About The Rural Futures Podcast

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

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


Your Host

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

Get to know Dr. Connie

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Season 3

Episode 30: Rural maverick Janet Palmtag intersects product development, risk, housing

April 30, 2019
      Janet Palmtag, an entrepreneur and rural maverick from Southeast Nebraska, is our featured guest this week. A real estate broker, Janet shares her insights into the rural housing crisis. She also shares her insights into bringing a …


Janet Palmtag, an entrepreneur and rural maverick from Southeast Nebraska, is our featured guest this week. A real estate broker, Janet shares her insights into the rural housing crisis. She also shares her insights into bringing a product to market thanks to her recent creation of TubTool, a cleaning device for bathtubs and showers. Janet has been a leader and volunteer throughout her community for several years, so she tells it like it is when it comes to leadership from a company and community perspective.

“I’m confident that the leadership role will change in the future, as well. Because, it really is about people being engaged and empowered.”
Janet Palmtag

About Janet


Janet Palmtag is the founder of J.J. Palmtag, Inc. a real estate company, as well as Tubtool, LLC, a Nebraska start-up. She was born and raised in Nebraska and proudly serves her community and state through volunteerism. Janet describes herself as a futurist and learner who knows nothing can be done without a strong, diverse team. She thrives on collaboration. Janet enjoys reading, biking, hiking, writing and bee keeping. She also loves to listen to podcasts when walking. We sure hope she listens to this episode of Rural Futures with Dr. Connie!

Mentioned In This Episode

  • Rural Impact Hub        
  • Nebraska Rural Living        
  • Nebraska Rural Renaissance    


Bold Voices Student Segment

Katy Bagniewski, a senior studying agricultural and environmental sciences communication at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) — Listen at 13:27!

Originally from a rural hobby farm outside of Rochester, Minn., Bagniewski found her way to the University of Nebraska when in town for a sheep show.

For the past two years, she has worked at RFI as a storytelling intern, the production specialist of the podcast and the host of the Bold Voices student segment.

Her experience at RFI has opened her eyes to the challenges and opportunities in rural communities. “I’ve really become passionate about rural places since coming to Nebraska and starting at RFI,” she said.

She will be staying in Lincoln, Neb., following her graduation on May 4, 2019, to pursue multimedia communications and freelance videography. “There is truly no place like Nebraska,” she added.

Read the full Bold Voices release!»


Show Notes

Coming soon!


Episode 29: Quantitative futurist Amy Webb intersects futurism, change, now-est mentality

April 23, 2019
      Amy Webb, Award-winning author and professor of strategic foresight at the New York University Stern School of Business, talks with Dr. Connie about the role and scope of futurists, the now-est mentality of the United States, our …


Amy Webb, Award-winning author and professor of strategic foresight at the New York University Stern School of Business, talks with Dr. Connie about the role and scope of futurists, the now-est mentality of the United States, our emotional relationship with change, the multiple pathways for possible futures and so much more. Amy is the Founder of the Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures, and her new book, The Big Nine, released in March.

After learning more about the Rural Futures Institute she said: “The Nebraska community and just the larger rural community is lucky that you guys exist and that you’re doing this work. Because, again, we’re reticent to change, it’s hard and, ultimately, what futurists ask people to do is to confront that uncertainty and that change and to accept it and to experiment and try things that are untested.”

“There are other ways to get to our preferred futures, and the challenge is that we keep relying on the things that we know. Sometimes the things that we know don’t fit the current demands of everyday life.”
Amy Webb

About Amy


Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist and a bestselling, award-wining author. She is a professor of strategic foresight at the New York University Stern School of Business and the Founder of The Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures.

Amy was named to the Thinkers 50 Radar list of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led and won the 2017 Thinkers 50 Radar Award. She is a Fellow in the United States-Japan Leadership Program, a Foresight Fellow in the U.S. Government Accountability Office Center for Strategic Foresight,and was a Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University where her research received a national Sigma Delta Chi award. She was also a Delegate on the former U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, where she worked on the future of technology, media and international diplomacy.

Amy’s research focus is artificial intelligence, and she has advised three-star generals and admirals, White House leadership and CEOs of some of the worlds largest companies on their futures.

She is the bestselling author of The Signals Are Talking: Why Todays Fringe Is Tomorrows Mainstream, which explains how to forecast emerging technology. It was a Washington Post Bestseller, won the Gold Axiom Award for business books and was selected as one of the best books the year by Fast Company, Inc. Magazine and Amazon.

Amy’s new book The Big Nine: How The Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity is a call-to-arms about the broken nature of artificial intelligence and the powerful corporations that are turning the human-machine relationship on its head.


Bold Voices Student Segment

Renata Valquier Chavez, a third-year biotechnology and political science student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) joins the podcast as the Bold Voice.— Listen at 22:51 of Episode 29!

Originally from Sidney, Iowa, Renata moved to Elkhorn, Neb., during high school and decided to stay in Omaha, Neb., for her college experience. She is an honor student, a student athlete, the student body president and the student regent at UNO.

“I think UNO is an absolutely spectacular university,” she said. “My vision for our future students is to have the sense of pride to be at the university that they are at, regardless of which campus it is within the University of Nebraska.”

“The point of being a leader is to inspire others to do things they think are right,” she said. “I see myself in this position to encourage my colleagues to go after tough projects and to tackle controversial issues,” she continued.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »

Show Notes

Coming soon!


Episode 28: Economic developer Garry Clark intersects workforce development, quality of life, fighting through fear

April 16, 2019
      There is opportunity in fighting through fear says Garry Clark, Executive Director of the Greater Fremont Development Council in Fremont, Neb. He would know. Garry grew up in the Washington, D.C., projects where he witnessed drug addiction. …


There is opportunity in fighting through fear says Garry Clark, Executive Director of the Greater Fremont Development Council in Fremont, Neb. He would know. Garry grew up in the Washington, D.C., projects where he witnessed drug addiction. When he had the opportunity to hop on a plane to Nebraska to accept a track scholarship, he took it. And with that leap, a ton of hard work and incredible talent, he became a national champion for Dana College. Garry talks about his journey and his deep love for rural places and Nebraska in his new book, Unlikely Viking and through this episode of our podcast.

Dr. Connie’s conversation with Garry took place in January 2019. They dove into his vision for the future of economic development, which he said in Fremont is focused on engaging current and potential residents through quality of life initiatives. They also talked workforce and the coming technologies that will impact recruitment of businesses as well as housing issues and funding opportunities.

Since their conversation, Fremont, Neb., and much of Northeast Nebraska has been significantly impacted by flooding in March 2019. Lives were lost and Nebraska’s damage is estimated at $1.8 billion. We touched base with Garry, and he says Fremont is in recovery mode. He urges listeners to donate to the American Red Cross.

“For 40 years or so, we’ve been smoke stack chasing — we’ve been looking for that big win that’s supposed to permeate our lives in rural places. And we’ve come to the realization that the only thing that sustains rural life are the people, and how we engage those people.”
Garry Clark

About Garry


Garry is the Executive Director of the Greater Fremont Development Council. In 2018, Garry was listed as a Midland’s Business Journal 40 under 40 winner and Fremont won Community of the Year. He is a native Washingtonian who graduated from Dana College and the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a master’s degree in Urban Studies.

Garry joined the Greater Fremont Development Council (GRDC) in Fremont, Neb., in September 2017. Prior to his GFDC role, Garry worked as the NIFA Opportunity Fund Manager out of the Omaha, Neb., and Lincoln, Neb., offices. Before that, he served as Cuming County Economic Development Director for five years in Northeast Nebraska.

Garry is a member of the National Rural Economic Developers Association and served as Northeast Development Network Chair. He received his bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Dana College in Blair, Neb., and and his master’s degree in Urban Studies and Public Administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Although his alma mater (Dana College) is no more, Garry was inducted into the Dana College Hall of Fame for Track and Field in 2010. He holds 11 records (most ever in the schools history) and was the first male National Champion for Dana College. Prior to his work in Nebraska, Garry started out as a City Planner, Main Street Manager and Economic Development Specialist in both Florida and in Washington, D.C.

Get Garry’s Book, Unlikely Viking! » 

And be sure to check out more about “Unlikely Viking” on Instagram


Bold Voices Student Segment

 Sarah Hotovy, a third-year medical student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) — Listen at 15:47 of Episode 28!

The York, Neb., native is the student regent and student senate president at UNMC.

“The University of Nebraska is an incredible institution. It’s thriving, and it’s got incredible leadership that we’re really lucky to have,” she said.

Sarah hopes to dedicate her career to affordable healthcare access for both rural and urban residents. “I think that everyone deserves access to high-quality medical care,” she said. “If we can keep people healthier, we’re going to be more prosperous as a state,” she continued.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »


Show Notes

Coming soon!


Episode 27: Researcher Larkin Powell intersects humanity, wildlife, ecotourism

April 9, 2019
      Larkin Powell, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, talks with Dr. Connie about the opportunities within ecotourism, humanity’s affect on wildlife and natural landscapes, the benefits of precision agriculture for animal habitats, the possibility …


Larkin Powell, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, talks with Dr. Connie about the opportunities within ecotourism, humanity’s affect on wildlife and natural landscapes, the benefits of precision agriculture for animal habitats, the possibility of mass extinctions of wildlife in the coming decades and more.

“There are all kinds of different things that can bring us another generation back, and one of those things has been ecotourism enterprise. “
Larkin Powell, Ph.D.
Professor of Conservation Biology, School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

About Larkin


Larkin Powell is a professor of conservation biology and animal ecology in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Larkin teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on wildlife management and research, and his research program focuses on landscape dynamics, animal demography and movements and decisions made by private landowners in the Great Plains and throughout the world. He has taught at UNL for 18 years, during which time he was a Fulbright Scholar in Namibia.

Larkin is a “farm boy” from southern Iowa and was very active in 4-H as a youth. He has always felt a desire to teach, and he is very happy to be in Nebraska and in a unique fisheries and wildlife program.

Larkin is excited by new ideas and being able to make a difference. He enjoys working in groups that are motivated to move something unique forward. In his personal time he enjoys traveling, photography and writing poetry.


Bold Voices Student Segment

Listen at 13:59!

Jordan Duffin Wong, a junior studying Political Science and Mathematics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. 

As a UNL Bureau of Business Research Student Scholar, Jordan works to collect data on a variety of factors affecting Nebraska’s communities for the Nebraska Thriving Index.

“In essence, what we’re doing is trying to collect data and use this Thriving Index to inform policymakers about what policies they need to take to best let regions in Nebraska grow,” he said.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »

Show Notes

Coming soon!


Episode 26: Entrepreneur Janell Anderson Ehrke intersects digital marketing, motivation, making rural cool

April 2, 2019
           Janell Anderson Ehrke is Founder and CEO of GROW Nebraska, a non-profit marketing, training and technical assistance resource for Nebraska entrepreneurs. Through their work and Buy Nebraska website, Janell and her team boost the …




Janell Anderson Ehrke is Founder and CEO of GROW Nebraska, a non-profit marketing, training and technical assistance resource for Nebraska entrepreneurs. Through their work and Buy Nebraska website, Janell and her team boost the state’s economy at a national and global level. Their conferences, upcoming innovation center and grants in areas such as GoogleAdwords allow entrepreneurs to take advantage of today’s tools to grow beyond their rural geography.

