents’ day, our grandparents were competing with other people in their own community, in their own area. In our parent’s day, it was people in another state. There were people applying for jobs from other states. In our age, we’re competing for positions and opportunities globally, and so how do we prepare our students, our children, to be able to not just compete at that level, but to be excited and thrilled to be engaged at that level of thinking and being? How do we do that, and that’s an area that I’m really interested in studying.

(Music Transition)

I wanna ask you to look into your crystal ball, become that futurist for a second. Tell us what you see in the future in terms of your expertise.

What I see is that individuals who have created, I actually started calling it this super-power. They’ve created this internal super-power, this capacity of being resilient, of being able to shift perspective, of being able to see issues that others are missing and then bringing people from all different walks of life to address those issues, that is a super-power, and I believe as we continue the advancement that we’re learning from neuroscience, what we’re learning from global leadership studies that are happening, what we’re seeing, even in our own RFI interns who are going into these rural communities, the insights they’re gaining about themselves, I feel like that is the kinds of opportunities we need to create for people. We need to help people to be able to see the perspective in that way. So understand yourself, the impact you have on other people, is based on the beliefs, the values, the experiences you’ve had, but also be able to be totally thrilled and excited to the be in the presence of people who are different than you, because I believe we connect with people who are like us, but we absolutely grow the most when we have to engage with people who are different than us. So what opportunities can we create for engaging with people who are different than us as well as connecting with people who are like us? Human beings, we need both.

Well, and I so appreciate that, and I just wanna say to the world we are so excited that you’ve joined the Rural Futures team, and the wisdom, the scholarship, but also just the leader and person that you are, to help us with the rural serviceship program, but really expanding it into something new and different so it’s more transformational for students and communities moving forward, but I think the other thing that you bring to all of this, Dr. Fagan, is the fact that we can break some stereotypes about rural and urban as well. Too often we talk about rural or urban, it’s rural versus urban, it’s that polarization again, and we need to really realize that we live in a global ecosystem that connects our worlds together and that includes rural and urban centers because they all rely on one another, and to make this work in a sustainable, forward-leaning way, and so for those students to have these experiences, I think is just fantastic. For communities to have the experience, great, but it makes me wonder as we move forward how would you envision breaking down the stereotypes of rural versus urban and bringing those worlds together in a more collective, cohesive, and innovative way. I would encourage people, I would challenge people, if you’re in an urban setting, to step out into a rural setting and find the positive. I think we need to create opportunities for urban populations to experience rural, not as an I’m gonna get away from it all and go to the rural setting, but as a how do we take what’s so wonderful about rural and bring it a part of our urban setting, and vice versa. How do you take something that is so wonderful about urban and include that in part of what we do in our rural setting? And so the experiences we offer our students is powerful, I believe, through RFI, and I’m so excited and thrilled to be joining the RFI team, and to be working with someone like you, Dr. Connie. I’ve read what you’ve written, I’ve listened to what you’ve shared, and I’m just excited. I think it’s gonna be a win-win for all of us and we’re gonna learn so much together and I believe that our life trajectory has been so different, our backgrounds have been so different, that out of those differences we are going to be able to create exciting new opportunities for both our urban and our rural, as well as global environment for our global students.

Well, thank you, Dr. Fagan, I so appreciate that, and I also appreciate the fact that your bringing up global, because one of the things we see at RFI is, of course a lot of our work happens in Nebraska, but we are involved nationally and internationally as well and really intend on expanding that because many of our rural issues and urban issues are similar is what we find and we come to the conclusion through visiting with Tufts University, Harvard University, other partners like Microsoft, that we need to ask better questions. And that is not a question of rural versus urban, but it’s how do we collectively move together. But then also, what is the future of rural in terms of being more inclusive and diverse? Because the populations are shifting, while some population loss is happening, we also see the migration of different people and patterns in many of those rural areas, and I think as those populations shifts and demographics shifts continue, communities themselves are asking, “How do we become more inclusive? What more can we do to be a welcoming community? How do we get people here but also keep them here? And, how do we make this work if we become smaller?” So there’s so many great questions around that, but there’s some innovative solutions as well.

I tell people we need to ask both why questions and help me understand questions. The why questions are necessary because they help us to defend our position, but the help me understand questions are necessary because they help us expand and shift our perspective. And so we need both of those. So asking good questions involves both of those types of questions, but also being willing to listen. Not listen to answer, but listen to learn and connect and understand.

Well, thank you. I think that’s such powerful insight for our audience to hear and I’d love to know from you, Helen, what parting words of wisdom would you like to leave our listeners with today?

I would say be adaptable and flexible. Be willing to engage with people whose perspective are different than yours. Be the kind of person that is comfortable with who they are, but also recognizes that it’s important to give space for other people to be who they are fully. I really hope that if people take anything away from what I’ve shared is to be a 21st century leader takes effort, it takes intentionality, it takes a new way of thinking about culture and inclusion and differences.

Thank you. That wisdom is something I think our listeners will continue to enjoy and can benefit from. I’d love to hear from them on how they’re applying some of these things in their own life. I think that the Rural Futures Institute would definitely want this to be a very open conversation and would love to learn from them as well, so thank you.

Absolutely, and I would love to hear from them as well.


Episode 5: Dr. Tyler Ideus intersects physical medicine, agriculture, global impact

July 3, 2018
              Small-town raised and part-time farmer, Dr. Tyler Ideus is a specialist in physical medicine practicing in Lincoln, Neb., and traveling internationally as a lead instructor for Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization, a leading rehabilitation approach. Dr. Connie’s interest …






Small-town raised and part-time farmer, Dr. Tyler Ideus is a specialist in physical medicine practicing in Lincoln, Neb., and traveling internationally as a lead instructor for Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization, a leading rehabilitation approach. Dr. Connie’s interest was sparked by Dr. Ideus’ background in conventional agriculture and his global perspective of healthcare combined with his expertise in a variety of manual therapies, ranging from physical therapy, rehabilitation, functional medicine, soft tissue, dry needling and manipulation. A “maverick” working and teaching in urban settings but living and farming in a rural area makes him the “perfect” guest, Dr. Connie said. In this episode Dr. Ideus shares his vision for connecting agriculture, nutrition and healthcare and his passion for a thriving rural future through a mindset of abundance.

“At the end of the day, sick people are just expensive, and it has to get paid for one way or another. So if we can do things in agriculture and growing food that is going to be really healthy for people, I think we’re all going to come out ahead.”
Tyler Ideus
Physical Medicine Specialist and Nebraska Farmer

About Tyler


Dr. Tyler Ideus practices physical medicine in Lincoln, Neb. He earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Nebraska Wesleyan University and his doctorate from Logan Chiropractic College in St. Louis, Mo. His study has gone far beyond chiropractic medicine to include neurology, physical therapy, orthopedics and strength and conditioning. He became an international lead instructor of Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization in 2016.

Dr. Ideus grew up in Filley, Neb., a town of 200 that is now more around 100 in population. He currently farms part-time with his father outside of Filley, raising corn and beans using conventional farming practices.


Show Notes

Welcome to another episode of the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild and with me today is Dr. Tyler Ideus, he’s an international expert that connects farming, food and health in very unique ways and so we’re very excited to dig into the fact that he’s choosing to build this life in rural Nebraska, but really teaching globally and being invited to do so. So Dr. Ideus, welcome to the show.

Thank you very much.

Absolutely, now tell us a little bit more. I know I have a lot here in this introduction. You know, you teach globally, you’re teaching a lot of postgraduate and postdoctoral work to people in health but in a very unique way, can you explain a little bit what that means?

With the continuing education or the postgraduate, postdoctoral work, what we’re doing is we’re working with some kind of new cutting edge ideas that just haven’t been exposed across the world yet at this point, specifically for me it’s brought me to places all over the United States and in Canada, into Europe, China, I’ll be going to Taiwan later this year so it’s been a neat experience, it’s been neat to listen to different people and their experiences, both in clinical practice but also from kind of just a healthcare standpoint as well and the different systems that people work in as well.

Now tell us exactly what you’re teaching, tell us, and why do you think it’s grown in this popularity, this is a program on the future and you’re kind of on the cutting edge of this emergence.

So this is a rehabilitation approach for people with different types of musculoskeletal disorders and diseases, so we might be working with things from low back pain to headaches, knee pain, hip pain but then in addition to that it’s very popular in strength and conditioning and performance, from all levels to youth to, you know, collegiate and professional athletes, people that are working with those types of clients, finding this information really, really valuable.

And I know you’re a doctor of chiropractic medicine, correct, but you’ve really expanded beyond that to really connect not just the chiropractic but really those health outcomes and connecting that back to food and health.

I do have a background in chiropractic, but the way that I practice that is very, very different, probably, than what most people think of. I consider it more of being a specialist in physical medicine and if we look at the definition of physical medicine, it’s the treatment of different types of diseases, musculoskeletal issues, through rehabilitation, nutrition, manipulation without the use of drugs or surgery so then when we kind of look into agriculture, the nutritional parts of things, there are points where what we eat, what we grow has a huge effect on our health as well.

Okay, so I think we need to dive into that because you’re originally from Filly, Nebraska, and that is Filly with an F. (laughs) Yes. Right, so we want to get the right size Filly and how big is Filly Nebraska?

So Filly, at this point, I would guess is about 100 and then it’s just kind of, you know, it’s as we’re seeing common in rural, the population is declining and so I think we’re probably down to around 100 people at this point, yeah, yep.

So we’ve seen the decline, but you’ve chosen to really take your expertise but also continue to farm and link this food and positive health outcome piece together which is very rare and unique. A lot of people talk about it, you’re doing it, so tell us a little bit about your farming background as well.

Right, right, so growing up on a farm, I always tell people, you know, when you grew up outside of Filly there was about three things that you did, you farmed, you worked hard and played basketball, those were the big things. It wasn’t as much football because we were all harvesting, you know, during the fall.

Sure, that makes sense.

But when that was done, then we played basketball, so the values and stuff that you can learn from the farm, the hard work as well as sports and the competition and getting out of your comfort zone has really taught me a lot and I use those all the time in how I approach clinical practice and education and farming as well.

Well, I love how you’ve really chosen to create your own future by taking that background of the sort of love and passion of sports and being active with agriculture and medicine and really combine that to create yourself as an international expert and really a cutting edge leader in terms of how we can forge a different future in health. So Dr. Ideus, I’d like to dive into a little bit about your philosophy as a leader, because obviously you’re forging a new path, you’re taking that future and you’re creating it one day, one class, one idea at a time and that takes a lot of guts and courage to do in our society, so tell us a little bit about your leadership philosophy.

I guess several kind of things that I think about, one of the big ones is always to get used to getting out of your comfort zone, right, and so I think that if we’re just kind of always comfortable and, you know, doing the same thing and not getting out of our comfort zone, it’s hard to really be a leader, you know, it’s hard to do new things, it’s hard to really, truly make change. Eventually you just have to be comfortable with getting out of your comfort zone, in addition to that, you have to be willing to put in the work, right, to make things make sense and have them be successful and so I was recently watching an interview with Kobe Bryant and he was kind of just talking about how there’s kind of a standard in the NBA on, okay, players might go in and work out a little bit and then they rest or go to practice and then that’s kind of their routine and so then he kind of thought about, well, how can I do more? So he thought then he would get up earlier, he would do workout, shoot, whatever, rest, and then kind of do the normal routine and so he said, then, that was an extra couple hours a day and he said in one day, it’s not a huge difference, in one week it’s not a huge difference, even in one year it’s not a huge difference, but then if you do that year after year, then you’re really starting to kind of create a gap, you know, and then you’ve put in the time and the hard work and then you can kind of have I think a clear vision for what it is that you’re trying to do and you can be really comfortable with these new things and ideas that you’re trying to kind of get across.

You know, and these are the exact type of guests we like to get on the show, mavericks like yourself with that grit, and you brought up that word vision and you also brought up the hard work and doing what it takes so I’d like to segment now back into that vision that you have around blending health and food and physical activity together.

You know, obviously as somebody’s that’s still involved in farming and somebody that uses conventional farming practices, and then also somebody who works in a clinical setting, and I love research and I read all the time and read research and then firsthand having these experience with patients, there’s some real questions that come about and that we have to ask ourselves and so for example, I have a patient recently that I was seeing for just kind of this generalized neck, shoulder area pain and tension and she had received some really great care from different types of medications to injections to physical therapy to chiropractic in the different types of modalities and things that exist within without a lot of success and so as we kind of dug into her history and figuring out why the heck this is going on, one thing we eventually found out was her large consumption of soy products because she ate a vegan diet and so she was getting her protein through that source so as we know and as we’ve seen through a lot of research, that can be a food that people are really sensitive to these days, right? Well, you hear on one end, it’s a major health benefit but on the other end, you’re saying it can also be something else depending on the person. Right, so then in her case, we removed that from her diet and that was enough to clear up her symptoms. So again, we just have to ask that question if why would that be, you know?

And to me that’s really powerful because I think oftentimes, you know, healthcare itself is estimated to be a three trillion dollar industry, many groups trying to disrupt it at this point and time and take a different approach, some people are even saying, you know, it’s really focused on sick care rather than healthcare, and just that story, a very powerful story that you told, you’re trying to go back and say, okay, we can use all these different modalities and they all have a place, but we also have to go back and find the story, the real story and find out what’s going on, what’s really maybe causing the challenges so we can get to resolution, not just a short term fix.

That’s exactly right, when we’re talking about the resolution, I think it’s very important for multiple reasons, number one is obviously it’s good for the person but then at the end of the day, it can ease some of the burdens of the cost on the healthcare system, and again, some of the interesting experiences I’ve had being in different countries and talking to different people in these different healthcare systems, the one thing that I’ve found is no matter where I’m at, it’s expensive, so for example, here we have private insurance, you know, high deductibles, high premiums and so on, so it’s expensive, in the Czech Republic, for example, whose government healthcare system, one scenario is maybe you go into the hospital for a traumatic brain injury and you’re kind of allowed a certain amount of time in rehabilitation and then when that time is up, then–

That’s it?

Your time is up, so at that point you have one of two options, number one, you’re done with care, right, or then you go to a private place and pay out of pocket, so then in those scenarios they’re paying very, very high taxes and then at the end of the day they’re gonna be paying out of pocket as well, so again, at the end of the day, it’s just sick people are expensive and it has to get paid for one way or another, and so if we can do things in an agriculture and growing food and growing food that’s gonna be really healthy for people to prevent certain things, I think we’re all gonna come out ahead and I think at that point, when just the overall population is a lot healthier in the scenarios where people do need help or there is some sort of trauma, there’s just gonna be such an abundant amount of available money and funds that it’s not such a burden for us to then help those people out.

So you can really see this from a place of abundance as well, it doesn’t have to be sort of this scarcity model where there’s not enough.


Rather, in the future we could actually forge a path that if we had health on the front end, there would be care for those ’cause people are still gonna need it, right? There’s no one perfect system, but we could evolve the model if we chose to. How do you see the future of food and health coming together?

