Podcast/Season 2/

Bonus Episode! Futurist Connie Reimers-Hild intersects foresight, psychographics shifts, global rural development

January 29, 2019
            Researcher, entrepreneur and high-touch futurist, Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D., host of the Rural Futures Podcast, takes the hot seat in this bonus episode of our show! Dr. Connie serves as interim executive director and chief …





Researcher, entrepreneur and high-touch futurist, Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D., host of the Rural Futures Podcast, takes the hot seat in this bonus episode of our show! Dr. Connie serves as interim executive director and chief futurist of the Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska. During this episode, she shares her approach to leadership, her vision for RFI, her recent experiences traveling the world to provide the voice of rural, acceptable metrics to measure rural thriving and rural economic development of the future. 

Hosted by Katelyn Ideus, producer of the podcast and RFI’s director of communications, Dr. Connie brings forward the critical importance of strategic foresight for rural areas — we cannot solve the grand challenges we’re facing or take advantage of tremendous opportunities if we continue to think and act in the same framework and mindset of the past. We need to understand the megatrends, demographic and pyschographic shifts and industry evolutions surrounding and intermingling with our rural ecosystem. We must also be clear about the fundamental leadership transformation that is occurring based on the expectations of upcoming generations.

“Major companies have really invested in [strategic foresight] realizing that their business model today isn’t going to propel them into a successful future. They need to change, but they need to anticipate what those changes might be to make the right decisions, so that they’re innovating in the right way. We need to do the same when strategic planning for a thriving rural future.”
Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D.
Host, Rural Futures Podcast; Interim Executive Director & Chief Futurist, Rural Futures Institute

About Dr. Connie


Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D., helps leaders and organizations reach their desired futures through strengths-based innovation and strategic foresight. She assumed the role of Interim Executive Director of the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska in July 2018 after three years as Associate Executive Director of the Institute.

Since joining RFI, Dr. Reimers-Hild has led the development of the RFI Engagement Nexus and fostered a growing relationship with Microsoft focused on the future of economic development and technology. She is also the host of the Rural Futures podcast, which has more than 4,000 downloads nationwide in just 20 episodes.

Dr. Reimers-Hild has authored or co-authored 55 publications, 10 workbooks, six videos, six coaching tools, three books and one book chapter. In total, her digital publications have been downloaded by 3,300 institutions more than 70,000 times throughout 175 countries. She has also taught more than 25,000 learners from around the world.

Strategic Foresight

About Katelyn


Brand and content strategist, Katelyn Ideus serves as director of communications and PR for the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska where she leads the strategic communications efforts of the Institute, including production of the Rural Futures Podcast.

A writer turned strategic communicator, Katelyn is passionate about positioning high-capacity experts and mission-motivated doers to reach their goals through valuable bodies of work. She is energized by finding dynamic, targeted ways to tell stories on behalf of organizations, causes and people she believes in. 

Katelyn holds a master’s degree in integrated media communications and bachelor’s in news editorial and broadcast journalism, both from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Journalism & Mass Communications.

Bold Strategic Communications


Mentioned During The Episode


Show Notes

Katelyn Ideus: Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m Katelyn Ideus, producer of the show and in today’s episode, I’m interviewing our host, Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild who serves as Interim Executive Director and Chief Futurist at the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska. So Dr. Connie, welcome to your own show.

Dr. Connie: Thanks, Katelyn. It’s kind of fun to be on the other end of the mic. I feel like I’m on the spot now.

Katelyn Ideus: I want to start out by providing our listeners with a bit of context and background about you. So can you please share with us that highlight reel of your personal and professional life that has led you to this point of leading a major institute at the University of Nebraska?

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I’d love to. I have been at the university for quite some time and people that have listened to this know I was first generation college student who really had no intention of ever getting a Master’s degree let alone a PhD. And luckily I had some great mentors who helped me understand that you could actually get paid to go to graduate school, I didn’t know that, that’s the reason my Master’s degree is in entomology and also then thinking about what that looked like next for me was really important. I really was interested in this science of people and how people really showed up and interacted with the world. So my PhD is in human sciences with a focus on leadership and I really have studied what it means for people to be entrepreneurial and innovative before people could actually spell entrepreneurial which was a long time ago. It used to be like no one was even searching it before Google, it was crazy.

Katelyn Ideus: That’s hilarious.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I mean it really is kind of a funny thing, because my first company actually was called Entrepreneurial You and I had to switch the name to Wild Innovation because no one could spell entrepreneurial, so nobody could find the company, but as a futurist that’s what you have to get pretty comfortable with, I think, is realizing you’re about 10 years ahead. So after getting my PhD and I actually worked as a faculty member in the Department of Entomology here at the University of Nebraska Lincoln on East campus before going into extension where then I worked with businesses. I worked with communities and I worked with a lot of entrepreneurs and leaders on personal and professional development. I’m a certified professional coach and a certified futurist because those pieces really go together. It’s great to do the strategic course item futuring with companies or even people as individuals, but really to change what we need to change, make the changes we want and desire. The coaching helps with that piece. I’ve been married for, it’ll be 20 years this year, so I’m super jazzed about that.

Katelyn Ideus: Congratulations.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, yeah. I’m excited. Wonderful man. I was older when I got married and had kids. It was a long betting process for me in the dating world I would say. But I still think that’s the best advice to give anyone– if you want a great future, find a great partner. We both have full time careers, have the business, but we also started out with two wiener dogs and now have two kids that are nine and eleven who really have been just the joys of our life. And so folding this all together has been a lot of fun because I think what’s happened is while we talk about the inability to balance. I think having to do that in real life, really helps you help leaders better, because you get it. You’re sort of having to figure it out everyday yourself.

Katelyn Ideus: You’ve already brought up futuring and strategic foresight but we need to dig into this a little bit more because it’s a bit mind boggling, but we still get asked if strategic foresight is quote a real thing and if a futurist is something people know about. But we do get these questions so let’s clear it up. Can you share with us your definition of a futurist?

Dr. Connie: I can and I will go on record to say yes, strategic foresight is a discipline. Other universities and colleges actually teach it. I’m certified through the University of Houston and we had Dr. Andy Hines on who was actually the lead person in that academy. They teach it on campus, they teach it online, they have full blown bachelor master degree programs and many places focused on it. And that is really important because really strategic foresight is a discipline that futurists use to help leaders, people, organizations, communities really take a look at what’s happening. Not just now, but into the future. What’s possible and what’s probable. And then helping them make decisions, better decisions so they’re better prepared for the future, but also in a position to create the future that they want.

Katelyn Ideus: So talk to us a little bit more about that program that you went through at the University of Houston. What types of people were in your program with you?

Dr. Connie: It was an amazing program and I had wanted to go through it for years. I’ve been a member of the World Future Society, presented at that conference, published within that sphere for quite some time before actually going on and taking their certificate program. So there are people from all over the world and all different industries there. So you had people from Clorox, Ford, the United States Library Association, Lowe’s, a lot of these major companies have really invested in this space realizing that their business model today isn’t going to propel them into a successful future. They need to change, but they need to anticipate what those changes might be to make the right decisions so that they’re innovating in the right way. I was actually the only person in my class that was from a university and I found that to be very interesting considering sort of the huge transition that universities are in right now along with retail, healthcare, every other space, right? I was just in Lincoln, Nebraska here. I tried to go make a return at Sears, they’re closing and it’s not like we didn’t know this was happening. A: Sears has talked about this for a long time. We’ve seen just the prolific growth of online retail. Well, why do you need to go to that store anymore? And so it’s really interesting to me the companies that have chosen to invest in that and really pivot and evolve and the ones that have not.

Katelyn Ideus: Now, I have to ask the classic Dr. Connie question, what do you do to keep your futurist mind fresh?

Dr. Connie: I love to watch Sci-Fi movies. Like I’m a crazy big fan of Sci-Fi, because,and I always have been. I mean I think that’s the other thing about being a futurist. I’ve been a futurist since I was pretty young. I just didn’t know what it was at that time. I could see what was going to happen and I could put really odd things together. It’s something that’s very natural for me, but it’s hard to always explain and put into words what that looks like for others and how they can benefit from that knowledge. And I think it’s staying sharp, it’s a lot of reading. I’m a huge learner. Audio books, especially with all the driving I do. So I’m also a huge fan of Singularity University. I just actually finished up some course work to keep myself fresh last year with that group and it was all online. Again, people from all over the world, from all industries. This time there were some folks from higher education which was great, but really thinking about how do we exponentially grow what’s happening. I listen to a lot of podcasts as well and yesterday I was listening to one that talked about 5G. Like, what should we expecting with 5G that we’re not doing right now? And the 5G will be something once people are connected to it it’ll be like what electricity was, they used the example of what electricity was to a washing machine. It was life changing, right? It’s not once piece of clothing anymore, but it’s also we can own a lot more clothes. We can buy them, we can wash them faster, we have clothes now for everything.

Katelyn Ideus: Yeah, you’ve already kind of promo-ed some of the episodes that we’ve had with guests. I mean if this conversation is sparking your curiosity as a listener, we have more that you can dig into. So episode eight featured Dr. Andy Hines who leads the University of Houston’s Strategic Foresight Graduate Certificate Program. And I’d also suggest episode one with Ryan Alexander, higher ed futurist. Episode 13 with Thomas Frey, he’s a prolific leading futurist, nationally and globally and episode 16 with Deb Westphal who’s the CEO of Toffler Associates. And we have more coming in season three. Just continuing to bring these futurists together because when you said I bring this disparate ideas together. Yeah, I mean that’s what you’ve done here at the Rural Futures Institute, tying rural to strategic foresight is a completely different conversation than has been had and I think even talking to these futurists, they’re interested in this too and they’re seeing, wow, yeah we do need to have this conversation of what the future holds for rural and then obviously what that means for everyone.

Dr. Connie: And I think just having the connection to other futurists who maybe see things differently than I do or had different experiences, have worked with different companies just broadens the perspective of what’s possible. And I think rural is one of those areas that’s been sort of left out of the equation when it comes to futuring, strategic foresight, technology. When I was recently on a panel in Paris, the women’s conference really focused on the future of cities. The reason I was there, because it was because of our partnership with Microsoft, but also rural just isn’t represented. They were like we need somebody that has this rural voice and knowledge to talk about the future of cities, because I’m like it’s not just cities, right? It is that rural urban connection that’s really what makes the world work, and sometimes we don’t recognize that. A lot of those fundamental pieces of everything we consume come from rural areas and even though in many ways that’s getting more automated, in many ways it’s also not. In many ways it’s also still hand laborers. When you think about coffee for example, chocolate, that is produced in rural areas and it’s produced by people living in those areas and I think that we forget the human element sometimes about what are those people doing in their world that affects our world. But also the cool innovation and the strength that our rural people around the world, in the US, in Nebraska really bring to the table and what I love about the podcast and our work at the Rural Futures Institute. And in particular your work, Katelyn, I think in the communication space has really lifted up that voice for rural. We have more work to do, obviously. Yeah, I mean it’s no small job, but it’s exciting to see that now we have actually futurists coming to us saying hey, can I be part of this conversation? I really like to contribute my work to this space. And I think that’s a great accomplishment, but I’m also excited to see what that can bring to our state and beyond.

Katelyn Ideus: I want to transition into the future of the Rural Futures Institute now. You assumed the Interim Executive Director role at RFI in July and you’ve really challenged our team to narrow our scope and be very focused on the type of impact we want to make and you wrote an introductory letter in July and then you also just had a recent op ed, both of which are available on our website. If anyone would like to read them in full, but can you share with us a bit about your vision for the institute going forward?

Dr. Connie: I really like to think about it through the strategic foresight loans about what’s possible, what’s probable and then how can we continue to grow. But that takes focus. I mean I think that’s where especially in terms as we have had a large budget cut and also we’ve lost quite a bit of capacity in terms of people. I think sometimes that has gotten lost a bit in some of the conversation. What is it now that we can do? What can we specialize in and make the wider impact in Nebraska and the world? Students have been a huge part of that and will continue to be a huge part of that and getting students into communities, our rural communities with those leaders is a huge contribution we’ve made in the past but we have to measure the impact of that and continue to think about how do we partner and scale that up and change it in the future. And really as we’ve developed this nexus, what we call the Rural Futures Nexus of students, communities, and faculty coming together making sure we’re bringing those pieces together in a thoughtful way to elevate what’s happening in those communities. So taking what’s happening at the university, connecting it with communities, but also what’s happening in communities and connecting that back to the university, so that the university very much knows the innovation happening there, but also what we should be doing here at the university to help those communities.

Katelyn Ideus: We are also quite proud of the Rural Future’s Institute’s Student Serviceship Program that was developed by University of Nebraska faculty in 2013 through RFI funding. It has continued every year and grown in scope placing 60 some students in 30 some rural communities to work, serve, and live. And last year we had our largest class of students serving 11 communities, two of which were broader communities of practice, so that was an exciting evolution of the program. Without giving too much away, can you share with our listeners the evolution of the program we have been working on this past six months?

Dr. Connie: We’re working on kind of pivoting what we’ve called our Rural Serviceship Program a bit. I’d love for that to come out as more of a fellows approach with students in those communities and with our community leaders for the student piece and the community piece and the university piece, we’ve really looked at inclusion through Dr. Helen Fagan’s work of becoming a part that. Can that theoretical foundation of inclusion then lead to more economic impact workforce development greater good for those communities in terms of well being. But also let’s bring the strategic foresight in with it in the communications piece with it. So Singularity University, who I just talked about, when I took my courses there for professional development last year, communications was a huge part of that. It’s not enough to just have the foresight, you need the action, but you also need to communicate the difference it’s making and where you intend to go. And that’s what we’re working on here at the Rural Futures Institute.

Katelyn Ideus: Okay so let’s get specific too, on the Nebraska Thriving Index so this a print and online tool that we’ll be rolling out in the summer that will provide economic developers, local elected officials and community leaders with economic and quality of life indicators to identify thriving and lagging regions. And the point of this is that with that information, that’s really comparing them to comparable peers. They can make some strategic future focused investments. So what was the inspiration behind this project and how did it come to be the partners involved?

Dr. Connie: I’m really excited about the Thriving Index. We started seeing these barometers for Omaha, and Lincoln here in Nebraska and also sister cities to Lincoln and Omaha. And Dr. Eric Thompson at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Bureau of Business Research, they are the ones that have led these types of measures of Lincoln and Omaha. And so as we started to look at them, now they have five years of data and they use these a lot of times in economic development to attract new companies or even just to say, here’s where we’re at, here’s where we’re doing well, here’s where we need to put some resources. They really use it I think in many ways to help form their future and a lot of the decisions around that and we didn’t have anything for rural that resembled that and so we talked with Eric and he has a team. Also Dr. Bre Doherty at the University of Nebraska at Kearney who’s really helped us form this up and think through this and then we worked with a number of partners through the community vitality initiative and the Nebraska extension and there’s a whole team involved and you can find that information on our website as well. But to look at the landscape in rural. So the economic aspects of it, but also overall well being. Because what we do know is that population can’t be the metric, right? So we get charged with this a lot and people ask us well how are you going to change the trajectory of rural Nebraska? You know what, that’s a very complicated question and I get the intent of the question. The population is incredibly important in the attraction and retention of people, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s way more complicated than just using population as a metric. What we do know, is that the quality of life, especially in places like rural Nebraska is good, but we don’t know how good, how great. We don’t know what’s thriving and what’s not thriving necessarily in those areas and a lot of it is very regional not just a specific community. And so the index will really help display this in regions. And it’ll be a tool that people can actually use and it’ll be great to get some initial data put together, an initial tool put together that people can take a look at to assess their region and compare it to other regions. But the long term goal would be that this index will occur over time and so we can start seeing those trends over time, we can start seeing what needs additional help or where places are thriving. And then also if we can expand that to other states, how does Nebraska compare? And what can we do about it? I mean I think that’s the other thing as a university too is for us to have this information to say hey, this is where we’re making a contribution, but this is where we could do more.

Katelyn Ideus: So, you hold your doctorate in leadership as you’ve shared and in episode 10 of this show, you shared your definition of leadership and you said, “It is the ability to lead one’s own life while bringing out the best in others and making a positive contribution to the future.” You went on to say, “I believe in 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.” And that episode aired on August 3rd, one month in to your leadership role here at RFI. So what have you learned since then?

Dr. Connie: For me that still holds true. My whole coaching philosophy and model is built on developing your inner leader. I’m really not a big fan of one person having a giant vision and everybody else get on board and go towards it. I think that worked in the Industrial Era. It does not work in the current era that we are in and I think it holds true even more so for me today than it did even a few months ago. And I’ve been in leadership roles before at the Kimmel Education and Research Center for example and other places that I’ve been. This is a little different in that it’s a higher level within the university but it also we have a very small team. And for me, that means that I need people on our team to really embrace that inner leader. I can’t afford to micromanage anyone and I’m not even good at it, but I also think this is what’s important in those communities, it’s important to the faculty and staff that we work with here. We need to bring the best out in everybody and that’s really as leaders I feel like that’s part of the role, right? It’s not just assigning tasks and delegating, that’s management, but leadership requires a little more than that and I think in many ways, after going through a difficult situation, like we have here at the Rural Futures Institute, or many of our communities have gone through. It’s coming out of that sort of like the phoenix,


Dr. Connie: and flying again, that’s kind of how I see it is you’re going to go through those difficult times and it’s the what have you learned and how did it make you stronger? And I think that’s kind of where I’m at at this point with a lot of things and even our interview with Dr. Howard Liu from the med center, we touched a lot on this result. There’s a lot of mental and spiritual and physical capacity that has to go in that and I think that’s all part of that inner leader, right? And shift gears when you need to. I mean we had to make some hard decisions. We had to pass things like bit Connecting Young Nebraskans, CYN program that’s amazing and I think there’s such a great group of young leaders around our state but you know what, our partners at the Nebraska Community Foundation can do wonderful things with that. And rather than just cut it and see it die, we really wanted to trim it from our branches but see it grow and I think that’s the part of leadership that sometimes gets a little difficult and people can get a little judgmental around it, but for us to grow and for us to help serve people in a better way we have to be good at who we are and good with who we are, we have to lead who we are and show up in an authentic way. Some of these things we have to let go of and let loss and beyond who we are here at the Rural Futures Institute.

Katelyn Ideus: Okay, so to say that fall 2018 was a whirlwind, is a little bit of an understatement. Where all did you go?

Dr. Connie: I’m trying to remember, it was a blur because Japan and Paris were the big international trips. But I made several trips out to Kearney and went to Ohio as well. Yeah, I mean and I was feeling that, I was getting a little tired there by the end. I mean it was great because I think we know that the demand for the work we’re doing here and for the partnerships we’ve created is growing and that’s great to see. And now it’s like again how do we continue to grow and thrive ourselves through this so that we can continue to serve in a prolific way, but yeah. I was in Ohio working with some agricultural leaders and connecting with them around the rural future and their own business future. The agricultural landscape is changing at a very rapid clip. How do they as leaders continue to evolve and change and how can we connect with them here at the institute? That’s really important. And then I was in Kearney. I worked with the Nebraska Rural Health Association, key noted their annual conference but also connected with some great leaders that attended that conference. I’m very excited to continue to work in that space. And then 10 days in Japan as part of a partnership we have with the Japan Society and this has been a great relationship that’s been ongoing, a project that’s been ongoing. We hosted a number of Japanese leaders here last year in 2017, then the exchange was to take US leaders to Japan. I was one of those leaders that was selected from the US to go and learn about what’s happening there. What you learn is that a lot of what’s happening there is happening here. I mean this whole rural conversation is while we focus or want to focus our impact in Nebraska, there’s a whole national and international need for us to all come together around this and find some really bold innovative solutions to what’s happening and capture the creativity already happening. And after that, eight days later that I was flying into Paris to present at an international women’s forum really focused on how do we help empower women to create a better future. And again, that was part of our relationship with Microsoft so a lot of the relationships that we’ve had and have been forming are really starting to grow and we want to see more happen from that. And we want rural to be at the table. Aging is a huge issue in both the area of the women in empowerment, but also in places like Japan. And aging is a global issue that we see especially in our rural areas and so I think just the learnings from some of that have been huge and I’ve been able to bring a lot of that back to Nebraska which is great.

Katelyn Ideus: So let’s dig into Japan a little bit more. It is an acute example of hyper urbanization so until the early 2000’s, globally more people lived in villages and small towns than cities, but population in large cities continues to rise while the opposite is true in rural areas. This is especially true in Japan. People are leaving their rural homes to go to Tokyo, for example, and today 92% of the Japanese live in large cities. And it’s causing an influx of abandoned land throughout the rural areas of the country and also just some concern. I mean, I’ve read articles on the millennial generation is really concerned about their responsibility. I mean some of these rural communities are 1,000 years old in Japan and it’s going to be under their watch that they die. I mean this is really kind of an issue. So you wrote a paper for the Japan Society and that will be published soon through them, but tell us about your key observations that you wrote about in that paper.

Dr. Connie: Yeah so one of the areas that I wanted to really examine while I was there is this issue of gender inequity, because it’s a pretty big one. And it’s a big one in rural areas in Nebraska. We’ve heard that through our rural forums that we need to empower people and be more inclusive in our leadership but that includes gender as a huge part of that. One of my takeaways was that women need representation, their own voice and economic independence in Japan. And that is especially true in the rural areas. Many times even at meetings, men are still speaking for women. We see that here, I see that. Even as the Executive Director for a major institute that still happens and I find myself having to interrupt people or just keep talking through talk to interrupt me at a table. It drives me crazy, but it still happens and so this is just, it’s a problem, a cultural problem, globally. But also the Japanese relationship with food is very unique and I think it has the potential to drive a larger share of their economy that I think there’s a lot we could learn from them around the connection with food and agriculture and the way that it’s so beautifully represented. They have like fan clubs for their rice and their fish. People in urban areas that are selling their products for them and doing social media for them and really have actually become fans of how the food is produced. They also have things like rice compacts where they actually will contract with people living in places like Tokyo to buy rice from rural areas and then in case something bad happens in Tokyo, for example a tsunami, they can actually move and go stay in those rural areas and have a safe place to live. I just think those are so creative to how to engage people in rural areas even if they don’t physically live there. And also Japan’s population appears to be less dependent on traditional healthcare and more focused on health. I think this was especially prevalent as I, I actually was involved in a tea party with elderly ladies in a rural village and the thing that it showed me was these women have chosen to get together. They’ve chosen to get together because it helps them get out of their houses and to create that social bond they need for their health and their well being. It’s once a week, but they have fun. I mean they’re having great food, it’s home made food, very healthy food, green and black tea, and they’re laughing, but it’s also just a great example of people taking ownership and that inner leadership of how do I want to experience this life.

Katelyn Ideus: Now I also want to go back to the women’s forum global conference. So, correct me if I’m wrong but were you the only rural perspective person there? Was there anybody else?

Dr. Connie: Nobody else that I know of, no. I was pretty much it and I think the great thing is that after that conference then I was contacted by other conferences, global conferences to bring in this rural perspective. People just, they’re curious, but they don’t know.

Katelyn Ideus: Right, right. But with that kind of influential platform with leaders from across corporations, governments, non-profits, what calls to action did you share with this opportunity?

Dr. Connie: Well one, we need to plan for both underpopulation, and overpopulation in physical communities. There is an absolute interconnectedness between urban and rural that we can no longer ignore. And our global ecosystem must support more than just people. As we move forward with the Rural Futures Institute, one of the things we’ve really focused on is the rural-urban collaboration, not divide. We talked about this with Dr. Tim Griffin from Tufts University. We really need to ask better questions and do better research around this, because too often we’re focused on the divide and not on interconnectedness. And we need to understand that more I think so people value both rural and urban in a different way. And number two is that we need to provide access to health, well-being and vitality for all. What does it really look like for every person on the planet to have great places to live, clean water, sanitation, transportation, sustainable energy, activity and proper nutrition? And how do we provide access to health, well being, and vitality for all people in the future? This was a big focus of the Singularity University course work that I took. I mean we can start thinking about these things now, because not only do we have the technology, but we have the science and I think we have the will of many people to try and figure out answers to these big questions. Number three, advancements in technology and science are changing expectations and demands of humans. We have demographic shifts and that’s recognized, but we have psychographic shifts as well and sometimes that is unrecognized. For example, I just expect that I can order something on my phone and it’s there about the next day or two days and I live in a rural area. As you’re more remote and rural I know that might be a little bit different and I get it, but this will continue to change, right? I mean, so as we have for example more 3D printing in the future we don’t even have to order, we can just print it in our home. But we need to be connected in order to do that. And so when you think about the internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics, mobile technologies, intelligent transportation– these are interwoven factors that are happening that we can really I think embrace in rural if we want to, but also we can lead the way in rural if we want to. So when I think about autonomous vehicles in our aging population, and the need for people to get to still a healthcare facility, why not create the intersection of that and let us be the place where places like Tesla, Microsoft, et cetera come and do some research. Yes, please Google, let’s see what we can do. But that gets really to the fourth point of broadband and high speed connectivity which will be critical components of future communities both physically and digitally. This requires a systems approach to infrastructure. How many physical structures do we really need at this point? Again, we see a lot of these physical stores closing, because you know what? You just simply don’t need to go there and honestly for people like me and many others, shopping is not really that exciting and if you don’t find what you want at the price you want, with all the selection that you can get on your phone or on your computer, why are you there? I mean if it’s not an experience of some sort, people aren’t going to do it. So should more of this money be invested in virtual opportunities?

Katelyn Ideus: Kind of one of the last things I want to hit on is just the insights we’ve had from doing this podcast so far. So we’ve had 20 episodes and we’re definitely seeing some themes emerge. We published a white paper about season one entitled The Future of Leadership Technology and Rural Urban Collaboration which is available at ruralfutures.nebraska.edu/podcast. But season two added some more specifics to these main themes. What stood out most to you?

Dr. Connie: Well I think the fact that there’s a lot of great stories out there and there are stories to tell and we need to tell them well. But we also need to understand the elements of those stories and how they can be replicated beyond that example. When you think about Handlebend in O’Neil, Nebraska, two young guys who decided to create copper mugs from copper in one of their dad’s shops, because he works in refrigeration and now turning that into a business and their website is so amazing. But not only that, I mean they are engaging the community, they’re hiring people. The community’s been a huge part of their success and they’re telling about that and the importance of that. They’re also not shy about saying that they’ve needed the internet. They want to empower more women to work with their company and help them grow and I think that’s really such a great story, but what are the lessons and how can others learn and be successful with that same sort of model? Empowering women as I’ve talked about, is so critical if we want communities to thrive, women have to thrive as well, because they give back to their families and communities. But also, we’ve really noticed that a lot of people don’t choose to define themselves as a leader. It’s like they’re scared to say yeah, I’m a leader. But I think in some ways that’s because there’s still this old sort of idea that the leaders and CEO in a corner office can be a bit of a jerk, right? Someone that just tells everybody what to do. And so I think as we sort of continue to evolve to self leadership and people wanting to take control and empower their own future, I think that will change.

Katelyn Ideus: And we’ve always kind of acknowledged that. That people don’t self define as a leader, but the types of people we’re bringing on this show and they’re looking at our preform and they’re like, well I don’t know that I should have an opinion on leadership style and you’re just so surprised to hear them say that. It’s like, look at what you’re doing. Look at how you’ve brought people together around your ideas or look at the type of thought leader. So I just, that one has stood out to me too. Okay so obviously we’re really excited for season three which will debut in February. We have a bunch of interviews scheduled for this month and they’ll be with futurist researchers and rural mavericks still, but can you talk about a few of the topics that we’re really eager to address?