Dr. Connie enjoyed hearing Janell’s background, which includes parents who were both entrepreneurs and four siblings who attended the University of Nebraska. Janell’s agricultural background led to her attitude: “Get out there and make it happen!” Janell’s daughter, Haley, was also a 2018 Rural Futures Institute Student Fellow!

“One of the most important things that I was taught is to just have a lot of persistence.“
Janell Anderson Ehrke
Founder and CEO, GROW Nebraska

About Janell


Founder of GROW Nebraska, Janell Anderson Ehrke loves social media marketing and is an entrepreneur enthusiast! She is a strong supporter for buying local and believes the internet has created an equal playing field for rural businesses. She is very focused and strongly believes entrepreneurs need to know now where they’re going and have a strong stated mission.

Janell lives on a farm in Orleans, Neb., with her husband Leon and has two children Haley and Parker. In addition to GROW Nebraska, she loves the cattle business.


Bold Voices Student Segment

 Haley Ehrke, a junior studying agribusiness and agricultural and environmental sciences communication at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, joins her mom as Episode 26’s Bold Voice – listen at 21:25!

Like her mother, Haley has a thriving entrepreneurial spirit with her own marketing company and cow herd. “Everyone can be an entrepreneur. It’s just a different point in life when you become one,” she said.

Haley was also a 2018 Rural Futures Institute Student Fellow in Alliance, Neb., serving Box Butte County to recruit and retain rural residents. “The Rural Futures Institute has really impacted my college experience in a magnitude of ways,” she said.

She has a real passion for rural communities, saying, “Rural is not dying. It is thriving!”

Read the full Bold Voices release! »


Show Notes

Coming soon!


Episode 25: Researcher Aaron Yoder intersects wearable tech, ag safety, education

March 25, 2019
           Aaron Yoder, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental, Agricultural & Occupational Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb. In this episode, he shares his years of …




Aaron Yoder, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental, Agricultural & Occupational Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb. In this episode, he shares his years of work merging agribility, engineering, wearable technology, social marketing, consumer-driven education and behavioral health. With his unique background, which includes advancing the tech transfer of Microsoft wearables for Ebola virus protection to agricultural heat illness, he also brings forward his thoughts regarding drone policy, the evolution of humanity with technology and, of course, leadership.

“We’re moving from, ‘What machinery can I create to help people?’ to ‘How can I help people interact with machinery that’s available?’”
Aaron Yoder
Associate Professor, Department of Environmental, Agricultural & Occupational Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center

About Aaron


Aaron Yoder, Ph.D., grew up in central Pennsylvania where he spent time working on his grandfather’s farm. He has degrees from Penn State and Purdue University and has been working to protect farmers and ranchers for more than 20 years.
He is a nationally recognized as a leader in the agricultural safety and health field. Aaron is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He works with projects through the NIOSH funded Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health.
Outside of work, Aaron enjoys spending time with his family, coaching his children’s sport teams and “fixing stuff.”


Bold Voices Student Segment

Logan Krejdl,  a senior studying Business Administration and Sports Management at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK).

Logan shares his bold ideas and authentic experiences about leadership, integrity and rural-urban leadership during the Bold Voice student segment of Episode 25 – listen at 11:08!

An Aurora, Neb., native and natural leader, Logan is UNK’s Student Regent and Student Body President. “I’m really lucky enough to be working with some of the best and brightest students on our campus, serving as the Student Body President and Student Regent.”

“I describe my leadership style as adaptable,” Logan says. “Very rarely do I use the same leadership style in different organizations,” he continued.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »

Show Notes

Coming soon!


Episode 24: Verizon’s Emily Murtaugh intersects 5G, diversity, rural-urban experiences

March 18, 2019
           Verizon marketing specialist Emily Murtaugh explores the definition and potential of 5G technology, which could offer mobile and wireless speeds as fast as fiber-wired connections. In her explanation, she explains the infrastructure needed and …




Verizon marketing specialist Emily Murtaugh explores the definition and potential of 5G technology, which could offer mobile and wireless speeds as fast as fiber-wired connections. In her explanation, she explains the infrastructure needed and the fourth industrial revolution potential of 5G for rural and urban communities alike. She also discusses the magnitude of the tech in terms of impact on agriculture to feed 9 billion people, telehealth, robotics and autonomous vehicles.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass graduate and Omaha, Neb., native, Emily also shares her insights after taking the leap to move to New York City. And, of course, she shares her leadership tips, which are focused on selflessness.

“Get prepared. Get excited. We’re early on in [5G], but the magnitude is incredible. We can be thinking about making it work for what we want and what we need. 5G can open doors to optimize experience but also inspires people to get creative and imaginative.”
Emily Murtaugh
Marketing Specialist, Verizon | Graduate, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

About Emily


Emily Murtaugh is a Manhattan-based marketing strategist with a demonstrated history of working in the telecommunications, advertising and services industries.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum, she currently works on the Consumer Microsegments team within Verizon Wireless, with previous roles in the Global Content and Media division of Verizon leading business analyses and content strategy across Verizon Wireless, Verizon Fios, Yahoo!, AOL, and Tumblr.


Bold Voices Student Segment

Listen at 10:49 of Episode 24!

“Any great company has good design,” says RFI Graphic Design Intern Kara Sloane.

The Omaha, Neb., native, a junior Graphic Design student in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, digs into graphic design in rural, urban and beyond during her Bold Voices student segment.

Based on her experience as an RFI intern, Sloane shares her insights on graphic design in rural communities. “Rural holds a lot of potential that isn’t represented in its design,” she says. “In the future, if we represented rural in a more future-focused way that is more professional but exciting too, I feel like it would bring out this possibility,” she continues.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Royal Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie. And joining us today is Emily Murtaugh, Marketing Manager with Verizon Wireless. Welcome to the show, Emily.

Emily Murtaugh: Hi, thanks for having me.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, we’re super excited to have you because one, you’re a University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum,

Emily Murtaugh: I am.

Dr. Connie: So tell us a little bit about your educational experience.

Emily Murtaugh: Yeah, so I was born and raised in Omaha, and have one older sister that also went to the University of Nebraska. My first year, freshman year, was 2011. And I actually started as a Biology major with sights being set on going Pre-Med, and then ended up taking a design class, actually, through the Textiles & Fashion Design department. And ended up really loving it and having great relationship with the professor, and ended up talking to him about how I liked using the creative side of my mind, I liked the kind of analytic piece of science, obviously, and he kinda helped steer me towards a major that was half in the Textiles department and half in the Journalism school. So I ended up graduating with a major in Textiles, Merchandising & Fashion Design Communication. But it was really great because I got to have one foot in each of these schools and ended up loving it. And that led me to marketing. So I took the scenic route to find my passion for my career but it was definitely worth doing, I enjoyed the ride.

Dr. Connie: Awesome. And I think that’s what’s so great about life, being able to explore and kind of develop your own way. And I also love to hear from people how they translate various majors into these amazing careers. Now, I hate to say we lost you to New York City, but I think this is just a very cool experience, it sounds like, in terms of coming from Nebraska but having this experience in New York. So tell us a little bit about the comparison and contrast.

Emily Murtaugh: There ended up being three or four months between when I interviewed and when I got my first offer at Verizon, so I had three weeks to move my life out to Manhattan. So I didn’t have time to be afraid and just kinda made the leap. But it’s really great, it’s definitely a change in merely every way. It took me a long time to kind of retrain myself not to smile at people on the street anymore, because here that’s uncommon and people think you’re a crazy person if you’re smiling at strangers. So it can be kind of exhausting at times, but it’s also great exposure to different cultures and diversity and the best entertainment in the world, so I love it. Especially at this point in my life when I’m new-ish in my career, still, I think it’s a great place to be in and learn things that you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to in Nebraska.

Dr. Connie: I think what a great opportunity to go and explore life a little bit. I know when I’ve been to New York I felt the same way, it was a lot of stimuli, like you’re saying, it was constantly on. I don’t think I slept very well–


Dr. Connie: the whole time I was there. So I imagine it does take little time to get used to all that.

Emily Murtaugh: It does, it does for sure. And when I first moved here, there were a couple weeks where I was like, this is awesome, this is great, and then it kinda sunk in that it wasn’t a vacation, this is my life now. But there is quite a few Nebraskans here, which helps, one of which is my very best friend who I’ve known since elementary school, who also was a UNL alum. She works at the Huskers bar that plays all the football games during football season, so there’s reunions every Saturday during football season, there’s a bunch of former Huskers. So it’s still that sense of community here, that Nebraska flair is still present here, which helped make it feel a little bit more like home.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well, Emily, tell us a little bit about yourself as a leader. How has your leadership development changed during your career?

Emily Murtaugh: I started out elementary and middle school pretty introverted. So I think in high school that changed a little bit because I did theater and ended up having some leadership roles in the drama department and the music department, but I think it really sunk in, my leadership style, in college, which, again, was when I was part of the Student Alumni Association. I had a couple terms on the board of directors for that group and then one term as president. And to me, I think leadership goes hand in hand with selflessness and a service role. So what was important to me then and still is important to me now is, to really take time to invest in whoever your team is or whoever the group is that you’re leading and get to know their specific strengths, not necessarily only as it pertains to your business or your organization, but their strengths as just people, and figuring out how to balance those. The other thing that I think I was lucky to experience in leaders in my life and something that I try to continue in any leadership roles I have is, working hard to grow people’s confidence in themselves. That’s something that I struggled with through school and I think a lot of people are sitting on great potential and amazing abilities, but are kind of waiting for that someone to make them realize that their ideas or input is worth saying and worth hearing and is valuable. My greatest pride in my leadership career was that I was president of that group, the Student Alumni Association, my junior year of college. So theoretically I could’ve been re-elected and did go up for reelection the following year, for my senior year. And there was a girl who I had a mentor-mentee relationship with my sophomore and junior year, and she ended up beating me for president my senior year. And I think that it’s easy to look at that as a loss, but in my mind that was the best way to end my time as president, knowing that I had a role in making someone exceed my abilities and become a greater leader than me. I think that’s the ultimate kind of success, as far as leadership is concerned.

Dr. Connie: It sounds like you have a very open and abundance mindset around leadership. So how do you see that evolving now and into the future?

Emily Murtaugh: Leadership for a long time has been analogous with seniority, and I think that, especially as things move more towards digital, diversity is growing in leadership, which is awesome and is long overdue. At Verzion we have a group that’s dedicated to neurodiversity and different mental health diagnoses and making sure that there are people at the table who can represent those with anxiety or depression or ADHD in addition to, obviously, racial and ethnic diversity, gender diversity, and physical ability diversity. So I think leadership in the workplace is very much starting down this path of valuing those more intangible qualities that are important in a leader.

Dr. Connie: Okay, I have to ask a little bit more about neurodiversity. This is the first time I have even heard this term as a futurist, so we have a bit of a narrow scope around what diversity might mean.

Emily Murtaugh: Right

Dr. Connie: So how did Verizon kind of help cultivate this diversity but also the inclusion of those diverse audiences?