Yeah, I’m not trying to say that we stop conventional practices and the research and the technology and everything that we have accomplished, being in a country like China and I was in Beijing and then we took a really neat train ride kind of through the countryside to another city called Nanjing and you could just see the abundance of people, you know, just so, so, so, many people and all these apartment buildings that are just skyscrapers so you just saw the mass number of people. There still has to be some type of, I think, more mass production of things, so we need that, we can’t get away from that, but at the same time I think that it’s okay that if we look into additional farming practices and being aware of ways to start expanding growing things organically and I think that also then can potentially help with rural growth and even create more opportunities within rural communities, just because those types of practices require a little more hands-on work, hands-on labor. We’re not just gonna be able to drive by with a big tractor sprayer and just cover these mass amounts of acres so it would return a part of farming to a little bit more of a hands-on practice which I think would be good as well. I always say that they’re talking about putting up these hydroponic plants on the ocean, you know, and these types of things. Vertical farming, we have a lot of cool stuff happening. To grow, you know, these foods and stuff and I just think, my gosh, we have some of the best people in the world that understand how to grow things and we have some of the best climates and the soils in the world right here to do that and so I just think there’s a huge opportunity for us to be leaders in that area as well.

I agree, I love reading about how, you know, they’re bringing sensors and AI and drones and robotics all into agriculture to make it more sustainable and it’d be great to bring some of that more thoughtfully and intentionally here to Nebraska to explore exactly what you’re saying.

Yeah, absolutely.

(Music Transition)

When I read things, and if they’re somewhat controversial, then I’ll read both sides. I have a stack of books at home that’s all about low carbohydrate living, so no breads, no grains, those type of things, but then at the same time, I also have books that the title, one of them is literally called “Eat Wheat,” but even in that book what it talks about is that the wheat that we used to eat 30 years ago, the way that the bread was made without preservatives and processed and all those types of things is way way way different than what we’re eating today so these highly refined grains and processed that have potentially been sprayed to kill to get in to harvest early, that’s why I think we’re seeing, like, this huge number of more urban populations having problems with our conventional farming needs.

This is what’s a little tricky because it all gets a little confusing, right? So there’s a lot of information out there and it’s good to read both sides and gather all that information. I’d love to learn a little bit more about some of the health outcomes that you’ve achieved by reading and digging into both sides and how you’re getting to health outcomes, positive health outcomes through that sort of questioning process.

Right, there is a good experience that I had with a patient not too long ago. There was a young man, I think he was 22 years old, I believe, and so then he had kind of been in and out of the hospital with C diff, which is just a bacterial regrowth in the stomach and small intestine that just leads to some really serious health issues, obviously. Then he was given the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis and told that he would just need these infusions once a month for the rest of his life. They would have to do kind of continued blood testing since this is an immunosuppressive drug, there’s kind of a lot of complications and side effects that could come from that, him and his parents were both very, very concerned about him going down that road and they wanted–

It’s a lifetime sentence.

Yeah, right, and they wanted to look if there’s anything else they could do, any other options and at that point we just ordered some blood tests that looked at basically different types of food sensitivities or allergies and when we got those results back we did see that he was significantly sensitive to dairy products, basically and different grains, so like gluten and glietens, which are different proteins within a certain type of grain and we completely took those out of his diet, we came up with a plan for him and then over a period of a few months, his symptoms were gone and he’s still symptom free over a year later and not that every single case of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s or anything like that can just be, you know, miraculously cleared by a few dietary changes, but like I told him in the very beginning, even if you do still need some type of medication, maybe it’s a little bit less and I don’t think that anybody is gonna be worse off by cutting, like, sugar out of their diet as he was dealing with it or if somebody else is dealing with that, just kind of their overall health can be so much better, you know, but like in his case then as well, if we think about the cost, that would have been accrued over a lifetime of needing those medications and those infusions, would have been astronomical compared to what it is now.

And I think even his overall well being, thinking about the cost but also his quality of life in terms of just freeing up time to have that energy to go do what you really want to do.


It’s fantastic.

(Music Transition)

Okay, so you’re a busy guy, I mean, we know this so you’re farming, you have a full practice, you’re traveling internationally and really helping advance this whole connection between food, health, but also activity in this vital lifestyle. Tell us a little bit about what brings joy into your life around that, but also why you do everything that you’re doing, because it’s a lot.

With the farming aspect of things, that’s just something that, you know, I thoroughly enjoy, so I’ve made the comment before where some people go play a round of golf on the weekend, you know, or whatever it might be and I always say, there’s nothing in the world that beats sitting in the combine on a nice fall morning with a cup of coffee and my family that takes turns riding with me, so that’s just a lot of fun.

I gotta go there, because I know that you’re married and you have two little people in your life, right, so do they get on the tractor with you?

Oh yeah, we’ve had many rounds in the combine with four people in the cab, so two kids moving around and trying to, yeah, keep them somewhat still but it’s all worth it, that’s what makes it fun.

Yeah, and I appreciate that you’re really bringing that next generation of leaders along, getting this very hands-on experience out on a farm, that’s so cool.

So then in addition to that, the postgraduate and doctoral continuing education, that just kind of came about organically, I guess, and again, just kind of my passion for learning and curiosity, when I was exposed to this program, you know, I was just very, very intrigued and fascinated by it so continued to just learn and research and dig and then over a period of time then was asked if I would be willing to be a part of the group that is teaching to expand this just because the demand is so, so, so high for this program. I’ve always been a curious person and I think in clinical practice, one of the things I enjoy the most is the examination process. I spend a ton of time always on the first exam and I always say there’s literally no information that’s not important. And we do all kinds of different movements and history and again, diet and activity and all those types of things, then to finally end up at the answer of why you’re feeling the way you are, what’s going on, and so that’s an enjoyable process as well.

Well, I love this whole idea of you just like to explore and you like to get to the why and you are such a learner and take that deep dive in, both in your practice, your teaching, but also, you know, your farming and thinking about this whole evolution of agriculture, of food and health together, which is amazing, so what parting words of wisdom would you leave our audience with?

I think there’s a few things that always stick out to me, number one, one of my mentors told me early on when I was in school and he was talking specifically to clinical practice, but I think we can take that outside of that world, but he said, every single patient and every single visit with every patient deserves a 10 out of 10 with your effort and that doesn’t matter if it’s a professional athlete or if it’s Grandma, for example, you know, every patient, every visit deserves a 10 out of 10 and so I kind of take that too in the way that I farm and when I’m planting, for example, I’m gonna give out a 10 out of 10 effort. With the teaching aspect of things, if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna give a 10 out of 10 effort for that, so I think that’s something that’s really important. I know I mentioned a little bit of being willing to get out of your comfort zone.


I think is really really important. I think that we need to embrace competition and not be afraid of competition, not be afraid to compete and to truly compete, you really have to know what you’re talking about, you really have to know what you’re doing.

Putting in those extra hours.

Right, right, and then, yeah, exactly. That work, that grit. The hard work, right, you know, and just being willing to put in the couple extra hours that others aren’t and then again over a long period of time, those extra hours just add up and add up and add up.

Well, I know at the Rural Futures Institute, we appreciate the fact that you’ve designed a life where you’re choosing to live rural and you’re continuing to farm but you’re also expanding and you’re an expert internationally living locally and so you’re really making this life work, so thank you for all you’re doing to serve Nebraska but also get Nebraska out there, you know, and the great work that’s going on, both on your farm but in your practice and really helping people around the world.

I always say, just because you’re from a small town in the middle of Nebraska doesn’t mean that you still can’t have a global impact. And again, with kind of that hard work that you’ve learned and you’ve put in and you’ve seen your parents do and their parents, it’s just very valuable for your business life.

Well, I’m really excited to see what the next generation of young farmers on your farm accomplishes with all that you’re teaching them as well. So thank you so much for being here.

Thank you.


Episode 4: Professor Tim Griffin of Tufts intersects nutrition, agriculture & rural-urban collaboration

June 26, 2018
      Tim Griffin, Ph.D., is Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. In this episode he discusses his interest and expertise at …




Tim Griffin, Ph.D., is Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. In this episode he discusses his interest and expertise at the intersection of agriculture and the environment as well as the development and implementation of sustainable production systems. Dr. Griffin has lived and worked with rural communities and regions throughout his career before landing in Boston, but what makes him fascinating is his ability to cross various boundaries and silos to explore solutions that result in a win-win for everyone involved. He doesn’t deny the difficulty of this, especially within the food system, but he explains how he does this personally and how he purposefully incorporates this abundance mindset with the graduates students he works with.

Tim Griffin, Tufts University, Associate Professor
“To think that the challenges in rural environments are totally different and mutually exclusive from the challenges in urban areas—I actually don’t believe that.“
Tim Griffin
Director, Agriculture, Food and Environment program, Tufts University

About Tim

Timothy Griffin is the director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program, as well as an associate professor at the Friedman School. His primary interests are the intersection of agriculture and the environment, and the development and implementation of sustainable production systems.

Griffin’s current research is focused on the environmental impacts of agriculture (nutrient flows, carbon retention and loss, and climate change), and impacts of policy on adoption of agricultural practices and systems. His past research responsibilities have included field and lab components addressing: crop management, alternative crop development, short- and long-term effects of cropping systems on potato yield and quality, management strategies to improve soil quality, manure nitrogen and phosphorus availability, soil carbon sequestration and cycling, emission of greenhouse gases from high-value production systems, and grain production for organic dairy systems.


Show Notes

Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. We recorded this episode in Boston, Massachusetts, during our invited visit with Tufts University faculty. Our guest this episode is Dr. Tim Griffin of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. I started off by asking him to explain a bit more about the school itself and his roles at Tufts.

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy covers a lot of ground as a school, a very interdisciplinary free-standing school of nutrition, rather than being a department of nutrition within another college, so that make us unique. And then, for the last nine years, I’ve led an interdisciplinary program called Agriculture, Food and Environment which covers about as much base as you would think it would with a name like that. So, we go all the way from farming and the impacts of farming, and profitability of farming, all the way through to who has access to what kinds of food and who does not, both in the United States and globally.

That’s big, I mean, those are big questions, big areas of research, and teaching. I guess I’m curious about part of your story on how you even got here to Tufts, so could you tell us a little bit about your history— Sure. And why Tufts was so interested in having somebody like you join their team.

Yeah, so my path here is a winding path, starting in Nebraska, at the University of Nebraska, back decades ago. You know, I trained as an agronomist and a soil scientist, so I’ve been doing interdisciplinary research, essentially, since I was a master’s student in Nebraska in the 80’s, continued on, and have had three very different positions, but three positions that I’ve been really fortunate to have. So, my first faculty-level position was in cooperative extension in Maine. It was a sustainable agriculture specialist, which was the first position like that in the United States, and I was the first person to have it. So, it put me kind of right in, you know, maybe a kind of similar situation that I’m in now where it’s not about focusing on one thing, it’s about thinking what the linkage is across many different things and, you know, heavily involved with farmers and farming. At that point, I was a scientist at USDA but was doing work all the way from greenhouse gas emissions, to producing organic milk, and when I was in that position, I actually knew about this program at Tufts in the School of Nutrition which started in the mid 90’s, but for a while it was quite small and it just happened to be that they were looking for a new faculty member. There was a person retiring, and somewhat on a whim, which is kind of how I manage things, I applied for it, and the— You know, I was interested in it, because it just continues this kind of interdisciplinary aspects of agriculture in connection to the broader food system. I think the university and the school were interested, because I’d been, you know, deeply involved in agriculture for a long time before I came here. It’d been, you know, 25 years or more doing research, but also working with farmers, you know, did a lot of public talks so could communicate, that kind of thing. So, the idea was, like, bring that into the classroom, which is basically what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years.

So, we’ve heard about Tim Griffin at Tufts, but tell us a little bit about Tim Griffin outside of Tufts.

I love books. Actually, I bring books, we do a literature day in one of my classes, and it’s just like, here’s my take on, you know, books that connect to agriculture or you know the agrarian ideas in the United States, and, you know, I love music, so I bring music into class actually.

Okay, what kind of music?

All kinds that— A lot of folk music, actually, both current but older folk songs, so I’ll bring in old Woody Guthrie songs to class. Lot of great messages in some of that old music. My wife and I, you know we bike a lot, been traveling a lot over the last six or seven years, around the United States. We actually drove across the US four or five years ago for the first time.

That’s awesome! I didn’t know that.

Yeah, yeah, we drove, actually a former student’s car, we drove it out to Sacramento to give it to her, so, that was fun, and, so I mean, we get out and about a lot. You know, this is the first time we’ve lived in a big city, so we explore a lot of it just, you know it’s, we’ve gone the last couple of days, public transit, walking, biking. So that’s you know, that’s the kind of things we do.

So, tell us a little bit you know, we’ve heard about you as a person now, a little bit more, and also you, and your work at Tufts, and even before— Tell us a little bit about your leadership philosophy and style.

Yeah, I wish I had a specific philosophy. I was thinking about this this morning and it’s, I would say my leadership is somewhat intuitive, so I don’t have a particular strategy, and even really, a particular direction that you know, like I’ve charted out what I want to be doing 10 years from now, or five years from now, which is kind of why, you can see, I’ve changed positions to very different things a couple of times, and been fortunate to do that, but you know, I think early in my career, if I was asked to do, you know, to take a leadership role, whether it was, you know, an extension program or running a research project. Early in my career, I think, my first question that I would ask myself is, is it important, you know? Is it important to me, but also whatever organization I’m working with or for? I quickly modified that to be important and interesting, so you don’t get a lot of important things that you don’t really care about. And then, as I’ve told many of my, especially doctoral students recently, I’ve added to those two things that it should be fun. Of course, not everything we need is fun. Not all of the roles that we have are fun, but I’m at a point now where I can provide leadership and actually it is on important issues, and it is interesting, and it is fun. But I don’t have a really specific set of criteria that I would say I want to lead this and this way. You know, very much involved in things that I do lead, so rather than saying, I’m the leader of this, and here’s the 27 tasks that have to get done, and then just assigning those to people, that’s way more directive than I am. It’s like, let’s figure out as a group, how are we gonna begin to address this question or this challenge, and then we will modify it as a team as we go along. So, it’s, you know, I may be providing leadership for it, but it’s not kind of me steering the ship, and for the complex type of problems that I work on, both in the agricultural realm, but the broader food system, it has to be flexible. You have to be able to think about, like, what are the different pathways that we can follow here, and you don’t want to lock yourself into one, because you can’t— If you do that, you might come to a solution, so to speak, but it might not be the best solution, so, you know, recognizing when you need to change course, those are all things that, you know, those are all open as far as I’m concerned when I have, whether it’s a team of students, which I do a lot of, or you know, efforts that I’m involved in that are you know, academic colleagues, but also colleagues in government, colleagues in industry. It’s still about, you know, figuring out, are we still on the best course to be able to address whatever challenge or opportunity that we’re talking about?

I really want to circle back to what you’re saying, ’cause I think this is really important, so of course, part of the purpose of the Rural Futures Podcast is to talk with leaders and mavericks; people really trying to create a different future in their own unique way, and I think what you’re touching on, is the fact that leadership itself is changing, and all this have this sort of unique approach, but at the same time, you know, at the Rural Futures Institute, we talk about future-focused leadership, and you clearly have an element of that in what you’re doing, so being able to think about the scenarios is important, but at the same time realizing the path to get there has to be an open, flexible one, especially with these complex systems.