Dr. Connie: Yeah, technology will continue to be a huge theme. I think that’s just from basic access with broadband to wearables to even what’s going to emerge in the 5G economy and what’s going to be enabled through that. Continue to focus on some population demographic shifts. Not just that it’s happening, but what the implications are for the future are also very important. And then entrepreneurship at a global level so in Japan entrepreneurship is becoming more important. It hasn’t been part of their culture necessarily. We’re going to engage leaders in Australia around this conversation, because this is economic development in rural. It is entrepreneurship, it’s not going to be a traditional employer, it’s not even going to be traditional full time work, it’s going to be the gig economy, it’s going to be entrepreneurship and it’s going to be innovation.

Katelyn Ideus: Love it. Okay so to wrap up, I think if all the other guests think I missed an opportunity. If I didn’t ask you some of the questions that you ask them, that make them go, oh.


Katelyn Ideus: And so there’s two of those. First, which I think should be maybe our warm up for season three is like what does the future’s hat look like? Because that’s very interesting.I always kind of picture it as like the sci-fi type of like stuff coming out of it.

Dr. Connie: To me it’s like that cone shaped wizard hat with some sparkly stars and stuff. And I know the students have even some more interesting ideas. That is still a contest.

Katelyn Ideus: Yes, it’s a contest! Who can come up with the best futurist hat? But anyways, okay I digress, so with your futurist hat on, what are some of the key mega trends that you want to make sure people understand are impacting our rural urban future and that we should really be preparing for?

Dr. Connie: I think the technology and science piece, of course, and the continued advancement in that, but I think sort of the evolution or community as well. We have a lot of our basic needs met. We’ll continue to work on that in many places around the world, but then what comes next? What comes next if people aren’t working full time? What comes next if people are wanting to feel more fulfilled and be healthier and more vital and we need them to do that? And how do we piece this together and how do we do this globally? Because I think some of the other interesting conversations we’ll have are outside of humanity. How is all this affecting wildlife and ocean populations, flora and fauna? I think there’s a national resources piece that’ll continue to grow especially as a potential growing population consumes more.

Katelyn Ideus: So the last question that makes people sigh or just flat out say, “I shouldn’t answer that” is parting words of wisdom.

Dr. Connie: Well I think, parting words of wisdom for me would be for people to continue to create their own future and really look at their life through the lens of a futurist. So as we see dynamic shifts in terms of employment opportunities that go away, we’re going to see new ones emerge. So what does that look like for you? How can you tap into your strengths and creative strengths based future for yourself? And that then impacts your community, but also the world. But I want to throw that back to you also, Katelyn. What are your words of wisdom that you’d like to leave our audience with?

Katelyn Ideus: They all map to essentialism. So everyone, if you have not read that book, you need to do so immediately. A lot of what you have mentored me with which is exactly what you said. What future do you want? You need to know what your desire is and go for that and so I think that has resonated with me a ton and I’ve really put some thought into it and it’s hard sometimes. But my parting words of wisdom today would be, done is better than perfect and this podcast is such a great example of that. If I had waited for our concept to be absolutely perfect, we wouldn’t have launched yet, and we wouldn’t be sitting here and have pulled together such an incredible group of people. So thank you to each and every one of our guests who have made this dream not just a reality, but just plain fun. I mean these people just are a pleasure to talk with and I just also want to take a moment to thank everyone who is listening because we can more than justify continuing this show, we have listeners from 45 of 50 states, represented in our listenership, which obviously the competitive person me is going to call out hey Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware and New Hampshire– Y’all need to get on board, so there might be some targeting to those just so we can round up to 50, but those are my parting words of wisdom, Connie.

Dr. Connie: I agree. Essentialism is awesome, but yeah. Let’s get those last five states and we know you’re out there, rural. We know, I’ve met people from rural Alaska, Arkansas, especially those two states that are doing some amazing things.

Katelyn Ideus: Well, and our listeners are definitely not just rural. I’m seeing a lot of Chicago, Austin, San Diego so I mean it’s really cool to see such a good mix, but obviously Nebraska  is coming in strong and we really appreciate that.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, thank you Nebraska. We love it.

Katelyn Ideus: Alright, hey Connie. Thanks for coming on your own show.

Dr. Connie: Well hey, Katelyn. Thanks for interviewing me and putting me on a hot seat.

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Episode 20: NU institute directors intersect early childhood, water sustainability, national security

December 3, 2018
      The University of Nebraska (NU) has invested in four interdisciplinary Institutes, each focused on areas in which the University and the state of Nebraska have unique strengths. Through these Institutes, researchers and students from the four NU …


The University of Nebraska (NU) has invested in four interdisciplinary Institutes, each focused on areas in which the University and the state of Nebraska have unique strengths. Through these Institutes, researchers and students from the four NU campuses come together with partners to find innovative solutions and opportunities for our state, our nation and our world.

Interestingly, each of the Institutes have a specific relationship and value to offer to rural people and places now and into the future. We welcomed the executive directors of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute and the National Strategic Research Institute to talk with Dr. Connie on this Season 2 finale, asking them to approach their area of expertise through our lenses of future-focused leadership, rural-urban collaboration and high-touch, high-tech. Enjoy!

“When we talk about the future at the Rural Futures Institute, we know we need to have a strengths-based approach that includes an abundance mindset. We know there are challenges, but if we continue to just talk about and focus on those challenges, we’re not going to be able to move forward in a way that provides those solutions and outcomes.”
Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D.
RFI Interim Executive Director & Chief Futurist

Samuel Meisels

Buffett Early Childhood Institute


SAMUEL J. MEISELS, ED.D. Founding Executive Director Buffett Early Childhood Institute

Interview starts at 01:19

Samuel J. Meisels is the founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and holds the Richard D. Holland Presidential Chair in Early Childhood Development as well as appointments at each of the four NU campuses.

One of the nation’s leading authorities on the assessment of young children, Sam has published more than 200 research articles, books, monographs and assessments. He was president of the board of directors of Zero to Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, has lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad, and is an advisor and consultant for numerous local, state, and national organizations.

Peter McCornick

Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute


Peter G. McCornick, Executive Director, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute

Interview starts at 18:46

Peter G. McCornick joined the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute as executive director in August 2016 after previously serving as deputy director general of research at the International Water Management Institute, one of the world’s foremost institutions dedicated to improving management of water and land resources to ensure food security and reduce poverty.

Peter has dedicated his career to improving the understanding of sustainable water resources management. He has led research and development programs on water, agriculture and the environment in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the U.S.

Robert Hinson

National Strategic Research Institute


Robert Hinson, USAF, Lt Gen (Ret), Executive Director, National Strategic Research Institute

Interview starts at 34:17

Lieutenant General (Ret) Robert Hinson serves as the founding executive director of the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI), leading and managing Department of Defense research opportunities for the University of Nebraska. NSRI is sponsored by United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and focuses on research that helps combat weapons of mass destruction. It is one of 13 DoD-designated University affiliated centers nationally.

Under Hinson’s leadership, NSRI received more than $61 million and 85 contract awards in its initial contract 2012-2018. The NSRI contract has been renewed with a five-year, $92 million contract with USSTRATCOM, through 2023.

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild and I’m really excited today to have Dr. Sam Meisels on with us. Dr. Meisels, is the founding Executive Director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and also holds the Richard D. Holland Presidential Chair in Early Childhood Development. Welcome to the podcast, Sam.

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

Dr. Connie: We’re really excited to have you on because not only are you prolific leader, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute is doing prolific work. First, tell our audience a little bit more about who you are.

Dr. Sam Meisels: Well, I am a transplant to Nebraska. I came here five years ago to start up the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and I live in Omaha.

Dr. Connie: And we’re really excited to have you here in Nebraska, and would love to have you tell us a little bit more about the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. What’s the mission, what’s the vision, and what impact are you working to achieve?

Dr. Sam Meisels: Sure. The Buffett Institute is what is known at the University as what is known as a four-campus institute. The University of Nebraska has campuses at the medical center in Omaha, at UNO and UNL, and of course and UNK. And we have responsibilities across all four of those campuses. Our vision is that Nebraska will be the best place in the nation to be a baby. And our job is to make that happen. So we describe our mission as that of transforming the lives and education of young children, especially those at greatest risk.

Dr. Connie: Now, tell us a little bit, too, about the approach Buffett uses to do this because in a very short time you’ve really been able to make great process in this space and also I’d like for you to tell us not just about your progress but, why people care so much? How does it affect what happens now and into the future? Why do people care?

Dr. Sam Meisels: Well, this is of course one of the wonderful things about being in the area of early childhood or early childhood development, people care about kids. They care about young children. The people of Nebraska, especially, care about young children. One of the very first things we did was to partner with Gallup to do a statewide survey of attitudes, knowledge, and belief of Nebraskans about early care and education, which is the term we apply to all of those programs that serve young children and families, children between birth and age eight, or really third grade. We were pleased to see that we did get very good response. In fact, Gallup said that proportionally for the number of surveys that were distributed, we had one of the highest return rates on a survey of this kind that they’ve ever had. More than seven thousand people responded to this survey. And they said that they are very supportive of early care and education, that they believe that more has to be done, that quality is suffering in early care and education, that there is not enough of that high quality care, and when it is available high quality care is very expensive. And in the last two or three decades, we’ve learned how important the early years are, the growth of social capital of our ability to be successful citizens and successful in life, we’ve learned that more and more extensively through research. And we’ve also learned about how brain development occurs in great proportion more in early childhood than in any other time of life. So, the importance of these years is something that very few people, if anyone, would dispute. Now the question is, what should we, and can we, do to help young children reach their potential. And that’s what we’re trying to do at the institute. You also ask, Connie what we’re focusing on and how we have had some impact already. When I came I decided that we needed to be very focused or else we wouldn’t accomplish very much. We identified two programs, two kinds of levels of activity that we call signature programs. One has to do with a challenge of closing the achievement gap between children who are coming from homes that are well resourced in terms of experience and education of parents, and in many cases because of the financial resources available, as contrasted to children coming from low-resourced families. So, our goal is to try to close that gap in achievement and in opportunity. That’s one of our signature programs. And the other has to do with the early childhood workforce. So these two areas represent a great deal of the effort and we’re starting to see some real impact as a result.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: At the Rural Futures Institute, this is a major challenge for people living in rural communities. I love how Buffett’s really focused yet holistic realizing that we need to be able to have high quality care but access just in general to that care if we want to have vital communities, whether rural or urban. So tell us a little bit about the mono engagement that you are using to really help lift this important issue to the forefront, but then also create action to create a positive future for our state.

Dr. Sam Meisels: With the early childhood workforce area, we’ve convened a commission of more than 40 state leaders, people from many different areas of activity. Some are people in business, some are people in higher education, some are actual providers of care to young children, we have folks in the world of philanthropy, and certainly people from state departments of education and HHS, all of those people coming together on a quarterly basis or more often to help us identify how we can build a workforce here that’s more skilled, more informed, and more diverse than exists right now. How we can increase public awareness and acceptance and demand for high quality, and that will lead to better compensation we hope for early childhood workers and then that will lead to higher qualifications to demand for more people to come here and work. So demand is a big issue for us. We know that in small communities in the State of Nebraska, where there is an absence and there are many that don’t have many early childhood programs, let alone high quality programs, that this could be a key to economic vitality of those small communities. In other words, if a community lacks quality childcare, many people that are childbearing years, many people who are parents of young children, will not want to live there or cannot live there. And, consequently, the efforts of businesses to attract and retain workers becomes very challenging. That’s something we want to learn more about and use that as a lever to bring to our state legislature and to our Executive Branch here in the state to say, we all know this is important to children’s development. We actually see a literal return on investment, but for that return you have to wait until this child becomes older, but an immediate way we can make a difference in communities by having high quality care present for those who want to work there and who want to stay in that community.

Dr. Connie: That’s absolutely right. I mean, just as a family that lives in a rural area ourselves, when we had our first child first thing you do is you try to go find high quality care. And you look around and you’re like wait a second, what are we going to do here? Reports will tell you, even keeping women in the workforce, what you’re competing with is childcare. That’s what you’re competing with. So if we want people gainfully employed, working to their full potential, but also wanting to move, because people aren’t going to move just for a job. They’re trying to put their whole life together and this is an issue that has been a sticking point for so long because it’s not just about is there access, because we didn’t know anyone in that community either. So if we couldn’t find a high quality daycare, and a lot of it then goes to home daycare or completely unlicensed where you’re just basically dropping your child off with somebody who’s home during the day.

Dr. Sam Meisels: Right, what we want to work toward is that childcare shouldn’t be thought of as a transaction. In other words, here’s another words I know I can get enough hours I’ll be able to go to work, but as a relationship, as some place that we know this is a place where our children will thrive. And as a consequence of thriving, we can have piece of mind, it will help us. More than 80% of children age five and younger are in some form of paid childcare in this state. And 62% of women who have infants, mothers of infants are in the workforce. So, these are really very important statistics because some people say well listen, children belong at home with their mom. And for some women, that is the choice they want to make and I’m deeply supportive of that. But for other women, either it’s not the choice because they want to work, it’s very, very important to who they are, or they have to work because they can’t afford to keep their family going the way they need to if they’re not working. Everyone says children are by far the most important element of our word, of our society, and yet we pay on average someone with a B.A. who works in childcare in the State of Nebraska, we pay them a little more than $19,000 per year to work full time. So, the competition there is Wendy’s, and it’s Target, and it’s other thing things that are variable but they don’t do this specialized work that is so important to us.

Dr. Connie: This is an excellent point. Again, how are we going to value this, and I mean really value it, so that people are able to use their talent in that space and really grow a career? So, is it transformation for their career if they’re caring for these children and these children and their families really have long term positive impact? And again, in those rural communities if we’re going to hope to keep people, or even grow those communities, we need that quality care to exist and we need people to be employed at a livable wage that really helps their own family live a quality life if they’re going to work in this space.

Dr. Sam Meisels: That’s exactly right. Now, the financial side of this is very important. It costs more to put an infant in full time child care than it does 18 years later to enroll that child at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Dr. Connie: You know what? I love that point because people aren’t talking about that enough, I know when we had two kids in daycare, it was extremely difficult. I mean, the check you’re writing for that every month is substantial and then you start making those trade-offs and decisions. Is this a high quality enough situation where it’s worth writing the check or do I make a transition? Or does my husband make a transition? I mean, it really does affect all those life choices that you have to make.

Dr. Sam Meisels: It does. And, the private sector, namely mom and dad, as you’re pointing out, has a very, very difficult time covering the cost and sometimes simply cannot cover ] the cost. On the other hand, turning this over to the public sector is a bridge too far, it’s asking too much. We need a mixed source of support for this, but one that recognized that high quality childcare and high quality workers in childcare don’t come cheap. None of that comes cheap. Any more than a high quality third grade teacher, or an eleventh grade physics teacher, anymore than those people come cheap. They shouldn’t, and they don’t. And we have to build a demand in our communities for our state as a whole to take on this issue and look for the sources of this, to redistribute dollars, to look to philanthropy, to look to private sector, to look to the public sector, to make the early years of life, to give it the kind of credit that we give it in words but not sufficiently in deeds.

Dr. Connie: Sam, with that in mind, I’d love for you to put your futurist hat on. Now I just came back, I was on the panel in Paris, at an international women’s summit where we really talked about a lot of these types of issues. How are we going to create the communities and cities and life experiences of the future that help empower women that was the focus of this conference but this is really about empowering many people, employees, children, families, communities themselves. So, how do you see this evolving?

Dr. Sam Meisels: This is the change we need. As we all do, we want this state and this nation to thrive. We want our citizens to thrive. This is a critical step for us to take. Other statistics tell us that more than a quarter, in fact, in the State of Nebraska, some estimates are as high as 40% of children under age five are at risk for problems and failure in school. Now, we cannot afford to have that many children. Bring the number down to 25%. Bring it down to 20% or even lower. We cannot afford to have those many children failing in school. It’s our job to do something about that. It no longer makes sense, well, those kids just need to study harder and go out and get a job. They are at a disadvantage because of the kind of experiences they have early on in life. Experiences in preschool, in Kindergarten, and all the way through, this is our responsibility and this will change our lives if we make a commitment of that kind.

Dr. Connie: I love your passion around this but also, you’ve really advanced the understanding and science around this through your leadership and scholarship and creativity. So I’d love you to also tell the listeners a little bit about your leadership style. How are you leading this charge? What does it take to do this type of work?

Dr. Sam Meisels: Well, I’m very fortunate that I have wonderful people who are working with me. And of course, I came here and I was employee number one, so that gave me this great opportunity to search and find wonderful people to join with me. And part of my job description, at least in my head is, to provide a vision and a direction. My job is to help them see that there’s another step to take and it’s something that would be gratifying in the extreme for them and for all of us. So, I think that that is a big part of my leadership style. I’m the type of person who doesn’t really think about the kind of leader in a typical typology, I don’t even know what that is. I just do the best I can. I also try to lead by example and by modeling. I’m a person who lives and breathes this all day long and shares it with as many people as I can. It’s very important to us here as a university, part of the university, that our work reflect the best knowledge available and be supported by research and by evidence.

Dr. Connie: And Sam, on that note, what words of wisdom would you like to leave our audience with today.

Dr. Sam Meisels: Words of wisdom are hard to come by.


Dr. Sam Meisels: I would say, I’ll give you my words of wisdom. My words of wisdom is that there’s nothing more important we can do than care for our children in the best ways that we know how. And when we’re not doing that, we are not doing, I think what we’re here to do in this world. And we have a long way to go.

Dr. Connie: Well thank you, I think those are amazing words of wisdom, and I’ll be anxious to get that feedback from our audience because I know this is going to be a hot topic for them.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Joining me today is Dr. Peter McCornick, Executive Director of the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. Welcome to the podcast, Peter. Thank you Connie, glad to be here. Water is a big issue here in Nebraska but also around the world. So tell us a little bit more about the institute. What’s its purpose, what’s its mission, what’s it doing

Dr. Peter McCornick: Well, the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute was established with a mission of achieving a water and food secure world. It’s a very bold ambition, but I think it was really based on a foundation of the university and of the state more widely and addressing this sort of challenges and how this could be better addressed in the state, but also really shared with nationally and internationally. So the institute partners with the university, partners with the natural resource districts here in the state and works with different countries and different states in the United States to look at what are the solutions, what are the things that we can learn from the rasp, what are the things that we can learn from elsewhere, and how can we really address something that’s really challenging. Agriculture and water is really requires local solutions. So how do we transfer that knowledge from one context to the next and the institute is really in the middle of that, trying to bring the different departments together, trying to focus on where we can actually come up with viable solutions and share such ideas.

Dr. Connie: Well, and water can be a challenging issue. It’s either lack of it, there’s the quantity aspect, but also the quality aspect of it. But also, nothing can live without water. So I think that the work that you do is so critically important in terms of how are we going to continue to feed a growing population and make sure that our water resources are a key part of that. But also, that there’s enough to make this happen.

Dr. Peter McCornick: Yes, and often the water quantity and water quality are very closely linked. I mean, where there’s water scarcity or we may have a lot of water, but if it’s contaminated either naturally or man-made, that means we can’t use it the way we’d like to use it so it becomes much more difficult to find the water that’s the best that we want to use for either human consumption or growing crops or for our ecosystems.

Dr. Connie: Well, I know you’ve had a very robust career. You’ve lived in many different countries and you’ve studied this in so many different places. So tell us a little bit about Dr. Peter McCornick. How did you evolve over time and get to where you are now here in Nebraska?

Dr. Peter McCornick: I’m from, as you can tell from my accent, I’m not quite from Nebraska. I actually grew up in a rural part of Southwest Scotland on a family farm beef, sheep, and dairy in those days, growing some crops. So I learned about agriculture at a very young age. My family are all still, my brothers are all still farmers in that area. I think they’re where too much water was generally the problem, so that certainly wasn’t what got me interested in water, but as I then went off to college and learned about the topics of engineering and agriculture and became interested in water, I also had an interest in working internationally. I went off really looking at in different countries and working in different countries. I came to the United States to do my Masters at Colorado State which was very strong in that area at the time. So, I ended up working on the Overall Aqua for Numa County in Colorado in Overall Aqua for way back there. I developed a strong interest in interdisciplinary efforts, really looking at solutions as an engineer but also social aspects of economics there, the natural resource management. And really, yeah, solutions oriented and subsequently I met my wife in Colorado and we moved around the world, spent about half our time overseas, half our time back in the US. But working in many countries looking at the issues really trying to develop solutions with the ministers, the farmers, the decision makers in those area, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So tell us a little about your leadership approach to making things happen in this space when you have a lot of competing interest, a lot of different ideas, what does that look like?

Dr. Peter McCornick: Yeah, I think that’s probably the biggest challenges we end up with this very complex environment we’re working around water and agriculture and different opinions, but how do you come up with solutions that people can agree on, but are also clearly communicated so that we can move forward and address the issues at hand? And I think I’ve always been quite mission focused. I’ve been curious, but quite passionate and maybe rather oddly so, but very passionate about this space. I think this is another part of that is really emphasizing outcomes. I think one of the fortunate things about working with different stakeholders, when you’re working with the farmers you’re in the field, you’re dealing with all the investments they’ve made and they’re not interested in the theory of what you’re doing, they’re interested in what is the practical application of this and does it actually help them manage what is going on? And this is true of a farmer here, true of a farmer elsewhere in the world. They’re really looking at how can they use the knowledge we have to actually apply in their situation. But, then I’d come back to always thinking what my father would say in terms of a specialist coming in from outside trying to give me advice that really trying to understand them and get them on board. So, I think this is part of my leadership style would be, and I probably didn’t realize this early on, but is really listen and appreciate the people you’re working with. I think relationships and how you deal with people and how you build that, that’s absolutely critical. I think the tourniquet tied up in the sort of, maybe the panic of the moment and to forget really that you really have to build those relationships and those connections and the credibility. I’ve worked in many different settings in many different cultures and how do you balance all those things out and still manage to achieve the outcomes you’re trying to do? Sometimes in adjusting the outcomes we find out that what we’re trying to do isn’t the right answer and other times it is trying to convince them and take some ideas forward that perhaps aren’t as popular as some of the people involved, but trying to bring them around and get them to understand. I’ve seen those play out in different parts of the world. Learning to delegate, not just delegate the responsibility but delegate the authority to people; giving them the room to actually get on with what they need to do. Many of the people you’re working with are very skilled at what they do. They have many insights that you don’t have and giving them the authority and the room to really address the issue at hand.

Dr. Connie: I think leaders are comfortable delegating responsibility, but for true innovation to happen, we really need to delegate that authority as well, right? I mean, really empower people, make sure you’re surrounded with good people and you have great people on the team. But, if they can’t leverage their talents and resources and grow as leaders themselves, it’s really hard to advance an organization forward in this day and age of continuous change and the need for innovation.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: As a leader, especially in an area like water, you have a lot going on and a lot on your plate all the time. So delegation is a part of that. You also have to keep yourself fresh. So tell us a little bit about what you like to do for fun.

Dr. Peter McCornick: I have lots of interests, and it’s a challenge when you move regularly. I think my wife and I have lived in about 25 houses since we’ve been married, and that’s in many countries. So your hobbies and interests sort of have to morph a little as you move because you can’t necessarily do things that you’d like to do. I’m a keen motorcyclist. Unfortunately, in Nebraska we have about five months where that’s not really a great area of interest. But, I very much keep up with current affairs. I’ve become quite keen on history and both my intent is something I intend to look into in the context I’m living in so, whether it’s Scotland or Sri Lanka, or now I’m quite interested in Nebraska. People above me really looking at the Oregon Trail and out of the state, and understanding more about the state, and that’s an area where I draw a lot of relaxation, shall we say, and diversion from my work. But they all kind of interrelated in the end. And my family, I’m also quite keen on my spaniels and my dogs.

Dr. Connie: That’s good, me too, we share that definitely. I tell you it’s amazing how important dogs have become in our lives.


Dr. Peter McCornick: They’re essential. We’ve moved them around the world with us.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: One question I’m curious about we get asked this a lot at the Rural Futures Institute too, why Water for Food, a global institute around this issue, in a place like Nebraska.

Dr. Peter McCornick: I don’t think it could have happened anywhere else to be honest. I mean, that’s the first time I’ve actually answered that question this way because I have been asked this question, and I do think it requires the leadership at university level, but at the state level, the people who have supported the Daugherty Foundation, the presence of the university here, the previous president, and the new president, really seeing this as important.I think Nebraska very early on in the 70’s realized the importance of managing the ground water and established the National Resource District. Agriculture has clearly been an important part of the culture in the state since its founding, and I think that translates into leadership and support at the highest level in the state, but even across different political differences that this is seen as the priority. I was asked recently in a conference how this could be emulated. I think it’s realizing the state or the entity of the area you’re in really needs to put agriculture very central to the issues on water. If you don’t do that it’s very difficult to emulate what Nebraska’s done. So I do think it’s Nebraska playing on its strengths, Nebraska playing on what has been the investment in these sectors, and I think there’s a lot the world can learn from Nebraska. But again, not prescriptions to go out and solve the world’s problems, but to understand what is important to get these things to align and to address the challenges and to position food with less water.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I’d love for you to put your futurist hat on Peter, and tell our audience how you see the area of water for food evolving into the future.

Dr. Peter McCornick: Research just demonstrates how water and agriculture, the management over the last thirty, forty years, has been really quite ground-breaking in producing good results that again, there are challenges. We talked about water quality earlier. To court one of my faculty fellows theories, basically the future is bright on the sort of technology and these areas promise a lot. There’s many things we can be looking at. But, certainly what we’re seeing is use of water, use of crops, the livestock, the way that food is produced here, I think these are areas where we can build on what has been done so far and certainly continue to evolve those areas in the future.

Dr. Connie: I think it’s an important mindset to have, right? So when we talk about the future at the Rural Futures Institute, realizing that we need to have a strengths-based approach that includes an abundance mindset. We know there are challenges. But if we continue to just talk about and focus on those challenges, we’re not going to be able to move forward that provides those solutions and outcomes that you were talking about earlier.

Dr. Peter McCornick: I’m an optimist. Many other parts of the world would be quite envious of the assets that we have here in Nebraska. So I think there are the things to focus on. I do think technologies and ideas that there’s more to do in that space. I was recently in discussions with partners around the agriculture technology and the challenges in changing agriculture technology, that it’s an area that’s been difficult for external actors to really get involved. We’re now seeing many other sectors, in terms of mainly the high-tech sectors beginning to look at agriculture much more seriously in how they can get involved in developing the technologies and making them more available. There’s big challenges there in making sure the technologies are what the farmers or the users need. And really okay in this conversation understanding what agriculture is all about and engaging with agriculture and looking for the understanding the issue before you develop a solution. I think is an important part of it. The other thing is we develop a lot of technologies that are good ideas, but they’re not actually taken up by the users the way we expect, and I think there it’s not just the technology we need to be focusing on going forward, it’s really the social-science, the behavior. Really focusing on why these things aren’t happening and asking the tough questions, and realizing that maybe the technology just wasn’t destined to be used the way that the original people thinking that idea up, there’s maybe another solution we need to be looking at that may not be less technological but maybe along the lines of institutional, like the National Resource Districts and organizations like that, so.

Dr. Connie: I love this interaction between human use and the social piece. But in the realization that not technology alone is going to solve things. People has to be willing to use it. It has to fit within their system. Do you have an example that you could share around that?

Dr. Peter McCornick: Well, right now we have these digital support systems that can be made accessible to farmers or to decision makers from the satellite imagery, from the use of drones, although again that’s an area we really need to sort out some of the regulations and so forth around it, and we certainly want to address all the issues that we imagine they might address. But it’s really that information and making that information accessible. So, we have a lot of data in Nebraska as with farmers, with National Resources Districts, but there’s also a lot of sensitivities around the data. And how do we access that? So it really, the innovation and the technology is, we have a lot of this available, but how do you really tease that out and what is really available and who can use it? But then put it in a form that really integrates into the agricultural system. We have some of that and we have a plethora of apps being developed for phones. But, most farmers or most users don’t have time to interpret those multiple apps. So really bringing that together. How do we integrate that technology?