Emily Murtaugh: The neurodiversity group is an employee resource group, so it’s opt in. And I opted in. I was diagnosed with PTSD so I was like, “oh, I’ll do this.” And they have meetings monthly to talk about how to either cope with any symptom that any of the members have while in the workplace, because most have diagnosed mental health statuses but are very high functioning, so a lot of people in the workplace have no idea that oh the person next to me has anxiety or what have you. So it’s an environment where people that are dealing with some sort of mental health issue can all have a safe space and be with each other and know that they can talk openly about any struggles they’re having or share coping mechanisms that they’ve found work for themselves. They’re just bringing visibility to different types of mental health, to kind of proving the point that, regardless of any diagnosis you may have, you can still be an extremely valuable addition to your organization. And in some ways that’s a strength, because we’re here to serve customers and the consumer, many of which will have had mental health diagnoses at some point in their life. So it’s all about representation.

Dr. Connie: This is just brilliant. Because one of the challenges, especially in rural Nebraska, rural America, is this whole issue around mental health. People don’t have access to it, but also there’s still this stigma around, okay, if I go get help, whether at work or in my community, people might see me getting help or reaching out and make these assumptions. So I love how Verizon is just bringing that out to the open. Okay, let’s not make this a negative, let’s really turn this around and find that opportunity for our employees and our business, because we do know we’re serving customers in the same situations.

(music transition)

Katy Bagniewski: Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rockstar students from the University of Nebraska who are making a difference in rural. Hello podcast listeners, it’s Katy Bagniewski, Production Specialist of Rural Futures with Dr. Connie. And joining me today is Kara Sloane, a junior studying Graphic Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Welcome, Kara.

Kara Sloane: Thanks for having me.

Katy Bagniewski: Kara is our graphic designer at RFI so I’m really excited to talk to her about that. But first, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Kara Sloane: I am from Omaha, Nebraska. It seems kind of redundant but I’m really interested in art, that’s how I got started doing graphic design, and I’m really passionate about creating and inspiring people.

Katy Bagniewski: What do you love about design, and really just art?

Kara Sloane: I think what I like most is being able to create something new every time, and trying to create something that isn’t out there, which I think is really exciting. And being able to inspire other people too, because it’s always fun looking at what other people make and think “Ooh I really like that” and hopefully someone will look at what I do and say the same thing.

Katy Bagniewski: From your perspective, why is graphic design, and good graphic design at that, important?

Kara Sloane: I think the most important part of graphic design is what it goes unnoticed. You know, graphic design is more than just a little graphic in the corner, or making a website pretty, it’s really about making an identity for something and showing its history and meaning. Any great company has good design.

Katy Bagniewski: What have you learned from your RFI Graphic Design Internship?

Kara Sloane: Well, I’ve learned a lot being here. This is my first Graphic Design Internship, so, that’s definitely one thing. (laughs) What I’ve learned the most is probably working more in a corporate environment and working with a team and meeting deadlines. So really I’d say, to sum it up, I’ve learned to adapt to all those kind of things that didn’t make sense and to adapt my way of working around that.

Katy Bagniewski: Okay, so I think that there’s room for improvement in many of our rural communities to be better about branding and graphic design. What are your thoughts around rural design?

Kara Sloane: I think, yeah, right now rural is not represented in the best way that it could be. Rural holds a lot of potential that isn’t represented. So I feel like, in the future, if we represent rural in a more future focused kind of way and more professional but exciting too, I feel like it would bring out this possibility.

Katy Bagniewski: What advice do you have for our creative audience that may be listening?

Kara Sloane: One of the most important things I’ve learned was listening to what other people have to say. Because your graphic design, and art even, and all that, it’s not just for you to make and sit in your room and for you to look at all day, it’s for everyone else out there to experience it, so what other people have to say about it and their critiques are really important.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, I think that’s especially true just for all creative fields. Take your criticism with grace, it will help you. So, thank you for sharing that, Cara, and thank you for being our Bold Voice. We love having you here at RFI and look forward to see how you’ll grow in the future.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So, Katelyn Ideus, our executive producer for the podcast, attended the UNL Mobile Me and You conference and she actually did more than that, RFI really helped sponsor that. But she saw your talk at the Mobile Me and You conference, held by the Journalism school here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she said your presentation was outstanding, so of course then invited you to be on the podcast. And your presentation was about 5G. So tell our audience a little bit about what is 5G, give us some detail around that.

Emily Murtaugh: That is the big question right now, what is 5G? So 5G, first and foremost, just stands for 5th Generation, and it’s talking about cellular technology. So when you look at your phone now, in the top corner there’ll either be a 3G, a 4G, or an LTE. So 5G is the next generation of this cellular technology, wireless, and it has really great potential to enhance networks speeds. It can increase speeds up to 100 times, the average is 20 times faster than 4G. So that’s about one gigabit per second, which is crazy, and is more comparable to like a fiber wire connection. So 5G can theoretically bring that speed, first and foremost, to your cell phone or wireless home Internet connections instead of having to have fiber or broadband of some type. So there’s two different types of 5G as well. Like I mentioned, there’s the cellular technology which will be used on your phone, or in home. And there’s a couple different ways to look at the speed enhancement. One is just if you’re on a highway, for example, the amount of lanes, so how many cars can go on this highway. One is that 5G has way more lanes so it can push more information through faster, and that opens up the door for almost instant cloud access, watching Netflix in HD, in 4K and all that, and having really crisp pictures and audio. And then the other component of the speed enhancement is latency. Latency is your devices reaction time based on the network. So that means downloading that high definition amazing video to your phone in a matter of seconds. So it’s really exciting, it opens the doors for a lot of emerging tech that quite frankly is hard to put an example to because the technology is just being built. As far as use cases for 5G, that’s still something that’s way under development and it’s early on and who knows what this will all do, but it’s an exciting time for sure. And Verizon just launched its first testing of the home 5G wireless connection in California and a couple other cities, and industry wide we’re looking at bringing 5G to mobile this year with the release of a couple different 5G-enabled devices. So it’s lots of moving parts but all exciting things.

Dr. Connie: Well good because that really frames up our next question and that is, I really want you to put that futurist hat on, how do you think 5G will impact the future?

Emily Murtaugh: First and foremost, I think the easiest example to kind of bank on is as it relates to content. So whether that’s all the streaming services that are now also highly adopted or gaming, 5G allows for an insanely better experience. Outside of content, there’s a whole slew of more industrial applications, I guess, so that is the self-driving car piece. With the low latency of 5G, the car’s reaction time is way quicker, it’s closer to the blink of an eye than anything. So it really, truly can support communities of those self-driving cars. Telemedicine is another huge one, so being able to speak to medical professionals online, via video, and even controlling robotics for small procedures. A doctor in San Francisco can be operating on someone in New York City because, again, that reaction time is now within the regular reaction time that a human would have, would they be directionally present. So there’s a lot of amazing things that can be done on this network. But again, the network is still being built and honed and we have to figure out the regulatory specifications for it, so we’re still right on the cusp of all of that innovation. But there’s a reason that 5G has been referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, because it’s really going to spark, I think, a lot of new innovation and enhancement that we really can’t even imagine right now because we’re still learning about how great can this network possibly be.

Dr. Connie: This is a huge topic for rural because many of our rural areas, especially if you’re outside of city limits, are not connected to broadband or any sort of high-speed Internet. And actually, some of the latest FCC data, in a place like here in Nebraska, shows that 87% of Nebraskans have what’s considered high-speed broadband but only 58% of rural Nebraskans do. This is not just in Nebraska, this is national, this is an international conversation around broadband. That if we don’t get our rural areas connected, what we’re really going to miss is the ability to help shape the future economy, that Fourth Industrial Revolution. I think this is a very important point. So what do you see in terms of some of those costs, benefits, even the feasibility of implementing 5G in rural America?

Emily Murtaugh: Well, one thing, the biggest precaution with bringing 5G to rural areas is really understanding how the infrastructure is set up to support 5G. So for example, the 5G that Verizon has launched already uses what’s called millimeter waves, or Ultra Wideband spectrum, so it’s really high-frequency waves that we have purchased and licensed from the government. So Ultra Wideband and that millimeter wave is what allows for the super high-speed increases, but the problem is that each of the cells that communicate to each other on the spectrum to transfer information, each of those cells have a smaller range. So Ultra Wideband and millimeter wave are very much used in highly concentrated, highly populated urban areas. That’s why over the next year or two, as different service providers start coming out with 5G, a lot of them are starting in the big cities because you have more buildings and light fixtures and whatever to attach those cells to. So that’s one type. The other uses low band frequencies, which still increases speeds, not as much as the millimeter wave but still will give you a speed increase, and still provides lower latency about similar to that of the millimeter wave, but the cells needed for that have a much broader range, much more similar to the distance between cell towers that are supporting 4G. So, with that in mind, to bring 5G to rural areas, what makes the most sense based off what we know now which, obviously, there’s still tests being done and we’re trying to figure out different ways to make bringing 5G to rural areas even more efficient, but based off the information that we have and have tested, using the low band frequency is going to be A: more cost effective and B: more reliable for those rural areas. I think what you can expect is a lag time between when 5G launches in, like I said, those bigger cities, and from when it gets to the more rural areas. And that’s, again, by nature of we as an industry, not just Verizon. So Microsoft, for example, started looking into how to use a White Space spectrum, which is just unlicensed spectrum that has not been purchased by any one company, it’s still government owned, or publicly owned I should say. But how do you use that underutilized spectrum to help expand existing broadband connections? So things like that, that’s something new that has been tested and now is getting rolled out further, industry wide, people are trying to figure out the best ways to involve rural America. Because not only is it giving service to people who need it and should have access to it, but I think the implications of getting high-speed service, and in this case specifically 5G, to rural areas really can make an impact on a global scale. So for example, if you look at the increasing population and if we have 9 billion people on earth, we’re going to have to increase food production, productivity, by 70% or somewhere in that range. So if we’re able to bring 5G to rural areas, specifically farming areas, for example, that opens up the possibility of smart farms, for example. So having sensors placed throughout the fields and having those sensors be able to communicate the growth of whatever crop is there, and then have that communicate either to the farm equipment or the actual farmer, and control irrigation systems. And that can affect like I said productivity, efficiencies on the farm, can reduce waste if things are becoming automated, farmers can save money on manual labor, save time that way too. And that can help answer to that food crisis that we have heard about is potentially coming our way. So I think it’s understood in the industry that bringing 5G to rural areas will not only impact those customers who have thus far been underserved, but it really can have a huge impact on society worldwide.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: One of the things at the Rural Futures Institute we’ve really been exploring is the fact that a lot of our communities are small makes them rural. But we also know that many people in those communities, while there are challenges we recognize, we can also have a thriving future when we look at ways to join rural and urban together, and not really focus on the divide but really the interactions that exist between our rural and urban audiences.

Emily Murtaugh:  And it really is an interesting economic play too. I think that 5G opening the door to all types of working remotely can be very good, can engage people anywhere, including rural areas, to connect with those who are miles and miles and states away from them. However, in telemedicine for example, if it becomes more widely adopted and you’re able to meet with a specialist who is the best in the country without having to travel, it’s great and it can provide top of the line medical care to people in rural communities without them having to travel to wherever the doctor that they need is. But there’s a worry that that’s going to take away the need for certain medical professionals in those rural areas, or decrease the amount of need for medical professionals in those areas. So, you know, not as many job listings in those places. So I think it’s all about balance. Obviously, the big one to me from where I sit at Verizon is, maximizing access to connectivity and the best connectivity possible, because regardless of how all the 5G stuff shapes out, we’re just becoming increasingly dependent on tech anyway, that there needs to be even access across the country and ideally the world. But we have to balance that with making sure it’s affordable and making sure that it’s being used in a way that will enable communities, no matter how big or small, to really function optimally and cause as few negative effects as possible. I think that’s something that will be interesting to watch over the next couple of years, it’s how all of these different digital and tech and infrastructure and economic components balance out and work together, because they’re all so highly connected.