Yeah, and I think that’s exactly right, and I mean the experience that I bring to a lot of this is what I started with a few minutes ago which is that I was very early on, exposed to being, as a scientist, exposed to interdisciplinary research and problems, and when I came here it didn’t take long to realize that as an educational program here, you have these complex challenges within the food system, and to solve those, literally you need some people in the room that can think across the boundaries, all the way from agriculture to nutrition to health, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you want the whole room filled with people like that, but basically, that’s one of the roles that I play. But it’s very much also what we’re thinking about when we provide opportunities to our students in the classroom and out of the classrooms, is that many of them, they are going to play exactly that role, and they might be doing it in a company, they might be doing it in not profit, they could be doing it at USDA, or a state department of agriculture, but they can actually, you know, rather than saying my specialty is this, they have expertise in one or two areas, but they’re also able to see across these boundaries, and that’s, for me, that’s the fun part of what I do, and I’ve, you know, opportunities that I, even that I’m, you know, just initiating right now, they have that as a very, very identifiable feature, and it’s something that I’ve done a lot of for a long time, so it’s, you know, I’m taking advantage of the fact that I’ve been doing it for thirty something years. And it’s— The difference is that there is— I have a group of colleagues that are across the country, that are about at the same career stage as me, and we’re all, we found that we’re all doing that, but we all learned it by doing it. It was 30 years ago, 35 years ago there was very, very few mavericks out there that were thinking in that way.

Yeah, agreed.

Now it’s very different, to where we can actually incorporate that into how we work with students, how we do research. That’s what’s changed, and I just happened to be a person that was kind of ready to do that because of my background, because of the experiences I’ve had previously.

I think it goes back to you being a maverick, for the reasons we’re even here. You know, one of the reasons we’re even here, but it’s also about these relationships that you keep talking about. Yep. You know, one of our team members, Tracy Klein, is really one of the reasons we’re here, because of her relationship with you— Yep. And your wife. Yes. And this is really how things happen. Yeah. But I think, too, it makes me think about, as we’ve connected online and gotten to know each other better, why have Rural Futures Institute come and be part of the world of Tufts University?

Right, well, one of the reasons is exactly what you said, is, I think it’s important to build those relationships and have those conversations, and it’s, some of my experiences here, and the fact that I’m still connected to places like Nebraska, but I’m also connected to other rural areas.


I’m still connected to, you know, things going on in Maine, because we lived there for a long time, and I’m still connected to farms in Maine, in a very different way than I was, maybe earlier, but there’s, you know, there is this big set of challenges, and to think that the challenges that are faced, and the solutions are always totally different in rural environments, whether it’s in Nebraska or in Honduras, or whatever, anywhere in the world, are totally different and kind of mutually exclusive from the challenges in urban areas. I actually don’t believe that. There are differences, but there’s also similarities.

A lot of overlap.

Exactly, and you know, when you’re talking about the food system, there’s an obvious linkage, and that is that most, but not all of our food, is produced in rural areas, but most, but not all of our food is consumed in urban areas, so there’s a basis for what could be a lot of opportunities, or it could be a bit of a tension, right, of we’re just producing things and we’re sending it to cities and that’s one interpretation; I actually don’t buy into that one either. But if I’ve learned one thing, especially when I was early in my extension career is that there has to be at least a handful of people that care about it enough that they’re gonna enter into conversations repeatedly, knowing that, at the end of the one-hour meeting, you actually may have no idea where it’s going, and I’ve done that hundreds of times, and sometimes it’s like it doesn’t go anywhere, and again, not everybody’s gonna do that, because not everybody thinks that’s interesting or fun. I actually do, and some really interesting things have come out of it on the research side, on the education side. Some of the things I’ve done, you know, being involved in state level policies, national level policies, started with just, like, a random conversation with somebody that I met or somebody that was introduced to me, and with the Rural Futures Institute, of course I have a connection to Nebraska, and I have a connection to people on your campus.


For a long, long time, and so that, I was visiting, I’ve been visiting your campus off and on since I’d left Nebraska 30 years ago.

We appreciate that. Any engagement, you know, I think it’s so important.

So, you know that there, I was making those kinds of visits, and then you know, realizing that this was going on, and some of the things, some of the conversations we were having here, and when I met all of you, in person, a year ago this month, it was really obvious to me that this is the point we wanted to get to, is you know, having you all here, and at some point, we’re gonna reverse that.

That’s right.

And we’re gonna come there. And I think it’s you know, if nothing else, it’s just really a good example of, you do need to be able to have the conversations, and think about what are the things that we might be able to do in common that there’s no possible way that we could do individually, and it takes time and effort, but it also takes this. It takes people actually. It would be impossible to envision this on email.

So, Tim, you’ve talked a lot about the conversations, and getting conversations started, so tell us a little bit more about how you get to action, and take those challenges, and turn them into opportunities and solution.

Yeah, that’s a great question, and the conversations are important, and but they are really the starting point, so that, you know, for example, you and I talking, but the goal is: what is the common ground between our interests and then what are the things that we could do, and we may be thinking about trying to solve a particular problem or being an optimist, we could be thinking about what’s a particular opportunity that we could address together, that again, maybe has benefits kind of across the spectrum. So, I think that’s a piece of it, but our discussion earlier about, kind of conversations, is really to get that common ground identified, and then it is very much about what are maybe different and innovative ways that we can address those challenges or opportunities? And those are actions, and we’ve you know, thinking about, the involvement of students here is one of the things that we’re interested in. Sometimes it’s a very specific action, where they might work with a non-profit, maybe in the Boston area that has a very specific need that is around one of those challenges. So, when we talked yesterday to students, undergraduate students that were very interested in one, providing, you know, families that are struggling with, you know, complete meals, but then, how do you get there? And they got there by essentially establishing an organization themselves, and saying these are the three things and then like, here’s the infrastructure that we need. So, here’s the machine to wrap the meals. Like a meal wrapping machine which I had not heard of before. So, you know, they probably started with conversations, but they ended up with, it’s actually a program, and it’s actually delivering food to families in the Boston area that are struggling. So those are actions.

What I loved their food to recovery concept is that they got to action, but like you’re saying, they took ownership of it. Oh yes. You know, they knew nobody else, maybe was gonna step up to the plate, so when you talk about entrepreneurial students, and how they’re looking at the solutions, they took action, but they also pulled in a lot of other partners, and stakeholders that they were gonna work with, so it wasn’t just a solution they provided, but it was also co-created with end users and other collaborators in mind.

Yeah. And I’ve talked to, I mean this, the idea of who do you get as stakeholders? I’ve had many, many conversations with students here about not having preconceived notions about who should the stakeholders be in the room? That some of the really interesting things come when you get unconventional partners, that you know, in agriculture back decades ago when I was doing a lot of sustainable agriculture work, we didn’t draw lines between, like, we have a group that runs small, organic farms, and then we’re gonna talk to them about these things, but we’re gonna talk to larger, dairy farms about another set of things. We actually brought them into the room and said, you know, what’s the 87% of things that you actually agree on, and let’s start there. And then, what are actions that we can take? So, it is, it’s a critical piece, and I very much, you know, the conversations we’ve had about how does RFI work in communities, and what role do students play? It’s like, you go into the community, and you ask them what’s the challenge, and how do you think we can move forward? And that’s a pretty good analogy for a lot of what we do here. And sometimes it’s, you know, somebody emails me, or another faculty member, and says, “Can you be “on this committee?”; state level, national level, global. And you say yes, and then the idea is, what are we gonna get to? What’s the action we’re gonna take, and what do we think is gonna happen? They can be grand efforts that take three years of your time, or it could be, you know, a group of students who works with a non-profit, or with a government agency for a year, and they can move those opportunities down the road at least a ways, so conversations are the starting point and the goal is the action and what happens.

Yeah, that impact piece from it all, is so critical as well, and I think one of the other ways we’ve really connected is, you know, around students. Sure. Like the conversations around students, the importance around students, and I just, our whole team really just values the way you teach, and I mean, I think your sincere passion and wanting to see those students succeed, and really taking some novel approaches to getting them involved. I mean even having a student from York, Nebraska, here to be part of these conversations.

We’ve had quite a few students from Nebraska, so. Yeah, and that’s part of that connection, right? Yeah.

So, for them to be able to have an experience at Tufts and go take that back to Nebraska or go wherever with it is just so critical. So, you dive a little bit into your leadership philosophy around teaching and student experiences.

Yeah, I’ve told students that since I came here, I came here because of the students. I met a group of quite a few students when I came here to actually do my interview, my job talk, if you will, and then I got to talk to those students afterwards, as you’re going to talk to students after your seminar today, and realized that they had some really, really interesting perspectives. They didn’t, necessarily, they weren’t different than mine, because their experiences were different, but very committed to trying to do certain types of things, and very smart. We have, you know, really, really, super students here, and they are the reason I came here, and they’re, you know, the primary, or one of the primary reasons that I come in every day and you know, being able to bring some of my reality in the classroom is part of it, but I get a lot back from them. They do have different experiences. They’re, you know, uniformly younger than I am, so they have a different set of experiences, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. So, it is an interaction, and you know, there’s educational curriculum, but then there are other kinds of experiences and you know, even on the research side of we have a funded research project. We’ll find a couple of master’s students, and you know, a doctoral student, and that becomes the team for the project, and we’ve had students that have worked on, you know, specific projects, through a master’s degree and into a PhD for four or five years on one project, and there the thing that we’ve tried to do, is to again, not have it be where myself or someone else is saying okay, here’s your analytical task for the next week, and just go do that, and then bring it back next week. There’s a lot of complexity here, and we may not actually know how to get from point a to point b, and then it becomes all of us, and they’ve been really, really entrepreneurial about trying to figure out like, where do you get the right kind of data, and then how do you kind of check the quality of that data, and then how to use that data, and that’s step one. And then how do you do that again, and again, and again? We did this intentionally on some regional food system research where we just said they’re gonna be, they’re not gonna be our students, they’re gonna be our colleagues, and they have their contributions, and we have ours, as faculty and scientists.

That’s such a great model.

But they’re not ranked. They’re not, one is more important than the other. It’s that they’re different, and of course, they’re learning while they’re doing it, but so are we. Right, right. And the type of research I do now, I was not, I was doing zero percent of the type of work I do now when I was at USDA. So, all the work I do now is different in kind of form and function than it was when I was a faculty member, and when I was a USDA scientist, so I’m learning as I go, which I’ve done my entire life. It’s like, sure I’ll learn a new research area. I’ll learn how to measure greenhouse gases, whatever. So, they end up being, you know, key parts of our team that you couldn’t see how the team is gonna do the work unless you have their expertise, and if they weren’t involved, then you have like this blank, and it’s just not gonna happen, or it’s gonna be much, much slower.

In addition to, you know, thinking about urban and rural and those two worlds coming together more, which is one of the areas of the RFI purpose, is, you know, higher education itself is changing so much and I think the way that you’re approaching, just the team concept with students is so critical as we move forward, but how do you see the future of higher education evolving?

I think that there are, there’s certainly more places now than there were as we were talking about, 25, 30 years ago, where as a student, which could be a graduate student, but even an undergraduate student, that can be in that kind of environment, and be part of a team that’s looking across kind of a range of issues all at one time, that was, that would have been a very unique experience when I was in graduate school. I was lucky enough to actually experience it both at Nebraska and at Michigan State where I did my doctoral work, but I would say very much it was the exception, and not the rule. There are more opportunities like that, both you know, land grant agricultural universities, but even at you know, larger, private universities, and even small, private universities and Tufts is kind of in-between those two, because we do many things. You know, we have that school and a dental school and all of those, so we’re not just liberal arts campus. We’re a research university here, so those things are changing. They’re not changing uniformly across all institutions, and I mean, one of the things that you see, is a school like Friedman and a program like Agriculture, Food and Environment. We’ve had this program for almost 25 years and the school is now about 40 years old, but you’re seeing those kinds of efforts be initiated, and sometimes you look at them and you say, that seems like maybe an odd place for a program to like have to start. Even here, I mean that we’re right in downtown Boston right now, and you know, I talk about agriculture every day in my job. So, but partly that’s because we don’t have any kind of history that says we can’t do that, right?

Right, absolutely, you’re building it as you go.

Yeah and even, you know, we were talking yesterday about the involvement of law school and some law programs. Right. And many of those that are interested in agriculture, that are interested in the farm bill, things like that, are actually at private university law schools rather than public university law schools. And I don’t, I don’t see that, and I don’t bring it up as, well, that’s the way that it should be, or that’s right or that’s wrong, it’s just literally that’s the way it is, but part of it is the objectives of different institutions are different, so we’re seeing it a lot in private universities where there are programs that focus on broad issues around, particularly around the food system, and then there are food systems programs which kind of look at how is it all connected? We do those things, but also, you know, I’m a scientist, so we actually bring science into the program. That’s one of my roles here. Higher education is changing, but it’s always changed, and it’s not, maybe it’s changing in unexpected ways, and I expect that some institutions will continue some very, very disciplinary efforts, ’cause you need some people that are trained with a really, really deep expertise, but more of them, and in the private sector are realizing that you do need some that can think across those boundaries going back to where we started and that’s very much how we see ourselves here both as a school and as a program, and our students.

I mean we talk about it explicitly, rather than just kind of conceptualizing it. It’s like, what opportunities would you provide a student so that they can get good at being able to do that? So really providing opportunities but also taking that systems approach and reaching across and creating new partnerships because that’s how this is, and it’s how it will continue to go.


So, as we kind of wrap up here, I’d love to know your advice, you know. Like what words of wisdom is Tim willing to share with our audience?

Well, one is that, you know, if there’s a challenge or a grand challenge, there are more than one way, there is more than one way to address those, and I’ll give you a specific example around just the interface between agriculture and farming in the environment. For a long time, it even in my own kind of view of that, the way that we would look at that is, if there’s an environmental problem, what kind of government action could we take? Now maybe it’s the state of Nebraska, maybe it’s USDA, maybe it’s EPA, but that’s where it’s gonna start, and for a lot of those issues around environmental issues but also social issues around things like farm workers and how they’re treated, maybe at the current moment, maybe for the last five years, it’s hard to envision like, that there’s gonna be a grand change federal level— Right, right, absolutely. And what we’re seeing instead, is pressure from all the way from consumers that’s coming through the supply chain in the private sector saying, we think that this is important, and so farm workers would be one. Things like potentially labeling foods that contain genetically engineered products. We’re not there yet, although we’re starting to see it, but it’s not mandated by the government. It’s actually because the consumers at the other end of the supply chain are saying, “We want that ‘information.’”

That’s right.

And so, I guess my advice is that we need to think broadly about like, what is innovative and not have it set up at the very beginning as you know, if we solve this problem, I’m gonna win and you’re gonna lose. I think that we’ve used that approach too much, and we should be thinking about, what are ways that you know, for example, farmers benefit, but consumers also benefit, because a lot of times we say no they’re in tension with each other. I don’t know why that has to be. And if it’s a policy or a program, fine. If it’s the private sector mechanisms, fine. I’m pretty ambivalent about which it is, but I think we should be thinking about all of them, much more broadly than we have in the past.

I think it’s so great to point out that thinking about it, so it’s not win lose, but there’s a future of abundance for everyone if we can do this a little differently and have a different mindset moving forward. Oh, I agree completely.

Yes, and that’s very much the way that we again, not only think about it, but that’s how we talk about it, is you know, I bring up scenarios or prompts in class that are, you know, here’s the issue, and it’s been addressed in this win lose way and these five different stages. What’s a potential way to address this that the very first thing is that you do not set up a win lose? And it’s hard. And when you think about like, the entire food system, but it’s not impossible, it’s just taught.