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I’d love for you to share some words of wisdom with our audience.

Dr. Peter McCornick: Words of wisdom, never share words of wisdom. That’s one word of wisdom.


Dr. Peter McCornick: I think in the end, it’s going to come down to people and how people work together. But also how we get the next generation engaged in these areas. That’s a term that’s been picked up in Africa by the President of the African Development Bank that’s I think is hugely important in making agriculture cool. Making that the roles in agriculture and the water creating the opportunities to attract the younger leadership and the younger leaders into these areas. I think it is an area it is complicated. It does require deep, but general, understanding of a number of topics. That’s becoming quite difficult in this day and age to really, I think the information’s there, but I think you need to have the curiosity an the opportunity to explore that. So in the end, I think the words of wisdom is probably invest in the next generation.

Dr.Connie: I love it. Invest in the next generation and make agriculture cool!

(music transition)

Bob Henson: I’m Bob Henson, I’m the Executive Director for the National Strategic Research Institute. I just happened to be retired General Officer, so I’ve been with the University since 2012, now.

Dr. Connie: I just want to thank you for your service and all that you do. I don’t even know how much gratitude I can even extend to somebody like you whose made a career out of service but also has helped so many do that and protect our freedom, so thank you.

Bob Henson: Oh thank you, very much. So patriotic that you start talking about service and those kind of things, I tear up. My wife accuses me of getting teary-eyed at KMart openings if there’s a patriotic theme associated with it.


Dr. Connie: That’s okay, I’m actually kinda teared up right now.


Dr. Connie: So that’s awesome.

Bob Henson: That’s just fine.

Dr. Connie: Well, we’d like to talk a little bit about NSRI. We’ll use that term throughout our interview. This is the National Strategic Research Institute, which is a sister institute to the Rural Futures Institute. And I know when I met you I could tell right away that you were a total Futurist because of the way you were talking. And amazing work of NSRI. Could you tell us a little bit more, Bob, about what the purpose of NSRI and the mission?

Bob Henson: NSRI was started in 2012 through the University of Nebraska’s conversation with the US Strategic Command. There was a significant responsibility picked up by Start Com that was focusing on combating weapons of mass destruction which categorizes chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and in that regard here, pandemics and or threats like that that can be weaponized. So, the university put in a proposal to take on the responsibility as a university-affiliated research center, the basic fundamental levels of research that support the Department of Defense across those mission domains through the work that we’ve done with the university it’s really concentrating on research that supports various aspects of preventing and or finding ways of identifying those threats before they become a problem. And so, we’ve undertaken considerable amount of research in the past six years. We’ve actually had over 25 different sponsoring agencies with now in the neighborhood of 83 task order contracts working on a variety of research projects that go from infectious disease all the way to sensor technologies and how UAV’s and those kind of things can be used in the future.

Dr. Connie: That’s an extremely broad scope.There’s so many physical aspects to the UAV’s, etc. weapons of mass destruction. But also, the cyber security.

Bob Henson: Cyber is pretty daunting when you look at the overall effects that it can generate and things that it can do to our society and day-to-day practical term because everybody relies on some form of technologies these days that through the phones or through communications devices or through satellite connections, and those kinds of things. And all of those combine sort of at the front end of the threat spectrum when you start dealing with things that currently you have to think about given that technologies have so advanced that these become areas of concern across the board. And I think those are the kinds of things that the Department of Defense and other agencies research we do is not just for the Department of Defense. That largely focused on the whole threat spectrum that might begin with a cyber type attack.

Dr. Connie: Well, I’m going to ask you to put your futurist hat on, between your military service and now serving as the Executive Director at NSRI, how do you see this whole evolution happening into the future with regard to cyber security and technology in particular?

Bob Henson: We’ve had some projects working with some agencies with regard to port security. If you look at the ports of the United States, and the amount of goods that are brought in through shipping or airlines or those kinds of things, we’ve taken on some research to really look at the gaps and the vulnerabilities associated with how technology manage the navigation into those ports and then the distribution of goods. The other thing that we’ve been involved in from a cyber perspective is really looking at how the new commands and all of the commands and agencies rely on a variety of communications, technologies, and satellite coverage and navigation systems to execute missions and or the economy and any number of things. So, my futuristic look I would suggest just we have to think about how we protect and how we operate in times of denial when those services are denied to the average American and what that ripple effect then would constitute, and how it would affect the troops that are deployed, their families that are located at home, the communities that we operate in, the day-to-day banking, the day-to-date uses that we use for different kinds of things, and cyber on the front end really people take it for granted. But, as we look to the future, it’s going to become more and more prevalent if you think about driverless cars and airplanes and a number of things that are on the horizon and how comfortable and confident would you be in a driverless car knowing that somebody could penetrate the system and take control of that vehicle. But, technology’s great. We just have to think more about the consequences of technology being denied in some of those circumstances.

Dr. Connie: I think this is such a critical conversation for so many different reasons because technology is sort of the big topic for a lot of futurists. However, I mean, there’s this humanity part around technology as well. But I think, is it being talked about enough?

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Now you’ve had a pretty robust career in terms of serving as a lieutenant general, I understand you’re now retired, but that military career has been prolific and now, you now, being at the university. So tell us a little bit about your personal leadership style as it relates to the work you’ve done and that you’re doing now.

Bob Henson: My leadership style. Boy, that’s another tough question.


Bob Henson: I served 33 years on active duty. I started out as a young listed airman in the Air Force in the Vietnam era. I grew up flying airplanes. After that, I got into space command and then various assignments throughout my career. A lot of my career in my latter years from about 1985 to when I retired in 2012 are always command level opportunities, and so, in those positions you learn to one, rely on people. You have to trust and rely on people who are standing beside you and behind you and supporting you and obviously guiding you. I think it’s a matter of building trust and creating relationships with your colleagues and comrades and arms that makes a difference now. Through my years I’ve really trusted people. I think you have to trust that when you train people to do a job that they’re going to execute that job and you trust them to do that job until the point they fail to do what you’ve asked them to do or trained them to do. I think in the same light, if you go into any kind of operation or any kind of business where you’re trying to micromanage everything, you are fraught with danger and failure. And my style is building trust in people I hire, building investment in people who share in the goals that you’ve established and want to succeed. They want to make it grow. And I think that’s where NSRI has been very successful. I don’t control anybody. I rely on researchers and faculty members within the University. I rely on people that I’ve hired within my staff to serve on the behest of the university and our sponsors and the like. It requires that level of trust and involvement and expectations that people will do more than you ask of them if you give them the tools and the responsibility and accountability for doing it. And, I honestly believe that. I’ve grown up believing that, and I tried to use that as a segway for everything I do, even at the point of where I’m leveraging people. You have to rely on them to do the job because you can’t do it yourself.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, that’s just brilliant. And, I think what I really respect is that you have this amazing presence, but you’re also so personable and you really care about people. And I think that comes through in just your discussion and philosophy around leadership. You trust people and you understand they’re going to do more than you ask if you have that trust and you give them the tools. But you really empower people to do their jobs and use their talent. And we need more leaders to do that. Well, if I turn the question around and ask you, I’m not sure that our answers would be very different.

Bob Henson: Well thank you, I appreciate that.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I think our listeners really enjoy hearing a little more about your personal philosophy in life. I mean, here you are Executive Director of NSRI, and you see a lot, you hear a lot. You’re thinking about things so many of us take for granted every day and seeing the inside of it but also the future of things like national security, cyber security, weapons of mass destruction, even working with the med center on Ebola. So what do you do for fun? I mean, what does a guy like you do for fun? What brings joy to your life when you’re thinking about these types of things all day long?

Bob Henson: Well, I have a wife who keeps me humble and honest. I have seven grandchildren that keep me going and two of them are here locally, and they’re two little girls that keep you going. So, we spend a lot of time with them. I’m a farmer’s kid, I grew up on a farm in Tennessee, my dad sort of instilled a work ethic that I even hold today. So, I find myself more of a hands-on kind of person that likes to get things done with my hands, and so I do woodworking. I don’t think there’s, well, I know there are limits on what I can and can’t do. But, I often fail to recognize those things that I can’t do very much


Bob Henson: But I’m willing to give it a try.

Dr. Connie: Knowing that you’re from a rural community, so many of our military come from rural communities. That’s one of the things that we’ve talked a little bit about at the Rural Futures Institute. When people ask about why rural, why now, why should we care about rural somebody who comes from a rural community and has that background, what would you say to that?

Bob Henson: I really appreciated the years that I spent as a young lad growing up on a farm in Tennessee. I spent considerable hours sitting on the street corner selling watermelons and cantaloupes.


Dr. Connie: Okay, things I didn’t know about you. You just seem cooler by the second. But, I do agree with you that a lot of the foundation of our country is built around rural communities. And, the cities and the life in the cities, they’ve never slowed down. They continue to fast pace. But when you start looking at the morals of the country and the foundation of this country, you look at what’s happening in the rural communities and all the people that you talk about service of the country, people in rural environments that are really the foundation of this country. And, having grown up in a rural community, I consider it one of the very solid foundations of the country. At the Rural Futures Institute, one of the conversations we’ve really been focused on is the rural-urban collaboration, and I just returned from a 10-day excursion in Japan where we had a real immersive experience in rural areas there because they’re national government has declared rural development and redevelopment as a national priority. They see the struggles that can happen when they have too many people in one location. And so they’re really trying to figure out, okay, what is it look like so that Tokyo doesn’t become so mega urbanized that if something happens in Tokyo, most of our population is wiped out. And in one of the areas that we visited, they’ve developed these rice contracts where they’re encouraging people from more urban areas to buy rice from the rural areas, but also as herb for the subscriptions. So if there would be a tsunami or an earthquake, they could actually go to those rural areas and have a place to live in major disaster. And I thought that was a really unique and creative way to help connect people in rural and urban. Could you see any value to something like that here?

Bob Henson: There seems to be this notion that the price of doing work on a farm or on a ranch or those kind of things is becoming less attractive because of economy and the products we sell and those kind of things as a very volatile market scale. I think the connections between rural and certainly the city environments that we live in these days, there needs to be a good connection, a good understanding of that and great benefit that a rural community actually provides to the larger population if you will. In some ways we’re losing that connection to the real bread basket of this country and what constitutes the people that keep us fed and keep the nation and our international relations sort of at the forefront of things. So, I don’t know if I answered your question, but I just find that there needs to be an increased appreciation of the contributions of those that actually do hard manual labor in the fields of this country.

Dr.Connie: No, I really appreciate that and you actually, as usual, give me more to think about in terms of how to help people understand that rural connection in their own life even if they don’t live there. Part of our research has involved the use of UAVs. And you look at GPS navigation systems from space these days and how that has contributed to the increased production of farm products and necessities and all kinds of things, that I think rural people in this country are leveraging technologies in ways that have never been leveraged before and we are getting more productivity out of that. But with that, comes a price. We’re expanding neighborhoods that take out farmlands, we grow things on the sides of hills that in my day you would hardly climate, much less plant something on it. And, I think, the things that the rural communities are finding these days are that with technology they can increase productivity if they’re encouraged by the markets that continue to support them. It is not an inexpensive proposition to be in the rural communities these days if that’s what you’re using as a source of livelihood and income. I know most of the people on our podcast should know what a UAV is if they’re listening to something like the Rural Futures Podcast, but for those that may not or it may be new, they may just be tuning in, could you explain a little bit more about the unmanned aerial vehicles?

Bob Henson: Unmanned aerial vehicles have a rather broad perspective. I think in the military they could be used for gaining the high ground if you will, looking at what’s over the hill or the horizon, what’s out in front of you, being able to collect intelligence, being able to collect information that’s useful in planning the campaigns and those kind of things. It is also a way of expanding the footprint of an operation without having to expand the number of personnel you have to commit to that. In other environments though, if you look at the uses of UAV’s in the agricultural community, it’s collecting soil samples on how productive a piece of farmland or land could be, collecting samples on water in various areas. I think there’s any number of ways that unmanned aerial vehicles can be used in a rural kind of setting. In some of the cases where there’s some ideas that unmanned aerial vehicles would deliver packages to your doorstep. There’s any number of new things that UAV’s will be able to do. It has its downsides. Obviously there are a lot of people who resent the idea that you have an unmanned aerial vehicle with a camera or a projector of some sort and they’re collecting information and invading your privacy. Again, wave of the future.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: What are some parting words of wisdom that you’ve like to leave our listeners with.

Bob Henson: Well first of all, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to chat with you. I find it refreshing to have this conversation with you. I find that opportunities to collaborate with you and other people like you and really take advantage of things that you do and others are doing along this line, being associated with the university, being associated with the people that are in the Nebraska communities and the like, is underpinning I think of what this country’s all about.

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Episode 19: Ag maverick Marji Guyler-Alaniz intersects leadership, passion, gender

November 25, 2018
            Shining a light on women in agriculture, Marji Guyler-Alaniz, founder and president of FarmHer, talks about the future of gender, diversity, leadership and entrepreneurship with incredible authenticity. She dove into her passion of photography …





Shining a light on women in agriculture, Marji Guyler-Alaniz, founder and president of FarmHer, talks about the future of gender, diversity, leadership and entrepreneurship with incredible authenticity. She dove into her passion of photography and storytelling to create the media and events company that now highlights and inspires women in agriculture across generations via a television show, podcast and in-person events. You’ll hear her energy while she talks with Dr. Connie about “right place, right time, right message,” and pursuing – and achieving – a dream from a rural community to create national awareness.

“I want to change the way people think about what a farmer looks like, who a farmer is, or how they engage with that story.”
Marji Guyler-Alaniz
Founder & President, FarmHer

About Marji


Marji Guyler-Alaniz, President and Founder of FarmHer, is a lifetime Iowan and lover of photography. That love, combined with graphic design, journalism and photography degrees from Grand View University, an MBA from Drake University and an 11-year career in corporate agriculture working for a crop insurance company, led her to launch FarmHer in the spring of 2013.

Through FarmHer she is updating the image of agriculture by showing the female side of farming and ranching, creating community amongst women in agriculture and outreach to young women interested in agriculture. In addition to the photography side of FarmHer, Marji has expanded the business to include an online community for women in agriculture, a weekly award-winning television show, airing on national cable network RFD-TV called FarmHer, annual events to inspire and inform young women about agriculture and a line of merchandise aimed at women in agriculture. Her work for FarmHer has been featured in an expanse of arenas ranging from Public Television and RFD-TV to USDAs National Ag Day Celebration and O the Oprah Magazine.



Bold Voices Student Segment

 Listen at 11:24 of Episode 19!

Emily Frenzen, University of Nebraska–Lincoln agricultural and environmental sciences communication student

Emily Frenzen gained her passion for photography and agricultural communications while living on her family’s farm in Fullerton, Neb.

Growing up in a rural community fostered her entrepreneurial spirit which sparked the creation of her photography business through the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program.

During summer 2018, Emily worked, served and lived in McCook, Neb., for 10 weeks as a Rural Futures Institute (RFI) Serviceship student. With her partner Sage, she worked with the High Plains Museum to assess its assets and create an action plan. She also assisted in creating a mastermind alliance and intern program in McCook.

For Emily, it was the opportunity to network with the RFI staff, University of Nebraska faculty and community leaders that drew her to RFI Serviceship. “I just have all these awesome people in my back pocket that I know I can reach out to at any time,” she says.

Learn more about Emily’s Serviceship experience! »

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Doctor Connie, and joining us today is a very special maverick entrepreneur who’s really made rural, not only her life, but her business. Marji Guyler-Alaniz is the founder and president of FarmHer. She’s a lifetime Iowan and lover of photography, and through FarmHer, she shines a light on the female side of farming. Welcome to the Rural Futures podcast, Marji.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Yes, thank you for having me!

Dr. Connie: Well, I am super excited to have you on this podcast because I was one of the people blessed several years ago to meet you at a major women’s conference for agriculture here in Nebraska, and not only that, I know you have a lot of fans here on our campus at the University of Nebraska Lincoln campus where our global headquarters is housed, and we get to hear about you from time to time through our students, and seeing you keynote and just following you through the years, I am so glad you said yes to having a conversation with us today.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Well, I am happy to be here. I love conversations.


Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Talking is what I love to do.

Dr. Connie: So tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you’ve sort of evolved to this point with FarmHer.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Yeah, so a little bit about myself, born and raised here in Iowa, my mother’s parents, so my maternal grandparents, were farmers, but my parents didn’t farm, but I did grow up in the country, and so I always say like you could throw a rock and hit something agriculture related. There were cows there; they weren’t our cows, right, I didn’t throw rocks at the cows, but it’s not what my family did but it was all around us all the time. I went to college for design, journalism, and photography, and my first job out of college was working for a crop insurance company, one of the largest ones in the United States, and I spent a little over a decade there, so without meaning to, I landed in working in agriculture right out of college, and that was probably my biggest awareness and connection to it quite honestly, and when I decided that I was ending my time there, I needed to do something different, I just didn’t know what that was, then I left there in February of 2013 and started FarmHer. It wasn’t a plan that I had in place. I always say, I like had to push myself off that cliff of leaving that job, that stable, normal life job, to figure out what was next for me, and, quite honestly, it was a commercial that was on during the Superbowl that helped me realize, the lack of imagery, or visibility, of women in this industry and a realization shortly after that, hey, I can do something about this with my camera.

Dr. Connie: Now, I think that’s such a great story. So I’m just curious, were you already kind of thinking about making a transition when you saw the commercial or was it a real sort of aha moment that you’re like, you know what, I have this idea and I’m going to go for it?

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: So I had quit my job, literally the Friday before the Superbowl was on I was done with my job, and that’s where I was like sitting there going what am I going to do, what am I going to do? I just quit my job of over a decade. But I always knew that I wanted photography to be a part of what was there for me in the future. I just didn’t know what that looked like. And my moment wasn’t when I saw that commercial. I saw that commercial and I loved it. God Made a Farmer, super simple, really, I mean it’s an old speech, and powerful words, and still photos, but it was just striking, it was gorgeous, and I read an article just a few days later that pointed out, yeah, that was amazing, but where were the women, and that’s when I woke up in the middle of the night the next night and thought I can do something about, instead of being angry about this, I can do something about this, and I can do something about this with my camera because that was the best way I knew how at that point.

Dr. Connie: Well, what a wonderful mindset to have, and I think what a wonderful testament to, rather than getting mad or upset and just talking about it, like how can we positively take some action and really bring some solutions to the marketplace that are missing. I just returned from a trip to Japan where we looked at  the rural sector but also the urban sector and thinking about collaborations, but one of the things Japan, as a country, is struggling with is really the empowerment of women. After I gave my first seminar, that was pretty much my take-home message for the audience is you need to empower women now, because without that, you’re not going to find the solutions you’re looking for, but also, you need to take this rural conversation from one of total negativity into one of positivity so you can find those solutions.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Yeah, yeah, and we can’t just talk about it, we have to do something, right?

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, so tell our audience a bit more about FarmHer. What do you do there, what’s the sort of current mission?

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Day one, my goal with this, as a photo project, the way it started April 2013, was to shine the light on the role women play in agriculture and to also help people understand that women play a real active everyday role. Our mission then is still no different than it is now, though it’s grown and changed a lot. So I started with this photo project. I was going to photograph a handful that summer in 2013, and I did that, put up a website so people could see this. I needed people to see these stories, so stories as told through still images and words, and so it was a blog, it was a website, social media pages, throw it out, throw it into the world, and see what happens, and what happened was amazing. What happened almost instantaneously was women from within agriculture, from outside of this country even, started saying, “Yes, thank you, we need this! “We know we needed this, that we love this! “This is important, this matters!” And so it like poured fuel on my fire, right, to keep going with it, and so we got some really great press that fall that helped kind of just roll that ball a little bit further, and it’s grown into, we started a series of events for young women. I think you have to empower them as they’re starting to figure out what their roles could be, and show them what they could go be, and show them that by stories, and that’s what we do. So we created some events for young women called “Grow”, and that was kind of the first thing. I started putting myself out there, asking anybody who would let me come display photos or talk about FarmHer, and I just completely overfilled my calendar. Obviously it started in social media and online, but trying to get it out and in front of people was like, the ball kind of kept rolling. Fast forward a little bit more, we start these events. I was approached by RFD-TV about doing a television show that basically took exactly what I was doing and creating a vision of that for television, so a television show that’s about the woman who is the focal point of my camera, and her story, and why she does it, and what she does, and like a look into her daily life, and we’ve continued to expand our events throughout the years around the country, and we have events now for all ages of women, not just those young women, and so then we got it in a podcast in a SiriusXM radio show, so it’s like we just keep adding pieces. Where I would have said FarmHer, in the beginning, was a photo project, and then fast forward a couple years later and I would’ve said it’s a brand for women and about women, and now I would say it’s a brand and a media business, right? We create media about these women and we want to put it somewhere where you can see it, where you can be inspired by it, where you can engage and connect with it, whether that’s radio, podcast, TV, YouTube, social media, wherever that might be, or an event.

Dr. Connie: Well, I just appreciate all the serendipity that’s sort of happened along the way but that also you’ve created, because I think, when you look back on it, I didn’t grow up on a farm either, but my dad did, my mom did, and I think the role of women on farms really was a missing conversation. They were sort of behind the scenes doing all this amazing work, and you brought it to the forefront, and not only did you bring it to the forefront, you brought it to the forefront in this amazing visual way that really demonstrated these women and the power they brought but also the elegance I think that they’ve brought to farming and the rural sector in so many different ways, and I think people were just so hungry, I mean, and waiting for that, and these women thanking you as testament, but I think also a TV show, Sirius XM radio, podcasting, and you’ve traveled internationally to capture these stories.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Serendipitous is a good way to put it. I think starting with something that you’re super passionate about, and I had almost on expectations in the beginning, I remember telling people, yeah, I have this lofty goal, but I want to change the way people think about what a farmer looks like, or who a farmer is, or how they engage with that story, and that sounded completely crazy five years ago, but I think right place, right time, right message. We’re serious about what we do, but we like to also keep it somewhat light. I want anybody to be able to connect with us, and the photography is a great way to do that, and that’s something I’m passionate about, so it’s like all these pieces like fell into place with this messaging, and we run at this really hard. I get the opportunity, and I am lucky enough to get to work until 11 o’clock many nights and we travel a lot, but I love it, and so running at it really hard is something that I love to do, and I think when you combine that passion and that hard work with something and the need for it out there, that’s that right time, that those pieces just do fall into place. I wasn’t looking for a TV show, but it kind of landed there and it took me a lot to get to the right place mentally to think, yeah, I can do this, but, again, these things don’t always just happen, and it took all of these right pieces like a perfect storm.

Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rockstar 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 Emily Frenzen, a junior studying agricultural and environmental sciences communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Welcome, Emily.

Emily Frenzen: Hi, thanks for having me.

Katy Bagniewski: Yes, and it’s so nice to have you. Just a note to our listeners, Emily and I have the same major here at UNL, so we know each other pretty well, but our audience does not, so, Emily, how about you start by telling them a little bit more about yourself.

Emily Frenzen: Yeah, so I grew up in Fullerton, Nebraska which is a small town in east central Nebraska, and I grew up on my family’s farm. So that’s kind of where I get my agricultural background and my love for ag communications because my family’s farm is the first place I started picking up a camera which has become a huge part of my life.

Katy Bagniewski: So, let’s dive a little bit deeper into that rural background. Tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up on a farm in Fullerton, Nebraska.

Emily Frenzen: I grew up in a community where everyone was really supportive of one another, and it was a really great community to start if anyone was looking to bring a new business into the community, so I think that’s really where I got my interest in rural and my love for the people that make up a rural community.

Katy Bagniewski: Now, Emily, your connection to RFI is through our Serviceship program. Talk a little bit about that and give us some of your major takeaways from your summer serving and working in a different rural community.

Emily Frenzen: Yeah, so I was placed in McCook, Nebraska with Sage Williams, and the two of us worked on creating a plan of action for the High Plains Museum there in McCook, and then we also worked on creating an internship with the Economic Development Corporation and then also creating the mastermind group. The serviceship was really challenging, but that was so awesome because there was so much growth that came with that. We really had to step out of our comfort zone and make connections within the community, and it was really up to us to make a lot of those decisions.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, and how do you think that your relationship and experience with RFI has impacted you in college and then looking forward?

Emily Frenzen: My Rural Futures experience was huge for it provided me with really awesome connections. The RFI staff and some of thee faculty at the university, but also within other communities, I just have all these awesome people in my back pocket that I know I can reach out to at any time.

Katy Bagniewski: So I’d love to know what words of wisdom you’d want to share with our students who may be interested in making their lives in rural.

Emily Frenzen: So it’s really important for those students who are maybe interested in going back to their own community after college to go explore another rural community just because each of those rural communities has different strengths or maybe different challenges that we can learn from and take back to our own communities eventually. So that’s a really valuable piece I also gained from my serviceship over the summer.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, thank you so much, Emily, for sharing your bold voice today. It’s been fun to watch you grow as a communicator and just really as a leader, and I wish you the best for your future.

Emily Frenzen: Thank you so much.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I think too, you had this vision and you have worked it. I mean, obviously you’re still energized and still passionate about it. You’re out there and you’re really doing the work that it takes to make that serendipity happen, but I also am wondering, as I hear your story and the evolution of FarmHer, how do you lead an endeavor like this? How would you describe yourself as a leader in this space?

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: It’s interesting because, and I would always tell somebody else, yes, call yourself a leader. I can’t say I’ve looked at myself as a leader. Internally I think we as women are really good about having that dialogue sometimes, called maybe the imposter syndrome, but here I am, and I think, for me, being the leader started with a passion about it versus me trying to put myself in a spot of being a leader about this. I just want to make sure people see my passion about it and then want to make sure that they see the women who I care so deeply about, and I think that there’s something that happens when you care so much about something that it elevates you to a position where you get to be in that leadership position. I mean, so that’s kind of on a big scale, right? Day-to-day, I mean, I’ve never built a business before. I worked in the corporate world for 11 years, and so being the leader within a small business and a growing business, it’s sometimes not for the faint of heart, and there’s a lot of moving parts and pieces and it’s a learning process, and I can say that I probably will never be done learning about my leadership as a business owner or as the president of this company.

Dr. Connie: Well, and also I think you just have so much bravery, right? I mean, you’re totally daring to say, “Oh, yeah, you know what, I’m going to go sit with those execs at RFD-TV and we’re going to figure this out. I’m going to just go do what needs to be done.” So how do you gather up that courage, that risk taking we talk about, in entrepreneurship? How do you say, yes, so I’m going to go do that and just go do it?

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: For me, I mean, it’s hard. I call it big girl pants; I refer to this a lot.


Dr. Connie: Something like that, I love that.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: It’s so much easier for me and my brain to be like this is a really big decision, this is really scary, this is going to change my life, this could change the course of this business, I mean, it could make or break it, it’s really scary to like let the world criticize your third child. There’s a lot of times where I have these decisions to make or these things are in front of me and you hear it all the time, fake it ’til you make it, walk in there, sit up straight, put a smile on your face, and it’s been a series of not saying no, because as scary as these things might seem, or as big as they might seem, or as much as I might think there’s no way I can pull this off, go find out about it. Right, when this call comes in, don’t say no. Drive to Omaha, go sit in that meeting, and make sure that you share what you’re passionate about and see where it goes. You could always say no at some point down the road if it ends up not being right, but I rely on my husband and I would say that for anybody out there, whether you have a spouse or somebody else in your life, you have to have somebody there that you can bounce these things across because there’s been many conversations in the middle of the night of me going “Oh, my gosh, what am I doing? I don’t know, I don’t know!”

Right, but I go with my gut and I try to make sure that I’ve found out all the information that I can and that I’m making the best decision for me and my family and for what I think makes sense for FarmHer, and gosh, so far it’s worked. It can be scary. At one of our I Am FarmHer conferences last year, I stood up in front of them and I said, today, my big girl pants, I had to put on this pair of leopard print pants today because for some reason they made me feel super powerful that day, like I got this, and these are my big girl pants today. So sometimes they’re just like feeling good about yourself when you go in somewhere and knowing that you can sit up straight. And then like feel a little bit proud, and put a smile on your face.