Dr. Connie: Agreed, and I think that’s where too, it’s that adoption, it’s the access, it’s the affordability. But it’s also, I think, putting my futurist hat on, how do we create new systems, models, and even communities that really take advantage of and help stimulate this economy, this emerging Fourth Revolution that we’re in, Economic Revolution that we’re in. So using health care as an example, what is the role of hospitals moving forward? It’s going to be completely different in both rural and urban, and I think you’re starting to see health care take a hard look at that. Our medical center here, for example, at the University of Nebraska, has really been a leader in that. I think rather than think about what hospitals were and how they’ve always been, it’s how do we break the model, how do we disrupt that model, and create one now that really thrives in what’s being offered and what’s being developed in the current and the future, and use that strategic foresight lines to create communities of the future.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So Emily, tell us, what parting words of wisdom do you have to share with our audience?

Emily Murtaugh: Yeah, I think, what’s most exciting to me and what I hope excites everyone listening is that 5G really does create a ton of opportunity for you, no matter what your career is, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned veteran in the workforce, 5G will most definitely play a role in your job, in what you do outside of work. So I think it’s important to start becoming familiar with it, start reading up about it here and there, get prepared because it’s coming. But also get excited because there is a lot of power that comes with 5G for the individual, so thinking of how to use it, of developing those use cases. We have a team at Verizon that’s dedicated to brainstorming what we could possibly do with 5G. And that’s something that I think illustrates how really on we are in the process of adopting 5G, but also what magnitude of an impact it could have. And that really comes down to leaders in communities, leaders in businesses, innovators in different education systems, and there’s a lot of power to make 5G kind of what you want or what you need, depending on what you do and what your values are. Like I said, whether that be work or more in your personal life. So I hope that not only does 5G open this door to optimize an immersive experience and positive experiences for everyone, but I hope that it kind of inspires and motivates people to get creative and get imaginative and start thinking in ways that really people haven’t ever thought before. It will be exciting to watch for sure, and I’m excited to be a part of it.


Episode 23: Japan Society’s Betty Borden intersects rural challenges, entrepreneurship, innovation

March 12, 2019
           Director of the Japan Society Innovators Network, Betty Borden is a rural innovator sparking global change. She coordinates projects that connect Japanese and American mavericks to exchange solutions on some shared grand challenges, recently …




Director of the Japan Society Innovators Network, Betty Borden is a rural innovator sparking global change. She coordinates projects that connect Japanese and American mavericks to exchange solutions on some shared grand challenges, recently in the area of rural economic and community revitalization.

Betty discovered Dr. Connie and the Rural Futures Institute through a Google search inquiring into the most future-focused, strategic solutions for rural thriving. In this conversation they dig into more than a year of work that has brought them together across the world and includes creative solutions around recruitment and retention of residents, sparking female entrepreneurship, rethinking the rural-urban opportunities of agriculture and food production and, of course, the evolution of leadership.

“What we’re looking for are people who have the ability to look at a challenge in a new way that can have tremendous impact in a particular community.“
Betty Borden
Director, Innovators Network, Japan Society

About Betty


Betty Borden is the Director of the Innovators Network of Japan Society in New York City. The Network is a unique collaborative program that brings together creative Japanese and Americans who are pursuing innovative and often groundbreaking ideas to improve their communities and society. It provides opportunities for leaders to build enduring relationships, learn from each other, inspire each other and collaborate.


Bold Voices Student Segment

Hunter Traynor, Student Regent and Student Body President at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. — Listen at 8:48!

The Nebraska native is studying Political Science and will attend the University of Nebraska College of Law following his graduation in May. He is a natural leader who enjoys keeping a full plate and working with as many people as he can. “Leadership is the art of inspiring others to want to struggle for shared aspirations,” he said.

“I have been able to articulate a grand vision for what the organization currently is and what it should and could be in the future,” Traynor said of the Association of Students at the University of Nebraska, the governing student body at UNL. “And, then I need to convince everyone around us that it’s worth the time, effort and energy to struggle to achieve that vision,” he continued.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »


Show Notes



Episode 22: IT futurist Robin Jourdan intersects transportation, airspace, leadership

March 5, 2019
           Information technology futurist Robin Jourdan recently wrapped up a 25-year career in the automotive industry and shares a bit of her wisdom about autonomous vehicles, drones and vertical airspace legislation of the future with Dr. …




Information technology futurist Robin Jourdan recently wrapped up a 25-year career in the automotive industry and shares a bit of her wisdom about autonomous vehicles, drones and vertical airspace legislation of the future with Dr. Connie. Robin’s insights into the impact these technologies will have on the rural-urban dynamic are worth consideration in terms of community development and agriculture.

Dr. Connie also digs into Robin’s definition of a futurist and her pillars of leadership. During this part of their conversation, Robin passionately discusses the intense value millennials and generation alphas place on authenticity. She also shares her take on the era of post-trust and her optimism for the future.

“It’s so empowering to see the expression on people’s faces when they realize that they’re not at the mercy of whatever comes down the road.”
Robin Jourdan
IT Futurist

About Robin


Robin Jourdan worked as an automotive original equipment manufacturer in Michigan for nearly 25 years. First as a research analyst, then a research librarian and ending her career as a futurist in information technology. Robin is a certified in strategic foresight from the University of Houston and an Emerging Fellow of the Association of Professional Futurists. She currently consults through Signals from the Future.

Robin’s specialties include:

  • Framing challenges, scenarios
  • Business and technical research
  • Emerging technologies
  • Transportation, autonomous vehicles
  • Competitive intelligence

She holds a bachelor’s in environmental science from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, a master’s in geography from the University of North Dakota and a master’s in library and information science from Wayne State University. She serves as an associate lecturer at Columbia University, teaching knowledge management topics as part of the master’s of knowledge management program.


Bold Voices Student Segment

Listen at 16:23 of Episode 22!

Problem-solving and leadership work hand in hand, according to Bold Voice Ruben Aguilar, a computer science and engineering student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Aguilar, a computer science and engineering student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, was an undergraduate mentor for the RFI-funded Rural Youth Entrepreneurship Clinics (YEC) which recently earned $493,560 in funding from the United States Department of Agricultural National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

He digs deep into his participation in the program, his problem-solving approach and his vision of leadership. “My idea of a leader is just being able to convey the vision and getting people together to work toward that vision,” he says.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast, and your host, Dr. Connie. And joining us today is Robin Jourdan, fellow futurist. Welcome to the show, Robin.

Robin Jourdan: How you doing, Connie? Great to be here.

Dr. Connie: Well thank you so much for coming on the show. We really appreciate it. And before we dive into a lot of the content, tell our audience a little bit more about yourself.

Robin Jourdan: I am at a really interesting point in my life. I’ve worked for the last 25 years at an automotive OEM in Michigan. And the last five was as a futurist in IT. Before that, I was what they call an Embedded Research Library, which meant that I worked in a lot of the advanced technology areas and research areas in the company. And my job for the years prior was to find information that helped the scientists/researchers/engineers create the solutions for our products and services. Quite a lot of fun.

Dr. Connie: Sounds like you’ve had a wonderful career and a very broad career. So define for our audience a futurist.

Robin Jourdan: A futurist to me is someone who helps teams, individuals of all ages prepare themselves for what could come in the future on a given topic or a collection of topics. A futurist to me is much more of a guide.

Dr. Connie: I love that part of the definition.

Robin Jourdan: Because we don’t predict, right? We can’t predict. If we could do that, you and I would be on the beach in some warm, awesome place, because we would’ve won the Powerball a long time ago.


Robin Jourdan: But it’s our expertise that gives people a sense of things aren’t always going to be 100% the way we want them to be, but they’re going to be okay. And I guess that’s how I view my role, is giving people that little bit of confidence, or a lot of confidence, that even though our issues are tough, and boy are they tough, there’s always a way.

Dr. Connie: How did you get interested in becoming a futurist? What did that path look like for you?

Robin Jourdan: At the company that I worked at, we were, and still are, tasked with being aware of what’s going on in our individual industries, or at least our view of what our job and what our role in the company was. So it was to really have that outside view. And the CIO of the organization, at one point, we had collected years of this information, and they were using it, but he felt that they could do a lot more with it. Remember, I was a librarian at the time. So he said, “Well why don’t you give it to the librarian? Give it to Robin and see what she can come up with.”


Dr. Connie: I love that. Okay, hand it over to the librarian. That totally makes sense, right?

Robin Jourdan: And it was awesome because there was no fear. It was like alright, so let’s see where this is going to take us. And I had a lot of support, lot of encouragement, and really it was just a case of one foot in front of the other.

Dr. Connie: And I think that’s where when a person reads your background and learns more about you, I’m sure being that librarian was a part of it. But all the background you have in just environmental science, geography, so many different things, is that love of science of technology, I’m sure, came together very well to position you as a futurist who could take bits and pieces from a lot of areas, make sense of them, and help people frame the future.

Robin Jourdan: I think you’re right. And I think that that’s part of what made this role really resonate with me is I was not using only one part of the toolkit. I was actually able to use a lot of the bits and pieces that I’d collected along the way of problem solving and all of that, that methodology.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well we’ve talked about you as a futurist. I’d love to learn a little bit more about you as a leader. So describe yourself as a leader.

Robin Jourdan: As a leader, I tend to lead through I guess what I would call direct involvement, hands-on involvement, not just here, let me give you some things to think about, but actually, rolling up my sleeves and getting in there with the different teams, with the individuals, especially in planning and implementation. To me, collaboration is a huge piece of leadership, right? One of things that I think is really important, and it’s really becoming much more prevalent, especially as Millennials and Gen Alphas are coming to the table, are coming into the workforce, is this concept of servant leader. So it’s where you might be the leader but you’re not the General at HQ that’s shouting out orders. You’re actually involved in the solutions, in learning how these different challenges could be approached, right? Because there’s a lot of different ways of getting from A to B

Dr. Connie: Well I think that’s such an excellent point. I want to back up just quickly. Millennials, a lotta people talking about that, and we are very familiar with that generation, but Gen Alpha. Tell our audience a little bit more about Gen Alpha.

Robin Jourdan: They’re the kids who are just entering school. They’re the three-year-olds, the four-year-olds, the seven-year-olds, the eight-year-olds. That whole breath of fresh air. I have a few nieces and nephews. Well actually, I have a lot of nieces and nephews, but I have a few that are in that age range, and Connie, I have to tell you, watching these guys, there’s no challenge that they don’t feel like they can address. They’re dealing with this technology in such a seamless, fearless way, and I think that that’s just so inspiring to me of what they’re going to be bringing to the table. I mean and they’re starting now. They’re not waiting until they’re 18, 24, through their schooling. They want to get in there now. That doesn’t mean that they know all the answers. They know they don’t. But they want to learn.