But I think, you know a lot of times in our culture in the US, we’re, it’s like a competitive culture. Yeah. So, it’s like win lose, instead of what’s the overall win for everybody involved, and how do we create a new system to do that? And a new thinking, and a new leadership, future-focused leadership that it’s gonna take to make that happen?


Well thank you, Tim. That was very thoughtful information, but also very actionable.

Thank you.

So, I think I would challenge our listeners out there to really think about ways they can have a mindset shift as well, if they haven’t already. Like, how do we do this a little differently? Yep. How do we do it together? How do we do it together?

Right, because if this is gonna be a sustainable planet for everyone, we’re gonna have to do it that way.

That’s right.



Episode 3: Professor Tom Field intersects entrepreneurship, higher ed, purpose

June 19, 2018
      Tom Field, Ph.D., Director of the Engler Agribusiness and Entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, discusses his mission to empower students and communities to courageously pursue their purpose through the form and art of entrepreneurship. Throughout his …




Tom Field, Ph.D., Director of the Engler Agribusiness and Entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, discusses his mission to empower students and communities to courageously pursue their purpose through the form and art of entrepreneurship. Throughout his academic career this cowboy from western Colorado has spoken out about the needed transformation of higher education—a deep internal exploration that results in the unleashing of the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of the student. During their conversation, Dr. Connie and Dr. Field discuss the exploding side-gig economy, creating the next generation of action-oriented innovators and key takeaways for budding, starting and experienced entrepreneurs.


“The leader in the future will be responsible for attracting talent, and then for empowering that talent, getting out of the way of the talent, keeping the culture alive, keeping the team focused on the right ball that you’re chasing, but doing it all in a way that invites people to the table.“
Tom Field
Director, Nebraska Engler Entrepreneurship

About Tom


Tom Field, Ph.D., is a passionate advocate for education, agriculture, free enterprise, engaged citizenship and the potential of young people. He is also a noted agricultural author with works including his column “Out of the Box” and featured commentator of “The Entrepreneurial Minute” on the Angus Report on RFD-TV.

A frequent speaker at agricultural events in the U.S. and abroad, he has consulted with a number of agricultural enterprises and organizations, and has served on numerous boards related to education, agriculture and athletics. He is the co-owner of Field Land and Cattle Company, LLC, in Colorado. He and his wife Laura watch over a brood that includes a son in the Teach for America Program, twins who are seniors in college and toddler twins to round out the team.


Mentioned In The Show

Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

The Power of Moments by Dan and Chip Heath

The Dip, a little book that teaches you when to quit by Seth Godin


Show Notes

Hi, I’m Dr. Connie, host of the Rural Futures Podcast. Joining me today is Dr. Tom Field. He’s the executive director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, but he’s also an amazing colleague and close friend, and somebody I rely a lot on for advice. I think as we go through the interview today, you’re gonna know why. Tom, I want to give people a little background about you, but then I also want you to introduce yourself. Some of the things I admire about Tom and his bio is that he really puts students first. But not just in a traditional way in terms of lecturing. In fact, you’re anti-lecturing. (laughs) You are experience. Go out there and build something, and do it together. I think building these cohorts and these teams of very entrepreneurial students is something that you’ve really done with your team here at the University of Nebraska­–Lincoln, but also now, you can see the effects of that in businesses and communities beyond campus, which is very exciting. Tom also does a lot of consulting with companies in terms of helping them grow their businesses, but I loved too, how you focus on mindset with that. So much of it is about mindset and passion, and what you really bring to the table in terms of your talents. Fill in some gaps for us. Tell us a little bit more about Tom Field.

Well, I’m a son of a ranching family in western Colorado. As a little kid, I actually in the summers, we would go up into the high country. It was called Cal Camp, and I lived with my parents in a one-room cabin with no running water, no electricity, a wood-burning stove. From that sort of humble beginning, and which was actually a great experience as a kid, had the opportunity through so many people investing in a small community in western Colorado to see the world, and to experience a little bigger picture, and a different perspective. Eventually went off to university. Got a degree in animal sciences, but if I would go back and finish my practicums, my second degree would be in human development and family studies, with an emphasis in early childhood. Which is in my second life, maybe that’s what I’ll go do.

Now, why is that? Why would you pursue those fields?

Well, it’s sort of an interesting story. I took the first class at human development because I heard that there would be 80 women, and me. (laughing) And so that’s really a shallow reason, but when you’re 19, you make a lot of shallow decisions. I walk into this class and I encountered this fireball of a faculty member named Jill Kreitzer, and I did not walk into that class expecting to be transformed, but she changed my life. And then the entire faculty in that department, Kevin Ulchenbruns, and Janet Fritz, and Rex Colt. There was just a whole group of people that really invested in me and in helping me figure out that the human condition is not this static place. That there’s this developmental sequencing that goes on. It’s all this connecting the dots, right? I mean, Steve Jobs was right. Eventually, the dots connect. Being a cowboy and hanging out in this sort of child development, human development space, being really active in 4-H, having a deep interest in history, being wildly curious, having faculty who let me explore what I was interested in, and it all eventually connected to set me up. I didn’t know it was happening at the time, but it set me up to help grow the Engler program, and to create a program that’s focused on transforming the lives of students by putting them in command of their own ships from the minute they come to campus, and hopefully setting them up for the rest of their lives to actually be the master of their own destiny.

I think it takes a unique leader to be able to do that, and it sounds like you’ve had a lot of experiences that have helped shape you as a leader. And I know you’re also a dedicated family man, and really balancing that career, but also really, I would say, advancing society in many ways in the next generation. What does that need to look like going into the future? Tell us a little bit about you as a leader and your leadership philosophy.

Well, I think first and foremost, for me as a leader is that I rarely see myself as a leader. I see my team as a leadership group. Those who know me know that my love of hierarchy would be close to zero, if not negative. (laughing) I just think flat structure makes more sense. I mean, hierarchical approaches in ranching didn’t work because you had to be adaptive. I really learned a lot in the very chaotic ecosystem where things were changing all the time, and you had to work with a team. You had to work effectively and well. I’m a big fan of the team, and I think from a leadership perspective, the leader in the future will by and large, be responsible for attracting talent, and then for empowering that talent, getting out of the way of the talent. Keeping the culture alive, keeping the team focused on the right ball that you’re chasing, but to do it in a way that invites people to the table. I just can’t imagine an effective organization that operates without people around the table, and making decisions together, and then moving those things forward and assigning accountability. I think that’s the key to what we’ve been able to do. We’ve built the Engler program in six years from really scratch, up, because we’ve had a great team and people who were willing to engage, and then to be accountable, and to take big pieces of it and run with it. I’m also a big believer, if you’re a little further in your career it’s really critical to listen to younger talent. It’s hard to do because the older you get, the more you try to protect things, right? You start thinking, well I’ve gotta protect this. I’ve been working with companies and telling them, look, you gotta get the youngest voices in your team in the room and at the table. Certainly, experience matters, but you really have to be listening. We actually took it to heart in our own program. We just went through a really intense strategic planning process, and the person who led our team through the strategic planning process was the youngest member of our staff, 23 years old. And I’m very proud of that.

Well, and I think that’s a great thing to bring forward is that you really are about lifting people up. You’re about empowering them, getting them to where they’re able to lead not just the team, but themselves and get those experiences they’re needing and craving. I’ve seen a lot of that in the Engler program, and you’ve really helped the Rural Futures Institute think about that co-creation model a lot, as well. We’re not living in a vacuum. We’re not just in our offices. We’re all out trying to create the future together. Part of what we want to do with this podcast is explore the future of leadership, but also, how our leaders and people who are leading these types of incredible, cutting-edge programs, see the future changing. What do you see in terms, and it’s kind of a two-part question, I think for you, changes in entrepreneurship? Obviously, that’s where your program is focused, but also changes in higher education. How do you see the future sort of shaping in those areas?

Well, entrepreneurship I think, is this sort of two-edged kind of game. When we first started in this program, we thought our goal was really to build companies. We probably took too much ownership in that, because in fact, as mentors, and advisors, and facilitators and coaches, we can’t really build the company. The companies have to be built by individuals and teams who are really committed to the company. Over time, we figured out that really the key was, is our mission as a program was to empower people to courageously pursue their purpose through the form in art of entrepreneurship. And we thought that was a great way for people to actually let who they are bubble out, and to actually have a forum through which to express that deep sense of purpose.


I think that’s entrepreneurship in the future, and I also think the other thing that’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen very, very quickly. The new economy will be called the side gig economy. As robotics, and artificial intelligence, and too much process oftentimes, and the regulatory environment, all those things sort of press on people, what they’re gonna do is they’re just gonna get creative, and they’re gonna do side gigs. We’re gonna see people who are doing amazing things in teams for short periods of time creating value, being rewarded for that monetarily, or professionally, or personally, and then find another side gig. I think that’s the new economy. I’m not sure anybody’s really ready for that yet, because it’s going to be this kind of frontier-like deal. If the side gig economy is where we’re going, the institution least prepared for that is the university.

Well, and you’ve been pretty vocal about this. How do we, as a university, how do we as higher education evolve? Because the economy is evolving very quickly, and people aren’t quite ready, but we should have a place in this new economy and helping people in our rural communities, but also urban communities. Anyone who wants to be involved get there. Tell us your thoughts on that.

Well historically, America’s great unfair advantage in the global marketplace has been our university system. I mean, just take a look at how internationalized the American university is today. We’re attracting people from all over the world because they value what happens in the university. The challenge is, is that big organizations, old organizations with very clear histories, including fight songs, and certain colors they wear, and all those things, they get caught up in protecting what they’ve done. I think that’s where we’re at. We’re at this tipping point. Every institution in the world is going through this sort of transformational process. Whether it’s a family farm, or whether it’s a major corporation that’s traded in the international markets. There’s just transformation happening at every level. It’s just sweeping. The university’s challenge is, is how does it encumber itself from the processes and the structure it’s built actually become this nimble, agile, service-oriented, outward-focused organization? That’s gonna be difficult. The challenge will be, is how do we create that? We have to create it by unleashing the creative power of the faculty, but more importantly, the creative power of the student. A faculty-centric institution in the future just isn’t gonna work. And an administration-centric university, just start preparing to find a new use for those buildings ’cause that’s gonna fail. And so, I think the university has to go through this shift, and the shift is how do we help people prepare for a future that looks nothing like where we’ve been?

Tom, we’ve talked about the new economy and how things are happening so quickly. We don’t have 10 years to make these changes at the university, or even for individuals. What would you say to individuals who are sort of nervous about the future? We hear a lot of people having like, oh, these robots are gonna replace my job. What’s gonna happen to me? But what advice would you give to people around this changing economy?

Well I think two things. One, I heard an entrepreneur one time say, look, when there’s fear, there’s opportunity, and when there’s a lot of fear, there’s huge opportunity. I think we’re all a little fearful about the changes. Things are happening so fast. Whether it’s job replacement, whether it’s economic and political discord, it’s all those things, right? I think the reality is, is that if people really want to be the master and commander of the ship that they want to ride on, they have to take the helm. Taking the helm means actually lots of small starts. Try things. The name of the game is action. You cannot plan your way into the new economy. You act your way into the new economy. I would encourage people figure out problems that need solving. They don’t have to be big, sexy ones. They can be simple problems that just need a clear solution. Find markets that are underserved. Find resources that are not utilized correctly, and begin to just work in that space. The reality is, is the world is going to be different. Change is always present. For goodness sakes, I did my PhD work on a CYBER 205. A computer that today is in a museum, and that wasn’t that long ago. It’s action, and action is the key, and not being afraid of failure, and not being afraid to just start. It all begins with the start.

Well, and I think one we can’t totally anticipate. So, getting used to having that change, to creating your own jobs, your own gigs, whatever that might look like, I think is such an incredible challenge in so many ways, but such a great opportunity too, for people to use their talents and skills. But for the university, also to reinvent itself. I think thinking about ways it can serve people in the lifelong learning process is so important. Here at the University of Nebraska for example, we have 4-H, which we call the first class for a lot of people. But at the same time, we have the ability to help people in high school, in college, in graduate school, and through their lives. As that economy and the technologies continue to change, those communities are also ready, but that means we have to be listening. You’ve talked a lot about that, in terms of how do we add value to their lives? How do we continue to rethink ourselves in so many ways, and how we’re helping people learn, and grow, and really make a good living in a life wherever they want to be? That might be rural, it might be urban. That doesn’t matter as much as just really getting people the life they want, and really helping them thrive.

Yeah, I think a university that figures out how to create certainly a network of learning, but more importantly, a network of deep curiosity, and it connects that curiosity across ages and across all kinds of socioeconomic, what we might consider barriers.


To just slay those barriers by creating this network that allows curious people to go to work on things that they care about. To work on problems they care about, and markets they care about, customers they care about. Solutions will take care of themselves. It’s find the right problem to work on, and find the right customer to serve. I think we solve a lot of societal problems if we can unleash entrepreneurial spirit. We just have to find a way to let people work on the things they care about early enough to help them determine their own future. I’ve got this belief, and I think it’s dangerous to put there’s two kinds of people, but in the world of entrepreneurship, and those who come to entrepreneurship and stick and those who don’t, I think there are kind of two mindsets. One mindset is, is we’re waiting on the cavalry. That’s a problem because if we’re waiting on somebody come riding in to rescue us from whatever, right? From some hardship, we’re gonna be waiting a long time, and we oftentimes won’t like the fine print in the contract when somebody comes in and, hey, I’m gonna rescue you, but here’s what you owe me now. We become subservient to the system that has purported to rescue us. And then I think there are people who are, I’m not waiting. I’m getting in the boat, and I’m going. The Lewis and Clarks, right? They provision, they plan, but they get in the boat and they go up the Missouri with no knowledge of what’s coming at them. But they know the only way to find the future is just to get in that boat. I think that’s something we’ve gotta really work out in university, is what do we want to produce? Do we want to produce more folks waiting on the cavalry, or do we want to produce people who are willing to get in the boat? I think that’s a fundamental question for the institution.

Absolutely. For those people that are wanting to get in the boat, and they’re wanting to create their own future, what resources would you have to share with them?

Well, the first thing we do is with our freshman students is we give them permission to work on something interesting. From day one, we don’t give exams. Because I don’t even know what an exam in entrepreneurship would look like, right?

That’s a good question.

Come back with the biggest, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know what it would look like. We started that apparently at, I don’t even know how to do this. Let’s do something more interesting. Let’s do projects, and let’s get high immersion for students with minimal financial risk, ’cause we don’t want people to make $100,000 mistakes early because that’s devastating.