Dr. Connie: I have to have a few pair in my closet as well, and maybe there’s just so, there’s a product there that I think a lot of women are needing, many times because it is super uncomfortable to have to do these things, but I still love that you’re like okay, I’m putting these big girl pants on, I’m going to go do this, and it’s going to happen, and yeah, can I say no later, but I’m at least going to say yes, I’m going to dare to say yes at this point in time to explore this and see what the possibilities are.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Especially with the TV show. I was like, I don’t think this is something that I can pull off. I don’t know, I’m already working what feels like 80 hours a week. I have little kids at home, like how can I travel the country and do this, and I had all these reasons that seemed like a good reason to say no but I’m so glad I didn’t because all the pieces tend to fall into place.

Dr. Connie: Well, and I appreciate that you bring up your husband and that mastermind that’s so important whether it’s  with a spouse or somebody else, but I am going to go there because I think this is also an important question our audience would like. How do you balance all of that? I mean, you are a mom with young children, you are married, you’re running a business, a growing business empire. What advice would you give people around that?

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: If I look back over my life, I’ve always felt like there’s this like golden spot of balance that I’m going to get to. I’ve been the full-time working mom in the corporate world, I’ve been the stay-at-home mom, I’ve been the stay-at-home mom trying to build a business, I now have an office that I can come to while kids are in school. None of these areas has given me that like golden nugget of balance that I thought maybe it would. What I have learned is making sure that my family comes first always. When I’m thinking about making these decisions, I go, okay, I love FarmHer and I love being able to shine the light on these women and celebrate who they are, but if I can’t be me, I mean, I get one shot at my life too, and so I try to always keep that front and center, and having those discussions with my husband about can we do this? There’s a breaking point to everything and what’s it going to take for us to do this. It’s always a juggle. I have learned I have to run almost everyday, I have to do something physical to like let, there’s a lot of anxiety that builds around this in balancing all of it, like 400 balls that you’re juggling in the air, and sometimes some of them drop and that’s frustrating, but having a support team around you and figuring out how you can mentally take on that load and deal with it, and, for me, like I said, that’s running, and I would say over the last year, I’ve hit that almost breaking point a couple times. The first season of the TV show, 26 episodes of a TV show, basically 10 weeks traveling away from home doing something that I have no idea what I’m doing got to be too much. I have set up rules for myself. If I travel this week, I am not going to travel the next week, ways that I can manage this, and unfortunately, it does mean that me saying no to a lot of things that I would love to say yes to, but that’s just the reality of if FarmHer’s going to get to be FarmHer, then I have to do that.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of power in saying yes, but I think there’s also a lot of power in saying no, especially as the business grows and people want you. I mean, they want Marji, right? No, you’re really a persona now. I think that people are really clamoring to be a part of this growing movement, and I know our students get very excited about just being able to see you and spend time with you, but the family element is really real, and I think for the first time in history we’re in this dynamic of what does it look like to have dual working couples but also  what are our kids learning.? I’m really glad now to see both my daughter and my son, thinking about how they can work together and it’s not just a husband or a wife it is really a collaborative process and everybody should be able to do well in a family including the kids. I’ve changed a lot of my thinking around now from trying to get rid of the mom guilt into thinking about there is still a lot of that but it’s also like what experiences are you giving them that are different than what I had. Being gone in Japan for 10 days was a long time and my son was, he didn’t handle it well, but then he’s now very interested in traveling, and he’s trying to look at the Japanese characters and figure them out, and so I think there’s also good that comes out of some of those challenges.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Yeah, I agree with you. Who I am, this is the best thing I think I can do for my kids is to show them me running after a dream and still trying to make sure I balance my family and not doing it all perfectly because nothing is perfect in this world and making sure I communicate that to them, but I don’t know. I don’t know the best answer to this but when I left my job in corporate agriculture, one of the things that I hold very dear was I want my kids to see mom doing something that she cares about, and I believe fully in the power and necessity of insurance, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t what I was passionate about, and I just kept thinking how can I tell them go run after your dreams if I’m sitting in an office working for a paycheck, just literally working for that paycheck and not wanting to be there anymore? How can I say that on one hand but expect them to do that on the other? It’s this balance that I try to keep in front of me, and I have had somebody approach me after I spoke in an event once and they said, “You left your job so you could spend more time with your kids but now it appears that you’re gone all the time.” And I said, “Well, I am gone a lot, but I mean, it’s a balance in life and they’re learning a lot of valuable things about different ways that you can look at working and at pursuing a passion or pursuing a dream too.”

Dr. Connie: Well, and I think in your case, they’re really looking at how can I live anywhere I want to live, really embrace my passion, and grow my path, and that’s something at the Rural Futures Institute, we’re really excited about helping people understand, if you’re connected and if you have a talent or passion, you can live in a rural community and really pursue your dream. You don’t have to move to go do that, and I think you’re just such a great example of somebody who has done just that. They’ve taken their talent, they’ve made the hard choice of leaving a job they didn’t want and that steadier paycheck to say, you know what, it’s worth the sacrifice, I’m going to do this, and I think it’s also now, that’s how you see people’s dreams pay off is because they did make those what seemed like difficult choices at the time to really go full out and take that risk. I think there’s a lot of truth in the fact that there’s not reward if there’s no risk.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: It was scary. I always say I hope that’s one of the biggest decisions I make of my life because it changed our lives in a massive way. I make about the same that I made my first year out of college income-wise.


Marji Guyler-Alaniz: That’s a decision of mine of how I run the business, but it’ll all be okay. If this is what you want, then you’ll figure out a way to make it work.

Dr. Connie: You’re an example of what we need more leaders to be. You’re actually walking the talk. You aren’t just talking about it, you’re doing it, and I think people are really starting to see through a lot of that where people are just giving out random advice but they’re not really backing it up with how they live their life, and I’m so excited that, here we have on the Rural Futures podcast an example of a leader who’s like, you know what, I’m not just talking about it, I’m doing it, and I’m doing it with a family, I’m doing it, I’m still married, I’m raising my kids, I’m running!


Dr. Connie: I’m still maintaining who I am as a person, but I can make it all work.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Alright, Marji, I’m going to ask you to put on your futurist hat now and I’d love to know a little bit more about what major changes you see.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: I think, especially as broadband internet expands in rural areas, we’re going to see even more digital, and you’re just going to see this continued expansion in agriculture. In my area of expertise, I think you’re going to see more and more women enter into this space. Obviously at colleges around the country, degree programs in agriculture have expanding numbers of young women, they’re going to be flooding in that workplace. I’ll describe what my hand looks like. Like, make a tight fist and then expand all of your fingers out as fast as you can. I hope that that continues to happen, yeah, five fingers, boom, that what we’re seeing now continues to expand and increase because people need to eat, the whole world needs to eat. This is not going to contract, what we need in agriculture, and so I personally hope I see young women taking the helm in more leadership positions, and that’s one area in the ag industry that is lacking behind even other more traditional areas of business. I am a big believer of diversity. Diversity in anything matters in any culture, right, and that’s what’s going to help it grow, and change, and be what we need for the future.

Dr. Connie: This is one of the big questions we get from a lot of our young female students, not just in agriculture but in the tax sector, throughout a lot of sectors, how do I graduate and go into the workplace and then be successful in this space? We even see this in higher education. That’s why I have so many pairs of big girl pants, right, I mean most of our higher level decision makers are men, and so thinking about what that looks like and how the workplace is changing, I mean, it’s happening, it’s a very slow speed, I think equity and pay is still 200 years out that some studies have shown. Hopefully we can start moving a little faster on that, but I do think that future is diversity in not just gender but in so many other ways, and leaders have to really be willing to embrace it and leverage that so great innovation can happen.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: I think back to who I was at that age and it can be so hard, and we stand up there and we say you can go do whatever you want, and I will tell you, you can go do whatever you want, but it may not always look like the way that you think it’s going to. It’s tough sometimes navigating, especially as a young woman in these very male-dominated cultures, and I don’t mean that bad against any man. I’ve had great men as mentors, but it can be super super tough. We talked about families, and that balance, and that juggle, you get to a point where you go is this worth what I’m giving up on this side? I mean, there’s a lot of decisions that I think women have to make, and so flexibility in workplaces matters so much to keeping that diversity there because I always think if I would have had the ability to be more of the mom I needed to be and keep that corporate job, I might still be there, I might not either, because, like I said, that passion thing matters too, but it’s really important to me. I have a team of all women here, not because that’s the only people I hire, but those are the only people who have applied for jobs at FarmHer up to this point. They’re committed, and they’re talented, and they’re awesome, and making sure they know that I will give them that flexibility in however they need it to manage their life along with this job is super important, because there’s a tipping point, right, and it gets hard, but there is a path for these young women and that’s one of the things at these Grow events, we love to get strong women, people like you, people who are doing really cool things, and put them up on the stage and remind them, like, you can go do this and we’re going to connect you with the people who can be those support systems for you.

Dr. Connie: Well, I think it’s great for them to see role models making it happen. I’ve had a lot of great male mentors as well but very few female mentors which is frankly because there just weren’t enough out there, and I’m so glad to see that changing now because I think in some ways it’s really hard to get the full mentoring that you need, that support system you need if you don’t have people who sort of have those same values or the same ideas as you, and we see research stating that women are leaving the corporate sector and other sectors like universities, for example, in droves because they aren’t getting the support they need. They don’t have the flexibility they need. I think that’s why they’re seeing entrepreneurship as a viable solution, but they also need to grow those businesses to be successful in a way not just that works for their family but to be financially viable as well. So I’d love to explore with you a little bit about the future of FarmHer in general.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: Whenever people ask what I want the future FarmHer to look like, I want to keep operating in the space that we’re in and I want to expand all of those areas. Keeping women at the forefront, and who they are, and what they do, and celebrating them is always going to be the nucleus of what we do, but I want to continue the expansion of that TV show and the audience who might watch it and hopefully weave it into maybe a non-ag audience at some point because I think that matters. So there’s great power in that for agriculture and talking to people who care about food, or who buy food, or who hopefully eat food three times a day, I think that that matters. It’s so important to me that we continue this expansion of who sees what FarmHer is. I think it’s so important for agriculture, and it’s important for the future of our business too. I mean, it just needs to keep happening. If we have all these things coming at us all of the time and it’s one of those things I’m like, you have this balance as a small business, like we’re still a very small business with a handful of employees, can we do it and can we do it well, and balancing that expansion with the need that’s out there is exciting and something that I hope we get the chance to keep doing.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I think that’s where we align so well, because the Rural Futures Institute, we’re like if you just keep talking to rural audiences, we’re missing the greater opportunity for that collaboration, for that innovation, and the increased understanding that really happens between partnering with whoever wants to come to the table to make things better, not just for rural but for urban and our global society. We hear so many conversations where people just stay so insulated in their space, and I think they’re missing out on so many opportunities to do some amazing work that affects not only them but others as well. It really creates kind of this new global world that humanity is needing to see evolve.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, it’s just if agriculture is going to be able to feed the people of the world, then those conversations and those interactions need to occur in different ways than what we’ve always done in the past, and many different ways of course, and so making sure that that wall isn’t there of who we talk to and how we talk to them is super important. I want anybody to be able to walk into one of our events and to leave feeling like you have a place and you have a voice wherever you’re going to go and whatever you’re going to do regardless of if that’s agriculture or not, and I think that that’s one of the keys, right, is making people feel welcome and connecting with them.

Dr. Connie: And I think there’s just such an urbanization of agriculture in the food system right now. People are very interested in growing food, knowing where their food comes from, and, there’s more, growing even happening in urban centers as vertical agriculture becomes more prevalent and prominent, so how do we all lend a hand in making this happen so that it’s not an argument, we’re not fighting over territory or a small pie but rather we’re growing the pie and the possibility, and I think this is a great time for people working in the ag sector to really explore that and I’m glad to see people like yourself really leading the charge and paving the trail that it’s going to take to make that happen.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: As we close this conversation, I’d love to know what parting words of wisdom you have to share with our audience.

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: If I look at what I have done over the last few years and what FarmHer is and what it means to me, the best thing I can say is if you are passionate about something, I would figure out a way to share that with people because you just never know what the path will be in front of you, but if you don’t share that passion and spread that passion, then you’ll never know what could happen, so use that passion for whatever it may look like.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Okay, Marji, where can people find you?

Marji Guyler-Alaniz: FarmHer.com has everything that we do. You can find our events, you can see clips of the TV show, read the blogs, check out the podcast, all of those things. So it’s just www.farmher.com.

Dr. Connie: Excellent, thank you so much for being on the podcast. We appreciate your advice and insights.

Read More

Episode 18: Rural maverick Matt Dennis intersects creativity, entrepreneurship, workforce

November 19, 2018
            Matt Dennis understands the reality of the agricultural economy, the need for creative thinking for thriving rural communities and the grit it’s going to take to lead families, farms and businesses into the future. …





Matt Dennis understands the reality of the agricultural economy, the need for creative thinking for thriving rural communities and the grit it’s going to take to lead families, farms and businesses into the future. As co-founder of Handlebend Copper Co., Matt creates exquisite copper mugs from his hometown of about 3,700 people and ships them — in authentic wooden crates — worldwide. In this episode, he discusses his ag background and full-time job, the balance of starting a business and raising a family and his take on the stories that need to be shared from rural areas across the country. Dr. Connie, RFI Chief Futurist, is energized by Matt’s call-to-action around female workforce potential, embracing Handlebend’s digital presence and his leadership style that starts with empowering and listening to others.

“We thrive on agriculture, and we’re in a low-margin time, and it is tough, and it’s a little scary. But I think it’s important to tell the story of things like Handlebend, because it let’s people know that there are avenues in these small rural areas outside of agriculture that can be tapped.”
Matt Dennis
Co-Founder, Handlebend Copper Co.; Dennis Commodities

About Matt


Matt Dennis is the fourth-generation of Dennis Commodities based in O’Neill, Neb., population 3,700. He is also the co-founder of Handlebend, a copper mug company shipping mugs worldwide.

Matt graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with a bachelor’s in business administration. He is the husband of Tracey, and the dad of Piper and Trey.


Mentioned In This Episode



Bold Voices Student Segment

 Listen at 11:50 of Episode 18!

Clayton Keller, University of Nebraska Omaha public administration graduate student

When asked to answer the questions of Why Rural? Why Now? during the Bold Voices student segment, Clayton Keller answers, “Because tomorrow is too late.”

Born in the rural Rockies of northern Idaho and raised in the rural countryside of Ohio, Keller says, “Rural has been a part of my life for my whole life.”

“With globalization and its increasing influence on worldwide culture, there is an ever pressing need to keep up,” he says. Partnerships are key to making sure nobody — in rural or urban — gets left behind, according to Keller. This was a crucial lesson he learned through his RFI Serviceship experience in Columbus, Neb.

Learn more about Clayton’s Serviceship experience! »



Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Hello and welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Doctor Connie, and joining me today is one of our rural mavericks from right here in Nebraska, Matt Dennis. He co-founded Handlebend copper mugs, but he also works in our amazing area of agriculture at the Dennis Green Elevator. He returned home to work with his father and is the fourth generation to work at the Elevator, which I think is just an amazing story in itself. He’s married to Tracy with a daughter, Piper, and son, Trey. So you’re doing it all.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, yeah (chuckling) gettin’ after it here in small town Nebraska.

Dr. Connie: So okay Matt, tell us a little bit more about who you are. Who is Matt Dennis?

Matt Dennis: So I graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2008, and took my first position working for a grain merchandising company in Omaha. I worked under one of my mentors for two years before making the decision to come back to the family business in O’Neill [Nebraska]. In the process of working the family business, came across an opportunity with Handlebend that we dove into a couple years ago. And it has had some really good traction and so we have continued kind of shipping copper mugs all over the country and a few across the pond as well.

Dr. Connie: Our listeners are all over the world, so where exactly is O’Neill, Nebraska?

Matt Dennis: O’Neill is 60 miles from the South Dakota border. It’s not quite in the sand hills but it’s on the edge.

Dr. Connie: So tell the audience how you got the idea and what the mugs are made out of.

Matt Dennis: My partner and I in Handlebend got the idea while we were attending the university, living together in Lincoln. He actually ordered a couple copper mugs from Amazon right when Moscow mules and copper mugs started to get trendy, almost about 10 years ago now. And we got them in the mail, opened the box and immediately just put them back in the box and shipped them back. They were just these chinsky little mugs, there wasn’t anything to them. They weren’t fully copper, they were lined with tin. And at that time they were still about 40 bucks a piece. So we shipped them back, Michael the next weekend went back to O’Neill, into his dad’s shop which is this family business is a commercial refrigeration, and grabbed some scrap copper, made the first mug that was extremely ugly but it held liquid. He showed it to me and I was pretty impressed. Then I think the very next weekend we made about seven or eight more to finish off the sets. And we’re pretty proud of these things, and then going forward we just started making them for really close friends and families, for weddings and birthdays and that kind of thing. We started getting some good feedback on “you guys should sell these things”, and then kind of started the idea of what we would do if we did that. And two years ago we hired a local gal here to make us a website, she did an outstanding job for us and threw it out there and people liked it. We’ve had some really good fortune and some really good help from Nebraska and the community in launching this business. It’s increased in sales every month since we started it. Here about eight months ago we hired our first full time employee, and we just keep going.

Dr. Connie: Well I love one of the quotes that we found in researching you and Handlebend a bit. “We couldn’t do this in Brooklyn, the small town support is what helped make this real.” And that was an article in the Omaha World Herald, correct?

Matt Dennis: Yeah, that article ran in the Omaha World by Matthew Hanson. It was a crazy story on that is he came out here, he sat down with Michael and I for a day, we fed him some Moscow mules so he would write good stuff about us (chuckling) and that was kind of the end of it. He didn’t tell us what it was going to be done with it or anything like that. And then about two months later we wake up to about five orders in the morning and then the internet orders just keep pinging in throughout the morning, and I call Michael I’m like “What is going on here?”


Matt Dennis: He’s like I have no idea, and sure enough that article ran in the front page of the Omaha World Herald. And the Nebraskans loved it. So that is really what kick started this. And back to the quote about we couldn’t do this in Brooklyn, I mean we’re hiring local people throughout this whole process to help us out and they’ve bent over backwards to make this thing work and help us out. And the Brooklyn quote comes back to we don’t have as much overhead on this because we’re in rural Nebraska doing it out of a commercial refrigeration shop.

Dr. Connie: Well and I think when people go to your website, and we’ll make sure to link from our show to your website, your mugs are really works of art. They’re the most amazing copper mugs I have ever seen. And it’s so exciting to see that this type of creation and creativity is coming from rural Nebraska, it’s coming from O’Neill. And that you’re hiring people in that local space to make this work. But I know you’ve also talked about the power of the internet to make this happen.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, this thing wouldn’t even have got off the ground without that technology and access to internet and being able to reach people through social media, and the website. Itt just would be impossible if it wasn’t for that. So we’ve shipped mugs to Australia, we’ve shipped mugs to Russia, we got caught off guard a little bit by shipping them to Alaska because it’s free shipping in the U.S. hat was a little expensive


Matt Dennis: And we’ve had several go to Alaska. We still haven’t changed it, so we’re not learning our lesson. But yeah, I mean the reach you can get in a town like O’Neill with access to the internet is incredible and it’s exciting.

Dr. Connie: Yeah I mean to be able to have a global business from where ever you want to live as long as you’re connected, it’s just an incredible time to live and be an entrepreneur.

Matt Dennis: It is, I mean the opportunities are seriously endless. I mean you got two guys in O’Neill, Nebraska making copper mugs for Pete-sakes, it’s crazy.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: We know that Handlebend is having great success and growing and you’ve hired your first time employee, give us a little background on your employee.

Matt Dennis: Yeah so Michael and I are both working full time jobs outside of Handlebend, so when we got enough support it was time to hire a person we put out an ad in a few different places and at the time we knew it was very difficult to hire a laborer of that caliber, it’s just not easy to do. So we put out an ad and we had a few bites, the one that stood out was Mo, and Mo is a ranch girl from Brewster, Nebraska. She went to art school at a small arts college in Kansas, and had just graduated, was moving back, wanted to do something other than the ranch. We reached out and it so happened that she had done a good chunk of sculpture work in her degree and already knew how to braze and had a good idea on welding, and she has been awesome.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So Matt in our pre-convo you talked about the fact that you really weren’t considering moving back to O’Neill or moving back to rural Nebraska, what changed your mind?

Matt Dennis: When I left O’Neill for Lincoln, I had no desire to come back. And most of that was I’d been working with my father for, I mean I was sweeping grain bins at age 11, if I wasn’t in football practice or had some crazy excuse not to work, I was at the elevator. So when I saw what he was doing at that age, at 18 years old, I just had in my mind that there was an easier way. I saw the hard work, I saw the long hours, I just had it in my mind that there is an easier way in the city. So I actually went to UNO, I got a bachelor’s in business administration and hardly stepped foot on the ag campus. And then two years in I kinda started to change my mind and my final year I decided that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, this is something I want to do and I want to eventually move back to O’Neill. So I did enter the ag space right away and within two years I got the call from my dad saying he had expanded enough and he wanted me to come back and I basically did right away. So not only was I working side by side with him all day, but I was also living in his basement for six months. So that got interesting when you’re spending that much time with your father.


Matt Dennis: But it was all good. So now I’m going to get even more personal here because one of the things we hear from young people is that they’re nervous about moving to rural communities because they may not find somebody to marry, that they won’t find a significant other. So we’ve half joked we should actually partner with like FarmersOnly.com and help them make matches for people.

Dr. Connie: But you’re married and have two kids, so tell me a little bit about how that happened.

Matt Dennis: I started dating my wife in college. She is from a small town right outside of Norfolk, Hadar, Nebraska, and she went to school in Omaha at UNO. After about seven years of dating I convinced her to move into a tiny little yellow house in O’Neill, she is still here.


Dr. Connie: Well congratulations, that’s exciting. But I just want our young people to know there are possibilities in rural Nebraska and rural places everywhere, not just for jobs but to create a whole life.

Matt Dennis: Absolutely, I work with a ton of producers and a lot of those kids are still coming back and they are making it work. I don’t know if it’s through FarmersOnly, but they are finding gals and guys to move back, so it’s working.

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 Clayton Keller, a public administration graduate student at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Welcome, Clayton.

Clayton Keller: Thanks, happy to be on the show.

Katy Bagniewski: So how about you start out by telling the listeners a little bit about yourself.

Clayton Keller: I was born in the rural Rockies of North Idaho. When I was 11 moved to the rural countryside of Ohio, so rural has been apart of my life, I guess my whole life. My end goal is to be a city manager. I’m a pretty typical midwestern boy.

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

Clayton Keller: Because tomorrow’s too late. With globalization and its increasing influence on worldwide culture, there is an ever pressing need to keep up. And with that comes a sense of urgency to make sure that no one gets left behind. Rural areas are known for their sense of community, for taking care of one another. So we as a people, as urban and rural dwellers, we need to take care of each other.

Katy Bagniewski: And how do you see urban and rural working together?

Clayton Keller: Partnerships, what those partnerships may look like will vary depending on the part of country you’re in. It has to be suited to your needs.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah I think that partnership is so important, and I’m happy that we’ve been able to partner with you. How would you say that RFI has impacted your college career and future plans?

Clayton Keller: RFI gave me the opportunity to actually apply the things that I’m learning in school. I got to be with the Columbus Area Future Fund and the Chamber of Commerce there. Those two organizations taught me that it’s possible to rally an entire city or community around a single identity. All too often we think it’s too difficult to bring people together and to try to make things happen, and I mean yeah it’s going to be hard, but that doesn’t make it impossible.

Katy Bagniewski:And what advice would you give to students who are in your shoes?

Clayton Keller: Jump right in. It’s a little scary (laughing) but just jump right in to new experiences, nothing helps you grow more than doing just that.

Katy Bagniewski: Thank you so much Clayton for being our bold voice this week and demonstrating how our generation of future leaders in both urban and rural can work together and think about how we can maximize our own impacts and create a better future for all.

Clayton Keller: Thanks for having me.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So tell us a little bit more about how you see the future shaping in rural places like O’Neill, Nebraska.

Matt Dennis: With the ag economy, and I mean this entire county in rural Nebraska, we thrive on agriculture. So we are in a low margin time and it’s tough, and it’s a little scary. But I think it’s important to tell the story of things like Handlebend because it lets people know that there’s avenues in these small rural areas outside of agriculture that can be tapped. But we still have to be creative on the ag side to continue to make this work and bring people back to these areas, so that we can thrive.

Dr. Connie: I know in our pre-convo you talked a lot about a need for more people to work, like the labor force. Would you share a little bit of your thought around that, what you’re seeing in your community and some of the potential solutions that you’re actually implementing in your businesses?

Matt Dennis: The labor situation in this rural area is extremely tough. For example, if I wanted to start a business today I would have a hard time starting a business that would involve hiring hard labor, anyone to run equipment, maintain equipment, that kind of thing. And that goes hand in hand with agriculture, it’s almost impossible. It is very, very hard to get long laborer in rural areas. So what I’ve talked about with previous people in the past and what I’ve been working on for the last few months is to really try to tap into the female workforce in these rural areas. I just think there is tremendous potential of the women in the area that are looking for work, but they need it to be flexible because a lot of the women in the area are running the family, and with that you need flexibility. And I think it’s possible, but it’s going to come down to kind of thinking outside of the box and creating positions that can be flexible and part time, and that are family friendly to really tap into the women labor force. A lot of these women are moving back here, following guys that are following the agriculture path and they have bachelor’s and master’s and doctorate and it’s just not getting tapped into. So there’s just so much talent that we should be using when we’re facing a situation of short labor.

Dr. Connie: We’re like kindred spirits in this area, this is something I’ve talked a lot about. I’ve written a lot about it over the years because I think in so many ways we keep trying those old models of graduate from high school, go to college, hopefully with healthcare being a shortage area in rural, let’s get some young minds into that and then we hope that they move back to rural area. There’s so many people already there and like you’ve said, there’s people that have gotten married and moved there. We aren’t really tapping into the talent that already exists and really developing the people that are living there, the people who have chosen to make their lives there, stayed there, or even recently moved back because it’s really exciting to see a lot of young couples, young leaders and entrepreneurs like yourself who have chosen to move into a rural location.

Matt Dennis: Well I think it’s tap-able, like I said before it’s going to take some creative thinking and not doing the normal thing.

Dr. Connie: I would hope that even we as a university, the college systems, education in general really starts thinking very long and hard about this and creating some solutions rather quickly that can serve these rural populations in better and bolder ways. With online and distance learning now there’s no reason people have to when they’re working adults or even a stay home mom or dad, whatever the case may be, that wants a new career, even somebody who’s close to retirement or in sort of the end of what we would typically think of a career, there’s still potential there we could tap into. I think as educational systems to help people get the capacity they need, but I think also you’re absolutely spot on, it’s going to take the workplace to re-envision what careers mean, what the workplace means, and how can we add in that flexibility, but also good pay, high level pay so that people can actually afford to work.

Matt Dennis:  And I think the challenge is going to be to mold that so that you can offer that excellent pay, but still be a value to these companies that are fighting these tight margins.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Tell our audience about who you are, your leadership philosophy, and how you approach all of this.

Matt Dennis: I would just say as cliche as it is, it’s just about leading by example. It’s just about gettin’ after it, empowering people. And if you’re empowering people and you’re listening to them at the same time, incredible things can happen as far as teammates buying in and gettin’ after a single goal. I don’t think that is cliche. I think the great thing is you are actually walking the talk. So often I think we have a lot of people talking about leadership, but they aren’t really doing it in a way that works for them, their families and the others that they’re working with.

