Episode 10 | Entrepreneurship in the Rural Future

Jan. 18, 2018

Show Notes:

In this episode of Catch Up With Chuck, Chuck is joined by RFI Community Innovation Fellow Robert Stowell, J.D., who is the founding member of Stowell & Geweke, PC, LLO.

Since opening his law practice in Ord, Nebraska in 1972, Stowell has been passionate about entrepreneurship, community engagement and economic development. They discuss RFI’s belief that people have the capacity to shape their own futures.

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Full Transcript:

[0:05] Welcome back to Catch Up with Chuck. [0:06] This is a periodic broadcast we do from the Rural Futures [0:10] Institute at the University of Nebraska. [0:13] I’m Chuck Schroeder, I’m the founding [0:14] Executive Director of the Rural Futures Institute. [0:17] You know we’ve said many times that our goal [0:20] is a thriving high touch, high tech future [0:25] for rural Nebraska and the Great Plains by 2040. [0:28] There are some things we didn’t say, [0:30] that we didn’t say for rural towns along the interstate. [0:34] We didn’t say for communities of 5,000 people or more. [0:40] We didn’t say for towns with an employer with a [0:43] 500+ person payroll. [0:46] Our number one core belief is that we believe [0:50] in people’s capacity to shape their own future [0:53] and that of their community. [0:55] So I want to tell you that today, [0:56] joining me is a Fellow that I’ve wanted to have [0:58] on this program since it’s inception. [1:01] Bob Stowell is a living breathing embodiment of that core [1:06] belief that people can take action to shape their [1:09] own future and that of their community. [1:12] Bob has, through a long career of thoughtful wise [1:18] assertive leadership, helped to shape the future of [1:22] his community and influence the lives of countless [1:25] others for decades, so Bob, welcome.

[1:27] Well thank you, I’m honored to be here. [1:29] We’re delighted to have you. [1:31] So okay, Ord, Nebraska, it is a nationally [1:35] renowned anomaly in breaking all of these silly [1:38] myths about what makes a successful community. [1:42] It’s not on the interstate. [1:44] It does not have 5,000 people. [1:46] It doesn’t have a huge employer, it’s got a pretty [1:50] diverse economy. [1:52] So all of those musts, they have broken in Ord. [1:57] But Bob Stowell, you had a distinguished military career [2:02] before making the decision to return to Ord, Nebraska [2:07] and get involved. [2:09] Here was a community, which at that time [2:10] did not necessarily have this golden glow [2:14] over it that said yes, it’s going to be this [2:17] myth buster now and forever more. [2:19] Bob, talk a little bit about your relationship [2:22] with Ord, and what you saw in that community.

[2:26] Well Chuck, I grew up six miles east of Ord, [2:29] so I have that feel for country. [2:33] Sure. [2:34] And the rural, and love it. [2:35] I left at age 17, though, to go into the military academy, [2:39] started an 11 year journey that took me through [2:42] various places like Fort Campbell, Kentucky, [2:45] Fort Benning, Georgia, Vietnam, and then back [2:48] to Lincoln, and through that time, we kept really [2:53] close contact with our families cause our families [2:55] are really important, and our church, [2:58] and so we decided while serving the military, [3:03] it was really important to us to raise our children [3:06] in a rural environment where they could understand [3:08] the interconnectedness of multi-generations. [3:11] They could feel safe running around the courthouse [3:13] square, and sitting on a park bench with an 80 [3:15] year old person and learning. [3:17] Yeah. [3:17] So it was the rural way of life and family [3:20] that attracted us back to Valley County.

[3:23] What a big decision. [3:24] It was a big decision. [3:25] One you didn’t have to make. [3:26] No, I love the military. [3:28] The military was really good to me. [3:30] And sometimes you look back, but when you meet [3:32] that crossroad, you, you embrace it and you go forward. [3:35] You have to make a choice. [3:36] You make a choice. [3:37] Absolutely. [3:38] But we love that, but we love having come home. [3:40] Well Bob, when we think about rural communities, [3:44] and we think about the text books and the instructions [3:47] that are thrown around sometimes, [3:50] so many communities have tried to build their [3:53] success strategy around the idea of someone, [3:56] a major employer, a big manufacturer, whatever, [3:58] that we would recruit from somewhere else, [4:00] would come in and become the economic driver [4:03] of that community, and by the way, [4:06] very often ends in disappointment. [4:09] That whole strategy, well you never took that approach. [4:11] No.