Dr. Connie: I think that’s such an important point, because as we talk about the need for broadband and being connected, all those things are really important, but it is the how people approach tech. And also, my kids are in that age range, but for them, even using a computer is not how they approach the world. I mean my kids do everything on a phone, and it’s very natural to them. They create things on a phone. I’m like oh dang, it would take me a week on a computer to do.

Robin Jourdan: From the libraries’ perspective, we had to teach these guys how to use mouses with their computers. They would have a computer that would be sitting on their desk for weeks and they wouldn’t turn it on, because no, it wasn’t part of their mind-set.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So Robin, we’ve talked about Millennials, we’ve talked about upcoming generations, but you also talk about the age of post-trust. So tell us a little bit more about that, and how that will affect the future of leadership.

Robin Jourdan: Connie, one the things that I think is going to be really important about what has been written many times and called post-trust, I’m not sure that I really see it maybe the same way that a lot of authors currently do because I think that post-trust just means more skepticism and I think as a scientist, skepticism is a good thing. But when we look at our Millennials, our Gen Alphas, the kids without the baggage, I think that they’re going to continue to bring a new authenticity to the table. I think that saying what you don’t mean and not meaning what you’re saying as a practice is just not going to be tolerated by this rising generation. I think that they’re so embedded in it. I mean when I was a kid, you trusted what an adult said, right, because that’s just the way that it was. And I think that the values of, I’m just going to keep saying the kids, and I don’t mean as a slight in any way, but I think that the values that I’m seeing in my nieces and nephews, you’re either authentic or you’re outta here.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well I’m a huge fan of libraries. I mean in graduate school, I spent a lot of time physically in a library, making copies and all of those things, and it’s been a while. It doesn’t seem that long ago. But I’m amazed too now how libraries have evolved and changed and how people use them, and how they’ve had to change their business model and engagement methods to make sure they’re still relevant in this day and age. And I think it’s exciting to see now how libraries are really– I know in a lot of our rural communities– are really the place people go to be connected and to learn, and libraries have become a big part of those communities. They always have been, but I would say they’re showing up in a way now that’s become really critical.

Robin Jourdan: I think you’re right, I think you’re right. And something that my husband and I were talking about the other day, and that was along the lines of remember back when we were eight and we’d have these questions. Like my one nephew has a question about– He’s always asking Siri who would win a fight between Megalodon and a T-Rex. Stuff that an eight-year-old’s thinking about.


Dr. Connie: That’s right.

Robin Jourdan: And Siri will give him a very logical breakdown of that battle. I grew up in a time where when you had those questions, you had to physically go to the library. It really had to be worth your while and your parents’ while to get you there. And so a lot of the questions that we had growing up, just natural curiosity questions, didn’t get answered. So we got used to, in a sense, having our curiosity, not aggressively stunted, but just by the nature of the logistics. But the kids today, there’s no crazy question, and they’re finding an answer, which is really remarkable in that it keeps encouraging their curiosity. I just think that libraries and the whole information fabric that we’re living in is such an advantage to dealing with the challenges that we are, on a local and global scale.

Dr. Connie: Well I’d love to dive into that a little bit more, because you are a futurist, and I’d love you to put that big futurist hat on and tell our audience what major changes you see evolving in your area of expertise.

Robin Jourdan: I think at this point, we’re all aware of these things, autonomous cars and the new biosphere that surrounds it. And we’re seeing some really big things emerge in the transportation technology, that convergence. Not just for people, but transportation in general is driven by energy and its constraints, right? Getting goods from here to there is something that, until we have teleporters that eliminate that proximity issue, is always going to be a part of our lifestyle. Whether you’re in an urban area or a rural area, that is a factor that’s not going to go away for a very long time. And also, how does that impact the environment? That’s something that my generation, we didn’t really deal with it the way that we are today, that we’re really getting in with sleeves rolled up and really trying to see the impacts of our decisions. Earlier this week was the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and one of the things that they announced was– and they actually had, I guess, a passenger drone, a two-person passenger drone, at the Auto Show. And they’re predicting that we’re going to be seeing technologies, these modes of transportation, in the next 10 years. That’s just mind boggling, that’s Jetsons, that’s Jetsons all over that. But one interesting factoid is The Jetsons show, you’re familiar with the cartoon show, The Jetsons?

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, yeah.

Robin Jourdan: It was created in 1962. Well it was a view of the future 100 years from then. So 2062, and you know what, we might actually be on a path to see flying cars by 2062. How crazy would that be. That would be everybody’s dream.

Dr. Connie: I didn’t realize it was supposed to be that 100-year view. So that’s new information, that’s really interesting. I think the flying cars are really cool. I’m also hopeful that I’ll get a Rosie the Robot that can take care of the cleaning and laundry, those day to day things. I don’t want to do-


Robin Jourdan: Chase the cat around with the vacuum.

Dr. Connie: I’m totally okay with that.

Robin Jourdan: And actually, it was in a class and we were talking about The Jetsons, and that’s where I learned that it was the 100-year view out. And what the producers did, they actually went into schools in the Los Angeles area and talked to kids about what they thought that 2062 would look like, is where they really got a lot of that inspiration from. Again, back to the kids. They don’t carry all of the emotional baggage, the non-emotional baggage. They’re just open and free-thinking people.

Dr. Connie: I think that’s such an excellent point, and I think sometimes, we discount some of what they say because we almost view it as too creative or too out there. But I think the truth is, because they don’t have those filters, and they don’t have really any sensors to what they’re thinking, they’re just thinking very broadly, but in some ways, pretty practically, I would say too, in terms of it’s not that it’s not possible. You just have to put the effort and the resources into exploring it.

Robin Jourdan: Exactly, exactly. And I think that we adults, for myself, I think sometimes, we get so attached to our ideas, and that we’ve gone through so much life and living, and the school of hard knocks, or whatever you want to call it, that we love our ideas more.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I agree, and I think that’s the value of bringing a futurist in as well, into some of these conversations, and especially conversations maybe where that futurist has some expertise, but also a broader background. I would say you and I both fall into that category where you’re not so entrenched in the day to day, in the social norms, the cultural norms of that industry that you can bring some fresh ideas and perspective that perhaps other people weren’t thinking of. Because you’re in an industry for X number of years and you know a lot about the industry, which is great, but also can be a bit of challenge in this day and age where change is happening so rapidly that you really need to look to other industries and how they’re advancing and changing, or even being challenged, in order to pivot what you’re doing.

Robin Jourdan: Pivot, that’s a great perspective, because isn’t that a lot of what we really are doing? A lot of people, oh, they don’t like change. But if we even just change the terminology to pivot, they’re a lot more open to it. They’re a lot more open to the new possibilities I think. At least that’s been my experience.

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Katy Bagniewski: Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rockstar students from the University of Nebraska, who are making a difference in Rural. Hello podcast listeners, welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with student leaders from the University of Nebraska. I’m Katy Bagniewski, the production specialist of Rural Futures with Dr. Connie. And with me today is Ruben Aguilar, a computer science and engineering student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Welcome Ruben.

Ruben Aguilar: Hi Katy, thanks for having me.

Katy Bagniewski: So Ruben, we have a lot of different topics to touch on today, but first, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Ruben Aguilar: I was born in Crete, Nebraska and then I moved around a lot, spent a long time in Texas. And my main interests are, of course, computer science and finance, but I also really like technology and problem solving, I guess trying to find the best solution for it, which is what my two studies help with a lot.

Katy Bagniewski: So Ruben, you were an undergrad participant with a competitive award project that the Rural Futures Institute funded called the Rural Youth Entrepreneurship Clinics, or YEC for short. For our listeners who don’t know, can you explain the YEC program and your role with it?

Ruben Aguilar: Well my part was being a mentor for pre-stage analytics, and the program had four company sponsors, and they proposed a problem and high school students would work to solve the problem. They were all split up into groups. So of course, these groups were assigned mentors and I was a mentor for pre-stage analytics and our problem was getting information from like a data collection hardware and then getting it to a database with high school students, from freshman, sophomore and senior.

Katy Bagniewski: What made you want to participate in this project and what was your biggest takeaway from it?

Ruben Aguilar: It probably became one of the biggest benefits to my problem-solving approach because it taught me to be really versatile. And then my biggest take-away was just definitely problem-solving approach and then the community that we had. It was just an overall amazing program that I think really benefited my studies here at UNL.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, it sounds like a great opportunity for both the high school students and the undergrad mentors involved. As a mentor, you were really set up in a leadership position, so describe to me the intersection you saw between problem solving and leadership.

Ruben Aguilar: Yeah, I think my idea of a leader from that was just being able to convey the vision and getting people together to work towards that vision. When you begin to work on a project, you’ll begin to realize that there’s a lot of very small problems that will add up if they’re not resolved, once they come about. So I think being a leader is all about being able to give those solutions, because it’s so easy to get lost on a project with so many details.

Katy Bagniewski: Well you have great thoughts around leadership, Ruben, especially for being a sophomore in college. So let’s keep this conversation going and look toward your future. How has your University of Nebraska experience impacted you as you decide what to do next in school and beyond?

Ruben Aguilar: There’s so many resources that if you’re really motivated and engaged, you can find them. They’re there, you just have to have the drive. And then I’m not sure what I want to do but it’s definitely shaping my idea, and I think it’s just being exposed to so many organizations that are just so young, and being able to have the open opportunity to join them and get involved. Just all these new experiences with YEC, the exposure, the opportunities, they’re there. If you really go look for them, they’re there.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah and I think that that’s really advice for any students who may be listening. So thank you for sharing that and thank you Ruben for joining me today as our Bold Student Voice. You’ve been able to intersect so many areas that we at RFI are really passionate about. So thank you for sharing your story and we look forward to seeing how you’ll grow in your future. It was a real pleasure.

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Dr. Connie: You talked about autonomous vehicles and the biosphere that surrounds them. Can you give our listeners a little perspective on what that biosphere looks like?

Robin Jourdan: The biosphere is our living things, right? That’s at least how I’m defining it. So autonomy in any kind of machine, robots, AI, how that technology or set of technologies really interacts with life is really at an exciting point. And it’s at a point where we are still defining, and we will be for quite some time, how do we want to interact with what’s essentially machines?

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Dr. Connie: So you mentioned that really transportation is constrained by energy. And so can you tell us a little bit more about how energy does put constraints in the transportation industry?

Robin Jourdan: If we just limit ourselves to the technologies that we have available today, there are a lot of people in the world who are just simply in waiting mode for access to what we consider in a developed country as just standard issue. So putting that different hat on and realizing that maybe the way that the challenge was handled in the past, in other parts of the world, let’s just say in the United States, and there’s even places in the United States, we know, that don’t have the same access to even electricity, water, on and on. That’s what I was getting at in terms of energy and its constraints is that sunlight is all shining on us pretty evenly, but our ability to even capture that energy of the sun is very much differentiated by the technology you have available.

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Dr. Connie: I notice part of the preparation for the podcast, you talked about drones and the possibility of those drones maybe opening up some new revenue streams for landowners. Could you talk a little bit more to that?