(music transition)

Dr Connie: Okay Matt, now you’re a fun guy. I’ve been on your website, I’ve checked out Handlebend, your story’s amazing. So I want to know how do you keep that creativity fresh, what do you do for fun?

Matt Dennis: Oh what do I do for fun, I chase my kids around quite a bit. We have just recently bought a tiny little camper six months ago.

Dr. Connie: Nice.


Matt Dennis: We’ve used it this year, this summer and fall.


Matt Dennis: So yeah, and as far as the creativity part I’ve seen this time and time again that if you allow yourself to get comfortable, the creativity really comes to a halt. So it’s important to do these podcasts that I don’t do very often, jump out of the comfort zone, keep those creative juices flowing.

Dr. Connie: Well we’re glad you decided to take this chance, I was just amazed at watching this company and trying to figure out more about you. So I loved diving into the stories and learning more about the amazing people we have living in our rural communities, and especially our maverick entrepreneurs. I mean selling high end copper mugs that are works of art out of O’Neill, Nebraska, more people just need to know that story and know that that’s available. So as they think about we have the holiday season coming up, other types of things, let’s support our entrepreneurs by buying those amazing gifts and getting that talent out into the world and letting them know it’s right here from Nebraska.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, the Nebraska people have embraced this hugely. I mean we’ve had so much support from inside the borders of Nebraska, it’s absolutely crazy and it’s awesome and it makes this really fun. What we are trying to do with Handlebend is sell an experience, create a cool experience that people can get behind in a sense of community and just put out solid content and solid products, and do it that way.

Dr. Connie: Here at the Rural Futures Institute and at the University, we’re always eager to think of new ideas and to get creative ourselves, but we also have a lot of outside entities coming to us and saying hey, we know there’s a lot of potential on the rural sector but they aren’t quite sure how to engage in our rural communities or with our rural leaders. So what advice would you give to groups whether it’s Rural Futures Institute or even groups from Japan that are trying to enhance their rural sectors, what advice would you give to them?

Matt Dennis: I would just say that we worked with a lot of urban companies through this process, and there is a slight disconnect between– and this is not going to be for every company– but these smaller small town companies and urban companies it seems like the pace is a little bit different, how we go about doing things is a little bit different, but it’s always a good conversation to learn from different angles and learn from those faster paced urban companies. But as far as tapping into the rural communities, tell stories like Handlebend and how you can do this, and there’s hundreds more. For instance, Matthew Hanson and Sarah Hanson put out a book this year, it’s called “The Better Half” and it’s completely filled of small town stories of people gettin’ after it and making it happen. It’s an awesome book.

Dr. Connie: I always get these emails well Connie, what do you think we should do with this economic development, and all these different sort of acts or investments that our state wants to make. But I think for too long the world of entrepreneurship and economic development have just discounted our small businesses, they’re waiting for that next unicorn to come along. And how many jobs can we create really quickly rather than saying you know what, let’s support the growth of our businesses that we know people are staying here. We know Matt’s making his life in O’Neill, Nebraska. How do we support Handlebend even more than whatever growth path it’s wanting to take? Not just the ones that we see that might be important that are going to have the metrics we want to count, but the small businesses that employ people. And it might not be full time, it might be part time, it might be a 1099 employee, but this is really the way the world is evolving. And I think our rural areas can really be a leader in this space given the appropriate policies and really recognition that they’ve earned and deserve.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, that’s spot on, that’s spot on. I don’t even have anything to add to that. That is basically what we need to do, yeah.

Dr. Connie: Well hey good, I’m glad to have consensus from a leader like you on that because that drives me mad, so I have to tell you I’ve been at more meetings where, I used to help facilitate an entrepreneurship club in Nebraska City, in southeast Nebraska and it was always funny to me how I’d go to meetings and they’re using the term “mom and pop store” like it was a bad thing, and I’m like no way. These are the bread and butter, the backbone of our economy and it’s time for us to recognize that and the amazing people doing incredible work, but also that exponential impact those businesses have that just goes unrecognized.

Matt Dennis: It’s part of the reason why Handlebend has been successful as it’s been. If we had done this in Omaha I don’t think it would have the same feel and the same storyline as it does in rural Nebraska. I benefit that to part of the success, is this whole story behind it being the child of a rural community, and that whole story that we can sell with the experience. I had mentioned the story to you in our pre-convo about working with a decent sized marketing firm in Atlanta, we got going and we were pretty excited and they kinda told us what they were going to do and we hadn’t been doing any of that stuff so we were excited to see how it worked. But we got a month in and it was almost like they were throwing the same concepts at these mugs as they would the chinksy ones we bought 10 years ago from Amazon. And Michael and I are sittin’ here in O’Neill, Nebraska like what are these guys doing? And we had a conversation about a month in and we were kind of handcuffing them, we were slowing them up, they wanted to go this extremely fast paced get in front of as many people as possible, and Michael and I are kinda pumping the brakes, let’s slow that down, let’s just put out really good content. And almost like if you build it, they will come type.And these guys weren’t digging it. So we had a conversation with them and they straight up asked us, they’re like “Do you guys want to sell mugs or do you want to create content and tell stories?” And Michael and I look at each other and we both answer at the same time and say we want to tell stories, and it was crickets on the other side of the line. Like these guys didn’t know what to say at that point. So it’s just a little bit of a different concept, we still need to sell mugs but we also want to do it the right way and create an experience.

Dr. Connie: Well I think that comes through so loud and clear through your website (handlebend.com) but even through that Omaha article. I have to read just one more quote, “I feel like our generation is kind of, in a weird way, going back to our grandparents, our great grandparents, buying our food at farmers markets, local beer, locally made soap, and we are making these mugs for you, especially for you. We hope that when you open that wood crate with a crowbar and you have one of our mugs, you love them. Then you become our best salesman.”

Matt Dennis: Absolutely, and we’ve seen that first hand. You know, mugs are selling mugs, so you bet.

Dr. Conine: So you’re not just getting a box and opening it and there it is, you’re really from the beginning to the end creating that experience for the customer through who you are, your website, through that purpose of why you exist but also for them on the other end. So every time they take a sip out of that mug, they’re really relating it back to the experience you created. And we so appreciate you doing this creative work, but also getting our rural areas especially in states like Nebraska, on the map even more to demonstrate to the world the innovation and creativity that’s really happening in our small places.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, our goal with Handlebend in the community is we’re currently trying to purchase a 1940’s building downtown that we can renovate and partially be building these mugs out of. And then just create an entire sense of community around this building. So that’s one of our goals and what we want to do with the success that it’s brought, and really try to help this local community. I will have to say Dr.Connie, you mentioned opening the crate and we sent a set of mugs to New York City here a few months ago. We got an email back and this guy could not figure out how to open the crate. So that experience wasn’t so good, but we got him through it, he got into his mugs and loved them so, he couldn’t quite get into the product.


Dr. Connie: You know what, that’s still an experience, I just absolutely love that because in my own mind when I think about this I’m envisioning my husband opening his crate of mugs and he’s going to love that because he’s opened crates with crowbars, but in this light it’ll be a very positive one.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So thank you for your time and all this insight today, but I’d like to leave our audience with words of wisdom from you, Matt. What would you share with your parting thoughts?

Matt Dennis: Words of wisdom from me would be just get up, get after it, use your time wisely, and be kind doing it. And then the second thing I would say is in that hustle take some time to really connect with people along the way, it will be worth it.

Dr. Connie: That’s brilliant, and thank you so much for being on the Rural Futures podcast.

Read More

Episode 17: Researcher Christiana McFarland intersects economic assets, sustainability, growth

November 12, 2018
            We are navigating a critical juncture in our economic future, says Christiana McFarland, Research Director at the National League of Cities (NCL). It is clear that urban areas are attracting incredible growth, but in …





We are navigating a critical juncture in our economic future, says Christiana McFarland, Research Director at the National League of Cities (NCL). It is clear that urban areas are attracting incredible growth, but in the big picture, this is not sustainable. Intrigued by Christy’s work in the published report, “Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide,” RFI Chief Futurist Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D., draws out Christy’s thoughts in terms of the overall narrative of the rural-urban “divide,” accessible leadership and what the truest forms of rural-urban collaboration look like.

“I’m hopeful in those leaders who are on the ground and understand not only the constraints, but are starting to view their communities through an asset-driven lens as opposed to a deficit driven lens.”
Christiana McFarland
Research Director, National League of Cities

About Christy


Christiana McFarland is Research Director at the National League of Cities, an organization of 120 staff and researchers dedicated to helping city leaders build better communities. Working in partnership with the 49 state municipal leagues, NLC serves as a resource to and an advocate for the more than 19,000 cities, villages and towns it represents.

Christy leads NLC’s efforts to transform city-level data into information that strengthens the capacity of city leaders and that raises awareness of challenges, trends and successes in cities. Her areas of expertise include economic development, workforce development and municipal finance.

She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in urban planning and economic development at Virginia Tech to continue to explore how to provide research that helps leaders make better decisions, and how to bring information to life for city leaders, so they can do their jobs better.


Christy’s Recent Work



Bold Voices Student Segment

 Listen at 13:53 of Episode 17!

“I really have a passion for helping people,” Sydney Armbruster, a senior disease and human health major at Peru State College.

Sydney spent her summer as a serviceship intern in Omaha, Neb., with the Omaha Municipal Land Bank, a local governmental nonprofit organizations that was established by the Nebraska Legislature to develop housing strategies for regional organizations in rural communities across Nebraska.

“Once I got to Omaha, I learned a whole new world that joined housing and healthcare,” she says. “It definitely opened my horizons to what the world has to offer and how many people are working for positive change in the world today.”

Learn more about Sydney’s Serviceship experience! »


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie. And joining us today is researcher and maverick, Christy McFarland. She’s the research director with the National League of Cities, and she’s also pursuing a PhD at Virginia Tech to explore her amazing work even deeper which we’ll talk about here in a minute. So Christy, tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Christy McFarland: Thanks, Dr. Connie, it’s great to be here with you. So I am a researcher with the National League of Cities. I always like to use the word applied before researcher, so I’m an applied researcher. We’re very much with data, but also with leaders in local communities across the country and city staff as well. As you mentioned, I’m getting my PhD. I’m a perpetual student both in and outside of the classroom. Of course, I’m also a mom of two small kids, four and six. I also love to play tennis.

Dr. Connie: Good, funny as I hear all that, it makes me wonder what you’re not doing because just working and pursuing a PhD is a lot. Let alone when you throw in a family, and you want to have a life outside of that as well.

Christy McFarland: Yes, it’s definitely a lot. But my husband and I have a great partnership in that way.

Dr. Connie: I think in this modern era when you have a lot times dual career couples or couples with kids or dogs or all these other responsibilities you have to have some sort of partnership or team on your side to make it all work. Tell us a little bit more about yourself as a leader and how you create this full life that you’re experiencing.

Christy McFarland:That’s a really interesting question. And it’s something that I’ve needed to reflect on because I think it’s a role that I’ve grown into. I would say a defining characteristics of my leadership style really is to lean into uncertainty. And I think that goes for my professional and personal life as well. Specifically, on the professional side, what I’ve realized over the past few years, is that we are often confronted with some predominate narratives whether it’s in the media or just in our professional circles or whatnot. And specifically, in my role with the National League of Cities, and there’s been a lot of attention on local communities and geography and the role that cities and towns play in the broader national economy. And really understanding what the perspective is from a national media driven, maybe political perspective, and then what we’re really hearing on the ground from those people who are in the trenches every day really working to build better communities. Being able to identify where I see those disconnects and where there may be some uncertainty and gray areas, and really using those as the opportunities for a research direction and as a guide for where the next great research idea may come from.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So tell us a little bit more about your work around exploring the rural-urban, both conversation but diving a little deeper into that, economy and for the coexistence of that economy and the importance of the relationship between rural and urban areas.

Christy McFarland: I have been very struck over the past few years with the very disparate outcomes that truly do exist in some rural and urban communities but also the overriding narrative about the fate and the relationship between urban and rural communities. I think most of what we’ve been hearing and most of what tends to be understood about urban and rural communities is that they do not operate in the same world at all. And that’s not actually the case. When we drill down and we really get a handle on what is happening in urban and rural places, we find yes, rural communities very much are stressed at a foundational level. But they also operate within a regional economy, and we’re finding many places where rural communities are leveraging their assets to build relationships in a broader, regional economy. You had referenced merging the urban-rural economic divide, and what we found in that research is that again, yes there are some significant divides between urban and rural communities, particularly when we’re talking about things like education and broadband access. And we know that those are critically important to the economic prospects of any place. But, we also found some other interesting findings that point really to opportunities for more shared prosperity between urban and rural communities. In many states across the country, we found that business is an export and that’s very critically important to economic growth. We found that rural communities have a growing share of businesses that export whether that’s through manufacturing or agriculture or otherwise. So we know that there are opportunities and assets there. We also find that many rural communities are outpacing their urban counterparts in their contributions to state GDP. So again, we see that there are glimmers of opportunity. There are particular places that are leveraging their unique assets. They’re building stronger relationships with their urban counterparts, and we’re seeing that there are possibilities there.

Dr. Connie: Well, I so appreciate this work. I just returned on a trip from Ohio where I was able to meet with a number of ag leaders. And the number of stories that people tell about one woman, for example, actually runs a multi-state ag insurance agency with a number of partners. And one of her partners was telling me that her brother lives in a rural area of Ohio but has worked with Japan to develop edible soybeans. And that market has grown so much that his business has really expanded, so it’s an international business. It started from a person living in a rural Ohio. But the segment, the customer segment they serve is very urban. And so, I think those economies really come together in incredible ways. And sometimes we just don’t recognize it like we should.

Christy McFarland: I think that’s a really good point. Up until, the past 20 or 30 years or so, I think what we have been seeing in terms of how the economy operated is just that smaller places would catch up with larger places and vice versa. And things would sort of take care of themselves through the economy. That’s not necessarily the case anymore, and we need to be much more intentional about our economic development strategies if we want to see shared prosperity. So like you were saying, really getting able to isolate and understand what the assets are in particular places.

Dr. Connie: Well, and one of the quotes I love from the report you were talking about was, “It’s time for the narrative to shift from urban versus rural to a shared economic future. Bridging the economic divide between urban and rural areas will require states, regions, and localities to understand and bolster the relationship between urban and rural areas in economically meaningful and strategic ways.” I think that just that summarizes a lot of this so well but also helps people reframe some of the questions that we need to be asking to create a more sustainable future for our country and also the world.

Christy McFarland: I think this conversation around the urban-rural divide really forces us to think a little bit differently about the future both of leadership, of economic development, of the way that we approach our communities. Specifically, on the leadership front, we talked about the fact that in the past the economy sort of sorted itself out in ways that we’re not seeing anymore. So in that way it really does require governments at all levels as well as partners from private sector, nonprofits, and others to really come together and to teach a collaboration to think about intentional ways to improve the economic outcomes, not only of rural communities but ways that urban and rural communities can work together. I really feel like that’s where the leverage is going to be. And again, in terms of economic development as a field and how we’re thinking about that and how that field is evolving, again, becoming much more intentional and strategic and it requires that leadership. But it doesn’t mean working against the economic forces that are occurring to make large communities economically viable. It doesn’t mean that rural communities need to be working against that, or it doesn’t mean that rural communities even need to try to replicate what’s happening in large communities. What it means for the future for rural economies is that economic developers across the country need to take stock of what assets exist locally, how do those play within a regional economy and how can they potentially complement what’s happening in the urban area? Is there an exciting urban market that really can be served by some rural interests as well? And I really feel that that’s the way of the future.

Dr. Connie: Well, give us some examples of the communities you see working in this way where they’re really thinking about how do they link these systems in rural and urban together to create a more vibrant economy, but also a more thriving area for people to live?

Christy McFarland: There are examples across the country, and I think those are the important stories to lift up, right? We’re working right now in the state of Virginia, for example, trying really to understand what are the assets that are unique to rural parts of the state and how do those align potentially with what the needs are of more urban areas of the state, so that’s one example. We know that Oregon is home of the top hops growers, which I find to be really interesting. And the rural growers of hops in that state really rely on the sophisticated tastes of their urban consumers within the state of Oregon as well. So, the entrepreneurs who are growing hops are relying the specialized beer palate of those in the urban area. They’re purifying the type of hops that they’re growing and then expand to the global market. So that type of relationship between urban and rural is not only a direct market for rural entrepreneurs in the urban area, but also sort of a test bed before they’re able to branch out and be successful in the global marketplace as well.

Dr. Connie: Well, I think that that shows an exciting linkage, right? So thinking about how do we work together within this space. So we are co-testing and co-creating these products together so we aren’t just growing something over here that might not fit the palate of the audiences we’re trying to serve but really zoning in on those audiences and being very entrepreneurial in terms of how to create the products that people really want to buy.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So and a lot of this really centers around the food systems, expanding those food system beyond the farms and really helping people understand what that means. We all eat; we all wear clothes. I think these are important pieces of what rural does provide. But tell us a little bit more about those states that maybe don’t have a strong ag sector. What advice would you give them in the rural-urban connect?

Christy McFarland: Again, I think it’s critically important to understand regionally what are going to be the drivers of the economy within that region going forward. And are there complements in both the urban and rural communities to help realize that growth in the long term? So again, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that rural communities are replicating success of urban areas or that they just need to wait for urban area growth to sort of trickle down to rural communities. There really can be a synergy there particularly when working through a regional perspective.

Dr. Connie: Now thank you. I know we’ve talked to a few states. Leaders from South Carolina, for example, that are really struggling around, okay, what do we do here? Because states like Nebraska, others have this strong rural sector and that strong rural sector really is the bread and butter of the state in so many ways, but also is what really bolsters our rural sector. And I think that’s important, but other states don’t necessarily have that. And so thinking about how do we expand it here in places like Nebraska but also earn to together with states like South Carolina that don’t feel their ag sector is what really makes their rural areas prosperous. So thinking about it in new and different ways, I think is just so important for everyone.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, I think that’s right. And there are also, like you had mentioned, there are also states that have thriving rural areas. And I think what we’re finding in a lot of those places too, is that you get urban and rural communities are linked together because of the growth that’s happening in rural communities. So for example, with gas and oil production and extraction in the northern states, for example, thinking about the services that are required whether it’s the drill services or otherwise to help that industry continue to grow. We’re seeing those type of service sector jobs grow in the urban areas but they’re very much connected to what is happening in the rural places as well.

(music transition)

Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rockstar 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 Sydney Armbruster, a senior Disease and Human Health major at Peru State College. Welcome Sydney.

Sydney Armbruster: Hello, thanks for having me Katy.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, we’re so happy you came on the show. Can you start out by telling our listeners a little bit about who you are?

Sydney Armbruster: I really have a passion for helping people and learning about the human body, and I hope to become a physician assistant someday.

Katy Bagniewski: So I know you have a rural background. Tell our listeners a little bit about your connection to rural.

Sydney Armbruster: I’m originally from Fall City, Nebraska, which is a rural community. My specific interests in rural is in the healthcare field. And I hope to be able to help out and serve in underprivileged areas when I get licensed as physician assistant.

Katy Bagniewski: So, you got to contribute to the Rural Futures Institute through our Serviceship project this summer. Can you talk about a little bit about that?

Sydney Armbruster: I got sent to the Omaha Municipal Land Bank. And once I got to Omaha, I learned a whole new world but joined Housing and Healthcare which really interested me, but was something that I never even thought of before. We basically worked with foreclosed houses. We worked with the foreclosure team to get those houses, and then we sell those houses. And then whoever buys the house has nine months to redevelop that house. So actually we’re bettering the communities in more than one way. It made me grow as a person and will definitely shape how I practice medicine in the future.

Katy Bagniewski: How do you think that those skills would translate into a more rural community?

Sydney Armbruster: Right now there’s a lot of housing crises in rural areas. And Land Bank is actually working on moving their services to rural areas because of the crisis. And it would work the exact same way we work in those underdeveloped parts of the communities and hopefully get them back up to functioning pace. And it would affect the community just as much as it does in urban areas.

Katy Bagniewski: How has the Rural Futures Institute impacted your college career and your future plans?

Sydney Armbruster: RFI has been one of the best experiences of my college career thus far. I’ve gained friendships, mentors, and many memories. It definitely opened my horizons to what the world has to offer and how many people are working for positive change in the world today.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, thank you so much, Sydney, for talking to me today and discussing this interesting intersection between housing and healthcare and how it really affects both urban and rural.

Sydney Armbruster: Thanks for having me, Katy.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Okay, Christy, I’m going to ask you to put your futurist hat on now for a second. I want you to think about how do you think these changes will impact the future? How do you see the rural-urban dynamic evolving?

Christy McFarland: I think that the urban-rural dynamic will evolve to a place where, from what I know about city leaders in other community leaders and town leaders across the country, they will find a way. There are solutions when the right people are at the table. And my sense is that we’re getting to a critical point where we need to really start identifying solutions that work for both urban and rural communities and for shared prosperity within the regions. In terms of what the future looks like, again, I’m hopeful in those leaders who are on the ground and understand not only the constraints but are starting to view their communities through an asset-driven lens as opposed to deficit-driven lens. And when you do that I think the possibilities really become more apparent. And again, we are seeing that in communities across the country, and I’m hopeful that others will take that lead as well.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I so agree. I know there’s challenges, and we at Rural Futures Institute aren’t trying to diminish those challenges at all but surely think more on the mindset of possibility and abundance and what can be created. I think it’s so important. So we are actually recognizing that there’s opportunity here rather than just focusing on the challenges.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Now I know you’re one of the people on this planet that really takes her work very seriously, but also gets out there and experiences these crops and these rural areas for herself. So I’d love for you to share with our audience what you do for fun that also helps you think of the research and push your research forward.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, well my husband and  I have recently become whisky-hobbyists, if that’s a word. We very much enjoy getting out into Virginia and exploring the distilleries that are local here. There are quite a few in Virginia and it’s just been a really fun experience. I think, when we get out to these places it’s very interesting to see, for example, the methods that are used when these distilleries are dealing with different types of grains. It’s not a high-tech type of process. It’s very much being able to feel and to smell all of the different grains that are going into whether it’s rye or bourbon or whatnot. It’s a great experience really to get up close and personal with the products that we love to taste test for ourselves back at home. And to have an experience not only with the products but also with the people that are making it.

Dr. Connie: But I think this is just a huge asset rural communities definitely have. A little later today I get to go down to Kimmel Orchard. And it’s a 90-acre orchard famous for apples but has a variety of fruits and vegetables as well. And every fall, they have an AppleJack festival in Nebraska City which is a town of about 7,000 people in southeast Nebraska. And literally, 50 to 70,000 people will come down there and participate in that festival over the course of a three-day period. And it’s been named one of the best festivals pin the nation for a small town. It’s such a great economic boom for the area, but it also just provides that experience you’re talking about. People coming from rural and urban areas alike to be able to pick apples and get outside, have some family fun. But really get to also experience what a great apple, what great products and produce actually taste like straight from the place it is grown and produced. And on the side of education, it really has allowed us to really relate to people in a different way through the lens of food and agriculture. We talk about the university work and the work in extension and research and that stays. And so those are just amazing places and assets to have so that we can all come together around these issues and help grow our economies but also the quality of our lives together.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So, Christy, tell us a little bit more about your work and what you’re doing in work with your PhD and what your research looks like.

Christy McFarland: So we had done this initial research on the urban-rural economic divide and wanting to understand where there are opportunities for regional economic development that helps strengthen and see prosperity throughout regions as opposed to just to build parts of regions. For my PhD work, what I’m looking at is in covering that a little bit more, so really understanding what are the connections from an economic development lens, whether that’s different types of industry and how are they connected? I’m looking specifically at the ability of conglomeration and clusters, economic clusters, to help facilitate regional economic development. And I think recently when we think about conglomeration which is sort of the clustering of economic activity along one smaller place, we think of that as the key driver of divergence among urban and rural communities across the country. But we’ve really only looked at that through the lens of major regions across the country and maybe why are the coasts doing better and the Midwest is not doing as well. But we haven’t really taken the approach of really understanding, okay, let’s dig deeper into regions that include both urban and rural counterparts and understand can this cluster of economic activity encompass both urban and rural communities and help bridge urban and rural economy in a more productive way, building whole region?

Dr. Connie: The work you’re doing really, I think, is an incredible innovation in research itself in terms of changing the narrative but also adding the substance behind it that it needs. So as we come up even to more elections and the topic of rural versus urban reemerges in the media in the narrative, I’m excited that so many of us now can use the work you’re doing to really have a different, more robust conversation around this issue.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, I think it’s really important that we have the information. I think one side of the story has been told very well. And again, it’s not to say that rural communities don’t have their challenges because they certainly do. But it’s also important for the other side of the story to be told as well so that we can start to look towards solutions. I’m with the National League of Cities. Cities are certainly in our name, so I’ve gotten some funny looks when I start to have this conversation with people. But we really do represent cities and towns of all sizes across the country. So our interest really is in strengthening the economy and the quality of life in communities across the country whether large or small.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I appreciate that point because I think that is,  a person hears the word city and you automatically think of like New York. You don’t think of West Point, Nebraska. So appreciate you bringing that forward because the work you’re doing, really I think is helpful to anyone working in this space at all. There’s a lotta good statistics. I think there’s great examples of communities really rethinking their economic future but also sustainability and growth. And your work is really unleashing a whole new conversation that we all need to be a part of and help support.

Christy McFarland: From my sense, too, again although we certainly represent cities and towns across the spectrum and this research really is in the vein of trying to support economic growth throughout regions, there is also an incentive I would say for more urban communities to start thinking with this frame as well. Particularly as communities start to grow, they’re becoming more unaffordable. There are problems with transportation and traffic issues. And it’s going to be incumbent on urban communities as well to think in a more regional frame in order to help balance some of these negative consequences of growth.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, in Nebraska what we’re seeing is really the growth happening in those micropolitan areas. So, the areas that are not considered major urban centers but are big enough that people want to live there but still have that quality of life, the space, more affordable housing, great schools. And so I think this is something that’s really part of this narrative, right? People really want this quality of life, and now people are so mobile. I mean, here we are both working from home to record this podcast that they can do that. And I think there’s so many ways we can help people realize their potential wherever they want to live. But both rural and urban areas can think about that. Like what do people want? What are they looking for? And how do we become providers of that lifestyle? As long as people are connected, they can do so much now from anywhere in the world, and that is really shifting the possibilities around where people want to live, but also where they can live.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, I think that’s right. We can’t underestimate the importance and the vitality of our urban areas and the reason why they are successful. People still do want to be near other people, but there are others. And there are other ways to be successful as long as those connections are made in a strategic way and an economically viable way. And maybe we just haven’t gotten there yet, but I think that is the path we need to continue to go down.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So Christy, what parting words of wisdom would you like to leave our audience with today?

Christy McFarland: I hope that the research that we’ve done at the National League of Cities and that we’ll continue to do and also the work that you all are doing, really can help people change their direction a little bit just in terms of tweaking the way that we see the world and putting an asset-driven lens on the work that we do because I think that really can open up some new possibilities.

Dr. Connie: Great, thank you so much, Christy! We appreciate the work you’re doing and your time to come on the podcast.

Christy McFarland: Thank you.

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Episode 16: Futurist Deborah Westphal intersects humanity, technology, empowerment

November 6, 2018
            In this episode, two female futurists come together to talk about the future of humanity with technology; water infrastructure and the leadership needed to sustain it; empowerment of women and new generations of leaders; …





In this episode, two female futurists come together to talk about the future of humanity with technology; water infrastructure and the leadership needed to sustain it; empowerment of women and new generations of leaders; and much, much more. Deborah Westphal, CEO of the future-focused strategic advisory firm, Toffler Associates, is an engineer by training and an evolving leader who recognizes the value of people. She believes individuals’ hopes, desires and strengths can further organizations, even in exponentially changing technology environments. She and Dr. Connie also explain that our inter-dependencies whether rural and urban, male and female, boomer and millennial are assets to build upon.