[4:12] So talk to us about the strategy that you employed, [4:15] along with other like minded parts in your community, [4:19] the strategy you employed to make Ord [4:21] what it is today and put it on the track that it’s on. [4:24] As you said, it’s about people. [4:26] And we believe that the grassroots approach [4:30] was important for us. [4:32] I mean, we align totally with we didn’t know what [4:35] your core value number one was going to be, [4:37] but we aligned with that. [4:38] And in doing that, it’s important to look around [4:42] your community and find the bright spots. [4:44] To find out what’s working, and look at your assets. [4:47] And every community’s a little bit different. [4:48] Absolutely. [4:49] And if you find those assets and build on them, [4:53] I like it a little bit to build it and they’ll come, [4:56] we did not chase smoke, smoke stacks, [4:59] but we thought if we build the infrastructure, [5:01] if we built the culture in which entrepreneurs [5:03] could thrive, and if we had a good leadership structure, [5:07] if people liked it, and if companies liked it, [5:10] they would come and so, [5:14] we did observe through the Ag crisis in the mid 80’s [5:20] and the early 90’s that, we experienced that outflow [5:23] of people and all of a sudden we realized, [5:25] we need to do something about that. [5:27] Nobody’s gonna do it if we don’t do it. [5:30] So the thing that we, the vehicle we used was [5:33] an inner local agreement, cause that brought together [5:35] the local people. [5:36] Sure.

[5:37] Our county board was fantastic. [5:38] Our city council cooperated. [5:39] We brought together the chamber, which was struggling. [5:43] And we had a 501C3 of some pretty progressive [5:46] people, brought them together, did an inner local agreement. [5:50] That helped us, provided a little funding. [5:52] I think our first robust budget was $45,000 [5:55] plus a place to hang out in the building. [5:58] And I advertised in four states to find an economic [6:02] development director, and the reason I did that [6:04] and looking at our bright spots, we had great [6:06] people that had great ideas, and they were [6:08] committed to doing good things. [6:09] No organization, no direct movement on that, [6:14] and so finally I said, we have to get somebody [6:16] to help us mobilize. [6:17] Advertised in four states, got eight wonderful applicants. [6:20] Went through the interview process, [6:22] and a late applicant was a little gal used to clerk [6:24] in my office, and she was midway through her Master’s [6:27] in Business at the university. [6:29] And she decided to come home. [6:32] Beth Ann Kuntz is her name, and she came home [6:36] and my goodness gracious, and in those days, [6:39] she was 23 year old young lady, [6:41] and with all these meetings, we had eight person [6:43] economic development board, and it was like [6:46] Snow White and the eight grumpy old men. [6:48] (laughing) [6:49] Now thankfully that has changed. [6:51] We have different generations and so forth, [6:55] but in any event, we used that as a spring board [6:58] so we had an organization and little bit of money, [7:01] and we knew we had to have access to resources, [7:03] And you know resources is a lot like, it’s kind of akin [7:07] to chasing the smoke stack if you chase that federal [7:10] grant, you’re gonna be disappointed a lot of time, [7:13] so we decided at some point, [7:14] how we’ve gotta have resources here that we can manage. [7:17] So we passed a, 2001 we passed a 1% sales tax [7:22] dedicated solely to economic development. [7:25] And it was the first one, I think it was passed [7:27] in the state. [7:28] We also did it for 15 years, which was longer than most [7:31] of them, but the other thing that was first in the state [7:33] was that we collect the tax in Ord, but we spend it [7:37] in all of Valley County, with the idea you understand, [7:40] this has got to be more of a regional approach. [7:42] Sure. [7:43] And that’s worked well, so we got resources. [7:46] So the two things then, we were building infrastructure, [7:49] so we would have, build a culture for entrepreneurs. [7:55] We worked on leadership, and we, the youth were [7:59] a big part of everything and then for the other part [8:03] of the funding, we decided we needed to use philanthropy [8:07] to build a little war chest. [8:08] Uh huh. [8:09] That was our strategy. [8:10] Well, it’s obviously been successful. [8:13] Well listen, Bob, through my own work [8:15] with the Heartland Center for Leadership Development, [8:18] through Rural Policy research, Institute of Agriculture, [8:20] Future of America, and now the Rural Futures Institute, [8:23] it’s been clear to me throughout my career, [8:26] that just as you just said, it’s always about the people. [8:30] That’s for sure. [8:31] It’s not about location and economic mix, [8:33] it’s always about the people.