It’s hard to dig out from. But you can make a $50 mistake and learn an awful lot. We run a little program where we have students that are put together in teams, and they do a $50 startup. We give them $50, they start a company, they have 60 days to generate revenue, and we tell them, look, it’s gotta be legal and it needs to make your mother proud. If it meets those constraints, then you’re good, right? We’re not gonna constrain you any more than that. Let’s see what you do. What’s interesting is they will as a group, make all of the mistakes that most early-stage companies will make that are dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we’re only out with seven teams. It’s 350 bucks, and boy, have we learned a lot. Well, that’s powerful. We do crazy things like we have a little bucket when students will come into class and there’ll be a bucket of pencils and a bucket of red paper clips and we’ll say okay, pick one and sit down. They pick one or the other, and they’re kind of looking at it. They’re like, what is this guy up to now? We say to them, okay, here’s the deal. You have two weeks to trade that item for as much value as you can create. Trade it for something, trade again. We want you to make as many trades as you can. What’s interesting is in two weeks’ time, just in the sort of negotiation, and trading, and bartering world, we had students who traded red paper clips that eventually ended up with these really high-end gas grill barbecue deals, and Vera Bradley handbags, and it was amazing, right? What’s the value of that? The value is, is they’re having to make a cold call. They hate it, and they all talk about, oh, those first three, like will you trade me? It was so hard, and it was painful, but I did it, right? And then the negotiation, and understanding value, and knowing when they got to a value that they were willing to stick with. This one kid, he said, I got this super cool baseball cap. I really didn’t want to trade for anything else. (laughs) This is the value I wanted. I really wanted that cap. Well, that’s pretty cool. That’s a very different experience than memorizing a bunch of stuff.

Absolutely, and getting what you want. Asking for it, and being okay to go for it. Right. Such an important part of entrepreneurship. But I do see you brought a book. Do you have any resources you want to share with our listeners?

Yeah, so I mean, if you go to our website, engler.unl.edu, click on the resources page, lots of the books that we think are valuable, but one that I just really love is “Essentialism.” The subtitle is The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Here’s the challenge we have. We’re in a yes culture, right? And it doesn’t matter if you’re an educator, if you’re a church, if you’re a business that sells a manufactured good, if you’re a business that does consulting. Human beings, we are in a yes culture, right? Let’s pile more on our plate, never take anything off. The do more with less, but don’t stop doing anything. Well, that’s not sustainable. Eventually, that just tears you up. Greg McKeown has this notion that we can actually narrow down and focus on those things that actually have impact. The big rocks. Focus on the things that matter the most. And certainly, in entrepreneurship, there are key things to spend your time and energy on at various stages of the process, and things that you shouldn’t be focused on at all at certain stages of the process, right? Oftentimes, entrepreneurs, they want to build something really quickly, right? But they haven’t asked their customer.

But I’m glad that’s what you’re teaching your students. Where do you really focus first? How do you start building?

And that’s what essentialism does for you, right? It gets you to focus in the right places. We love everything that Seth Godin writes. “The Dip” in particular. Knowing when to quit. This is very antithetical to Midwestern values. Yeah, right. Right. But there are things that we literally should quit. We need to stop doing them because they don’t add any value, or we’re never gonna be very good at them, right? I quit playing competitive basketball a long time ago because I was never going to be a very good basketball player, right? I like basketball, but it wasn’t gonna be my future, right? So, spending tons of time on that would’ve been silly. Dan and Chip Heath. They’ve got a number of great books. “Made to Stick.” But they have a new one called “Moments,” and it’s all about this sort of reality that what we provide for our customers, whether we’re educators, whether we’re business people, whether we’re in the nonprofit sector, quite frankly, if we’re parents, is the power of what we create for our customer is moments. Memorable experiences that shape the way the person sees the world. I would be willing to bet that most people when they’ve been given things that gave them moments, they remember them, but they probably cannot remember the stuff that they got in their Christmas stocking three years ago.

Well, and I think as leaders too, how we create moments even in our culture, how do we build that type of culture so our employees want to be engaged and stay, and they also want to do great work, and we’re empowering them to do that? Appreciate your time and all your insights today, Tom. We could talk forever. (laughs) I know that we do. We do. But could you give us your website again, and let us know where people can find you?

You bet, feel free to contact me directly at tfield2@unl.edu. And you can find our great stories of wonderful young entrepreneurs at engler.unl.edu. And we would love to engage with people listening to this. We are coachable, and we need your help, and we love to meet you at the intersection of good ideas.

Great, thank you so much, Tom.




Episode 2: Microsoft GM Shelley McKinley intersects fourth industrial revolution, inclusive leadership

June 12, 2018
        Shelley McKinley, Microsoft General Manager of Technology and Corporate Responsibility, discusses the company’s mission, goals and projects around diversity and inclusion as well as rural broadband connectivity. She and Dr. Connie challenge listeners to think beyond …





Shelley McKinley, Microsoft General Manager of Technology and Corporate Responsibility, discusses the company’s mission, goals and projects around diversity and inclusion as well as rural broadband connectivity. She and Dr. Connie challenge listeners to think beyond current technology to the potential solutions and opportunities of artificial intelligence and how it can impact healthcare, the environment and community development in the future. Shelley also offers leadership advice that she has learned from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.


“It’s all of these advances in technology, like Artificial Intelligence, that are allowing us to take big data sets and use machine learning and computing on them in order to develop insights and take intelligent action—things that we couldn’t perceive before as humans. But it’s when you combine humans and Artificial Intelligence that you get the best results.“
Shelley McKinley
Microsoft General Manager of Technology & Corporate Responsibility

About Shelley


Shelley McKinley is the General Manager of Technology & Corporate Responsibility at Microsoft, responsible for helping the company reach its goal of eliminating the broadband gap, as well as focusing on diversity and environmental sustainability. She has worked at Microsoft for 13 years, serving in international roles and leading diverse teams from around the world. She is an attorney by trade and a personal advocate of diversity and inclusion, with a special interest in STEM education for girls.


Show Notes

Hi and welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. Today it is my pleasure to introduce Shelley McKinley, General Manager of Technology and Corporate Responsibility with Microsoft. Welcome to the show, Shelley.

Thank you so much for having me.

We are super excited to have you here and you know, this is the first time we’ve physically met and so I think this speaks to the power of online relationships and communication. But before we dive into what you do at Microsoft, we’d love to just know a little bit more about you. So tell us who you are. Who is Shelley McKinley?

All right, I was born in Missouri in Kansas City and stayed there until I was about five years old and then I moved to Texas with my parents and I grew up in the Dallas area and I spent many, many summers back and forth between Kansas City and Dallas. I stayed in Texas until I was about 21 years old after I finished my undergraduate degree and then started moving west. After that I spent about a year in Idaho as a ski bum before moving to the Seattle area to go to law school and then on to Europe a couple of times and working in Seattle most of my adult life.

So tell us a little bit about what Microsoft is doing, you know, we’ve known about the Rural Airband Initiative.

One of the parts of the roles that I have at Microsoft is I work on environmental sustainability issues as well as rural broadband issues, accessibility issues, for people with disabilities and human rights issues, all fall under our umbrella of corporate social responsibility. And that is not all the corporate social responsibility work that we do, that’s the part I work on directly. I have many colleagues that also do many other things that are related.

I’d like to dive into a little bit about yourself as a leader. I want to read this ’cause I thought this was a really cool piece of just information that I learned about you. So the group that you’re leading, the Technology and Corporate Responsibility group delivers on Microsoft’s mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more by ensuring that the opportunities of technology are available to all and used to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. That’s huge. That’s a huge mission statement and a big undertaking as a leader. So tell us a bit about your leadership style and philosophy to accomplish that mission.

Sure, well we have a great thing about Microsoft is we’ve had a brand new CEO about three years ago, a guy named Satya Nadella and it was a huge change for us, a huge cultural change for us. One of the great things Satya’s done is really kind of think about what are the principles of leadership, what are the things that make people successful leaders? I really enjoy his way of thinking about it which is generating energy, creating clarity and delivering results. Now every leader is gonna have strengths in different parts of that and weaknesses in different parts of that and so what I think my strength is really around creating energy. I’m a very energetic person. I’m very passionate about what I do and I think by doing that you can certainly bring your team along and you have to be able to bring your team along. You have to be able to articulate a vision and you have to set goals and you have to hold people accountable to them but if you’re not passionate about what you do, at least for me, then it wouldn’t work for me.That’s my strength. Creating clarity, that’s that clarity in vision. What am I supposed to do? What are we all reaching for? How can we have a common mission that really unites us as a team? And you’d think with the different things that I oversee, we have people doing a lot of different things and so having people really focused on what that core mission is, even though I may be doing accessibility or I may be doing environmental sustainability, which can seem very, very different things, we’re all very focused on this mission of empowering everyone around the planet. These things are very, very interrelated. So from a leadership perspective, I would just say I think you need to constantly be looking at what is my strength, what is my weakness. How do I do the best I can in my strengths and how do I certainly improve on my weaknesses and so always learning and improving and listening to others is incredibly important. I’m relatively new in this job. I’ve been at Microsoft for 12 years so I know the company relatively well. This job I’ve been in say eight months to a year so it’s something I’ve been able to learn a lot about and what I found is you have really smart people working for you. Listen to them.


So important because we don’t always do a good job of that, right?

We don’t. Listen to them, understand what they’re thinking about. What you will find is if you are open to hearing what other people have to say and to not being immediately set on the path that you think is the right one, you might learn something and you always will learn something. I found surrounding myself with other people who are as passionate and creative has always been the best way to success.

I know as a leader too, you are very inclusive and your team is very diverse.

It’s something I’ve learned over time. Before starting this job, I was in Europe with Microsoft for five years and I had the opportunity to work with people around the region and we covered 50 different countries which is a little more than Europe but according to Microsoft sales territory, that was included in the European sales territory and that included Mongolia.So that was part of my territory as well.

Wow, that’s cool.

But we didn’t have people in every country but I dealt with people that spoke different languages, that had different cultural points of view every day so everything was quite enriched by these different points of view and you can learn a lot. When I came back to the US, to Microsoft’s headquarters, I thought, “Huh, I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna get a “team full of regular Americans.” What I found, to my delight, was that in fact, when I came back I started working with a team that had people from all different cultures. I have a team, accessibility team, which I have I think four people who have visual impairments that work for me. Our Chief Accessibility Officer is deaf. She can read lips fantastically which is always, I’m always like whoa. I always forget she’s deaf and I’ll do things like we’ll go into the ladies room and I’ll keep talking to her when we go into separate stalls, then I’m like, “Oh Jenny, wait you couldn’t hear me, could you?” She’s like, “I thought you were talking to me.” But you know, she couldn’t hear. So you learn so many things from people like that. One of the kind of crazy things, the questions people ask were, “How do you say hello to a blind person?”


And Jenny says, “You say hello, number one, “number two, you ask.”So I learned I need to kind of announce myself when I’m coming down the hall and say, “Hi Ann, I’m on your right.” And then of course after she saw me several times, she knew who I was from my voice. Then when we have morale events, how do we make sure that they’re accessible for everyone? Research has shown that diversity, in the beginning, can make teams start a little bit slower as they get used to each other but very quickly, diverse teams achieve much, much more than non diverse teams. So working at a place that is diverse and inclusive is really one thing that I will not compromise on.

Could you speak a little bit about some of the advanced hiring practices Microsoft is really developing and I would say, leading in so many ways?

We have a couple of things that we do. We’re very focused certainly on racial diversity

and bringing in minorities. We are also incredibly focused on bringing people of all kinds of different skill sets. So I think we have to make sure that we focus on underrepresented minorities and we also expand our horizons as to what does diversity actually mean. Gender diversity clearly is one key thing. Bringing in people with different kinds of abilities. As a company our success depends on our ability to serve our customers. If we don’t reflect what our customers are, then how can we actually adequately serve them? We have a program that we recently started called the Autism Hiring Program and we were featured on the news recently, you may have seen that.

Yes, absolutely. So incredibly amazing what you’re doing.

What we do is how do we figure out how to make the best possible interview experience for a person who maybe doesn’t do well in the standard interview experience and so in that example, we bring people on campus basically for a week, who can work and show us their skills instead of having that one hour pressure cooker interview with a bunch of questions, a person with Autism generally is not going to love that type of interview and may not shine to their fullest potential. So when you bring them for these alternative types of interviews, you’re not sacrificing on quality at all but what you’re doing is giving that person opportunity to demonstrate their skills and your team will be so much richer for it.

I love how you’re expanding that definition of what it means to be diverse and inclusive but then also changing your culture, your practices, the strategies to make that actually happen rather than just giving it lip service and then not exploring, well what does that mean and how do we change as an organization to make sure this really happens and not just in a way to say we’re doing it but in a way to really make people thrive in that environment, which also of course, helps Microsoft, right? So if they’re doing well and if they’re highly engaged, Microsoft does better but also it is that representation of your customer base. So how do we better serve customers through our team but also knowing what our customer’s needs and wants are in a very quaint way, in a very cohesive way that increases that level of understanding? So how do you see, to recap leadership a little bit, how do you see leadership evolving in the future?

I think leadership is going to depend more and more and more on diversity inclusion. You cannot have leaders who aren’t diverse and inclusive who are really bringing everyone else along. I think that what we’ll see is technology leadership. The good news for people who don’t study engineering is that everything is going to continue to need the humanities behind it.

Oh dive into that.Tell me what you mean by that.


So everyone can breathe a collective sigh of relief. You can still study law, you can still study economics, you can still study social sciences. Because as things such as Artificial Intelligence really get traction we’ll have machines that are making decisions, right? So how do we make sure those machines make a decision in an ethical way? When you’re an engineer and you look at a problem, we like to say, you know, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


So when you’re an engineer, you’re probably just trying to get to the most efficient way to get it done, right, and so ensuring that not only engineers understand humanity and social sciences but making sure we have people in the technology industry that while they may love technology, they aren’t engineers themselves, they have a skill set in the liberal arts so they can bring to the picture to ensure that we develop using ethical principles but that’s built in from the start. Everything we do really has that sense of ethics and values built into it so we understand how does an algorithm work? How do we get from where we were to where we are in an intentional way. Not just in an engineering way that gets you to the most efficiency immediately.

At the Rural Futures Institute, that’s really what we’ve been exploring but I think what is missing from that conversation is exactly what you’re talking about. Humanity will continue to change and evolved over time regardless of technology but at the same time, it’s this interaction and what new jobs or careers or businesses will be created in this next generation economy that we see evolving. What does it mean to be both high tech and high touch in that economy so that the world does have technology and it’s used in these really thoughtful intentional ways like even, earlier today, talking about is it possible to use AI in rural development or community development in different ways? How do we take this concept and help scale what we do or make it more sustainable or even more impactful by leveraging technology rather than having every community sort of bootstrap itself and do its own thing? What understanding can we develop not only locally but globally around this? At our Institute we’ve been working with the Japan society. Japan’s very interested in this. India is very interest in this. So I think there’s real opportunities for rural in this space but at the same time, it’s also rural and urban. How do we bring these worlds together in a positive way?

Well I think we have that opportunity today more than we’ve ever had before. In every previous industrial revolution we’ve had, jobs have been lost and new higher paying jobs have been created. It hasn’t always been an easy situation. I think we have the opportunity in this revolution, this fourth industrial revolution that we call it to really be thoughtful about it and sure that what we’re doing, we’re reskilling people. We’re developing really quickly. The technology is just really changing things at just a breathtaking speed.


So how are we going to ensure that people have the digital skills they need to get these new, better, high paying jobs? When you think about, just go back to 1905 when you had, New York City was fueled by horses, literally by horsepower. Really not that long ago, it wasn’t that long ago. And then over 20 years, those horses were replaced with motorized vehicles. There were entire industries at that time that were built on maintaining those horses, feeding them, cleaning up after them, creating parking spots for the horse carriages and in 20 years, that was all gone and those people had to transition. We’re gonna have that same thing now where we have people who are in jobs today that are no longer going to be around but our ability to navigate this successfully and create new jobs and retrain people to take those new jobs is going to be critical to landing this industrial revolution in a way that’s much better than we’ve done in the past. So when you think about rural and urban today we have the internet that connects us all. At least that connects us who have access to internet and broadband and we know we’re facing a huge challenge in rural America on internet access and really on broadband access. I mean, most places you can still get somewhat of a signal. Not everywhere but you don’t want to sit there while your data downloads at just an excruciating rate. That’s not really internet. You have broadband speeds everywhere so as we get more broadband those rural and urban divides can be bridged. If you’re a kid, how do you access your homework if you don’t have access to the internet? It’s actually mind blowing for people who live in areas with good internet access. How would I actually do that? You can’t make a room more nervous today than if you turned off the Wi-Fi in the room and people couldn’t access their devices.