Robin Jourdan: Well this is a what if situation, right? So as we start to see, in the United States, we still have some high hurdles to get over with the commercial use of drones I think, but if we think about it and play the video out, we start to see how their use starts to impact what we think of as traditional land use, and that impacts not only urban areas but rural as well. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is right now, at least in the US, a drone pilot has to have line of sight with their aircraft. Well in time, that might change and relax, but what that means for the rural landowner is huge. It’s a potential invasion of their airspace, their privacy, their property rights, to a great extent. And some say that that airspace will become vertically priced, right. So depending on the cost of moving through that space, depending on your altitude, is going to have different advantages, and potentially, that kind of revenue stream. But what it also means is that we’re no longer on the public highway system. Since the 1950s, the Eisenhower autobahn and potentially crossing private lands, how does that impact the landowner? A lot of the whole what ifs, right? Or is airspace part of the commons? How many people might have a different opinion about turning it into the commons?

Dr. Connie: I love this conversation because these are the thoughts and conversations we want to bring forward as a Rural Futures Institute. What does rural look like now? I mean we have this perspective. We have a lot of opinions, and a mind-set around it. But what could the future potentially look like, and how can we create an abundant future for rural areas and urban areas alike, through what’s happening with technology, and even the expectations of people, the psychographic changes in addition to the demographic changes that we see happening? And so thinking about vertically-priced airspace, that’s just a conversation that is a game changer, especially I would say for rural areas that are so vast in terms of land ownership, like you’re saying.

Robin Jourdan: Yeah, and think of it also in terms of the urban intermediate areas, right? We think of right now skyscrapers. Urban is skyscrapers. Urban is the concrete jungle, all of that. But if it’s our airways, if it’s that sky view, that airspace that hasn’t been–valued isn’t the right word but you kind of get where I’m going– how does that impact skyscrapers? Does that mean that urban areas start building shorter buildings but try to push further into what we’re considering today, a rural area, but it’s all these short, little buildings, because they want to take advantage of the vertical airspace?

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Dr. Connie: How do you see 3D printing potentially impacting the need for transportation? If people can print more at home, anything they need, for example, do you think that has a potential to offset some of what’s going to be needed by drones? Or do you see them coming together and a big need for both the 3D printing where you are, locally, at your home, at your business, and drones? Like coming together in a cohesive way.

Robin Jourdan: I think they’re going to come together but when you think about 3D printing, the aspect that people tend to not prioritize, I’ll just put it that way, is the fact that your printer has to have the right materials to print what it is you want to print.

Dr. Connie: Think about all the different implications that has, right? I mean you still need delivery of those raw ingredients, but homes, in the home design, business design, you’re going to still need space to store it or put it. It has really a watershed of fact in terms of what our spaces look like in the future, how we interact with one another, how we interact with things and stuff. What that all looks like. The transportation system itself. I mean it’s really pretty exciting to think about the holistic system in the future.

Robin Jourdan: Absolutely. Isn’t it a fun time to be a futurist?


Dr. Connie: I agree. I love that. And it’s so funny because sometimes, we still get “Is being a futurist a real thing?” and I’m like oh my gosh, look around, because it is the best gig, best career ever right now.

Robin Jourdan: Yeah, I love it, I love what I’m doing. I actually loved when I had the engineers. We were shoulder to shoulder, because I would get these engineers that would be like “Show me your crystal ball.” But then when I started showing them and teaching them the different methodologies that we have available, and how close those are to say traditional Six Sigma, traditional engineering, traditional scientific method, they saw this as not just a mystical, I have my robes and I’m Harry Potter kind of things. They actually got that you can’t predict the future but they got that the means to generate these what if situations actually had some validity.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, and I think that’s where even the discipline itself, it’s exciting to see it grow but also become more valid because of the tools and the processes involved to really help people frame up what the future might look like, what the possibilities are, what the probabilities are. So what are some of the strategies you really enjoy using to help people take a look at the future for themselves?

Robin Jourdan: One of the things that I start probably every project with I guess is a phrase out of Buddhism really. It’s called the beginner’s mind. Bias of thinking that we, as adults, already know the answers to whatever the topic at hand is. I try to minimize that in myself by adopting what is called the beginner’s mind. So I try to really let go of my preconceived notions. And that really helps when you’re working with people of all different kinds of age groups and backgrounds. Actually, one of the things, Connie, that I think you’re probably familiar with is the Teach The Future, where the futurists are going into the schools and teaching elementary, middle and high school kids about the futuring process, which makes it not only accessible to these new generations and really I think in some ways counter effects the fear of the future, fear of change, fear of, wow, if I go in direction A, B, C for my life’s work, what if I’m wrong, and those kinds of questions. That’s where beginner’s mind perspective really helps me to relate to those folks a little more easily, because we’re all put on the same level.

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Robin Jourdan: Then I’ll look at really that whole outside in look that futurists are famous for. So what’s actually going on in relation to whatever that topic is in terms of social, tech, economics, political, and environment. And actually, I have morphed that usual STEEP method into a social tech economic and geopolitical, I push geo and politics together. We start looking at what is actually going on, not what do I think is going on, but what’s actually going on.

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Robin Jourdan: From there, then we start to develop the trends, the drivers, the things that are actually happening, and we’re using that data as the means for that and not this person’s opinion or that person’s opinion or that party, or all of the filters that we have to what’s really going on around us.

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Robin Jourdan: Really, from there, a lot of things fall into place in terms of what’s happening and what are the actual entities, the actors, that are a part of that. And then we start to work with some of the maybe more robust tools in the toolkit, the causal layer analysis and some of those other tools.

Robin Jourdan: I love beginning with the beginner’s mind. That clean slate, everybody on equal footing. Let’s do this together and really make it a wonderful process that really reveals maybe some unexpected results or ideas that we wouldn’t be necessarily looking for. And that’s one of the reasons I was so excited that you were coming on the podcast.

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Robin Jourdan: Before I left the company, I really loved it there, I mean I was fortunate that I was able to retire and it’s turning out to be a really good decision in that regard, but one of the things that the company had in place is this transition period for people who were planning to retire. And so one of the things that the team that I was on, Now I was the only futurist in the IT organization, we worked together and said “how are we going to not let the engine that Robin built how do we not let that just fall apart.” So one of the things that we did and these people, they put up with some much, because we put together some apps that people would be able to go through and develop their own what if scenarios, and they’d be able to go through and they’d be able to determine what their own personal change profile looked like, in terms of do they consider ideas to be the thing that drives the greatest change? Is it technology? Is it religion? And there’s I think about 10 different personalities, those change types. So we put those things together. We put together really a nice, little set of tools so that they could turn it into play Hopefully, knock on wood, that’s all still going, because it can’t be down to one person.

Dr. Connie: That’s brilliant. And it does help grow the work that’s been done, rather than always starting over a process that can put an organization really in a challenging spot, but to add this technology in there and to have the apps with the personal change profiles, that’s really cool, and turning this into play. I bet people are having a blast at that. I’d love to learn more. That’s amazing.

Robin Jourdan: Well maybe some time, we can play around with something. I mean I can’t actually take from there, right, but the ideas that we came out the University of Houston and other futuring organizations that have been super successful at getting the word out, getting the message out, getting the how do we do this. It’s so empowering to see the expression on people’s faces when they realize that they’re not at the mercy of whatever comes down the road.

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Dr. Connie: As somebody in a wonderful place in her life, and making transitions, but also, somebody who’s made wonderful contributions in her career as well, what parting words of wisdom do you have for our audience?

Robin Jourdan: One of the things that has kept me really involved in and really wanting to mature what I do as a futurist has been the experience I have with other futurists. And Connie, I’m sure you’ve had this experience where these are the most optimistic people on planet Earth. I have not met another industry profile of a job, a role, that has been more overarchingly optimistic. And so my parting words is our best days are ahead.


Episode 21: Google brand strategist Mojolaoluwa Aderemi-Makinde intersects leadership, tech, life balance

February 26, 2019
            Joining us in the premier Episode 21 of Season 3 is Mojolaoluwa Aderemi-Makinde, head of brand and reputation for Google Africa. Dr. Connie was immediately taken by Jola’s energy and enthusiasm when they both …





Joining us in the premier Episode 21 of Season 3 is Mojolaoluwa Aderemi-Makinde, head of brand and reputation for Google Africa. Dr. Connie was immediately taken by Jola’s energy and enthusiasm when they both presented at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting in 2018, which focused on the future of cities. Jola’s technology expertise combined with her show-up leadership style make her a dynamic female leader and true maverick. 

Jola discusses several of Google’s initiatives to empower female entrepreneurs with digital skills, her leadership advice that focuses on purpose and how she balances a high-power career with being a present wife and mother. Dr. Connie also has Jola dig into technology for rural-urban collaboration, agriculture and the future of jobs. Jola also shares her team’s ideas for creating inclusive initiatives for economic development in Nigeria and around the world.

“The job of a leader is to, first of all, set the vision, so tell us where we’re going. And then once you’ve set the vision, you need to find the people and put them in the right places, so put people in the place where they will thrive.”
Mojolaoluwa Aderemi-Makinde
Head of Brand & Reputation, Google, Africa

About Jola


Experienced business and marketing leader responsible for Brand and Reputation marketing at Google, Africa. Passionate about technology, entrepreneurship, human potential, gender equality, amongst others. Holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Lagos and a Masters in Management and Strategic Information Systems from the University of Bath, UK. Outside of professional life, wife, mum, daughter, sister, friend, nature lover, aspiring chef and organizer.


Mentioned In This Episode


Bold Voices Student Segment

Listen at 13:45 of Episode 21!

“When posting to social media, we try to start a conversation,” says social media guru Kaitlin VanLoon.

VanLoon, a senior advertising and public relations major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, digs deep into the future of technology, social media and rural-urban collaboration during the Bold Voices student segment.

VanLoon recognizes that social media can be viewed as both harmful and helpful but she encourages listeners to view it as a positive tool for engagement and information sharing. “My goal is to share the ways that [social media] can be helpful, because it is such a powerful tool in communicating,” she says.

Read the full Bold Voices release! »


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie and we’re super excited today to have a special guest with us. Coming to us from Nigeria, is Mojolaoluwa Aderemi-Makinde. Welcome to the podcast, Jola.

Jola: Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Connie.

Dr. Connie: And I have to tell a little background on how we met. So Jola and I met at the Global Women’s Summit in Paris in 2018. And I have to tell you, I was there, I met a lot of great people, but Jola was the most friendly, just most excited and energetic person that I met at the whole conference. And it was wonderful to get to know you there and I’m so excited that you could come on the podcast with us.

Jola: It’s such an honor, for sure, and was such a pleasure to meet you. And I had to be excited, because, I mean, you went on and started telling me about how you lived in Nigeria at some point. And I was like, wow! And then I remember you said you were from Nebraska and I remember the only time I ever heard about Nebraska was my friend that lived there for a bit. And I was just excited, so it brought back a lot of memories, you were equally pleasant yourself. So it’s an honor.

Dr. Connie: Just recently Jola was promoted to the role of Head Brand and Reputation at Google for Africa. So tell us a little bit more about your current role.