[8:36] Well you talked a little bit about your investment [8:38] in leadership and leadership development. [8:42] That was not just off the rack down at the extension [8:46] office. [8:47] No. [8:47] I have been so impressed with the investments [8:49] that you have made in developing the genuine [8:54] way down here leadership capacity of people [8:57] and not only in Ord, but in Valley County. [8:59] You’ve got to tell us about that initiative. [9:01] I’d love to, ’cause that’s one of my favorites. [9:04] We recognized very early in 2001, that we needed [9:08] formal leadership, and I’d always been involved in it [9:11] through West Point and the Army, and I’d taught [9:13] leadership at ROTC here at the university, [9:16] a little different style. [9:18] It’s kind of command style leadership. [9:20] And so we reached out to some of the folks you just [9:23] talked about, Mylon Wall at Heartland, [9:26] and Craig Schroeder, and Don Mackey and his guys [9:30] from places here in Lincoln, and they helped us craft [9:34] a program we called Leadership Quest, [9:37] and we did that for three or four years, [9:39] and then we got really busy with ethanol recruitment [9:42] and all sorts of things. [9:43] Sure. [9:43] So we kind of took that off the agenda. [9:47] Well, we found out in a business and retention [9:50] expansion survey of our community, [9:52] which we do every year, people were missing that. [9:54] They were wanting some formal leadership, [9:56] so they said this time we’re gonna really do it. [9:58] So we looked over the whole country [10:00] and we ended up finding a lady by the name of [10:02] Doctor D, Denise Tridopaskas. [10:06] She has a number of connections to the university, here. [10:08] She went to Kearney, she got some education here, [10:11] has worked here, knows Connie pretty well [10:13] and Lindsay, and so she knew Nebraska, [10:16] she knows rural, has done some international work, [10:20] anyway, she was at the University of Minnesota [10:22] at the time, we hired her. [10:24] And a really good leadership program isn’t [10:27] necessarily cheap, but we were able to leverage [10:31] some of the philanth, earnings from our philanthropy [10:34] from our endowments that we built with a [10:37] three year grant from Sherwood, and so we got our [10:41] first three years that way, and then of course, [10:43] we needed to find out how to do it on our own after that, [10:46] which we’ve done. [10:46] So five years into it, and as you said, [10:48] it’s not superficial, it starts here.

[10:52] And you learn about personal development, [10:55] and then apply that to your family, [10:59] your workplace, and then ultimately [11:01] into the community and it’s a little bit like, [11:04] remember you always admonish to put on your own [11:06] oxygen mask first, before you help others, yeah. [11:09] That’s what we did. [11:10] (laughing) [11:11] And so you really understand and develop the, [11:14] I want to be an authentic leader. [11:17] I’m, I want to be a servant leader [11:20] and transformational, and you can work in one of those [11:24] areas more than another to explore, but all of those [11:26] are such key parts in the community. [11:30] And so we’ve had a lot of our graduates now, [11:32] we’ve impacted over a hundred people in a small town, [11:35] that’s quite a few. [11:36] Sure. [11:37] And we’re going on and on and that ripples out now [11:39] a number of businesses have come in [11:41] for this leadership coaching, and so [11:43] our graduates have started new businesses. [11:46] They’ve dared to write, become authors, [11:49] and now we’re starting to see them run for public office. [11:52] It’s exciting.

[11:53] Well, I know I have talked to people in your community [11:56] that have changed careers. [11:57] Yeah. [11:58] As a result of this experience. [12:00] That’s right. [12:01] That have decided I have the capacity to change the world [12:04] a little bit and I’m gonna do it. [12:05] And I just, I’m so impressed. [12:07] It’s a multi year commitment on the part of folks, [12:10] so it’s, this is no trivial deal. [12:13] Anyway, I just admire that. [12:15] Okay, my friend, now this all sounds like a fairy tale. [12:18] Sure. [12:19] But I know that in Ord, just like in Chicago, [12:22] L.A., anywhere else, not everybody sees the world [12:26] just alike, so Bob, I know that you’ve had to deal [12:30] with the cynics and the folks who said we don’t [12:33] particularly want to change. [12:35] Talk a little bit about how you’ve dealt with that [12:38] resistance over time to the trends [12:41] you’ve tried to establish in your community.

[12:43] Sure, when we first started work, [12:45] we’ve had some elections and some things [12:48] that give us an idea, a feel and we’ve done [12:51] some surveys, and we probably only had about 55% [12:54] of really strong supporters in the beginning. [12:58] I believe that’s changed quite a bit, [13:00] and it’s wonderful. [13:01] You’re right, it doesn’t come without a price. [13:04] I have a good friend in another community [13:06] who really worked hard in that community [13:08] and another really good person in that community [13:11] was a mover and shaker, said you know, [13:15] this guy has done so much for this community [13:17] they could name it after him, [13:18] but right now he probably couldn’t get elected [13:20] as a dog catcher. [13:21] (laughing) [13:22] And so there, you’re right, it takes some grit [13:26] and a little thick skin, but if we just keep [13:30] our eye on the ball, if we just keep our eye [13:32] on the goal, it’s worth it and I remember back [13:37] to one of Tom Osborne’s books, when he was getting [13:40] some heat, as we look back we think, [13:43] well, how did Tom ever get any heat? [13:44] Yeah. [13:45] But when he was, he said you know, [13:47] if you keep your eye and direction on your true north, [13:52] you won’t get knocked off course. [13:55] And so you’re right, it does take some grit, [13:57] and anybody who wants to start and really work hard [13:59] in the community, not everybody’s gonna love that. [14:02] But you said something about, things, want to keep [14:06] things the way they are, well I had a good friend [14:08] who had done a lot of this work say, [14:10] you know, the people who tell me that want to do it, [14:12] keep things the way they are, think about [14:14] being in a river and in a canoe. [14:16] He said, you gotta paddle like the dickens to stay [14:18] where you are. [14:19] (laughing)