Deborah Westphal, CEO, Toffler Associates
“We must understand that while it looks and feels like we’re in the midst of a technology revolution, we’re really experiencing a human revolution.”
Deborah Westphal
CEO, Toffler Associates

About Deb


Deborah Westphal is CEO of Toffler Associates, a future-focused strategic advisory firm. For more than two decades, the Virginia-based firm has guided private and public organizations through disruptions and transformations in preparation for future success. Deb has spent her career unearthing insights and connecting dots to identify future risk and opportunity, and then architecting plans to best mitigate those threats and seize the opportunities.

Deborah has an MBA from Webster University and a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico, and has completed extensive continuing education with Harvard Business School and Wharton Business School. She is also a member of the Air Force Studies Board, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Deborah is a sought-after speaker for events focusing on the future of space, the future threats and opportunity landscape, and organizational transformation.


Deb’s Recent Work



Bold Voices Student Segment

Listen at 13:20 of Episode 16!

Raghav Kidambi, senior management major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Hometown: Chennai, India (population 7 million)

“When people leave rural societies for urban centers, we’re losing a huge amount of workforce when it comes to agribusiness and agriculture and things that are necessary — that are the backbone for the country. And not just in America, but this is happening everywhere in the world.”

“Going into a rural community is something special by itself, because there’s a lot more meaning attached to what you’re doing. Your work is going to affect not just you but literally a community that you get to spend time with on a daily basis.”

Learn more! Raghav’s RFI Student Serviceship experience in Seward, Neb. »


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining us today is Deb Westphal, CEO of Toffler Associates, a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Deb, tell us a little bit more about Toffler Associates.

Deb Westphal: Sure, so Toffler Associates is a strategic advisory firm that helps our clients actually create better futures by understanding what’s driving change, helping them plan through that change, and then finally helping them adapt their organization and be successful.

Dr. Connie: Well, and we’re going to talk a little bit more about that, and some of your work is specifically with strategic advising, but I want to get more into depth a little bit here, because there are some very interesting things about you that I think our audience would be curious about. What do you do for fun?

Deb Westphal: Oh, fun, well right now I’m really into running, and I have learned to have fun with that. I’m actually going to be running in the Chicago Marathon in less than a week.

Dr. Connie: So you’re doing the Chicago marathon, but I think you also have a big climb coming up in February?

Deb Westphal: I do, I do, I’ve actually planned a trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Dr. Connie: I’d like to know, how does this bring joy but also how does it make you better at what you do?

Deb Westphal: I need to be in constant motion, whether that’s mentally or physically, or maybe even spiritually, so running and hiking and learning and just staying in constant motion brings great joy. And that really fits nicely with what I do professionally at Toffler Associates. It’s perpetual connecting dots and learning and meeting extraordinary people and learning about their lives and that brings great joy.

Dr. Connie: Well, obviously serving as CEO of Toffler Associates, you’re in a high profile leadership position. So tell us a little bit more about yourself as a leader.

Deb Westphal:  It’s evolved, and I have an engineering degree, and so in my younger years it was more about process and making sure the structure was aligned and making sure that the strategy was there. Over time as I’ve matured as a leader, all of that is needed, but that’s not the priority. And what I have found is that the priority is people. If you organize around them, and you organize around their strengths and their hopes, and their desires, the organization is much better for that, versus trying to make sure you have everything lined up organizationally and then put the people in there.

Dr. Connie: I feel like the way you lead, and your philosophy around leadership matches so well with your work because I know in our pre-convo and the form you submitted before coming on the podcast, you stated, “we must understand that while it looks and feels like we’re in the midst of a technology revolution, we’re really experiencing a human revolution.” Expand on that a bit.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, so it’s easy to focus on the technology and yes, there’s so much technology that’s maturing and advancing that we lose sight of the implications to people and humanity and society and this revolution that we’re in is human. The technology’s the fuel that is connecting us, it’s allowing us to find people like ourselves, to gain voice, to be activists. It is allowing for humans to rise and rise above the technology and use that technology as more of a platform for society and humanity.

(music transition)

Deb Westphal: For our company, if you look at our business cards, we don’t have titles, because we play different roles at different times. There are times when I’ll have a millennial or a Gen-Z leading a project and I’m there to make PowerPoint slides. They’re my lead. And so you hit on the roles, right? If you see some of the projections about the workforce being by 2030, 80% of the US workforce will be freelance. Well freelance is not necessarily a title, it’s not a position, so these traditional organizational models that we have where we bring somebody in for a slot, it has a title, it has a job description that’s very limited, and we cram a person in there, we’re only getting a part of them. How do we unleash that, and how do we take advantage in the opportunity both on from a company perspective as well as from the individual to bring the whole person. Our work around human centric organizations is going through these models and where do we need to go to bring that to the forefront, to bring people to the forefront? The whole person, not just the slice that maybe was their education, or a specific experience.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well, I know your work and research have unveiled what you call future shocks. So how and what are future shocks and how are they going to continue to change and shape society?

Deb Westphal: Wow, there’s so many, future shocks that are happening. One is what we call the power balance, and that’s really that shifting power structure that is moved from more traditional entities to non traditional entities. Take Elon Musk, and he’s a controversial fellow, and he gets himself into trouble, but, here’s this young billionaire that connects with some silicon valley engineers and they have a vision, and all of a sudden, their influence moves an automotive industry that has been pretty stagnant, if you would, for decades. And if you look at where the automotive industry is now they’re placing their money on autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles where they wouldn’t have done that ten years ago. And so, it’s moving this power balance, moving from the traditional entities to non traditional entities to people, the GoFundMe platform allows for donations to be collected in matters of weeks for the Las Vegas shooting victims. It gives hope and some relief, if you would, to those victims in matters of weeks where the government would have taken months or possibly years. So that is a future shock that says just because you’re a strong organizational entity you may not always be in power. It really may be individuals or groups of startups that maintain that power.

Dr. Connie: I think it’s a great message for people to really think about. I think for so long we’ve been in a society where it seemed like a few people decided what happened. Right? And I’m not saying that power still doesn’t exist but at the same time, power has been given to people like never before. And getting these interesting partnerships together, thinking boldly and moving boldly and with conviction can really change the world. And developing these platforms that give people a voice, especially a collective voice, is really amazing. And it’s a great time in history to see how this is going to shape the future.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, and the infrastructure that’s being put in place around the world, the communications, information technology, we have more satellites going up, we have fiber being laid, we have CellulAir, it’s allowing everybody on the planet to connect, and through social media, there’s good and bad there, but the connection, to find people like ourselves that can bring that power and that voice is a real strong shift here, and very exciting for the future, I think.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, and I love one of your quotes. “If your organization prioritizes age over ideas it’s time for a change.” And so thinking about, you know what, this doesn’t have to be what it was, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been around, how much experience you have, there’s really this capacity for individuals to make a huge difference, especially if they come together.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I find it really interesting with some of the clients that we work with, that their reference, if you would, to millennials or Gen-Z is how are we going to manage these kids? They’re almost out of control, they’re very different, instead of how are we going to use this as an opportunity? Because they see things differently, they were born into this digital age they are looking at things and saying,  “this doesn’t seem right, why do we do it this way?” And for the older generations, they may see that as a challenge versus an opportunity to go, yeah, why are we doing it this way? And organizations should see that as an opportunity to question and listen to that younger generation. It would probably help them move forward in a faster way. That younger generation’s going to point out areas that probably don’t make sense in this day and age to be doing it that way. So it’s really an opportunity. It’s not a challenge, it’s not a chore, it’s an opportunity.

Dr. Connie: Thinking about a university, and the Rural Futures Institute, how can we look at that and take note and do something about that, and this is even where I have to give our young podcast producer, executive producer, Katelyn Ideus, props, and her team. They push me to do things I would not normally do.


Dr. Connie: I mean, when we were getting ready for the podcast we had this photo shoot, I’m like oh my gosh what am I doing! I’m Gen-X, doing a crazy photo shoot. They’re making me pose and look at the camera in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. But you know what, it turned out great and I’m so glad that they really were like “yeah we can do this, it’ll be awesome!” And it just makes for a great team if you can harness that diversity, and the differences, and really harness the innovation that comes out of it.

Deb Westphal: My son is 29 and while he’s starting to get older, he’s still that Gen-X, that, they’re passionate, they care about the world, they care about humanity, they want to solve the problems. They don’t necessarily want to follow in their parent’s footsteps with working 80 hour weeks, and not taking care of their bodies,  and they see there’s a higher purpose for why we’re here, and I just think that is amazing. And it’s probably scary for older generation, or older leaders, but it’s really going to unleash a new way to lead and a new organizational construct that I think is pretty exciting and full of hope for the future.

(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: Hello podcast listeners, I hope you’re enjoying the show. I’m Katy Bagniewski, production specialist of Rural Futures with Dr. Connie, and with me today is Raghav Kidambi, a senior management student in the college of business at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Welcome Raghav.

Raghav Kidambi: Hello Katy, it’s good to be here.

Katy Bagniewski: And it’s so nice to have you. Let’s start by giving our listeners a glimpse into who you are.

Raghav Kidambi: I’m from a city called Chennai in the southeastern part of India with about seven million inhabitants. It’s a pretty cool place, a tropical coastline. We also have one of the largest natural coasts in the world. But apart from that, my connection to Rural and the Rural Futures Institute was through the serviceship that I went through this year, so very grateful for that. Yeah and let’s dive into that. We know that you’re this urban guy with a soft spot for rural.

Raghav Kidambi: When people leave rural societies to urban centers, we’re kind of losing a huge amount of workforce when it comes to agribusiness and agriculture, and rural things that are necessary that are the backbone for the country, and not just in America, but this is happening everywhere in the world. So that’s kind of the catalyst that’s enabled me to want to participate in something like the Rural Future Institute, and the serviceship that you guys offer.

Katy Bagniewski: So tell me a little bit about your serviceship experience.

Raghav Kidambi: So, the RFI serviceship, for me, was kind of a game changer, and it allowed me to experience rural America for the first time, because personally I’ve never really been to a rural town. I’ve driven by it, but I’ve never been situated in it for more than maybe a day or two. The people in rural societies and rural towns I feel like are very special, the places are special and I learned a lot of wholesome things from working with them. So for me that was it, the experience of being in a rural society and learning from people who are fundamentally extremely different from who I am and also sharing my experiences with them there’s a lot that we can learn from each other.

Katy Bagniewski: What advice would you give to students who are in your shoes or who may just be interested in impacting and serving a rural community?

Raghav Kidambi: That they should just go do it and a general advice that I would give my peers is that making use of opportunity, whether it be rural or not, is something that you have to do to grow as a professional, but going into a rural community is something special by itself because there’s a lot more more meaning attached to what you’re doing. Your work is going to affect not just you but literally a community that you get to spend time with on a daily basis.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, thank you Raghav, for talking to me about rural and urban collaboration and sharing your unique viewpoint on it all. And just bringing hope to students and all of us as we work toward a better future for all.

Raghav Kidambi: Absolutely, thank you very much, Katy, for having me on the podcast.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I love how you talk about the future of work, through what you do, in terms of even thinking about future generations and what they’re willing to embrace, such as using AI as a teammate rather than viewing it as a competitive threat.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I mean we’re already using technology, all of us are using it, whether you have a fit bit, and it’s monitoring your sleep or you have Siri in your car or Alexis in your home, we’re already relying on technology and as it advances in this AI and human machine learning and autonomy is there to help. To me it’s not scary because the technology is so far away from it being to where it’s human like, or will overtake the human. So we really need to think about it as peers and teammates, and not as a threat, because let the machines do that drudgery, and then that gives people a chance to be more creative and innovative and problem solve and do the things that only humans can do which are so much more enjoyable and fulfilling for people.

Dr. Connie: I mean, getting help with that, so it would release that time and energy to really think more broadly, think about personal development, and fulfillment, and actually be able to achieve more of that, rather than staying in the to do list.

Deb Westphal: Even some of the brain work that people do in organizations, strategic planning, lots of data collection and reading reports  and going through the information,  let a machine do that.

(music transition)

Deb Westphal: So where we start is you have to get the question right. You have to get the question right, and you have to do that head work before the footwork. And spending time on what is the real question we’re trying to answer, here. Too many times people jump to a solution and just listen to what they say– we need a strategic plan, or we need a new process or we need a working group that collaborates. Wait, you don’t need those things, what is the problem we’re trying to solve? What is the question that we’re trying to answer? And really, what is that question and when we solve that problem or answer that question, what’s going to be different? And how will we use that? For us, that’s where we start. And we spend a lot of time with our clients, before we ever, sometimes before we even contractually engage with them to get the question right, what is that question, what is the problem we’re trying to solve, and then what are the hypotheses to solve that question and then what do we need to do to get the data or the right people or the right resources to solve that problem? But the key is getting the question right.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: As the future evolves it’ll be interesting to see how the technology and the interaction between technology and humanity continues to evolve as well, but another area that you’ve really focused on is water. Recently, I read an article that you published about is water the world’s greatest security risk? Tell us a little bit about your interest in water and what you’re seeing in that space.

Deb Westphal: Well the interest is across the, kind of the critical infrastructures and water is something that we can not survive without. And major water sources connect across country boundaries or state boundaries, and it can be used almost as a weapon because of that.

Dr. Connie: Well I know one of the statements you made in our pre-convo was who’s the first mover in water? And who is the long term leader? But it’s not just humans that need it, we need it to create all the technology and every living creature actually needs water.

Deb Westphal: And no one owns the problem. Is this down at the regional level, is it the state level, is it the country level? And who owns that? What industry owns it? And so that coming to the table again, who is that first mover, and who’s going to put the resources on the table to start solving this problem? I know that the University of Nebraska has the water center which is a start. It’s cross-disciplinary, you’re trying to work across the industries, the government agencies, kind of this uber collaboration is really hard because who’s accountable? Who owns it? But we have to be thinking in different models for solving these really hard problems, and water is a very, very hard problem.

Dr. Connie: As you mentioned we have a sister institute to the Rural Futures Institute here at the University of Nebraska, which is called the Water for Food Institute. And they’re really interested in how do we produce more food for a growing population with less water? We have a water center that’s been prolific in its work, but we also have a Nebraska Water Leaders Academy. I actually teach the Futuring and Innovation piece of that Academy, so people can start thinking about the future of water a little bit differently, and the leadership it’s going to take to think about this all in a new way. As you’ve talked about, I mean, the policies and structures are old, I think there’s a lot of boundaries that were created so long ago, there’s a historical component that’s been very hard to shed, at least in Nebraska, and we’re actually only one of three states that even have and academy like that. But at the same time, it is top of mind for so many industries. I mean, if you’re Coca-Cola, for example, water’s huge. I mean, I know a lot of companies have started incorporating water into their strategic planning because it is such a big part of their business.

Deb Westphal: Yeah and so what are you finding? Are you finding it’s about process or are you finding it’s about people?

Dr. Connie: Like you’ve said, it’s very complex. And the great thing about the Water Leaders Academy is that it brings together all these different areas of expertise. So you have attorneys, you have policy analysts, you have leadership development people like myself,  you have futurists like myself, but you also have farmers and business people in the academy, so it’s a great collection of expertise, both teaching and learning, and all co-learning with one another. So much of the policy was created so long ago. For example, here in Nebraska, surface and groundwater are sort of treated as separate entities. Well, we know ecologically that’s not the case, right? And so who does really own what, who really should lead what, and how can we innovate together to make it different? So it is both, I think policy, it’s procedure, but then there’s that element of humanity as well. Because we also have challenges around, okay, if I’m a farmer for example, should I be able to grow my crop over someone who owns a business that takes people down a river in a canoe? What is the priority for all this water? And I think we have great systems in place in a state like Nebraska, too, where we have natural resource districts. So I think we’ve been fortunate that there’s been a lot of collaboration, but we’ve also seen some interesting things happen around quality, because quantity has been the focus but now it’s quality. And so for example, as quality becomes more of a challenge point, how do we innovate around that? What can we create that’s different? And we’ve seen even some of our rural communities who literally were giving bottled water to their community members, especially pregnant women, older people living in those communities, people at risk for their health, because the nitrate level was so high. And what that community had to do was actually work with the ag community, because separately they could not afford to remediate the water or pay for a new system but together they found a way to make their water system better in their area.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I had a discussion with the Coca-Cola, North America sustainability gentleman and he was talking about the issues of water. And quality was a huge issue and it comes back to their brand because the different qualities of water, whether you’re in a small town, at a gas station, at a Coke machine, or whether you’re distributing out of a large distribution center somewhere inter-regional, that quality of water makes the Coca-Cola taste different. And why I bring that up is not so much worrying about their brand, but they’re worried about their brand and the power of a company like Coca-Cola is engaged with solving this problem both for us and humanity, but also for their company so I think that’s real hopeful. A part of it is educating, it’s only been recently, what, in the last decade, that we’ve really even dug deep into these really complex issues to even start to untangle them so that we can solve them.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I mean I’ve been studying more and learning more about this while I’ve been working with the Water Leaders Academy for, I don’t know, the last, I suppose it’s been about 10 years. I mean, I’ve learned a lot, but I’m also a natural resources major in my bachelor’s degree with a water science emphasis and I am a complete nerd in this space so I love digging into it. It’s really fascinating to me to think about just this concept of water and why we do what we do with it. So when you look at other countries, and I think this is where studying what other countries are doing and even traveling like you talked about is so helpful. They’ve started using gray water to wash sheep, for example. I mean, why are you using fresh water to clean sheep? Whereas I think here in the US, that same thing about cars. Why are we washing cars with really good water? I mean, do they really need that? I don’t think so. And I know that’s a big expense to switch a lot of that around but at the same time are we going to be at the forefront of this, are there other solutions we aren’t thinking about, are we going to wait until it gets to a mission critical point before we’re willing to make the changes necessary?

Deb Westphal: And it’s only one of the critical infrastructures that we have. Department of Homeland Security identifies 18 critical infrastructures: the electric, and telecom, and finance, and manufacturing, and water touches all of them, so it’s not only the problems inside the critical infrastructure but it’s also those interdependencies of the other infrastructures, and you start thinking about this very complex lattice, if you would, of issues. It really demands different models of leadership and collaboration and problem solving.

Dr. Connie: Yeah I love Singularity University doing an XPRIZE on how to pull water out of thin air. How do we get the vapor out of air, wherever you are, so maybe you don’t have to dig a well? Maybe there are other options out there, that we need to think more broadly about.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I think that we need more of that. I mean the traditional kind of historical organizations need to rethink their boundaries. Right now, that’s where a lot of the brain power is, and the resources, and the money, and the energy, and we have to unleash that somehow out of the traditional companies.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I’d love to know what parting words of wisdom do you have for our listeners?

Deb Westphal: Let’s not forget that this technology revolution, if you would, or this advancement of technology is really pushing and elevating people, and humanity, and thinking about the models more as a human centric to unleash that power and that energy of people within their organizations as well as outside their organizations is really what leaders of the future, I think, need to be considering. And to do that you have to look kind of internally, too, and overcome your own biases or your own belief systems about how things work or should work or how they need to work in the future so realize this is about people, realize this is a human revolution, and start with yourself.

Dr. Connie: Well, and speaking of starting with yourself, Deb, I’d love to know a little bit more about something that’s been a hot topic lately, and that’s women. Women, leadership, and I’m also going to throw aging in there. How do you feel right now as a woman leading an organization and doing amazing things in your own life? How are you seeing the world through the eyes of a female leader?

Deb Westphal: I would imagine you’re also going to throw that into aging and aging–

Dr. Connie: You know, I’m going there.


Deb Westphal: I am, I am aging. But you know what? To me, this is the best time of my life. I would not go back to my 20’s or my 30’s, or, this is an amazing time. We have the ability to stay physically fit, to stay mentally fit, it’s really an attitude, but also we need to change society’s view about what this is. I mean I am a long way away from giving it up and just sitting on the couch. And I’m in my 50’s, and I am better physically fit than I was in my 30’s, and I have higher energy and I don’t see this as an end and so I think this is a social shift we have to make. It’s not about women just raising kids and getting to this age and quitting. It’s really a time of empowerment.

Dr. Connie: Well I think that what you’re saying and sharing is such an important message because it is one of those difficult transitions in life as well, in some ways, where I’ve found that my career as you worked up and did all these things and you worked hard it’s like, you were supposed to wait. Oh, wait until you’re this age, you don’t have enough experience, well suddenly it’s like you turn 40 and then all the sudden they’re focused on sort of the next incoming group of leaders and emerging leaders. I’m like, wait a second, where was the perfect time?


Deb Westphal: Right.

Dr. Connie: I’m not sure. And then it’s like, well you know what it’s really up to me to create that. But I was just at the eye doctor here recently and couple, I guess two years ago, she tried to get me to switch to bifocals, and I was like I’m not doing that, and I didn’t, so year one passes by I didn’t even get the prescription filled. Year two goes by, I have it filled, I couldn’t even find them to go to the actual appointment and I just told her basically like a couple weeks ago I’m like, “hey, you know what, I may not be taking this well. I want the bionic eye that you’re telling me about so what can we do with that, I’m a futurist, bring it on.”

Deb Westphal: That’s so funny. Well I’ve already had cataract surgery so and I did get the bionic eyes and it’s amazing. So it’s hard, right? You go to college, you get married, you have kids, you want a career, you want to raise your children, you want to be a good wife, and somewhere along the way maybe you forget about yourself. And then you get to this age, and you go wait, you know what? It’s okay to be thinking about me. And there’s plenty of years ahead. So this work life balance, I don’t think it really exists, because you’re really not trying to achieve balance, you’re just trying to live it all. And you’re doing the best you can. Put yourself first for a moment and go do those things that you wanted to do.

Dr. Connie: And I think it’s a great message for other women that are our age to hear but I also think it’s such a positive message for younger women who are trying to figure out how do I do all of this?

Deb Westphal: Yeah and you have to be forgiving of yourself. Because you’re not always, not every day, not every moment, you’re not going to hit it, you know? It’s not going to be perfect. And so I’m a big Brené Brown fan. She talks about vulnerability and you’re enough, and really bringing out that human side. Don’t put up the armor and try to be perfect and try to make everybody happy. Try to be real, try to be authentic. Over time you grow it, you don’t hit it every moment.

Dr. Connie: If a person’s going to be teaching about leadership, if you’re going to be talking about leadership, it’s so important to be who you are and be very comfortable with that.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So what advice would you give, women in this day and age as they kind of reflect on who they are, what they want to experience, but also as they age?

Deb Westphal: Ooh, well first thing is stay healthy because you need that, you need to take care of yourself. And you need to make that a priority because without that, the other stuff becomes too hard. I guess the other advice is don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You’re enough, and you have to put yourself first and not put the burdens of what expectations are on you.

Dr. Connie: I so admire you and the work you’re doing and I love the fact that you’re bringing this human centric sort of philosophy out to the world, and thank you for doing that because definitely, more organizations, more people, need that.

Deb Westphal: I really appreciate you having me on this, the podcast, and the leadership, and being a woman in strategic foresight, we need to have more conversations like this. And so I appreciate it, Connie, and thank you so much.

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Episode 15: Nutrition Communicator Amber Pankonin intersects agriculture, consumer confidence, branding

October 25, 2018
            Dietitians have been dealing with fake news forever, but Amber Pankonin, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Communicator, accepted the challenge. She works as a solopreneur, consulting with farmers and producers about how to message and …





Dietitians have been dealing with fake news forever, but Amber Pankonin, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Communicator, accepted the challenge. She works as a solopreneur, consulting with farmers and producers about how to message and brand their products to not only resonate with consumers, but to create healthier lifestyles. A true rural maverick, Amber has created a community through her recipe site Stirlist.com and her podcast for entrepreneurs Healthy Under Pressure.

In this episode she talks with Dr. Connie about the challenges and solutions facing dietitians, farmers and consumers thanks to increasing access to information. She passionately encourages collaboration and individualization, explores the future of nutrigenomics and emboldens other entrepreneurs to take the plunge.

“I remember my mom and dad telling me that I needed to appreciate everything that was on my plate, because a farmer worked really hard to produce that.”
Amber Pankonin, RD
Nutrition Communicator, Stirlist.com; Host, Healthy Under Pressure Podcast

About Amber


Amber Pankonin is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Nutrition Communications Consultant based in Lincoln, Neb. She shares her love for food and nutrition at Stirlist.com and hosts Healthy Under Pressure, a podcast that highlights the stories and struggles of entrepreneurs and busy people learning to live healthy under pressure. Amber is also a local radio and television personality, serving as a health and wellness commentator each week on KFOR and 1011 News in Lincoln, Neb. This year she is serving as the Marketing Chair for the Nebraska Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an adjunct instructor.


Mentioned In The Episode


Bold Voices Student Segment

We are proud to provide this week’s Bold Voices segment at the 15:00 mark of this episode to feature Trevor Harlow, senior political science and environmental studies major from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Trevor hails from Waterloo, Neb., and in his interview he emphasizes the need for perspective.

I think it’s really important and really critical to look at those different societies, those different ways of living in those different communities based upon the urban and rural pipeline, and see how they interact and how they affect the overall functioning of a society,” he says.


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. Joining us today is Amber Pankonin. Amber is a registered dietician, recipe developer, and nutrition communicator based in Lincoln, Nebraska, welcome to the podcast, Amber.

Amber Pankonin: Thanks for having me.

Dr. Connie: I should say you’re also a fellow podcaster, Healthy Under Pressure, which everybody should be listening to.

Amber Pankonin: Thank you so much, I know we’ve talked about podcasting, it’s a fun thing to do.

Dr. Connie: It is fun, and we’re so excited to have people tuned in here to listen to what you have to say, and I would like to just dive into a little bit more background, tell us a little bit about your business.

Amber Pankonin: I’m a registered dietician and nutrition communicator. Healthy Under Pressure highlights the stories and struggles of entrepreneurs and busy people who are trying to stay healthy, under pressure. I’m doing a lot of recipe development, and also brand work. So I create messages for brands and companies who really need help getting those messages to consumers in terms of how food is produced and how we can make meals at home that are simple, and easy. I love producing recipes like that, for busy people like ourselves, that we can just whip up in minutes and have on the table in 30 minutes or less.

Dr. Connie: That really makes you my hero, I have to say.


Dr. Connie: Because we do, a lot of us need that. Tell us a little bit too now, what got you interested in this? And what do you do, we know kind of a little bit about what you do, but tell us a little bit more about being a dietician and some of the avenues people take in this space.

Amber Pankonin: Absolutely, so I became interested in dietetics because I studied nutrition science during college, I actually thought I was going to maybe go to PA school.

Dr. Connie: Oh really?

Amber Pankonin: But I took a little detour and spent some time living in DC, I came back to Lincoln, I worked as a cook for about a year and I realized, I think I really want to pursue dietetics, which is when I applied to the internship at the University of Nebraska, and really went that route, and what I learned is that dieticians practice in a number of different areas. So we find dieticians who are in the academic space, so maybe they’re teaching, or they’re doing research. We see dieticians who are working in the school system, so maybe they’re planning menus, or they’re working in the kitchen in terms of staffing the kitchen. We also see that in the clinical side, too. So we have dieticians who are managing hospital kitchens, and managing employees, and then we see those dieticians who are actually working alongside the nurses and the doctors, and all of the different practitioners who are managing nutrition for a patient, and that’s actually what I did for a number of years before I stepped into more of a communicator role.

Dr. Connie: A lot of times when we hear a word like dietician we’re not quite clear about what it is, let alone all the different career paths you can take with it.

Amber Pankonin: Right, right, well the first, four, what? The first three letters, excuse me, of the word diet, are die.


Dr. Connie: Good point!

Amber Pankonin: So it doesn’t always sound appealing, and a lot of people think dieticians are food police, and I swear we’re not!


Amber Pankonin: I love food, which is why I’m a dietician, so I love talking about food, I love talking about how to prepare food, and really talking about how food nourishes us and can really set us up for success.