That’s absolutely true.We tried that with my nieces before. It’s like they went through withdrawal, just setting their phones over on the counter. But like you said, they’re learning through that. They’re living essentially through access in some way, shape or form and it’s not all just entertainment. It’s really advancing people’s lives through that technology.

Entertainment is great.

It is, absolutely.

We know that, I mean who doesn’t want to put a movie on for that kid while you’re driving across country. Now there’s no doubt, it’s a necessity of life. But when you think about advances in telemedicine, advances in agriculture, advances in, you name it, education, small businesses. Imagine not being able to pay your bills online. A small business not being able to access their accounting software. All of those things, if you don’t have broadband access in communities, how can you actually take advantage of the opportunities that the new fourth industrial revolution brings, you can’t. That’s something that’s critical that we are very focused on is getting access to these areas. Telemedicine I think is a great one too.

Oh absolutely, huge.

I think a disproportionate number of our veterans live in areas that don’t have great access, they’re also a community that really need access to good medicine and when you have to drive for hours to get to the next hospital, I remember when my grandmother, until she died a few years ago still lived in rural Missouri. So we had to drive her from Gravois Mills to Jefferson City to get to the hospital or to Columbia to get to one of her doctors and that was a good hour and a half drive. Now she drove until she was 91.

Wow good for her.

She didn’t like driving up to Columbia but when we would go visit her, my Dad was up there a lot and would drive her into town. Imagine if you could do that over the internet, over the phone. You could avoid a lot of your trips you make every year and you could have better access to more frequent and consistent healthcare. So these are huge issues that can be tackled with the internet and underpinning that isn’t just, it doesn’t just happen when you have the internet. It’s all of these advances in technology that are really, like Artificial Intelligence that are allowing us to take big data sets and use machine learning and computing on them in order to develop insights and take intelligent action, things that we couldn’t perceive before as humans. But it’s important back to that point that we talked to before is that when you combine humans and Artificial Intelligence, you get the best results. There’s a number of studies out on X-rays. How does a person look at an X-ray and interpret the results. When a human does it alone, I’m making up these statistics, let’s call it 10% error rate, when a machine does it, there’s a 5% error rate. When you put the two together, you end up with like an almost 0% error rate. So it’s important to think that yes, there will be machines that will help us augment human capabilities, that can help us do what we do in a much better way but we won’t be replaced by machines.

That’s right.

There will be certain things that get replaced by what machines can do better than we can do but you always have to have that person in the mix.

I think that’s such an important message for people to really think about and hear because I do think there’s sort of this alarmist futurist sort of approach to oh someday we’ll be, you know, singularity is gonna happen and we’re all gonna be like a robot or something but I don’t think we’re that close to it.


I’m not really worried about that right now. I think it’s more so like how does this continue to evolve and how do we get more people connected and in a way that helps them really advance their lives, just like you’re talking about. One of the questions we’ve been really focused on lately at the Rural Futures Institute is why rural and why now. I mean, so many people think it’s just a choice to live in rural, which in many ways it is but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s really quite complex and you know, the election

brought forward a lot of thoughts and feelings around this rural urban divide which we’d really see as more of an opportunity for our continued globalized world to grow together because in our rural areas we do produce a lot of the food that is consumed in urban, for example. We need those wide open green spaces as well for environmental sustainability so there’s a lot of issues around it but tell us what you think about why rural, why now and why is Microsoft really thoughtfully trying to help people get connected?

Well I think why rural, why now, there is so much focus on it right now. Grab it while we’ve got it. I mean, really it’s one of the issues of the time. We need to do something now while we have a lot of support behind it. I mean, a lot of people are investing in rural issues right now so I think you should absolutely take advantage of that 2016 election where a lot of those issues were forefront where we realized there’s a significant number of people living in America who felt they weren’t being heard.


And so now, we’ve got a lot of focus. Let’s leverage it while we can, for sure. I think companies like Microsoft, why do we operate in those areas, Microsoft has a long, long history of being local. We sell around the world in the same way that we think our technology has to reflect our audience, really our employees in some ways, very much reflect the world. Now we haven’t always been this invested in rural areas as we are today. We’ve invested in many areas around the world but we’ve made a concerted effort in the last few years to really think about how can we better serve people in rural communities and it’s core to our mission. Our mission is to empower every person on the planet to achieve more and that means whether you live in an urban area or you live in a rural area, we want to help you achieve more. And it’s not just about being philanthropic. This is good for our business. What I didn’t mention before on the diversity topic is our employees expect this of us. Our employees demand these kind of things of us. It’s actually good for the stock price.

It absolutely is.

Our employees are our biggest asset and I’m telling you they are a very passionate bunch of people and so no matter what happens in the news, you can imagine that my inbox gets hit with all kinds of ideas and requests for what we could be doing and so when we think this helps us attract and retain good people, you think purely from a Microsoft interest, beyond just our mission, our ability to execute our mission is dependent on us addressing these issues. So for a long time we worked in communities around the world because we’ve had sales teams and communities around the world. In the last couple of years, it’s been really a focus. We have a program called TechSpark.

Yes, tell us about that.

We invested in six communities. We have put an employee there who is from the community. So we didn’t put them there, we actually hired them from there and they’ve stayed there and so they work with the community to understand what do they need in the areas of digital transformation, education, connectivity, all of these different things that we work on in many, many ways around the world and really making that super local and understanding what the local community needs. We can build these models and think about how we can engage and we can scale things like that. Now right now we’re focused on six communities. So everybody always asks the question, “How do you come to my community?”

Right, right.

I don’t have an answer for that today but what I will say is that we know that when we invest in a community, we can make a pretty big difference in that community, much more than we can in say other areas when we invest in a smaller community and it’s fantastic to see the changes that can be made there.

I appreciate that local model but with the global implications and the global connectivity but really, having somebody in place there that knows that community is assessing those needs but also it’s good for the community and good for the business and I think that’s, you know as we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit more, I so appreciate you bringing that forward. It’s not just about giving. That’s not really what the corporate responsibility piece is. It’s partly that but it’s also about Microsoft doing well so it’s really creating that win-win for the social responsibility aspect, the environment, the people but also the company and it makes it a sustainable model in the long run and a growth model for everybody involved. I think it takes unique leadership and culture to be able to do that but I also think it’s a model, you’ve talked a lot about this, moving forward that more companies even universities are gonna have to start embracing in a richer, more dynamic way. How do we make this a win for everybody involved and how do you lead that? What does that look like as a leader?

If you don’t make models that are sustainable, it’s a flash in the pan of 2016, 2018 and then it all kind of goes away. You have to make sure that you’re really thinking about these things from a long term perspective. Grabbing the zeitgeist while we’ve got it and really making it work from a long term perspective and that’s why we’re so focused on actually being really local versus having such centralized operations.

So Shelley, what would your personal vision be for this rural urban dynamic and the use of technology and what would that be for you, like what would you love to see happen in the next five years?

I would love to see that if people want to stay in rural communities, they can stay in rural communities and have good high paying jobs. There have been a number of communities around the country that have developed into these sort of centers for technology people who can work remotely. That’s a great thing.


And if you can make the diversity of work in different areas, work from home, work remotely, enable all of that via this technology, it’s actually in some ways quite simple once you get used to it because it really is just a, in some ways, just a telecommunications to start with but people are so used to being in their office all the time. So you think oh if I’ve got a big high paying job in Omaha, I can’t actually do that job from another place in Nebraska because I have to be in my chair at the office but if we can really start getting a culture around people working remotely, taking advantage of technology, then we can enable people to have good, high paying jobs and they can live where they want to live and these communities can flourish. Some of the products we’re doing, I’m really hoping that we can get to really see some progress in those areas over the next five years.

I appreciate how you’re saying, “Good, high paying jobs.” I mean, it’s not something where it’s just barely scraping by. The vision is bigger than that and the possibilities are bigger than that.


I’d love to know and our listeners would love to know what are some practical pieces of advice that you could give them as leaders, as entrepreneurs, as people doing amazing things in their world.

I think the time is now as we’ve established. Really the time is now for a lot of these issues. Technology, we are really on the brink of this fourth industrial revolution. We need to take action now and I think our students are so great at that. They have, in some ways, such a blank slate. No idea is a dumb idea. Now I think when they get into the workforce, it is a challenge thinking oh I don’t really know anything, I haven’t had years and years of experience but what I find is when I talk to our youngest members of Microsoft or people who have started a new career, that’s also another great one, they have such a fresh perspective. We need that fresh perspective to advance so don’t be shy.

Okay but before we wrap up, I have to dive into something you said there. You said, “starting a new career.” So tell me more about that.

Super important and the thing that’s really cool is when I think about what our kids are doing today and they switch platforms left and right, whereas when we were in school, if you got a new update to your Windows, you thought, oh my gosh how am I gonna use this? Our kids are so flexible now.


So I’m not as worried about later like our kids being able to change careers.

We’re very natural, right.

People in our generation need to do and we’ve gotta help people who are, when you think about technology advancing, we need to make sure people aren’t left behind and that today really means about people starting new careers and if you are hiring someone, be open to someone who has changed careers. Understand that they’ve got years of experience behind that, that could also be something really important for what you want to do. So when you look at a resume of someone who’s maybe had a gap in employment for whatever reason, understand that they actually have years of experience that they can bring to bear to start something new. Be open to those kind of opportunities. If I did something, if I was a truck driver and I was replaced by automated vehicles, that person’s gonna have to look for a new job. They maybe acquired some more skills and so as a hiring manager, I need to be open to hiring not just the person who has exactly the right skills and experience but a person who has a perspective that I don’t have today. One of the things I forgot to say earlier that I had on my mind and forgot about it was one of the most important lessons I learned as a manager was from someone who gave me an anonymous piece of feedback and we have a tool for it and said you know, “Shelley is very focused on diversity and all these things but she tends to hire people who are just like her in terms of extrovert versus introvert.”

Oh interesting.

It was an aspect of diversity that I had not thought about. I thought, I mean like I love this person, they’re so enthusiastic and they’re bubbly and they’re amazing and then I would go for that candidate versus like maybe someone who’s a bit more reserved. I looked across my leadership team and I thought, wow. I had one person one time on my leadership team who was an introvert and I was like, I really hope that he’s the one that gave me that feedback but I thought, you know what? He’s absolutely right. I’ve unintentionally hired people who are like me. So it’s something to be, it was a great learning experience for me, it’s something to be really, really aware of as you’re thinking about the teams you build and you work with and you’re thinking about how the discussions we’re having need to be built and formulated. Unconscious bias is something we talk about. It’s just how it’s been named but everyone has it.

Thank you, Shelley and thank you all for joining us at the Rural Futures podcast. Here’s to creating your best future.

Thanks for listening to Rural Futures with Dr. Connie. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at Rural Futures and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss an episode. Next up, we talk higher education for entrepreneurship with Dr. Tom Field. Dr. Field is innovating education within the University of Nebraska, Engler Agribusiness and Entrepreneurship program.

A new economy will be called the side gig economy as robotics and Artificial Intelligence and too much process oftentimes and regulatory environment, all those things sort of press on people. What they’re gonna do is they’re just gonna get creative and they’re gonna do side gigs and if the side gig economy is where we’re going, the institution least prepared for that is the university.



Episode 1: Higher ed tech futurist Bryan Alexander intersects leadership, connectivity, globalization

June 12, 2018
         Bryan Alexander is a futurist focused on how technology transforms education, specifically higher education. In this episode Bryan, who is homesteader in rural Vermont, describes megatrends, such as globalization, that are impacting societal and business sectors …





Bryan Alexander is a futurist focused on how technology transforms education, specifically higher education. In this episode Bryan, who is homesteader in rural Vermont, describes megatrends, such as globalization, that are impacting societal and business sectors as well as several scenarios for the future of higher ed. He and Dr. Connie ask listeners to consider not only what they need, but what they want for the future of our country in terms of education, healthcare and rural areas. In his words of wisdom, Bryan encourages practice of visualizing a future that is not based on the present or immediate past.


“For me a futurist is somebody who helps people think about the future more strategically and with greater imagination. And this matters because, well we’re all heading into the future, but also it matters because I think it’s very difficult for us to really think about ways the future can be different, especially in ways that are practical and matter to our lives or families, and our jobs, and our immediate political world. So, I think futurists are really essential guides to living in the near, medium, and far future.“
Bryan Alexander
Higher Education Futurist

About Bryan


Bryan Alexander is an internationally known futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education.

He is the founder of the Future of Education Observatory, a writing and media production hub, and of Bryan Alexander Consulting, LLC, through which he consults throughout higher education in the United States and the world. Before BAC Bryan taught literature, writing, multimedia, and information technology studies at Centenary College of Louisiana, then worked with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), a non-profit working to help small colleges and universities best integrate digital technologies. He completed his English language and literature PhD at the University of Michigan in 1997, with a dissertation on doppelgangers in Romantic-era fiction and poetry.

Latest Articles

Here’s How Higher Education Dies
The Atlantic
June 5, 2018

How to Be an Ed Tech Futurist
Campus Technology
January 25, 2018


Show Notes

Hi, and welcome to the Rural Futures podcast. This is Dr. Connie, your host, and joining me today in our conversation is Bryan Alexander. Bryan is a futurist specializing in how higher education and technology are changing. He writes, speaks, and consults widely, while living in Vermont. Bryan, that’s a little bit about you, tell our audience a little bit more about you, give them a snapshot of Bryan Alexander.

Well, greetings, and thank you very much for having me here, I really appreciate it. I’m coming to this rural podcast from rural Vermont. We live on top of one of the Green Mountains, about half off the grid, and we have a very, very deep connection to rural life. As homesteaders we have raised goats, chickens, turkeys, all kinds of animals. We heat entirely by firewood,  most of which we log ourselves. Meanwhile, at the same time, we have a thin and dodgy internet connection through which I do most of my work, we have a Tesla Powerwall to backup when the electricity fails. We try in short to bridge the 19th and the 21st centuries at the same time.

I think that’s such a perfect spot in which a futurist and his family lives and creates an amazing life combining that sustainability and what you love, with building the future at the same time. Okay so Bryan, you are a futurist, and I know people on the show know I’m a futurist, but I think for them to understand what a futurist is and the value it brings would be amazing, so tell us, what is a futurist? And why is a futurist so valuable in this day and age?

For me a futurist is somebody who helps people think about the future more strategically and with greater imagination. And this matters because, well we’re all heading into the future, but also it matters because I think it’s very difficult for us to really think about ways the future can be different, especially in ways that are practical and matter to our lives or families, and our jobs, and our immediate political world. So, I think futurists are really essential guides to living in the near, medium, and far future.

I love that, essential guides, I think that’s such a strong and powerful statement about what futurists bring to the table. Now you have a specialty around education technology, so tell our audience a little bit more about what you do in that sphere of futuring.