Jola: What really excited me was the fact that it’s an opportunity to change the world in a very remarkable way. I mean I joined Google over seven years ago, I mean, I joined for many reasons. But one of those reasons was I wanted to make an impact on the world. Also I wanted to be in an organization that allowed me to feel like I was still a little bit of an entrepreneur and give me an opportunity to be at the forefront of technology, especially because, I mean, we all know, on the African continent, some of the issues that have been highlighted with plans such as the AU 2063, which is the AU agenda to transform Africa, as well as a sustainable development goals. We looked at it as saying, how can we be in a scientific way? So part of the continental goal is to drive social and economic development. Areas around jobs, areas around skills, around education and environment, gender equality, some of those areas that we have programs that we run already as a continent or we can create based on our product and so we’re doing that right now. And I will say we can blame the leaders, but what are we all doing in our corners, right? And so for me I feel like this is an incredible opportunity, I mean in a unique space and I can actually make an impact on the continent, in the very important significant way.

Dr. Connie: I love your just life philosophy around that, and your leadership philosophy around that. We all need to show up and really be in our purpose and do for the greater good. Could you give an example of some of the programs and initiatives that you’re working on there at Google to help empower women specifically?

Jola: One of the programs that we drive is our community initiatives which we’re launching this year to actually support women on their pillars of leadership, entrepreneurship, digital literacy and workplace; help women to understand that really they can, there really are no (mumbles), and even if there are we can really shelter them. That program is called Womenwill and the program is a community-led initiative. So we have Womenwill chapter leaders in different parts of the world, not just in Africa, and we’re going to be launching on International Women’s Day actually across three markets in Africa. The other program is I Am Remarkable program which was started off, I believe started off as an internal initiative by Google. And then now we’ve kind of done it and we do it externally for many people. I Am Remarkable is a program that basically helps women to show up, to basically say, truly, I am remarkable, to tell their stories. Because sometimes we are either behind our own awesomeness and we are afraid to kind of just showcase and shine. This year we’re also going to be running initiative around small and medium businesses, women-led businesses, where we’re doing workshops then up and down to learn digital skills and then helping them to grow their businesses, also helping them to show up online. So we have a product called Google My Business, that product basically gives you presence on Google Search and Maps and really even roam in their program to become, not just as a business listed, but also a profile.

Dr. Connie: In many of our rural communities what we keep hearing is we need to empower women, and that’s here in Nebraska, that was very clear in Japan, it’s clear in Australia that we’re still struggling around this a little bit in terms of what does this really mean and how do we do it really well. What can we do differently in what we’ve done in the past?

Jola: First of all, I think we’re doing a lot of things right. So this is not to shoot down any initiatives that are happening or any empowerment programs that are out there. The only other part that I see is the fact that I believe that, on one hand, we are truly empowering women, but we’re not also empowering the other gender. So we are beginning to ignore the male gender. And the problem is we can’t do one without the other. Everybody needs to be empowered. I know that, on one side, the scale is already tilted and you need to get it to a level. But what we would hate to do in the future is actually to tilt the scale to the extent that we now have a problem where we have a male empowerment program 20, 30 years from now. So we need to be deliberate, we need to make sure that we’re not the only world where at the end of the day we’re figuring out how to tilt the scale back again.

Dr. Connie: It’s really about empowering a global community and that includes everyone. And I think that’s something that, it’s not the easiest, but it is the best path.

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Dr. Connie: So tell me a little more about your background, like how did you get to Google and what was it before that that kinda led you there but also your academic background?

Jola: I’d like to tell a joke, which is a true to life story of one of my superiors while I worked in consulting, who basically told me one day,

“oh, Jola, I thought you studied English.”

I was like, “no, I studied computer science.”

And was like, he was completely shocked and I found it hilarious– a little bit disrespectful, but a little bit hilarious as well. Because I was like, how do you come up with this confusion that you thought that I studied English? I’m a techie. Well, maybe you just think that because I found myself in strategy consulting, I’m not coding, then I should’ve come from like, I don’t know, maybe you just confuse that based on the fact that I talk too much. It was very hilarious and very fascinating too. Well let me just take you back a little bit in terms of my background. So I grew up in Nigeria. I did my primary school and my secondary school there and then my university as well. So my first degree was in computer science at the University of Lagos. And then when I finished that I proceeded to do master’s in management and strategic information system at the University of Bath in the UK. I’ve really always been passionate about Africa and Nigeria specifically. I wanted to come back home, I wanted to make a difference. I was very ambitious and very eager to make a difference at the time. So I did come back home and I took on a job with a local engineering company at the time. I had the opportunity, I’ve been fortunate to work with very brilliant and very entrepreneurial people. So I worked with this entrepreneur for a period of about six months at the time. I had an opportunity to renew my contract but I didn’t. And then I went home to do like a youth service program which is a program that we do as part of once you finish school in Nigeria you have to do it as service to your nation. It’s a one year program. So I did that and then I went on to work for Silverbird Group. Silverbird Group is a local entrepreneur that’s into media, real estate, cinemas, TV radio, etc. I was working very closely with the CEO, I worked in the strategy unit. Working closely with the CEO, gave me opportunities, we met a lot of bigwigs and a lot of people that we’re really investing heavily in different industries. And then from that I realized something. I realized that I was a bit, I felt like I got to the top of my career just too quickly. Again maybe, I don’t know, maybe that was my limiting mindset at the time as a woman and I started doubting myself. I’m thinking, how do I, like, I know very little, all those things I’ve been taught in business school, I’ve applied them, but I, there’s really no one to sanity check me because when you work in strategy and you work directly with the CEO you kinda make all the rules and tell everybody else what to do. So I decided that I wanted to really check my knowledge and I wanted to just test my depths. And so I started seeking out opportunities in consulting specifically because I thought that would give me a great opportunity to really test that. And I got into Accenture, worked in strategy consulting on many projects, fortunate to work across industries and projects and that was great as well. Again I was still very young, I wasn’t married, so I was very open to like living the lifestyle of the consultant: be anywhere at anytime kinda. But I got to a point I got married and then I realized that I wanted to be in a bit more control of my time, I wanted balance in a certain kind of way. So I was seeking out opportunities, companies like Google used to fascinate me, like who are these people that work for the best company to work for in the world? And I didn’t think, I wasn’t, I thought I was, I can do this. And then I was fortunate at some point that Google was recruiting in the market. And it was quite interesting because basically someone put a post on LinkedIn, I sent an email, I said I was interested, and before I knew it I got calls, basically interview scheduled and things like that. So for me, it was kind of like, wow.

Dr. Connie: You just basically thought, I can do this, I want to go where the best people in the world work, I want to work for the best companies in the world and I’m just going to go do it.

Jola: Yeah. So I basically thought, you know what, they are not superhuman. I’m human as well and I can get this opportunity. And it was funny because when I saw the post I was like, it’s Google, like are they really in Nigeria? I wasn’t sure if it was like a spam or something. One of the things that’s also magical about this place, the recruiters were amazing, my recruiters at the time were amazing. They make me feel like a superstar, right? I was not in the country when I got the call, and actually I’m not in the country, so, like I can’t do the interview. Like, don’t worry, we’ll wait for you. The entire process was like, you are definitely a superstar even if you get in or you don’t. More and more, I was falling in love with this place and, more and more, I was falling in love with the mission. Because also something, for me, it’s never about working to get paid. My work has to have meaning to it. So for a company that was building something, that was greater than themselves, I was like completely am with you. Organizing the world’s information, making it universally accessible, who does that? Like, just because. And then you find a way to monetize that. I was blessed and lucky to get the offer to join Google as a business development manager at that time. I worked on a number of products. Google Maps products, our access products, our Cloud products and I’m looking forward to all the impact that we can create.

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Dr. Connie: So tell us a little bit more about you as a leader, how your philosophy show up in your leadership style and approach?

Jola: The job of a leader is to, first of all, set the vision. So tell us where we’re going. And then once you set the vision, you need to find the people and put them in the right places. So put people in the place where they will thrive, put in the place where they will stretch them and will bring the best version of them, right? And then once you’ve done that, is that you go out and you make sure that you have the resources, the funding, the support of every stakeholder to ensure that your team is able to do the work that they’ve been hired to do. I’m very big on letting people know where they’re going and I feel like that’s always one of the biggest failures of leadership, when people don’t have a sense of, why am I following you, why are you the one leading us. I try to be very clear with my team in letting them know, this is where we’re going and this is the reason why. And I always tie that back into what I say about the bigger picture and purpose, right? Sharing my own reason why, building that into vision and being able to sell that to people that basically say, you know what, regardless of anything, I will come with you on this journey because this journey seems to be meaningful.

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Katy Bagniewski: Hey, podcast listeners, welcome to Bold Voices. Our segment with student leaders from the University of Nebraska. I’m Katy Bagniewski, the production specialist of Rural Futures with Dr. Connie. And with me today is Kaitlin VanLoon, a Senior studying Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Welcome, Kaitlin.

Kaitlin VanLoon: Thanks for having me!

Katy Bagniewski: Kaitlin and I actually share an office and work together as RFI communications interns, so I’m super excited to talk to her about that. But first, Kaitlin, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Kaitlin VanLoon: I love social media and working with people and communicating. That’s really all I do really these days, so (chuckles).

Katy Bagniewski: Tell us why you’re so passionate about social media.

Kaitlin VanLoon: I think there’s a lot of different views on what social media is and how it can be harmful and how it can be helpful. And my goal is kinda to share the ways that it can be helpful because it is such a powerful tool in communicating. When posting to social media, we try to start a conversation or share information. I want people to see it as a good tool and not a harmful one. My first internship, I worked a little on social media and I was like, oh, this is kinda fun. It’s like what I do every day for myself but I do it for another company. So, yeah, I just kept going with it and now I’m a RFI doing social media, so.

Katy Bagniewski: So let’s talk about that. What is it been like to work at RFI as a communications intern?

Kaitlin VanLoon: It’s nothing like I thought it would be, in the best way possible. I didn’t really know a lot about what rural was. I’ve just learned that it’s going to become more and more important as time goes on that rural and urban work together because rural really is the backbone of our economy and we don’t even realize we’re really on it right now. So I’ve just really learned about this divide that we have and we need to stitch up so it’s not a divide anymore.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, I think that’s one of the most valuable parts about RFI, is that learning aspect of it especially with what you do: running our rural polls which is basically our term for social media management, but really just being intentional and at the forefront of issues and opportunities in that rural/urban dynamic. So how do you then think that we can use social media communications and really technology to bride that divide while fostering more collaboration between rural and urban?

Kaitlin VanLoon: Yeah, I think that’s definitely something that is such a big focus at the Rural Futures Institute and that’s something that I’ve been boggling in my mind since I started RFI in the fall, like how do we do that? Because with me doing social media, I’m like, how do I actually reach those places? It’s hard to wrap your mind around it sometimes, because how you live could be so different from somebody else. It is kinda scary, I think, going out there and realizing that not everybody lives the same but that open-mindedness is really one of the big first steps and it goes both ways, absolutely.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, Kaitlin, I think that you are really helping us do that here at RFI. And your contributions to our team have been so valuable. So I thank you for all of that, but also for sitting down and talking with me today. I think that you have been a great bold voice for rural and technology and social media and how all of that really intersects, so thank you again. And I’m excited to watch you continue on this path into the future.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I’m going to ask you to put your futurist hat on. How do you see what you’re doing, really in the future, what do you see in the next five to 10 years in your work and in your industry?