Dr. Connie: Okay, I know also you teach at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, so tell us about your classes that you’re teaching as well, and why you do that.

Amber Pankonin: Right, so my favorite professor in college at UNL came to me a few years ago and asked me to teach Nutrition 250, which is Human Nutrition and Metabolism, and this semester I’m actually teaching Nutrition for Optimal Wellness, so it’s really fun because there’s a different mix of students in there. They’re going to be future dieticians, PTs, OTs, personal trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, and it’s all about the application of nutrition.

Dr. Connie: That’s so interesting to think about how you’re teaching, and obviously podcasting, but just the influence and reach you have on so many different professions, and even entrepreneurs, by doing what you do.

(music transition)

Amber Pankonin: What I found is after I left my clinical role, I didn’t have any colleagues around me anymore. You know how you would sit in a break room, and you have people around you, I didn’t have that anymore, and I really found that on social media. I remember jumping on Twitter and doing searches for dieticians, and I found dieticians who are all over the country, and so that really inspired me then to learn about what they were doing, and how they were running businesses, which really encouraged me to make that jump into entrepreneurship.

Dr. Connie: So was there a defining moment that you decided to start a business, or was it more just a thoughtful process? Tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey.

Amber Pankonin: Well, I was raised by entrepreneurs, and I married an entrepreneur, and I have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs, so,


Dr. Connie: So you’re surrounded.

Amber Pankonin: I’m surrounded, I’m surrounded, but there was a moment, and it was actually again when I was working as a clinical dietician, my role in that was to calculate tube feeds for patients, so just how babies have formula that they have to get fed every few hours, well when we have a critical patient, we do the same thing for them. I am not a huge fan of math, I mean, I can do math, but it’s not my favorite thing, but I remember sitting in a corner spot, near a patient’s room, and I’m calculating tube feeds thinking, what am I doing here? Because I was so appreciative to have the job, but I knew I wasn’t using my skills and my talents to my full potential, and so that was when I said I need to figure out what I’m going to do here.

Dr. Connie: You think your parents being entrepreneurs had any influence on your decision to start a business?

Amber Pankonin: Absolutely, because I saw risk being played out my whole life, in terms of the things that my dad did, and the support that my mom gave him through that whole process, and especially too having siblings who are also entrepreneurial as well, I think just knowing that, okay, so you take a risk, if you fail, it’s okay, you get back up and you figure out what you’re going to do, and so when I took that risk, it was really kind of scary because I thought maybe we would have a runway, with my husband and I thought, well, maybe there’s a runway of time here that I would have maybe a three to six month window before I really started, or needed to have income, and my husband was actually let go from his job a month after I had quit mine, and so, right.

Dr. Connie:I know, I just, it’s such an amazing story.


Amber Pankonin: I know probably most people would freak out, and we did freak out, I mean I’m not going to say we didn’t freak out, but I think we knew that it was going to be okay. And my husband was also raised by entrepreneurs, and so I think we both knew that, alright, this is when it’s going to get real and we will do this together.

Dr. Connie: That’s so interesting to think about the timing of that all, do you ever think there was a reason? Like the universe was trying to tell you something within that timing?

Amber Pankonin: I don’t know if you’re ever truly ready for entrepreneurship, and I think we just were given that push. And granted, I made the choice to leave my job, but I could have sat on that for a very long time, but I felt at peace in that, and having the faith background that I do, I just knew that it was going to be okay.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: We’re sitting here, and we’re actually recording this in your very cool podcast studio in downtown Lincoln, but why are you here and how does this all connect back to rural? I mean, we have you on as a rural maverick, I’m just going to state it, and we want to dive into that a little bit.

Amber Pankonin: Sure, so, when I was in grad school, I remember looking at nutrition communications as a potential avenue for me, and one of my professors laughed in my face. She said, “Amber, if you are going to do communications, you need to live in either LA, or New York, you can’t possibly do communications from Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Dr. Connie: Wait a second, backup, backup.

Amber Pankonin: I know.

Dr. Connie: I’m, A, I’m really sad that that happened at a university, but B, this is a critical communications piece, I mean we really can’t tell people these things and send that message, but it sounds like obviously you had the great reaction to it, but that’s just disappointing, I mean honestly it’s disappointing, but I imagine that made you a little bit more of a rebel.


Amber Pankonin: Well, exactly, I think it really helped motivate me, and you’ll be thrilled to know that this individual is no longer at the university, but honestly, social media, again, showed me that the world was flat, and it didn’t matter where I lived, and so I could live in Lincoln, Nebraska, as we’ve talked about before, people have described Nebraska as a flyover state, that’s not necessarily the case anymore because of digital communications, you can have those opportunities wherever you live. That conversation definitely motivated me to move forward.

Dr. Connie: Well that’s why we need rural mavericks and entrepreneurs out there to think about what people are saying, but then do what they want and need to do, so we so appreciate that, because one of the things we hear a lot at the Rural Futures Institute, and obviously technology is a huge part of our focus, so is rural-urban collaboration, you’ve connected all of that, you’re putting together rural and urban, you’re connecting people through technology, but you’re also helping them have a more positive outcome doing it.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So tell us what you see as success for your business? Where do you ultimately see this going, what’s your vision?

Amber Pankonin: Not to keep going back to this conversation around social media, but it really did have an impact in that conversation because I had a really unique perspective in that I got to see what consumers were saying about food, and nutrition, and that allowed me immediate access to them, to be able to answer their questions no matter where they lived, and so I could jump in at that point, answer their questions, and build that relationship. And it’s been interesting to see, again, the evolution of those conversations and how we’ve advanced talking about food, nutrition, and agriculture, and how the dietician can work with scientists, and work with farmers, to really communicate that message about where food comes from.

Dr. Connie: And I think that does influence people’s’ thoughts about rural, very much so, what do you see in that space? How do you see people maybe connecting, or needing to reconnect, and maybe how they would have their thoughts influenced about rural and where food comes from?

Amber Pankonin: Right, well it’s interesting because I think the stat is one in four are connected to the farm, or connected to ag in some way, and that didn’t used to be the case. Where most of us used to be connected to the farm, or have a direct connection, and so consumers are being more removed from their food, and so I think it’s really, really important to see our farmers and producers who are jumping into that conversation, and I see myself more as a reinforcer of those messages, and also helping them to understand, here’s how you talk to somebody about food, and how it’s produced, same thing with the scientists, because as you know, being around researchers, they can use some really big words, that can sound really scary. In fact, I was on this tour a few months ago and we were talking about, it had to do with canned food and the scientist had said something about ascorbic acid being added, and I remember this mom blogger behind me freaked out, she didn’t understand that that’s another term for vitamin C, and so being able to I think have those conversations with farmers, and scientists, and say, here’s how we can put it into everyday terms for consumers to understand so that they don’t fear their food.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I really appreciate that, because it’s true. I mean, as an academic you’re sort of trained in one way,and so that’s how you write, and speak. But the end user, so many times, of that information, they’re not in that space, but they just want that practical, what do I need to know? Just in time information, and I think people like you are really helping bridge that gap, and it’s needed, it’s been needed for a long time. The university and other places have talked about this need for ag literacy, food literacy, these types of things, but starting in the middle of a cornfield is a really hard place for people to learn.

Amber Pankonin: It’s a really hard place, and we call it Ag Twitter.


Amber Pankonin: I think, again, social media really brought some community to farmers and producers to see that they weren’t alone, and that they could align themselves strategically with dieticians, and farmers, and other food communicators who are willing to help them.

(music transition)

Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rockstar 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 Trevor Harlow, a senior political science and environmental studies dual major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, welcome Trevor.

Trevor Harlow: Hi, thanks for having me.

Katy Bagniewski: And thanks for being on, now are you from rural, or why do you care so much about rural?

Trevor Harlow: So, originally I was born and raised in Waterloo, Nebraska, which is a small town, but I just, as somebody who’s really interested in administration at both a city, state, and federal level, I think it’s really important and really critical to look at those different societies, those different ways of living, those different communities based upon the urban and rural pipeline, and see how they interact and how they affect the overall functioning of a society.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, and I know that you have to really dive deep into that aspect of rural communities this summer through RFI’s Student Servership.

Trevor Harlow: Yeah, for sure, so this past summer I spent my time in Red Cloud, Nebraska, which is about three hours from Omaha, just on the Kansas border, and really what I was doing is that city planning, exactly. We worked on developing a comprehensive economic development plan, so really that gave me a chance to critically look at a rural based community, and how they operate, what they’re doing good, what they can be doing better, and just come up with an idea with them of how they can keep getting better in the future.

Katy Bagniewski: And from your experience being immersed in that rural community, what do you see as the biggest opportunity in rural?

Trevor Harlow: A rural community, what’s so special about it, is since it’s small and it’s integrated with its citizens so well, you can come into a community like that and immediately become a prominent, known, and valued member of the community just by wanting to be active, which is so cool, so really anything you’re interested in, you can go there, you can make it known, and you can show your passion for it. I would say anybody, no matter what you’re interested in, you can always find some aspect of that in rural, just because of how community driven those places are.

Katy Bagniewski: So how has RFI and your whole servership experience really impacted your college career, and then your plans looking forward?

Trevor Harlow: It’s been one of the biggest impacts I’ve had in college, I would probably even say the biggest impact, honestly, because prior to that I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to go about doing it, but just getting an opportunity just to work in that kind of setting, city planning, developing a plan, critically analyzing a community and looking at its benefits and what it can improve upon, that really got me thinking about that the public administration route is what I want to do, and that’s the future I want to pursue, so that was something I had in my mind beforehand but it really helped me solidify that, and it gave me a great baseline training for it.

Katy Bagniewski: So, do you have any advice for students who may be interested in rural communities and city planning?

Trevor Harlow: I would definitely say the biggest one, especially with rural communities, is just to go out and be there, I mean you don’t have to live in one for 10 weeks like we did this summer to be immersed in them, you can just go and you can experience it, and just see what it’s about, and maybe it’s not for everyone, but I think until you give it a try of just going out and experiencing it, you’re never going to know. And it’s also just important to keep your options open because like I said earlier, all those communities you really can do anything you want to do if you’re passionate, so just leave it open, try to experience it, and just see what it can be for you.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, I think that whole concept of being open to the opportunity that lies in rural is so critical for us college students, and I know at RFI that we are very thankful that you were open to this opportunity of RFI servership.

Trevor Harlow: Yes, for sure.

Katy Bagniewski: So thank you Trevor for talking to us today.

Trevor Harlow: Thank you very much.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: We’ve had a theme at the Rural Futures Institute of why rural, why now? And I think people are a little challenged around rural, understanding rural, and so one of the things that we’ve talked about is the importance of where your food comes from. The world’s food supply, and even water supply, largely, come from rural, so if we’re going to have a more sustainable future for all, rural and urban have to work together, but people have to value rural, and help the people living there.

Amber Pankonin: I think that if we’re seeing more people who are removed from food and agriculture, there is less respect, and there has been less respect in the past few years, especially online. It’s amazing when I see the conversation about farmers and producers and people living in rural communities, and I’m just floored, because when I was little my grandparents actually farmed, and I remember my mom and dad telling me that I needed to appreciate what was on my plate because a farmer worked really hard to produce that. So I feel like I have a very different perspective, or had a different perspective growing up, I never would have insulted a farmer. And so some of the conversation that I see right now just seems to be a little negative, it’s a lack of respect, and I think it’s because it’s a lack of understanding of what people do, of what farmers do.

Dr. Connie: We’ve talked a lot about how do we create better research questions, and better conversations, so it’s not an either or, but it’s a both and world.

Amber Pankonin: Right, when I even look at the curriculum for dieticians, I work with a lot of students and it’s so interesting to me to hear their thoughts on food production. They’ve been led to believe that the word processed is bad.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I can see that, right, right.

Amber Pankonin: It’s having conversations like that to teach them that you are going to be, the future dietician, the future trusted food and nutrition professional, you have to be able to answer questions about how food is produced, because so often we hear things from another person, or those soundbites, and we just pass them on as if they’re truth, without being skeptical, and so I think that’s a really important part of the conversation as well.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: You talked about processed food and the negative vibes people get from that, so tell us a little bit more about why that’s not always a negative?

Amber Pankonin: So even canned fruits and vegetables, it’s a processed food, and I know that folks will tend to think negatively about a canned food, where actually some canned foods can be very nutritious because, as you know, some are peaked right when they’re the most nutritious, and even using that scary sounding ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C, that adds some really great nutrition, and so just because it says processed, or you think of it as processed, processed can actually be a really good thing. Even when you pick an apple, you’re technically processing, so there are a lot of ways that you can view that word and I think we just need to shift that word into being more of a positive than a negative.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well I know one of your areas of expertise is fake news, and I loved reading about that a little bit more when you gave us some background info about yourself, so tell us, what exactly is fake news? And how do we get around that so we are getting the real information?

Amber Pankonin: Well it’s funny because that term, obviously has been used a lot in the last couple of years, but dieticians have been dealing with fake news forever. Because as you know, we can get food nutrition information from anywhere. If it’s on the internet, it must be true.

Dr. Connie: Right, that’s right.

Amber Pankonin: And now we see that fake information being presented in those documentaries, or what I like to call “shockumentaries”, and it’s so easy to hear from a blogger who’s not educated about food nutrition, or agriculture, but they’ve built this massive following and they’re considered an influencer, and they’re spreading that, what I would call ‘fake news’.

Dr. Connie: The great thing about technology is you can build a platform, I think the challenge is anybody can build a platform, so it is confusing, I think, to see what’s real, what’s not, how do you sift through it, and really get information that you can use in a positive way.

Amber Pankonin: I tell people that you need to look at whoever is writing that article, look for an author name, see if they have any credentials behind their name, see what their history is, who are they associated with, who’s funding them, I think that, that all goes into being skeptical and doing the work of looking at that information.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I want to know about your leadership style, how would you characterize yourself as a leader?

Amber Pankonin: Well I think I told you this earlier, I don’t really know how to answer that because I’ve been in leadership roles, and it’s also awkward as an influencer to be considered a leader but I realize as an influencer you are a leader, but I would say I love winning others over, I have that woo factor.

Dr. Connie: You do, I know, you’re into Gallup Strengths like I am, and you definitely have the woo factor.

Amber Pankonin: And I’m also an activator, so I love to start things, I struggle with the finish, as far as really carrying it out, but I just, I love to get people together, and I love to work on things in groups, with people, and that’s weird as a solopreneur, which is why I stay really active professionally within my state organization of dieticians, which is the Nebraska Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, so I was president of that group about two years ago. I love to encourage, especially other RDs, to have a little more confidence in themselves and their skills in terms of asking for money in their job, in terms of wanting other advancements in their job, and it’s been such a fun thing to see my colleagues advance in the last few years.

Dr. Connie: Now why do you think that’s such a challenge for people, to actually ask for what they want and feel like they’re valuable enough to receive it?

Amber Pankonin: It’s tough, especially as a new dietician, I’ll never forget this, one of my first jobs with a master’s degree, I was getting paid about $12 an hour.

Dr. Connie: Oh wow.

Amber Pankonin: And so I switched positions, I found a new job, and even then, it was pretty low, it was about $17 an hour, and then I found a cross posting from another position, about an hour away, and I was able to take that to my employer and say, look at this, this is a five dollar difference, and at the time I had a boss who was also a woman, she was incredible, and she took that directly to administration, and I was able to get a pay increase, but I think it’s tough, especially when you’re a new graduate, and when you are a woman, and I just think I knew that there was more, I knew that she could do something, so there was some trust there, but that’s hard because I think we get intimidated, I don’t think sometimes we have enough confidence to ask, and if you don’t ask you’ll never know what the answer is.

Dr. Connie: That’s right, I mean good for you for just asking and trying that, but what gave you the confidence to go forward and do that?

Amber Pankonin: Well, it had been validated by another job posting, I knew that I could probably go there and get that job and get paid that amount, and so that gave me some confidence, to be able to go and to ask, but naturally too, like we talked about leadership earlier, I wanted to set an example for the rest of my peers, and my colleagues, to say, you could do this, and even as a new graduate it was nice to be able to get that done.

Dr. Connie: Well, and do you feel like as a solopreneur, which is a choice you’re making, being a solopreneur, that you’re still paving and blazing that trail, I would say especially for other female entrepreneurs, we’ve talked about this in our pre-convo, Nebraska’s 50 out of 50 states for females in entrepreneurship, so it’s always exciting to see a woman in business going for it, but how do you think, as a state, how could we foster more women in entrepreneurship?

Amber Pankonin: Well I know for myself, when I was considering possibly doing a tech startup, this was years ago, too, I had competed in a Startup Weekend project, or a Startup Weekend event, and my team, we won that event, and so it was kind of fun to just, I guess imagine what it could be like to maybe run a startup and what that could look like, and at the same time, my husband was also launching his startup, and we both quickly realized that we would be competing for funding, and not that I didn’t want to compete against my husband, but I also wanted to stay married.


Dr. Connie: Right, no, I get that, I get that.

Amber Pankonin: And so, I think there is, there’s something to that competitive spirit, I don’t know a lot of women who have that competitive spirit when it comes to entrepreneurship. I think the ones that you see who are doing it well, there is a spirit of competitiveness, and I think you have to have that.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I think, actually competition is one of my top five, and I know Katelyn Ideus, our executive producer is high in competition as well.


Dr. Connie: When it comes to those Gallup Strengths, it’s kind of interesting how that can play out because I think, also people don’t expect it.

Amber Pankonin: Right, right, well, I’ve heard this phrase about collaboration over competition, and I would say you have to have both, you have to have that competitive spirit but you also have to learn how to work with other people, because that is a part of being successful. I know I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without my tribe, without my team of folks, and so you have to have both.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Tell us a little bit more about what brings you joy in your life, I mean obviously Healthy Under Pressure, and ways to be healthy, and I love the way you talk about that, that it’s the whole piece of physical, spiritual, nutrition, all of that, so tell us how you do that.

Amber Pankonin: Well, when we think about wellness, it’s so easy to just focus on, what did you have for lunch that day? What kind of workout did you get in? And when I see the top 10 causes of death, suicide now is included in that top 10 list, in fact it’s past, I believe, certain types of cancer and heart disease as being one of the top causes of death, and so there’s a lot that goes into that, and so you have to consider that it’s not just about your physical wellness. We have to look at our emotional, and our spiritual, and our mental health, and so I think it’s a mix of what you’re doing physically, including that good nutrition, getting some exercise, but also how you’re nourishing your mind and your spirit. And I saw that personally with myself and my husband, we’re both entrepreneurs, and of course when you’re running a business, it’s so tough, and it’s tough to take care of yourself, so we both quickly realized that there was more that we needed to do in terms of our spiritual and our mental health.

Dr. Connie: So how do you keep those in check? I know you help others with it, what are some things you do for yourselves?

Amber Pankonin: Right, so, of course with nutrition I make sure that we try to eat a lot of our meals at home, I do online grocery shopping just to help keep on track there, but also making time for physical activity I think is super important, getting outside is really important. Actually, so this is my hack with Peloton, I know you said you kind of like to bike, I bought a used spin bike and then I just use the Peloton app, and I have found that that’s one of my favorite ways to exercise, because I love the music, and I love somebody coaching me through it. So that’s one of my favorite forms of exercise right now. Maybe someday I’ll get the real Peloton bike.


Dr. Connie: I love a biking hack, that’s awesome.

Amber Pankonin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then in terms of just our spiritual wellness, and our mental health, we gather with a group of friends every week, so we attend church, we think that’s really important to surround yourselves with people who can worship together, and so that’s something that I know has been really important for us, and having a small group of friends, too, to walk with us, and encourage us, and to also ask us what those struggles are, and for us to be self aware, to be honest with them, has also been really important for us.

Dr. Connie: And I think this holistic approach to life has been such an advancement in society, and kind of a newer change, relatively, in the history of time, but how do you see this all evolving into the future, and I’m going to ask you to put your futurist hat on, you’re on the cutting edge of your work, and you are an influencer in this space, so how do you see the evolution, what do you see as the future of your area of nutrition, holistic living, all of these types of things put together?

Amber Pankonin: Well, as you know, I think the stigma of mental health is, it’s changing, and that’s encouraging, to see that perspective. I also think in terms of nutrition we’re going to see that trend of what we call nutrigenomics, so it’s very individualized nutrition care, and I think that that’s going to be the future of wellness, because right now, as you know, a lot of our recommendations are based on groups of populations, very general nutrition recommendations, which are good, I think in general USDA, the MyPlate Plan, is actually a very good, healthy, balanced plate, but the role of the registered dietician I think will be to get in there and see how do we really balance that plate for that one individual, and again applying nutrition science, nutrigenomics, into developing that specialized plan for people.

Dr. Connie: Do you see some technologies now that are starting to move things in that direction?

Amber Pankonin: Oh, absolutely, I mean I think even when you see the genetic testing going on where you can find what your background information is, and all of that,  we’re definitely seeing some of that started, and we also see people who are doing a lot of studies right now, in nutrigenomics, that is a really hot thing in nutrition. Also in addition to looking at the microbiome, we’re seeing a lot of really interesting studies looking at the microbiome and how it really impacts health and future health.

Dr. Connie: And just to learn more about this, this is where I think as a futurist I just become a sponge, and it’s so awesome to learn from people like yourself that are on the cutting edge of these technologies, because as we think about the future, and a lot of this is already here, we’re seeing this exponential growth in these spaces, but at the Rural Futures Institute we’ve also been really trying to help people understand how can this help better the future of rural places? How can advancements in science and technology really create a system that people can live, and thrive, in those rural areas. What are your thoughts around that?

Amber Pankonin: Right, well, it’s about access to communication, and access to people who can help them. I look at even the field of dietetics, and how far we’ve come in the last five years, because we didn’t used to have these platforms where you could connect to somebody virtually and be able to talk to a dietician and have that safely monitored, but now we do, and so I think it’s going to be really interesting to see even how that evolves in terms of connecting to an RD who can specifically help you with that issue that you’re dealing with, not just a general nutrition issue.

Dr. Connie: I do quite a bit of work with the healthcare sector in terms of what does the future look like, and recently published a paper on the future of rural healthcare, and one of the things that I think could be integrated more into some of that is exactly what you do, that health does equal life in so many ways, so if we don’t have our health we’re not able to do much. If you don’t feel well, you’re not as productive, you’re not enjoying life, you’re not out there, but I think in many ways the medical profession is still a little bit of, what’s the diagnosis? Here’s the medication, versus thinking about, could we personalize your diet? Could we look into this? Could we use some technology to do that? So you don’t have to have a hospital exactly where you live, maybe there’s some in home pieces to that.

Amber Pankonin: Right, well it’s about treatment versus prevention, and dieticians are positioned to really help with that prevention piece, which is why I do what I do, and why I communicate what I do, I think that’s super important.

(music transition)

Amber Pankonin: Obviously I believe nutrition is really important, but I really cannot stand it when I see those messages of, “this is going to cure this disease”, we can’t say that. Not everyone is the same, or has that same background, knowledge, and information, and so I think we have to be very, very careful about those messages. Pointing back to that phrase food is medicine, of course, I think food is so important, it can be nourishment, it can definitely help with prevention, but food does not replace medicine. So if you have high blood pressure, if you have diabetes, please keep taking your medication. Food can be a tool that can be used to help you manage those disease states, but we also need science, and technology, I think, to help us assist with that.

Dr. Connie: No, I think that’s a great way to word that, and I think that coming together with all that is great advice for listeners.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So what top three tips would you have for those people listening there, in terms of being a leader, an entrepreneur, a maverick in your space?

Amber Pankonin: I would say don’t isolate yourself. I think it can be so easy to do what you do and not pay attention to the world around you, and not think that it’s important to build those relationships, and what I’ve seen, especially with the farmers and the producers that I’ve worked with is when they jumped on a social media platform, or they started reaching out to other producers, they found community, and especially when they built community with scientists, and dieticians, who could help them.

Dr. Connie: Oh, nice.

Amber Pankonin: And so, that would be my first tip is just don’t isolate yourself, reach out, get help if you need it.

Dr. Conine: Yeah, I love that, because I also know, just from talking to you previously, this transdisciplinary approach you take, and I know that sounds like, one of those big academic words, but bringing all these different areas together, to figure this out in a little more robust but scientific way. You’ve talked about the importance of soil health in nutrition, you’ve talked about the importance of social media in nutrition, and communication, and understanding, and I think there’s just a lot of lessons we can all learn from that.

Amber Pankonin: Absolutely, and I would say too, I think you should value your knowledge. Often I talk to farmers and producers who don’t think that they have any value, or anything to add to the conversation, don’t hold that information hostage, share it with others, and know that you can always add value to the conversation.

And what words of wisdom would you share for people who are in a business, or maybe thinking about starting one?

Amber Pankonin: Definitely take some time to come up with a game plan, research a little bit, try to validate your idea, I think that’s really important. So often we think, oh, I’m just going to do this because people have to need this, of course they need this. Well, ask that question, go find a group of people that you can test that with, so if it’s a product or service, make sure you have a group of folks who are willing to pay for that product or service, and ask them how much would you pay for this product or service? So validate the idea and then take the leap.

Dr. Connie: Excellent, thank you so much for being on the Rural Futures podcast, we enjoyed this conversation and take that to heart listeners, Amber has a lot to share.

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Episode 14: Psychiatrist Howard Liu intersects mental health, workforce, access

October 19, 2018
              It is estimated that 18.7% of residents of nonmetropolitan counties had some sort of mental illness in 2016 — more than 6.5 million people. In addition, 1.3 million (3.9%) residents of nonmetro counties experienced …






It is estimated that 18.7% of residents of nonmetropolitan counties had some sort of mental illness in 2016 — more than 6.5 million people. In addition, 1.3 million (3.9%) residents of nonmetro counties experienced serious thoughts of suicide during the year. In Nebraska, 88 of the state’s 93 counties are recognized as mental health professional shortage areas by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

Dr. Connie is proud to host Howard Liu, M.D.,  Interim Chair of Psychiatry and Director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN) at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, to address the critical area of mental health care access for rural communities. As one of the only organizations of its kind in the United States, BHECN works as a skunkworks to solve the wicked problem — a critical shortage of mental health providers in the highest underserved areas of the state. He also addresses the signs and signals of mental health illness we should all be aware of and emphasizes the need for self reflection and self care.

RFI is proud to have supported two projects with Dr. Liu and the BHECN team, “Addressing the Rural Shortage of Mental Health Providers Through a Virtual Mentorship Network,” and “Ending Mental Health Stigma & Promoting Mental Health Among Rural Nebraska College and University Students.”

Howard Liu, M.D.
“If you ever ask me, ‘Should we protect our turf in psychiatry?’ Versus ‘Should we get some more access?’ It’s always going to be about access.”
Howard Liu, M.D.
Director, Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska, University of Nebraska Medical Center

About Dr. Liu


Dr. Howard Liu is a nationally recognized educator, behavioral health workforce expert, and practicing child psychiatrist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). He serves as the Director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN); a state funded office whose mission is to recruit and retain a skilled and passionate behavioral health workforce in Nebraska. He also serves as Interim Chair of the UNMC Department of Psychiatry.

Previously, he served as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Faculty Development at UNMC. Clinically, Dr. Liu maintains an active child psychiatry practice as an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UNMC.

Regarding workforce development, Dr. Liu serves as a founding member of the Medical Directors Institute for the National Council for Behavioral Health and as a member of the National Advisory Council for the Clinical Scholars Program for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). In 2016, BHECN was selected to receive the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Champions of Training and Workforce Development Award.

Dr. Liu is an innovative teacher and an expert in faculty development and medical student education. Nationally and internationally, Dr. Liu has presented over 65 peer-reviewed abstracts and is a frequent invited speaker. He serves in educational leadership positions at the Association of Directors of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry (ADMSEP) and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Dr. Liu is a recipient of numerous educational awards including the Outstanding Teacher Award from the UNMC Faculty Senate and the Creativity in Psychiatric Education Award from the American College of Psychiatrists (ACP).