Sure, well the sphere is the future of education, that’s primarily higher education, although I do work in K12 as well as corporate learning, and also informal learning, and I have a strong emphasis on technology. That’s where I think an awful lot of changes are happening, and there’s a great deal of potential right there to do this work. I do a lot of consulting, so I travel to places, I do this online, I do research on spec, I do a lot of speeches, and workshops, mostly in the US but also in Europe and east Asia. I make a lot of stuff, I make books, I write articles, I do a weekly video conference discussion about the future of education. I have a podcast about ready to launch, I interview people, I am interviewed, so I like to make, I guess instead of stuff I should say media, of all kind.

And you have a prolific website, a prolific online presence, and you’re doing that all from a rural community, which of course at the Rural Futures Institute we appreciate, and would love to see your connectivity expanded just to continue to support this endeavor.

Yes, well, as part of my work I travel a great deal, so that gives me exposure to a wide range of internet connectivity. So just last week I was driving across the midwest and northeast, had to pull over at a rest stop to do a video conference, so I ended up propping up my phone in one corner of a semi-abandoned Burger King, and my laptop on another table, and jerry rigged this. Meanwhile I can, the next day, drive to a place where I can get 100 meg down, it’s quite variable. I just want to emphasize that point about the web presence for a second; I find many, many consultants in general, not just in the futures world, tend not to have a web presence.

They tend to run pretty dark. My practice is quite the opposite. I believe in conversation, so I like to throw stuff out there, through social media as well as in person, to try and provoke discussions and conversations. I try to host and facilitate those discussions. I think that combination of openness and conversation is a terrific way to move forward. It’s risky in some ways, but I think it’s really an appropriately 21st century way to look ahead to the 21st century.

As a fellow futurist I totally agree, and I appreciate your presence because I learn a lot from what your posting and the thoughts that you’re putting together, from all these different data points, phenomenon, different types of futuring tactics and tools that you’re using, and I think this really speaks to you as a leader. I’d love for you to describe to us a little bit more about you as a leader, and your philosophies around leadership.

Well, I think leadership has really changed in our generation, and that’s something that we’re still trying to grapple with. Because a lot of the older practices, a lot of the older habits still persist, and you can see this in politics, you can see this in pop culture. Some of the changes are very interesting, for example, we have the capacity to be more network centric in our leadership, and less hierarchical, and that can be challenging in all kinds of ways. Hierarchies famously exist to defend hierarchies, and it’s difficult to break out of that. And network centric thinking, or horizontally organized thinking, can flop miserably. So I think we’re still learning how to make that work. And it’s tricky, there’s new ways of learning that way, and there are ways of inspiring people and sharing vision through networks. For example, you think about the idea of the personal learning network as a way of learning. Now, to assemble a PLN, you have to deploy a whole bunch of skills, aptitudes, and habits that many people weren’t trained in. It can be something as basic as pruning your Twitter feed. At the same time we have to figure out ways of doing this globally. It’s a truism to say that we are increasingly globalized society, but it’s the truth.

Just to jump in there a little bit, one of the quotes I wrote about you in our pre-conversation prior to this episode was that leadership has not taken globalization into account, and I hear you talking about that right now, and I’d love for you to expand on exactly what you’re saying. There are people that want to go hyper local and that’s working in many ways, but it’s because we’re in a global society, so talk a little bit more about leadership and globalization, and that evolution that you see happening.

Well I mean this in the broadest sense, that humans are more interconnected than we ever have been before, for better or for worse, and it shows up across a full range of human endeavor. Our conversation right now is gonna be accessible potentially to more people than it would have been 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. It means that when a disease spreads it can spread more quickly through a larger population than it used to be, historically. It means that politics, and media, pop culture, sports, cross national boundaries much more rapidly, more frequently, and we really haven’t fully taken that into account, we often think of ourselves in strictly national terms, or at best regional terms, and that takes a bit of practice, I think, a bit of attitude, a bit of habit forming so that we can get used to saying, alright, my words may be heard in Kazakhstan, in Australia, in Ecuador, and maybe I should shape them accordingly, and think about those different contexts. There’s a self awareness where you have to think of yourself as being a member of a certain nation, or a certain region, or even smaller than that, a state, or a province, and that’s a little trickier. And you get so many incentives not to do that. You can hear voices from your locality and really adhere to them. I think in rural areas this is especially true, because we are less densely populated, we value those voices a little more highly, I think, it’s harder to disappear into a crowd when you’re in the countryside. And I think also because of our relatively poor infrastructure, it’s harder for us to get used to conversations with people around the world. And I think that’s something that we really, in the countryside, we need to work on, both in our practice, but also in our infrastructure.

Well, and speaking of that, I mean, obviously technology is a huge part of this conversation in enabling people to do exactly what you’re saying, like how do we all emerge, and act and have different habits, and really opportunities in a connected world. Another change that you talk about is this gigantic force of demographic shift. How do you see that influencing the future of both rural, urban, and also globalization.

Well geographic shifts are fascinating, because through most of the world, we have this phenomenon that we are aging, we are living longer, we are having fewer kids, and this is relatively new in human history. There are very few societies that have done this, especially at scale, and we’re still struggling to figure out what this means, and how we respond, and you can think of these responses that are really, really diverse. For example, you can think about Japan, which is pushing very, very hard for robot development, so they can have more workers, and more caregivers, because they’re running low on workers and caregivers, and they look at automation as a solution.

Absolutely, one of my favorite emails is one of our partners, the Japan Society asking, hey Dr. Connie, what is the future of rural Japan? Because we don’t know, and our government has now made it a national priority.

Well, and it’s a huge issue to think about, because the rural world, is in many ways, emptying out. One of the biggest trends of our time is this huge, oceanic shift of the human race out of the countryside into cities, see this around the world. You see this in Africa, you see it in China, you see it in the US, and it becomes self perpetuating because as more people pile into cities and suburbs that’s where more and more of the action is, that’s where more of the jobs are, that’s where more of the excitement is, it draws still more people from the countryside, and in response the countryside looks emptier and then that just accelerates. Meanwhile, there are other forces driving this too. We have more automation in agriculture, we have more large scale agriculture, so that part of the countryside is no longer demanding large numbers of people. We have change in family size, so we’re not spawning 10 kids per couple, but more like two or fewer, so it may be that the countryside’s future is to be very quiet and empty. You think about the part of Saudi Arabia called the Empty Quarter, that might be a model for us. Now there’s an alternative, which is if we had decent infrastructure, if we had that set up, many people could, what used to say, telecommute, or do work from home. I mean if you can work in a cubicle, if you can work from anywhere, why not be in the countryside where you can enjoy all the benefits of country living rather than in the suburb or city?

Yeah, I agree, I don’t think we’ve fully explored or tapped into the potential of the 21st century model of work that really does include telecommuting and technology.

There’s a terrific futurist named Bruce Sterling who writes nonfiction and fiction. He has this resonant phrase that I keep coming back to. Someone asked him, well what do you see as the future? And he said, for me, I can’t do his accent, he has a great Texas accent, to me the future is old people in big cities afraid of the sky.

Oh wow, that’s really interesting, yeah. Perspective and phrase.

It’s got three things in it, you’ve got the demographics of aging, you have the shift to the cities, and you have climate change. People argue with this phrase a lot, they push it around, but it just resonates. And then, okay, let’s move on from the cities, let’s move our point of view to the countryside, and you’re gonna have very few people, is that something we want? Is that something that a country can risk having? And we have to really treat that seriously. We can’t get nostalgic, we can’t think, ah, if only people appreciated the countryside, they’re not doing it.

That’s right.

We have to now think this as existential moment.

And I think that is where the discipline of futuring and strategic foresight comes in. So how do we more deliberately create the future we want, rather than just continuing on in the same path we have been with that mindset that we don’t control what happens? And that might be partially true, but the other truth is we are not really having these bold conversations that need to be had in so many ways to address this from a systems level, not just one topic or the other. And I think futurists can really bring that to the table.

I agree, in part because these are frightening conversations, but also as I mentioned before, it’s difficult for us to think of a future in ways that really break out.

One of the challenges we wrestle with at the Rural Futures Institute is answering these questions of why rural? Why now? It’s been our theme for this year, how would you tell someone, or describe to them, especially because our population is very urbanized, and decision makers live in mostly urban areas, why should our country invest in infrastructure and rural when the population there is in decline?

I think there are a lot of great reasons. And one of them is simply economic benefit. There’s a project in China right now where the Chinese government goes out into central China, which is very rural, and goes to villages that are obviously very rural, and poses to them a deal. If the village will try its best to form internet based businesses, then the Chinese government will wire them up to high speed broadband. It’s a real smart deal, because the villagers get the benefit of internet connectivity, and the rest of China gets the benefit of having this boost to their business development. And the businesses can be anything. They can be selling flowers online, they can be services online, you think of this as an enormous untapped business opportunity, for really growing an overall economy, I mean how many businesses, how many consumers are out there? There’s a Pew study which said 40% of Americans over 65 are not connected to the internet, 40% in 2018. Now you think about that, if you’re still in economic terms, you think, my gosh, what a population that could be buying stuff on Amazon, or selling things, or offering services, and so just the economic market is one. A second is the cultural argument.That we can use the internet, especially broadband, to grow our culture. We know this as ways we can consume culture, more and more, everything from YouTube videos, Netflix streaming, to podcasts, to reading Wikipedia, but also to producing culture, that we can shoot video and upload it to YouTube, where we can write stories and make stories of all kinds, and share them with just about any platform. So if we can connect more people, we can further deepen and grow our culture, and that benefits everybody. A third reason, and this is my line of work, is education, we have such capacity for teaching and learning online, it’s truly extraordinary. I mean, in many ways, the business of education is pretty fragile right now.

That’s right, we know that, here at the University of Nebraska, it’s absolutely true. We’re going through a huge shift in higher education and I think that’s where the futurist perspective, and futuring and strategic foresight are so critical for organizations, industries, like higher education and others right now, and I know you’ve talked about this tipping point of online versus face to face, when do you see that happening?

I’m not sure at this point, so just for listeners, there’s this interesting question, at what point

will the number of learners taking classes online roughly equal the number of learners taking classes face to face? I know Creighton Christiansen predicted this would happen around this year, it hasn’t quite hit there but we’re closing in on it, and at some point soon we’re gonna hit that point, and I think that’ll be an interesting milestone. It’ll clarify a lot of developments for a lot of people. So we’ve seen some institutions where the online branch teaches more students than the face to face branch. And in fact I’ve worked with several institutions where the online branch makes more money than the face to face one, and now subvents and supports the face to face one, which is quite a 21st century moment. I mean, it’s possible that we will look at education kind of the way we look at movies. Where if you want to watch a movie you have tons of options from where you’re sitting right now. Phone, from your TV, and you can get a pretty nice experience, so if you’re gonna go to a movie theater, you need to have something special to haul you out there, and that’s why you have, depending on the theater, you have stadium style seating, you have more food, you have a bar, you have places like Alamo Draft House where you can go off and have fun previews, and have food served to you and all that, I think a lot of businesses are doing that, where they’re trying to figure out ways to compete with what we can get online.

Absolutely, it’s an experience economy, in so many ways with that.

Yes, you go to a campus, bricks and mortar institution, what’s gonna make that different? So that’s what education has to work on.

So looking ahead five years, thinking about education specifically, higher education, what do you see evolving and changing? In addition to this sort of experiential economy emerging even in higher education?

Looking ahead five years, there are a few trends that I think are pretty predictable, not too controversial, and one of them is, to come back to an earlier point, demographics. In the US we’re following many other countries and we’re getting older, and we’re also seeing shifts within the US as the northeast and midwest are aging much more rapidly, and losing children, and so we’re seeing institutions in the midwest and the northeast marketing more and more to the Rocky Mountain central area, to Texas, Arizona, and trying to find where they still grow 18 year olds. And so I think we’ll see that continue, in education that means, among other things, trying to reach out more and more to adult learners, but also trying to more aggressively recruit other students, recruiting more and more international students, and that’s been a success until last year. I think higher education institutions in the US are gonna aggressively recruit. It’s not just in the US, many, many nations are seeing themselves now as being part of an international higher education market. So you’re seeing European institutions marketing, I’ve seen European universities marketing themselves to American high school students, with a pretty clear message. They’ll say come to our interesting cities, and we won’t give you student loans, pretty convincing.  

Yeah, I would say so, I mean I think that’s one of the great conversations, and challenging conversations we have in higher education right now, so, if you choose to go to college and pursue higher education, the student loan debt conversation is a big part of that, but then also that means people will have to go where there are jobs, and that means it’s gonna be hard for them to start a business, and specifically in rural communities in our case, we can’t expect all that to work. So re-envisioning this whole network of how people learn, start businesses, work for other companies or businesses, has really been changing, and it’s really interesting to watch right now as all these areas such as healthcare, education, retail, are experiencing this exponential shift at the same time.

Well healthcare’s an interesting piece of this, because the American healthcare sector is very, very large, economically, and socially, and it’s growing larger and larger, and again, as we continue to age that just means statistically we’re gonna consume more healthcare, and also the R and D of our medical sector, which is tremendous, is gonna produce more market options for healing people, and it adds an interesting kink to the evolving pattern. Because we now have this tendency of more and more young people are born and grow up in cities and in suburbs, and they’re more and more likely to go to higher education in cities, and then they’re more saddled with debt, which about two thirds of them are, they’re more and more likely to want to stay in cities so they can find a job, enable them to pay off that debt. But meanwhile, in the countryside, as we age more rapidly, healthcare becomes more and more important, and in fact when I go across the country and I go to small towns, small cities, it’s interesting to see how the healthcare sector, architecturally, looks kind of like the way churches used to. A looming hospital, which becomes central to the community, the drug stores are no longer pharmaceutical dispensaries but they’re full grocery stores. They’re like general stores right now. So maybe these young folks in their 20s, early 30s, will be lured out to the countryside simply for the opportunity to work in the medical sector. And I mean the full gamut of allied health, I mean home healthcare aids, I mean surgeons, I mean people doing medical informatics, medical administration, radiology, EMTs, the whole healthcare sector is actually very, very large, so maybe that is one way forward for the rural world is center ourselves less on agriculture and more on healthcare.

Yeah, I work with a lot of rural hospitals and part of that discussion is how do those hospitals really become more engaged within the community? Because they are an epicenter for those rural communities in so many ways in terms of not just providing for people that are sick or hurt or injured, but also wellness has become more of a factor, they are, in many ways, the economic driver of those communities, so how do we make sure that they stay viable in a time when they’re having to shift their business models, but also really look at the opportunities ahead in terms of being able to really help these rural communities thrive in a different way, and I think technology is just a huge part of that. We’ve talked about DIY dentistry, home birth, et cetera, I know you’ve mentioned that in other conversations, and that’s going on all over, we have a medical center here in Nebraska that’s just doing amazing things with virtual reality and all types of technology, so it’s very exciting to see those trends, but also the opportunities that are coming with them, even though we have to recognize there are challenges.