[14:21] Well put, well put. [14:23] Well listen, Bob, you’re a cool guy. [14:24] You’ve been a, you’ve been a great leader in your [14:26] community, but as we’ve talked to young people [14:30] on this program that are preparing to go back [14:33] to their communities and are thinking about [14:36] to making an impact in rural, so often they come back [14:40] to saying it’s, it’s what my family does. [14:43] It’s part of what we do. [14:46] You come from a great family. [14:47] Thank you. [14:48] And in your part of the world certainly [14:50] that have had generations of impact, [14:52] talk just a little bit about how that [14:55] has motivated you and I know you have generations [14:59] following you that have watched that example [15:02] and are saying “I’d kind of like to make [15:05] my mark, too.”

[15:06] As I said, I grew up on a small farm east of Ord. [15:12] Mom and dad always said to all four of us kids, [15:16] you want to better yourself, and you have to get [15:18] education; it was not if, it was when. [15:22] And so we did as the kids, [15:24] and my brother traveled the world. [15:26] He was on a NATO committee, he was the chairman [15:29] of the US Free Grade Crowns, excuse me, [15:31] US Feed Grade Council, traveled the secretary [15:34] of agriculture and made a big impact in a lot of ways. [15:38] My sister married a guy who designed floating platforms [15:42] and they, they went to the Persian Gulf and supervised [15:47] the installation and also in the Caribbean, [15:49] and I think back to what mom and dad said, [15:53] as you want to better yourself but always with that [15:56] was love and hope. [15:59] And when you want to better yourself in those days, [16:03] meant go away, get education, go someplace else. [16:06] Thank you Lord that this is changed, [16:08] because our, our job is to create opportunity [16:15] in our communities. [16:15] We love our communities, which we do and our families [16:17] and I know many people are passionate about the [16:20] rural areas, but we, as the older generation, [16:24] need to create opportunity and maybe show a little direction [16:29] and then be willing to step aside and let those leaders [16:32] grow and make a few mistakes, maybe. [16:35] But maybe they’re gonna bring, the lens through which [16:39] they see the future is the better lens than my lens [16:44] because they know what their heart’s desires [16:47] and passions are.

[16:48] Sure, well Bob, you’ve had, you’ve really had [16:51] an impact. [16:52] You were selected as part of the inaugural class [16:56] of RFI Fellows, and we’ve talked about that program [16:59] some on this broadcast before, [17:02] but you’re actually part of what makes that class [17:05] so unusual, fellows programs are typically [17:09] scholars and distinguished scholars, [17:12] and we have a number of those in that class, [17:15] but we chose to also include Community Fellows [17:20] who are out there making decisions, driving change, [17:24] making rural communities a great place to live [17:28] and I have to tell you, we’ve just been so proud [17:30] to have you involved really from the start. [17:33] You’ve also been part of our luminary advisory cabinet. [17:36] And which I am so appreciated. [17:38] For the institute that we’ve had a lot of fun together. [17:41] So listen, I hope that over time, we can continue [17:43] to do some of this work together. [17:45] Me too.

[17:46] Anything you’d like to add today? [17:48] Just as a wrap up, Chuck, I think [17:50] if we all remember this is a process. [17:53] This is never a one and done, and as you said, [17:56] so aptly in the beginning, this is not [17:57] an outside fix coming in. [18:00] We need to decide what we want. [18:02] We need to decide what our passions are, [18:03] and we need to work to do it, [18:05] and we can do it, cause if we can dream it, [18:06] we can do it. [18:08] Well, you’ve been a dreamer and a doer for a long time, [18:10] Bob, and we’re glad to be associated with you.

[18:12] Well listen, we want you to stay in touch [18:13] with the Rural Futures Institute [18:15] through Facebook and Twitter. [18:17] Go see our recently revised website. [18:21] It’s a lot of fun. [18:22] And know that we’re gonna be back in weeks to come [18:25] talking to real people, looking at real places, [18:28] and seeing folks that demonstrate that strong [18:32] rural communities can be a legitimate best choice [18:34] for worthwhile living. [18:36] Thanks for joining us.

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