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Hello, and welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining me today is a very special guest, Dr. Howard Liu of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he serves as Interim Chair of Psychiatry, but also as the Director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN). Welcome to the podcast, Howard.

Dr. Liu: Thanks so much, really enjoy being here, Connie.

Dr. Connie: Well, we’re excited to have you. Many listeners may not know, but a lot of them will—mental health is such a huge issue in rural areas, and you’re one of the leaders and the mavericks, really finding resolution to this, but also innovating in the space. So tell us a little bit more about you, Dr. Howard Liu.

Dr. Liu: Well, I appreciate it. Actually, I’m a MD, which means I can prescribe medications, and I’m still a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist, but I also see some adults as well, and so I have a fairly good sense of what the needs are just from a clinical practice. Rural needs are certainly one of our biggest mission areas for BHECN, the workforce center for the state. I still have some patients that will drive literally all day to come see me here in Omaha, and they have to stay overnight and it’s very challenging. The other piece we know is that there is stigma for all mental health, but I think it’s strong in rural communities as well. For example, there’s a higher rate of depression and also there’s been recent data about suicide in farmers as well, and that’s really been a concern. So really trying to find those that are coming from small towns to train in a licensed mental health profession, and then go back to practice where they grew up.

Dr. Connie: Why do you think this issue of mental health has become such a big challenge in rural areas? How have you seen that transpire over time?

Dr. Liu: Well, I think that there’s a demand and supply imbalance. So frankly, the demand for mental health is increasing across the U.S. And so, as for example, now pediatricians are screening all teens for depression at age 12. Imagine that there’s a good number that would screen positive, and where do you then send them? And if you’re in an urban area, you could probably find a specialist, but in many small towns and rural communities typically you rely on a family physician, family doctor, or maybe some other kind of primary care provider. And many of those docs and advanced practice nurses and PAs had a very short rotation in psychiatry. They often feel comfortable with maybe ADHD, or depression, but less comfortable with something more severe, like bipolar disorder and certainly if there’s issues, also, with what we call substance use disorders, or addiction, that also is a challenge. So really, not having someone to refer to, and then feeling like they’re a bit out of their elements, is a real challenge. And most of the workforce is clustered in bigger cities in Nebraska, and certainly across the U.S., that’s true as well, so there’s a geographic gap.

Dr. Connie: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the future. I want you to put your futurist hat on, Dr. Liu, and tell us how you see this evolving in the future. What do you think the future of mental health looks like?

Dr. Liu: Well, there’s two principles I would say that really should define training in the future and the future workforce for mental health. So one is that it has to be in a team, and right now—I would say this is true, not just in mental health, but many areas of healthcare— everyone does things in their own silo, right? So, we have psychologists that train separately from psychiatrists, who often have limited interaction with social workers, and they don’t really train with counselors, and this goes on through all the professions. And then everyone graduates, and people in primary care really don’t know how to navigate working with these individuals. So early in their training, I believe that we need to have a lot more interprofessional activities where people are working in real teams on actual cases, thinking through how do they function, at the highest part of what they call their scope of practice. There are many professions that can prescribe medications, but, typically the most complex will go to a psychiatrist because they have the longest training, typically 12 years. Whereas, many straightforward cases can go to a physician assistant or advanced practice nurse, and then only on the more complex cases would they potentially refer them on, and I think that’s a good population health approach. The second thing is not every patient needs to be seen by a specialist, so we have to do a much better job of supporting those in primary care, and also, frankly, supporting those who are teachers, and even in settings such as corrections, where people are incarcerated, really making sure that those individuals have access to expert consultation. So I think just looking at different ways that aren’t just the same old, well, you have to get on the waitlist to come see me in my clinic, even if that’s six hours away, that’s not the right model.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I think this is what’s so exciting about the work you’re doing, a lot of what the Med Center, other partners are doing. How do we create these new models that are more wholistic and really patient-centered, to give them the help they need, in a better way, and just a higher quality way, but also faster? With a lot of this, there’s that need for speed, so to speak, so that people aren’t out there really challenged in their lives and not getting the help they need.

Dr. Liu: That’s right. Well, and I think that speaks even in the way we’re having this interview today, virtually, we’re not in the same room, right? And I think telehealth is certainly another area, particularly as it eventually expands more and more into people’s homes and mobile phones. I think that will be another path to access. But I think there’s no way around the idea, though, that even if we have the best tools, we’ll have to face stigma head on. I think that there are many people in all professions in all communities that are frankly, scared to death to admit that they may have depression, they may have post traumatic stress disorder, they may be struggling with drinking, excessively, whatever it might be, but, that’s something we’re going to have to address as a society. There is a place for leaders, and I see that, there’s a lot of folks that are even healthcare providers, or academics or even presidents of universities that will sometimes tell their story, and they may not be on CNN, but they’re certainly known to their community. And I think knowing someone real, that you actually know, that is open about having gone through that depression, or that severe anxiety, or whatever it might be, that prolonged grief when someone passed away, it’s very helpful, and many of those that I’ve talked to will say when they come out of their story, then all sorts of people will come up to them, often quietly, just to share their own experiences, and that’s the kind of thing that I think, whether you’re in a small town Nebraska, whether you’re in a bigger city, we need more of that.

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Dr. Liu: There’s a lot of family history and genetics that play into this, as you know very well, and some of us are more vulnerable. And we’ll see this also in veteran populations, of which many rural communities have a lot of veterans, and a lot of folks that are active duty. And you may have four individuals that are in the same Humvee or something, and a blast goes off, well, why is it that one of the four has more severe symptoms even though it’s the same stimulus? I think there’s different factors that make us vulnerable.

Dr. Connie: When would it be time to seek help, and what would you recommend around that?

Dr. Liu: It’s an excellent question. For me, sort of like asking what is normal, and when should you get help, right? And I think, it’s really when you have problems functioning in the key areas of your life. So, if you are a student of any kind, whether it’s K through 12, or you’re higher education, grad student, and normally, you’re a A or B student, and then you see that it’s really been declining consistently, it’s not just one class, there’s an overall trend, that would be a concern for me. If you’re someone that’s working right now, and that you normally enjoy work, and have a lot of energy and a lot of passion for it, but you’re finding it much harder to go in, maybe having more absenteeism, more conflicts with colleagues, those kind of things, that would be a concern. And then your home or social life, I think those are areas that, particularly in depression, and other kind of things that might happen, that we’ll see a really big hit because often, many of these disorders are quite isolating. If you’re anxious, or you’re depressed, you typically will find less energy to go out and hang out with friends, you may become detached from them. You may be isolating at home, even if you’re living with your family, and spending your time in your room. It’s a lot of these is pieces, so I would say, if you’re really seeing a hit on your social life, your home life, your work, or your school life, I think it’s time to seek help.

Dr. Connie: Thank you for that, I think it’s great for our listeners to know, they don’t have to power through it. That’s not really the way this works, but there are people like yourself and others, the people you’re training and teaching, that they can reach out to and get that help. And it doesn’t have to be a bad thing or a mark on their employment record, but rather, it’s a healthy way to live, because we do live in a time of rapid change and high stress, and in many ways, this rapid pace of life, humanity hasn’t really kept up with it yet, and we’re still figuring out how to deal with it all. So I do think this mental health piece will continue to be such an important part of society, as is change continues to evolve.

Dr. Liu: I think that’s a great point. The idea of having a clean desk, or I guess, an empty backpack or whatever it might be, an empty inbox, it’s a goal we all have, but at what cost, is always the question. Nowadays, with the technology it really is something where it’s always there. For example, there has been a spike for adolescent girls in suicides across the country, and something that may be related to negative effects of social media, and cyberbullying, and some of those things, because they’re always often times without the parents’ knowledge, immersed in those worlds. And I would say the same for folks that are working and sort of burning both ends of the candle. I think everyone works in administration, but I think everyone that’s working and knows that when you’re short-staffed, and you’re staying extra, it’s going to take a toll on you. All those who are in a so-called sandwich generation who are taking care of aging parents, their own kids, any sort of caregivers, there’s a high risk to burnout. So I think, just being aware of those things, and sometimes your peers and your family members, your loved ones, may be more aware of it than you are, but they might just say to you, you seem stressed lately, or, you really haven’t been yourself. I haven’t seen you smile in a while, you seem really worried. That might be another sign that maybe it’s time to pause and just think about how do you set up your own schedule in your own life.

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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.

Katelyn Ideus: It’s Katelyn, producer of the Rural Futures podcast, and with me today is Brierly Kuhudzayi, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, and Rural Futures Institute Serviceship alum. Briley, thank you for joining us!

Brierly: Thanks for having me, Katelyn, I’m excited.

Katelyn: And tell us exactly where you’re joining from.

Brierly: I’m joining you from the airport, our international airport here outside Harare, Zimbabwe, and I had to come here because this is where I could get the best Internet connection. It was either this, or getting some data on my cell phone and climbing a rock out at the farm.

Katelyn: So Brierly, we want to give our guests a little bit of insight into who you are.

Brierly: I would refer to myself as a entrepreneur, a innovator, community development-infused formal entrepreneurship, social enterprise, essentially. And let’s see, I like to watch movies, I like to read books. I like the cold breeze in the evening here in Zimbabwe.

Katelyn: Explain your home there in Zimbabwe. I’m on a small plot of land, I call it the farm, but if you think about it from a Nebraska context, you’ll be misled. The core part of it is just 20 hectares, which is about 50, 60 acres. We have cattle, goats, and sheep, and our goal is to raise the livestock, butcher them ourselves, and market directly to the customer. If you think of it kind of like a safari, savanna setting, so plenty of grass that browny, goldy grass that when you picture when you think of Africa, we have that, but all the wildlife and stuff is in a national park, so we don’t have those. We have these beautiful granite, big rocks, that stick out of the ground in all sorts of places, and people that have crops have to farm around them. They’re not going anywhere. But they’re great to climb, they’re great for kids, and they’re great for catching cell phone signal. And it takes me about 30 or 40 minutes to get into town from where I am.

Katelyn: You have to kind of tell us your story. How you ended up at the University of Nebraska, and then what brought you home?

Brierly: I left Zimbabwe just wanting to go to college, and it happened to be that this college in Michigan gave me the biggest scholarship, that’s how I ended up there. Then I met with a Lexington native at a student conference in D.C., and he basically said that he was prepared to hire me with no farming experience whatsoever. And I jumped at the opportunity, and that was my taste of agriculture. That was my first taste of rural, because I grew up in an urban setting. And it was a steep learning curve. After about six or eight months I was trying to get it, and kind of just fell in love with it. While I was doing it, started thinking about doing a master’s degree, met up with Tom Field of the Engler Institute, and he recommended master’s in community development, because I had future plans of going back to Zimbabwe, and as you know, in Zimbabwe, we have a variety of economic and social problems, and I wanted to play my part.

Katelyn: What value has your University of Nebraska experience and your Rural Futures Institute experience, what value has that brought you in building your life in Zimbabwe?

Brierly: Definitely, if you think about Africa, and you think about less economically developed, or developing countries, or whatever the case may be, you kind of think that Africa’s a few steps behind. And we know in terms of technology, or the amount of value added for agricultural, we might be a few steps behind in that regard, but in terms of the people, and in terms of the community, and in terms of the coming together that’s needed to bear the community, we’re not so different, and RFI really helped me dig into that. RFI allowed me to put into practice all of the things that I was learning in my Community Development program. The Community Development program itself gave me tools to understand the dynamics of a community, be it rural or otherwise, and how it’s functioning, I would say that that’s culminating and understanding that we’re not so different, and we all just need to tie our shoelaces and get to work.

Katelyn: What types of experiences do you suggest that they embrace as a student?

Brierly: Meet someone who is not like you. Sit down, and have a good conversation, a good experience, with someone who’s not like you, and talk about everything. Meet someone whose ideas and experiences are different from you, and engage them. It’ll make you that much of a better person if you can, maybe not understand them, but appreciate where they’re coming from. The ability to appreciate someone and respect someone that is not like you, is crucial in this global society we’re developing where the world is just getting smaller.

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Dr. Connie:  I do a lot of work, of course on strategic foresight and futuring, but part of that is creativity, part of that is innovation. And it’s really hard for people to be creative when they’re just focusing on a to-do list and a massive amount of activity, rather than being very intentional and using discernment on what’s really important, what can you say no to, what’s maybe not in your wheelhouse, how do you engage a team around these things and create different systems that really support the ability to be creative? So many organizations say, yes, we want to be innovative, we want to really be competitive in the future. But they really aren’t designing the lives of their employees to be that way because innovation does start with the individual.

Dr. Liu: It really does. I think it does start with the individual, but I think it’s fed by the culture, or stifled by the culture.


Dr. Connie: No, that’s true! That is absolutely right.

Dr. Liu: And I know you’re someone that’s a futurist, and so you really think ahead, and I have no doubt that you found ways to really carve out that time. I believe in two things. As a child psychiatrist, and also as a parent of four kids myself, I think that adults often don’t take the time to play in the same way that kids do. And there’s something that, I don’t know if you grew up watching Mr. Rogers, but Mr. Rogers actually was quite a profound thinker, as it turns out, and then one thing he said is sort of like, play is the work of childhood. You really are trying things out, you’re processing things. We notice in kids who have been through traumas, well, often you’ll see in the play some of the terrible things they’re trying to work out, and what happened, and reenact, and so on. But on the positive end, I believe that for all adults, you have to have some time to play, but that entails two things. One is, it takes some risk, right? Because if you’re going to play, you might mess up, because you’re probably not the world’s expert in that thing, you’re sort of processing in the back of your mind, or balancing off a couple other people. And then, second thing is then, if it’s going to be risky, you have to be ready to fail, and that’s have to be okay, right, with the organization, with your unit, with your boss, whatever, or your colleagues. And I think for a lot of people, those two things are hard, because it’s a little bit of a risk, and you don’t want to put yourself out there. I recently read a book. It’s about the founding of Pixar, and written by Ed Catmull, the president, I believe, and it really said the manager’s job is not to prevent risks, is to make it safe to take them, and I really like that, because it makes you really think about, well, as a leader, am I stifling creativity by saying, oh, you messed up here, do better next week, or do I say something different, wow, it looks like you really put yourself out there. Maybe it didn’t work this time, but I’d love to see you keep trying new things. I think there’s different ways we can approach it, and kind of buffer that risk for our employees and our colleagues.

Dr. Connie: So the culture norm is to be so serious, and really stiff.

Dr. Liu: Right.

Dr. Connie: It’s nice to see some of that changing that, but, a lot of the high level leaders I’ve coached, that’s the thing that is missing from their lives so often, and part of coaching them is to encourage them and help them create some time, and make that time to actually play. I mean, there’s nothing more refreshing than a snowball fight with your kids, even. Go sledding, go do these things.

Dr. Liu: Yes.

Dr. Connie: They’re actually fun, or if you were a musician and you haven’t picked up your instrument, like you had mentioned earlier, for years, reengage that part of your health because it really brings out the best in you. And when I used to say that, people would look at me like, oh my gosh, she’s talking about having fun, and we’re talking about leadership and futuring and all these things, but then, it’s like it clicked, and people are like, okay, now how do I do that? Because it was really lacking from their life, but I always say fun is the fountain of creativity, but it’s also the fountain of youth.

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Dr. Liu: I have this philosophy about workforce, future workforce, future people in any field, and it’s that, kinda like what you were saying, you can’t just do the routine things if you’re going to flip something, there’s not enough people in any field, right? So otherwise, in 25 years, guess what? Exact same thing, if we’re going to use this same approach. But there’s some science, and I do believe there’s some art to it as well. So my first job in this department was, the only formal title I had was to help build a psychiatry interest group, which was medical students, and there was only one in the interest group, so it wasn’t very successful.


Dr. Liu: But I had in my fellowship, encountered a really outstanding mentor. Her name was Dr. Paula Rauch, who’s a child psychiatrist. And when were trying to learn development, normal childhood development, she would invite all the fellows over, there were nine of us, to her house for breakfast for I think six or nine weeks. And we’d go sit around the table, and she’d serve us a very simple breakfast —just bread and peanut butter, and whatever, and we’d talk about development. And one of the things that we then did was go to see a preschool where her kids had gone to school, and then  just see what they did in their sort of all day recess. And that experience always stuck with me for two things because one is that it takes a little courage to open up your home to trainees, or to colleagues, whatever. It’s an extra step, but two was I never have forgotten it, and I think others have never forgotten it either. Many of us remember it fondly as one of the best parts of our training. And I realized that when I started here, and there’s one person going into psychiatry, and that we needed to do better than that. And so I started hosting things in my home, and we’d invite students and faculty, and you really see outside of the work environment, people really let their hair down. It’s best if they can show up in their shorts or something, and it’s casual, and they can just relax and get to know each other, and I think as the students get to know the faculty, then I think that we’re also sort of unconsciously sort of auditioning them as future colleagues. They’re looking at their lives, and sort of auditioning their lives. Is this the kind of person I want to be? Is this the kind of balance I want to pursue? And as it turns out, the latest study on why students choose psychiatry, work life integration and balance is one of the top three factors. So the only way you could show that is definitely not in your office, but by showing them that thing. Maybe it’s piano, maybe it’s something different. It needs to be something that gives them some sense of who you are outside of work.

Dr. Connie: Oh, absolutely, you get to see the real person. I mean, in so many ways, when we go to work, it’s not really a facade. I mean, I think for some people it is, but you don’t see the family that they’re raising. You don’t see who they are, or the hobbies they have. You don’t see them as a whole person. My previous position before coming to the Rural Futures Institute, I did a lot of team building at the Kimmel Education and Research Center, which is on Kimmel Orchard in Nebraska City, Nebraska. We’d have companies come and we’d do things like Iron Chef cook-offs.

Dr. Liu: That’s great.

Dr. Connie: Real active, very fun, but also very purposeful types of activities. It’s the same thing you’re saying, I mean, so often, a lot of team conflict is because people just really don’t know or understand each other outside of the meetings they sit in. So how can we break down those barriers, really understand people as people, and build that camaraderie, but also that compassion, and real like for other people. And we’re more apt to do that if we know them and appreciate who they are rather than judging who they are.

Dr. Liu: That’s really well said.

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Dr. Connie: You are a leader in your space. I’d love to know more about your leadership philosophy, your style. There’s a psychologist that said, with any organization, it’s always good to be half in and half out, and what he meant by that was that if you have six different jobs, no one really feels like you’re part of that organization because you’re running around, and you’re not really present, right? And people understand that, right?

Dr. Liu: So you have to be at least half-time in, doing that thing, where people see you, they recognize what you do in that work and that kind of thing. But this goes back to your earlier point about creativity. You have to find that thing, you have passion area, and you have to carve it out. And it may not be there right away, but however you get there, that’s what’s going to create vitality for you in the workplace, is having that thing and for some people, that’s research. For some people, that’s community engagement. I really enjoy that piece, for example. For some people, it’s something different, right. It might be building infrastructure, or could be anything, publishing. But having that space to really carve that out, is so important. And then not being too committed to too many things is very important as well. So that was one principle. Another one that someone told me was, think about your portable skill set, because in a career, you may wear six, ten, many different hats, but what do you take away from each, and have you grown? And as I’ve thought about my career, I came in, again, really just as a clinician, which is a great thing, but I didn’t really know anything about leadership, and so a lot of what I’ve learned has been on the job. But I do try to be intentional about it, and try to write some things down. At some point I realized, there’s some major gaps of what I do and don’t know. I know a little bit on managing budgets, but I really don’t know about healthcare economics in the same way as someone who’s running a hospital does, and if I’m going to ever do clinical leadership, I should probably learn something about that. So for example, last year, I enrolled in an executive MBA program that’s sponsored through our hospital. Having those relationships, what Gallup would say, is the “friend at work” is so important. It’s so easy to neglect, but if you don’t have it, I really feel it So it’s the people that you can go and really debrief with, that aren’t doing it because of your role, but really, they genuinely, you like each other, that you can share your woes, and they can share theirs, that kind of thing. You can’t just create it, you have to find it. You have to carve that time out, and then you have to nurture it once you have those people. I’ve been lucky to have those people here, and it’s so important just for attention and for your own vitality as a leader.

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Dr. Connie: So I’d like to touch a little bit on BHECN, the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska. Tell us a little bit more about your work there, and how you see that evolving into the future.

Dr. Liu: Well, that’s the half of my job that is creative work, I would say, in that there’s not really another center like BHECN in the 50 states, that we’ve seen. It was created out of passion by a group that included a philanthropist, an academic psychiatrist, those senior administrators, government leaders, and so on, but it creates, it functions almost like a skunk works, in that, because there’s not 50 BHECN’s around the U.S., we don’t have to do it any which way. And that was super important, because I think we’re trying to solve what we call a wicked problem, which is the shortage of providers in the highest underserved areas in the state, which have always been very underserved, and the current provider population’s getting older. In fact, I’m not calling them old, but the data suggests that over half of the psychiatrists psychologist, advanced practice nurses in psychiatry, are 50 or over, which means there’s a very high number retiring every year, and just to retain the same number, you have to have a lot more people coming in. So when we saw that, we also looked at, are there healthy pipelines for people coming in? And there’s some great programs for healthcare professionals, and so-called Rural Health Opportunities Program [RHOP Program] and so on, that pipeline people. I’d say primarily for MDs into family medicine, internal medicine, primary care and those are great areas. But they weren’t really turning out psychiatrists or psychologists, so we realized that we had to put our own pipeline together, and the last nine years frankly have been from the inception to now, have been really trying to get all those kinks out of that pipeline as much as possible, so we started working with high school students from around the state, and that’s been great collaboration, with a number of different training organizations. We work with college students around the state, hosted different college symposium, particularly for those in highly underserved areas—so rural students, we’ve always prioritized, but also those from, it might be North Omaha, South Omaha, Native American individuals, so those that are missing, basically, in the workforce. And then we worked in medical school, and over the last four years, we’ve increased the number of medical students going into psychiatry by about 63% or so, so really, it’s gone up, and there’s been a sustained increase in those folks. And now we’re just about to help work with our Department of Psychiatry here, to put up a new psychiatry residency program, along with the one that currently exists, to try to increase those in that part of the pipeline. The last part is something we’ve been doing throughout, which is trying to support the providers who are already out there, by providing a lot of training for them, but not just what random training, but the things that really would help them in the practice. nd the great public health needs in Nebraska, so you’re talking about addiction being a major shortage area, how do we increase those who have expertise in prescribing some medications, or help with addiction. It might be to alcohol, it might be to opioids, that kind of thing. We talked about Integrated Behavioral Health earlier, and this is a way to how do you train up social workers, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists to really work with four or five primary care clinics, and really serve those patients in a very smart way, where really, you’re spreading your expertise out. So there’s really a lot of things we’ve learned, a lot of mistakes we’ve made as well, I might add, but this goes back to taking risks, and really looking at the data and outcomes.

Dr. Connie: Now, thank you for all you’re doing to help enhance that capacity, and congratulations on the growth and success, and we’re so excited to be able to promote and really get it out to people, so they know what you’re doing. I heard, I think, a statistic the other day, a thousand people a day are retiring right now, so creating this pipeline, helping people get to capacity in their licensing, so important, in especially the healthcare field. Working in this area of mental health, I mean, obviously we hear and see a lot about the challenges, and we can imagine it might be a difficult field to work in in many ways, so what excites you about working in the field of mental health?

Dr. Liu: Well, I think the future of mental health is really going to be a collaboration across professions. And you have to practice it, you can’t just talk about it, and then train in the same specialty and then stay with your colleagues. You have to practice working in areas that are frankly uncomfortable. It might be scope of practice, it might be training, it might be areas where you might not all agree, but the needs are great. Two weeks ago, I was in D.C. helping lead a behavioral prescribers summit, and the national group for the physician assistants, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners in psychiatry, and pharmacists, we were all together in one room. We were talking about the future, and when you look at things like all the opioid deaths that are happening in the U.S., you can’t just rely on one profession to solve them. And I think, as a group, if we can unite around a common behavioral health flag, and say that this is something we all will do together, and if I have expertise, I’ll share it, if you have expertise, you’ll share it, I think we’ll be a lot better off. And I always come out of those conversations, especially the tough ones, a little bit more inspired, because I know some real work has happened, because you’re a little bit uncomfortable, frankly, and that’s kind of when I know we’re making some progress.

Dr. Connie: I think, too, that just, makes sense to me, because knowing you, I can see how you stay on that cutting edge by enjoying a challenge, but also, you bring so many people around that, and a lot of capacity around that, to really solve those grand challenges in unique and innovative ways.

Dr. Liu: Well, I would say that every one of those interactions kind of, that’s very kind, I learned a lot at the table, and there’s all sorts of things that I just had wrong, and then when you hear it from the pharmacist about what they’re doing, and the VA hospitals, that was a revelation to all us of. Many of them are running clinics like psychiatrists, in VAs. So I think the more conversation that happens, the better, and then frankly, it does take a little bit of spirit of it being a maverick, as you said earlier, to say, you know what, there’s some things my own profession has wrong, and I’m not always going to agree with our state chapter of our national organization because my greater duty is to the workforce of the state, and sometimes, that means some tough choices, but  if you ever ask me; “Should we protect our turf in psychiatry?” versus “Should we get some more access?”, it’s always going to be about access.

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Dr. Connie: One last question for you, Dr. Liu. What parting words of wisdom do you have for our audience?

Dr. Liu: Well, I would say that, when I went through training, I think I got an incomplete tool kit, and it was really about just the nuts and bolts and how to take care of patients in the old model. And if I were to say, talk to tomorrow’s students, if any of them are listening, if tomorrow’s providers, I would really encourage them to learn more about two things which I failed to learn about when I was in training. So one, is population health. And that really means that, my client is not just the person sitting with me in this exam room, but my client might be a neighborhood, and it might be a school. It might be county corrections, it might be some other area. But how am I going to take my limited time, and work as smartly as possible to help the entire population, and that’s something that  I feel like needs to be taught, especially in a state like ours, where there’s so many gaps, to really think about those skills. The second piece, which we’ve talked about in many, many ways this hour, is sustainability yourself. Really being thoughtful about self-care, wellness. We know that sometimes the work is hard. A lot of clients we work with have had a lot of trauma, and sometimes that can weigh on people who have their own trauma histories, and just suddenly, we call it compassion fatigue, and sometimes you get a little burnt out. So really taking care of yourself, making sure that you have good colleagues, the friends at work, making time for those hobbies, those areas, I would say, that would help you to be retained in the workforce far longer, and really to thrive and have joy in your practice, I think that is really the key. So I would say those two areas, if there are future students that are listening.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I love that word joy, and I’m so glad that that’s really becoming something people are focusing on. How do we create joy in our lives in this busy time with all this rapid change and so much being thrown at us all the time, but still, making priorities around well-being people, joyfulness. I think it’s an exciting time, and I’d love to see how that evolves in the future, because I think it’ll become more and more priority, for people, as they want more of a life experience, and not just a to-do list. That’s good for us. So we know you’re active on social media. We follow you, we’re huge fans, but where can people find you, Dr. Liu?

Dr. Liu: Well, if they want to, if they’re on Twitter, it is @DrHowardLiu, L-I-U is my last name, so they can follow me there, and I pretty much put a few things out there almost every day. There’s also just a tremendous community out there for mental health, and I think that if they’re a consumer of mental health, if they’re a provider of mental health, if you just put in so-called #mentalhealth, or #addictions, any of those, you’ll find so many advocates, and frankly, sometimes, when I’m a little burnt out, that’s where I find inspiration, and I seek every day an act of courage online, that inspires me, people telling their stories and standing up for things that really, that gives me hope for the future.


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

October 15, 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.

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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 it …





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, Katy.

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, Katy.

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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.

(music transition)

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.

(music transition)

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?

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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.

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