Well I know you’ve built about 40 scenarios for higher education through the work you’ve done, and one of the things that you and I both really have explored is this whole issue of non traditional learners through this lens of higher education as well. So thinking about, right now recruitment’s still focused on high school students, largely, for all these institutions, very few, I mean there are some, but so few have decided, you know what? We have a lot of non traditional students that also benefit from higher education, or continuing education, but they can’t come to a campus. This whole piece of online and real time learning, all the different types of technologies available, specifically in rural. I just published a paper where I talked a lot about this. In the evolution of rural healthcare, the importance of teaching people in place, where they are, not expecting them to move, but rather let’s value who’s already there and give them some new opportunities.

For those listeners who haven’t seen this, in healthcare there’s a long tradition at this Finnish University, and I was walking through their medical school, and they were showing me their simulation wing where they had devoted an entire wing of their university to simulation. It’s kind of a no brainer, it’s better to have medical students work on simulations than on live human beings. You might think of say, the Resusci Anne doll where people learn how to do CPR. So I walk through this corridor and I looked into a room where they had a robot that simulated a woman in childbirth, in the next room they had a kind of multi purpose room where you could see patients going through multiple procedures, there was another room which was a ward, which had a mix of human actors and robots, it was tremendous stuff. And then the last room we went to blew me away, because it was a living room, a meticulously tricked out living room, with a carpet, a TV in the corner, a sofa, I said, well wait a minute, have I gone in the wrong building? They said, no, no, no, one of our biggest demands is home healthcare.

That’s absolutely right, it is where it is at right now.

Literally where it’s at.

Yes, if it blew you away, it had to be awesome.

(laughing together)

It was so surreal, I thought that I had walked into a movie set, and the idea is, well what do you do with students who grew up in a major city, lived in the city, learned the city ways, and now they’re gonna be sent to central Finland, which is as rural as it gets, to help people in their homes? And so it was a really great idea to do that, so I think care in place, learning in place is something that we’re really, really going to be doing more of. When it comes to education, I think, in many ways, we have to think about this in some more imaginative and more effective ways. So if we have a learner who’s in rural Nebraska, and we want them to learn, we have to really think hard about how we do digital learning, so we have to figure out where synchronous technologies, like video conferencing, really work. How to do asynchronous learning, how to create a sense of learning community online, how to do that better, where a lot of online learning is really not community based, it’s more instructor, student, and pile of stuff. So beginning to recreate that.

I would love to see rural places be one of the first areas to use holograms, in these sorts of places, so it doesn’t just have to happen in Silicon Valley, it could really happen in our rural communities.

It really should, and it shouldn’t, I mean, in many ways, one of the great uses of virtual reality, or holograms, or any visualization is helping learners visualize something they just can’t get to. And that happens across the disciplines, for example, people in classical studies. Building visualizations of ancient Rome, because it’s gone, and also because most people can’t fly to Rome, and check out ruins right now. In sciences, people do visualizations of say proteins. So imagine, again, this hypothetical learner in the middle of rural Nebraska has the chance through VR say to glimpse Cairo, or a human skeleton from the inside, or the solar system from the outside, again, when you describe it, it sounds blindingly obvious, yes, we have to do this, but we have to do this, and it takes some work to do.

Well and I think it’s one of those things that could help stop, or at least slow down, this exodus from rural into our more urban centers, because there is the perception that there’s more opportunity in urban, and I think to some extent that’s true, but I think the other part of it is we need to think a little bolder, and bigger, to say how do we create that community? How do we create access? How do we recreate rural in a way that’s a 21st century model that people can use?


Well Bryan I’d love to know some parting words of wisdom that you could share with our audience.

A few things, one is to focus on imagining a future that can be different. I find this to be very, very challenging, for various reasons we tend to think about the future as an extension of the immediate past. For all of our vaunted love of disruption, we really see that as an exception, and tend to think of the future as being version seven of version six and five that we’ve just experienced, and it’s really important to think about the ways it can be gradually and even exceptionally different. And this is a mental habit that I recommend that science fiction is a good way of spurring that habit, in fact I really think if you’re not reading science fiction you’re not really ready for the 21st century.

I agree, I think that’s a great point.

Second thing is to connect with people. I don’t mean in a kind of Hallmark card cheesy way, I mean to take advantage of these technologies and reach out and connect with people so that you can learn from them. The future right now is such a vast and dynamic, complex system that it’s very difficult for any one person to get a handle on it. Really need the points of view of different people, and I think using the technology well is a really great benefit, and we really need to do that, and it’s not just a consumption angle, we have this inherited mid-20th century habit of sucking down media. Really, more importantly with 21st century media, as literally interactive. I think we really, really need to do that. So that’s a second bit of recommendation. Third is I think really to focus on, and advocate for, the rural world. We’re not really on the cultural radar. We don’t have much of a presence in pop culture, and we really need to, I think, push for ourselves, because right now we’re on the back foot, we’re not the most important sector anymore, and we have to really, I think, experiment with what we do, and we have to make our voices heard.

Yeah, I just think that’s so incredibly important. One of the things the Rural Futures Institute has been working on is really elevating the voice of rural, because you’re so spot on, it’s very lost, I think in the media world today, but also when it is out there it’s portrayed in a pretty stereotypical, negative way, and so elevating that conversation to really demonstrate the value of rural, but all the amazing, cutting edge innovation happening in rural is something we’re hoping to do, and we’re so excited that you’ve spent this time with us, during the show, to help us do that. I know you do that in your work, and we appreciate and value what you’re doing,

so as people are looking to creating the future, they’re getting help from people like you to do that in a very positive way. Well Bryan, thank you so much for this conversation today, I know people are gonna be curious and interested in finding you, so where can our listeners find you?

Well, you can find me pretty much everywhere, I’m very, very active online, I publish almost everything I do to the open web. The best central location is the Future of Education Observatory, just go to FutureOfEducation.us, you’ll find an introduction there, as well as links from there to my blog, to my other social media platforms, and my weekly video conference, that’s one way. You can find me on Patreon, where I have supporters there who help keep me going, Patreon.com/BryanAlexander. And naturally I’m on Twitter all the time, just my handle just BryanAlexander, B-R-Y-A-N, Alexander.

Excellent, I know our listeners will want to check that out, I’m a huge fan, and will continue to be, and we so appreciate all the insights, and futures perspectives that you shared today, thank you.

Well it’s my pleasure, thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for the great conversation.

Thanks for listening to the Rural Futures podcast with Dr. Connie, subscribe where you listen so you don’t miss an episode, and reach out to us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at RuralFutures to let us know what questions you have and who you think we should bring on the show. Next up, Dr. Connie talks with Microsoft General Manager Shelley McKinley, about rural connectivity and leadership in a world of exponential change. We are really on the brink of this fourth industrial revolution, we need to take action now, one of the number one things going forward is we have to ensure that we’ve got a good, diverse, and inclusive set of people around the world that are working together to really try to tackle some of these humongous challenges we have in front of us in things like the environment, and things like accessibility, and things like human rights.



Episode 0: Intro! Intersecting technology, leadership and rural-urban collaboration

June 12, 2018
      Through the Rural Futures podcast, host Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild, associate executive director and chief futurist at the Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska, and producer Katelyn Ideus, RFI director of communications, connect achievers, mavericks …




Through the Rural Futures podcast, host Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild, associate executive director and chief futurist at the Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska, and producer Katelyn Ideus, RFI director of communications, connect achievers, mavericks and doers in both rural and urban communities, organizations and companies to bring forward a thriving high-touch, high-tech combined future.

In this introductory episode they share their educational, career and personal backgrounds as well as their goals for the show. Throughout season 1, listeners can expect to hear from researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators from healthcare, agriculture, education, technology and from communities around the country.

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Connie Reimers-Hild, Associate Director, Rural Futures Institute
“A lot of leadership theory developed in a different era. What we really want do is focus on the mavericks, those doers who are doing cool things already, really leading themselves but, at the same time, leading communities of change and purpose.”
Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild
Host & Futurist

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Show Notes

Hi, I’m Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild, host of the Rural Futures podcast, and today we’re introducing episode zero.  We’d really like you to subscribe. Right now I’d like to introduce our executive producer, Katelyn Ideus.

Hi, Connie! Yes, I’m so excited. I’m Katelyn, this is episode zero of Rural Futures. We’ve been planning this for such a long time. So, Connie, why don’t you tell everyone a little bit about your professional background and your personal life.

Absolutely. I’m kind of an odd hard/social science mix,  which is great to be a futurist, right?

Absolutely, it fits perfectly. Yeah, so, I mean that’s kind of where the futurist lens I think comes in to, to kind of bring that all together. But I have a bachelor’s degree in natural resources, a master’s degree in entomology, which is the study of insects for anybody not familiar with that concept. My PhD is in human sciences and leadership studies and my goal with those degrees was to blend the hard and social sciences together in an effort to help people become more entrepreneurial and create innovation for a more positive future. On the personal side, I’m married, I’m a mom, I’m a wiener dog lover. I think anyone that’s ever had a class with me or associated with me knows that. But I very much am focused on family and value quality of life as well as technology and some of the cool things we see emerging. I have a keen interest in how the planet sort of will continue to evolve over time with all the exponential change we’re seeking now. Alright, so that’s probably enough about me. People will get to know me more as the podcast moves forward but what about you Katelyn?

Alright, thanks, Connie. I am a communicator, I’ve been a communicator my whole career. I was a journalism undergrad and then I have a master’s degree in PR and marketing. Really what I kind of tell people is I’m a storyteller. The journalism, news ed, and broadcast background, I always thought I would be a newspaper writer and then newspapers have really changed, right? So I have really embraced kind of the digital side of storytelling and this frequent content, right? Even as a communications professional and an organization, you’re a publisher these days. So it’s really, really fun. And then from the kind of rural perspective, I did not grow up in a rural community. A lot of times people are surprised by that, being the communications director for the Rural Futures Institute. But I actually grew up in several large cities, and so I think it’s kind of a cool, I bring kind of a cool perspective. I do live in the country now. I did marry a part-time farmer, so that kind of comes with the territory. Absolutely.

And I think that background has really helped position the Rural Futures Institute in a different way and is really one of the reasons for the podcast, right? Is to get these stories out and create global conversations around, you know, what we’ve seen happening in terms of, not just rural, but rural and urban, and bringing those two worlds together in a thoughtful way that benefits everyone. And I think your unique perspective really helps us be able to do that in a very proactive but also positive way that’s translational for the listeners in terms of those takeaways that we want to make sure they have.

And what are you, I mean, who are the types of people, I mean obviously we’ve had this conversation a lot of times of who are our listeners and I’ve always, yes, they’re leaders, but I think we have, we’ve talked about being careful, right? With that term leader, too, because it’s like, you know, a lot of people don’t self-identify as a leader but if you’re an achiever, if you’re a doer, if you’re kind of a gritty person in your rural community, or in a start up business, whether that’s rural or urban, I think it’s all of these different types of leaders. Talk more about that.

Yeah, I think you’re spot on. I mean, I think part of what we’re missing somewhat in leadership was a lot of leadership theory developed in a different era. You know, I lead this organization, I’m leading these people. What we really want to do is focus on the mavericks, those doers who are doing cool things already, really leading themselves but at the same time leading communities of change and purpose. I think sometimes we’re not focused enough on that and in an era of exponential change like we’re in right now, we’re gonna need more of that whether it’s in a university or in a community, in a private business, because things are changing so quickly we need leaders to be able to adapt but be very entrepreneurial and innovative at the same time.

Right, right. One of the things, too, that we’ve talked about that I think is interesting and even some of the guests that we’ve already started lining up are having a little trouble saying, “Okay, so what’s the connection to rural?” Right? And I think, though that’s, right there is our purpose, is we are making this connection even for some of these, I mean, kind of high-flying leaders and entrepreneurs in this space. You are connected to rural, we all are in some way. And we’re not gonna force that on anyone or anything but I think it’s great perspective.

Yeah, I mean, I think what one thing that we’ve seen happen is rural and urban have become very polarized, right? And so people either talk about rural or urban. But at the Rural Futures Institute, we’ve really thought about how do we those conversations together. We do live in a globalized society and that’s only going to increase as more people become connected and we have major companies now investing and connecting the billions of people who are not yet connected and most of them reside in rural. So everybody has a stake in this game. And as those people become connected, how does that change business, how does that change life?

Not just in those rural communities but the urban communities as well, and how do we all thrive together in this planet. I mean, I think it’s great to think about going to Mars and colonizing Mars, and all these really futurist things, but some of the questions I think we ask which are so interesting are how do we make it better here now? You know, and into the future for your kids, my kids, those next generations that, you know, we want them to be able to choose where they want to live and have the life they want to live whether they’re here or somewhere else.

Absolutely. So you talked about some of the questions we’re going to ask. So tell our listeners, give them a sneak peak of some of the questions we might be asking.

Absolutely. You know, I want to dive into leadership, of course. How do they define themselves as leaders. But I also really want to know that personal side of leadership because I think along with the technology and sort of scientific types of changes we’re also seeing changes in our social structure and our social fabric, the social norms. You know, as more people are working and dual-career couples, for example, or not having kids or, you know, balancing life in different ways or even questioning why is the work day set up the way it is? How can we change that? Why is school set up the way it is? How do we continue to change that? You know, diving into their thoughts around that and how they’re creating lives that work for them because a lot of these mavericks are doing that. They’re questioning the norms, right? But they’re also setting a new standard at the same time. And that’s causing a bit of controversy and conflict in our society, but at the same time, from that I think can create, be creative opportunities that really advance our society in positive ways if we choose to direct the future in that way. I want to know what they do for fun. I mean, really, it’s like sometimes I think we see these thought-leaders and it’s so serious and it’s like, “Oh, you know, how are you growing your business? “How are you doing this?” But they’re people. You know? And that human side I think is so important. And also what do they see as the major changes happening in their industries? You know? How do they see technology changing, but how do they also see that influencing workforce development, jobs, new opportunities in the future?

And how are they integrating different cultures together? We talked about this I think yesterday. It’s just how are, how are some people’s leadership styles just different because of how, of their experiences or their culture or how they were raised? How can we learn from that and kind of adapt to that and change? I mean, it’s just an interesting, I think they’re interesting topics. And we’re gonna ask them to tell a lot of stories, too. Right? That’s one thing, too, that I think, Connie and I listen to a lot of podcasts so we don’t want this to be very structured or, or super serious, like you said, but more storytelling and really giving some, some good value and some good takeaways that our listeners can put into action in their job or in their home or in their communities.

Yeah we want people to get something out of this. You know, if you’re gonna invest your valuable time into listening we want you to have those takeaways that matter to you but that’s where we need listeners to help guide us through that process as well. You know, we don’t want to just create something and keep going down a path. We really want to hear from people. You know, who should we have on? What are some things that people want to know? You know, we want this to be like a co-creative process, very highly interactive, so we get better and we better serve our audience. You know, it’s an experiment for us, too. Something new for both of us and so I’m excited that our team at Rural Futures and embarking on this journey and really then opening up our engagement beyond where we are physically and into this global, very virtual world so we can really crowd source this whole conversation.

Absolutely. And I think we should say here with that, it’s obviously, the Rural Futures Institute is located at the University of Nebraska in Nebraska, and we’re very passionate about Nebraska, but I think what we’re trying to do with this is, is bring Nebraska out to the world and then bring some more of the world into Nebraska. So it’s very much this kind of perspective-building that we’re looking to do.

And we can only do it with our listeners so we appreciate hearing from you.




Meet the Team

Dr. Connie is supported in the production of this podcast by:

Katelyn Ideus


Theresa Klein

Katy Bagniewski
Production Specialist