Jola: There’s a lot of conversation about the future of jobs and machines taking over jobs and things like that, and they’re always talking, well, I don’t think that people will ever rendered redundant, right? It’s just, for me, means that people need to develop new skills. And the jobs of the future will be significantly different from the jobs that we have now, but there will be jobs.

Dr. Connie: I know too you’re a huge proponent of a workplace that’s supportive of families in life. And recently you were mum of the month in Lagos, so tell us a little bit about that. How did you become mum of the month, but also how do you see this as the future of work, how do you see this all evolving together?

Jola: I mean, that was an honor. So the blog LagosMums reached out to me and basically said, we want to do a profile of you and want you to be our mum of the month. I was like, “oh, really?” I try to be very authentic in terms of how I share even though I also try to be cautious and respectful. And maybe also from like my work in general, my relationships in general, people kind of get a vibe of who I am. I think that being a LagosMum for me or being recognized in that way was a huge one. And I really wanted to showcase something about that, is the fact that there is really no superwoman. t just doesn’t exist. So in my opinion, every superwoman is held by human angels, right? So you have a host of support system that you’ve invested in or that you, that are chosen to invest in you that kinda hold your hands all the way. Number one, you should always recognize who those people are. You should never be kind of apologetic or restrict yourself from actually leveraging those support systems because I believe that all of that is there for a reason. And then lastly, that you always be grateful for it and appreciate the people that hold you up, the people that support you in many ways. So that was one message I wanted to pass across there.

(music transition)

Jola: You need to put some structure around your life and also respect, honor those structures around your life to enable you to be successful. And also to also let people understand that it’s okay to fail, we’re all learning, right? And mommy guilt is a true thing, right? You would feel guilty sometimes. But also feeling guilty doesn’t mean that you should beat yourself down. You should all just keep striving to be better. So for me, it’s also making time for yourself, to refill, to recharge, to make sure that you’re the best version of yourself and that takes discipline.

Dr. Connie: I really love, from the article about this honor is taking care of yourself spiritually, mentally and physically part of that include strategic delegation and surrounding yourself with a team that can do things that frees up your time for other things that you’d rather be doing. Can you tell us a little bit about how you approach strategic delegation?

Jola: Number one, my staff, I try to hire people that I believe have certain qualities that I desire. You have to be patient with people and realize that everyone is not perfect, that’s number one. And so for me when I hire there’s some basic things that I cannot do without and I recognize them and they’re not a list of 10 or a list of 100, they’re just about three things that definitely these are my must haves– everything else I’m able to treat. My three must haves are really important to me and so I keep track of that. And so my staff formed a really big backbone for me in terms of delegation. And I’ll also say something around the fact that when you have good staff, pay them, right? If my employer wasn’t treating me nice, if they’re not paying me right, if they’re not giving me my annual increases and bonuses, I will be grumpy. Pay them for the work they do. So for me, I try to keep my staff happy as possible and I try to also build relationships with them that are beyond work, right? Truly getting into the authentic persons that they are, that they begin to feel like family. So in terms of that I delegate a lot to my staff. My mom, my mom is my rock star, right? I tend to travel quite a bit because of my job even though I try to be home every weekend, when I travel. My mom, for me, is, I completely believe, she brought me up, she trained me and I turned out okay. So I can leave my kids with her, I’m comfortable with that. I’ve heard women say, oh, no, my mom has traditional methods. I’m like, yes, she does have traditional methods. But, I mean I turned out okay. My mom is a big support structure for me. I use her liberally because I’m also like, grandma has duties as well, mommy has duties and grandma too has duties so let’s just leverage her. So, and my sister, my husband, my husband is my rock. I couldn’t have the career that I have without the support of my husband. And I don’t feel guilty about it. When I’m at home, I’m fully present. I do certain things that maybe people consider traditional. When I’m not there, I put structures in place to make sure some things happen. While at the same time when I’m not there, my husband covers for me where I need to and he’s completely supportive even with his own career as well that he’s pursuing. So for me, it’s really around looking around you, understanding your network of the people around you and being able to leverage them and also appreciate them and celebrate them in ways that matter.

(music transition)

Jola: So I leverage technology and I get stuff ordered to my house and things like that. So for me it’s really around how you put the right structures in place to enable you to be successful and to be happy.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I think it’s brilliant to think about how technology has, and agreed, it’s going to change jobs, that’s all going to continue to evolve, I don’t think we exactly know what that’s going to look like. But just like you said about Google earlier, it can also provide these solutions. Because I also notice we have sleep in common, I also value sleep. And so if I can’t get some sleep and get all these other things done, it’s screwed.


Jola: Yes, yes, I need my six hours or more. Otherwise, I’m grumpy.

Dr. Connie: You can be more creative and innovative when you’re rested, when you’re physically active or you’re eating well, when you have that balance at home. Well I think it’s so great to talk to a Google leader about this, because I think sometimes too it’s like, oh my gosh, if you go to work in a place like Google you don’t have a life, like you’re just dedicated to work and you’re coding in all hours of the night and all these hackathons, sort of this image. And to hear you come forth, like I went to work for a company like this because I wanted to work with the best people in one of the world’s best companies and do good for the world while also enjoying my life and my family is just a very powerful message.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: As you mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, I have a special place in my heart for Nigeria, spent extended time there as part of the global Farmer-to-Farmer program. A lot of my time was in rural Nigeria, and I love just to know from you and your perspective how do you see technology sort of enabling rural areas around the world?

Jola: That’s a really interesting question. So, first of all, the basic root of that is really access. By that, I mean technology access, internet access, data access, how do we solve for that in a sustainable way and also make people get on to the internet or to technology and use it to drive their sustenance or use it to drive their growth? I also think that there’s a lot technology can still do in agriculture. There’s a lot of innovation around that. Even when you talk about things like artificial intelligence and how artificial intelligence nowadays is helping families to kind of sort crops. So there’s a lot of innovation around that that can really make the quality yield when it comes to farms a lot better, a lot more efficient. But I think that the first level is access.

Dr. Connie: I remember even in rural Nigeria, at that time I had better cell phone access there than I did in Cook, Nebraska, where my husband grew up. Well, because Nigeria had leapfrogged the technology, and instead of landlines they were using satellites and we were still approaching things from an old model and not an advanced model. And I think it’s wonderful to think about, well, how can we sustainably get it to the next level? Because a lot of what we see too, is this whole rural/urban divide around access and technology adoption use. We know this is important for entrepreneurs in our rural areas, for example. How would you characterize the rural/urban divide but also the rural/urban connection and how technology can help build bridges between both rural and urban?

Jola: Basically, technology just breaks the barriers is my opinion. So I can be in rural Nigeria somewhere in the north and I could be selling my products to somebody in Nebraska, right, with the power of the internet. I don’t need to have that feeling or that need to move to the urban areas and to even more identify the urban areas. And maybe I really just want to live on the farm and I really just want to live around nature and think, I don’t want to live in the city. So technology would give an opportunity to be able to do that and to still make a living and to still, not able to just make a living, but also to thrive and to grow my business or my endeavors.

Dr. Connie: Part of our challenge is how do we bring this world together and use technology as a bridge to do that? Even your examples of agriculture, we know that agriculture in rural is important, not just in rural, but in urban as well but also those urban audiences are important to our rural businesses. The world really comes together in a prolific way around rural and urban.

(music transition)

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

Jola: Try to be the best version of yourself. I always believe that everyone has potential. It’s really a matter of the mind and really a matter of you knowing that in the world you’re running a race, yes, you have benchmarks with other people, but you’re really running a race against yourself, right? At the end of life, would you say, oh, I became as famous as Oprah, or I gave up the entirety of who I am, and lived out the different expressions of my awesomeness, what would matter? And to me, it’s really the latter. And really going out of this world empty knowing that you gave it everything.


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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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?

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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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

(music transition)

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.

(music transition)

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.

(music transition)

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.

(music transition)

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.

(music transition)

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.

(music transition)

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.

(music transition)

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.



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.


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.

(music transition)

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.

(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, 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.

(music transition)

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?


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

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






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

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

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

About Dr. Gallardo


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

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


Some (of many) Publications From Dr. Gallardo


Show Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

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


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

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

(upbeat music)

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

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

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


Season 1

White Paper

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

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





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

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

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

About Dr. Connie


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


Resources Mentioned In This Episode

In order of appearance


Show Notes

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

(Music Transition)

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


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

(Upbeat Music)

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

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

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

(Upbeat Music)

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

Number one.

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

Number two.

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

(Music Transition)

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

(Music Transition)

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

(Raquel Laughs)

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

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

Oh yeah.

How did you learn to crochet?

Well, I just taught myself.

How did you do that?


YouTube? (Mouse Click)

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

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

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

True. (Connie Laughs)

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

No, it kinda gets boring on there sometimes.

Does it?

Yeah, ’cause I have no games.

(Music Transition)

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


Driving what?

A car.

A car? What kinda car do you want?

A bug.

Yeah? What color?


So, what makes you want a blue slug bug?

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

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

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

You also wanted to be a veterinarian.


What are you thinkin’ about that right now?

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

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

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

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


Yeah, where?

At our house.

At our house, right?

In Nebraska.

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

(Music Transition)

What else do you want to experience in your life?

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

What else do you want?

A family.

A house?


Where? Still in Hollywood or New York?

I thought about Arkansas.

Arkansas? What made you think about Arkansas?

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

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


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

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

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

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

What would you prefer, snakes or robots?

Probably in the middle.

Really? What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

No, I just prefer driving myself.

You’d prefer driving yourself? (Engine Turning)

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

Yeah, it’s kinda confusing.

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

Why do you think I know this?

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

Do you think I saw the future?

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

No. (Connie Laughs)

(Music Transition)

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

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

(Upbeat Music)

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

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

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

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

(Upbeat Music)

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

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

(Upbeat Music)

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

(Upbeat Music)

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

(Music Transition)

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

(Upbeat Music)

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


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


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


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


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

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

(Upbeat Music)

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

(Music Transition)

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


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

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




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

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

About Seth


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

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


Show Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, that’s so true.

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

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

How do you get on Facebook with this thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

That really does (laughs).

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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


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

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







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

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

About Andy


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

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

In this pursuit, he has authored five books:


Show Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

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


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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we are right, right back at purpose.

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

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

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

I know, right?

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

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

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


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

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





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

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

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

About John


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


Show Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes that’s part of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Music Transition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

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


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

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





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

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

About Helen

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


Show Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

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

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

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

Why is that, Helen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Music Transition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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






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

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

About Tyler


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

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


Show Notes

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

Thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure, that makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it?

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

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


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

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

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

Yeah, absolutely.

(Music Transition)

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

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

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

It’s a lifetime sentence.

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

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


It’s fantastic.

(Music Transition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Putting in those extra hours.

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

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

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

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

Thank you.


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

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




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

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

About Tim

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

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


Show Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, what kind of music?

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

That’s awesome! I didn’t know that.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, agreed.

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

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

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


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

A lot of overlap.

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


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

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

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

That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Yeah. And I’ve talked to, I mean this, the idea of who do you get as stakeholders? I’ve had many, many conversations with students here about not having preconceived notions about who should the stakeholders be in the room? That some of the really interesting things come when you get unconventional partners, that you know, in agriculture back decades ago when I was doing a lot of sustainable agriculture work, we didn’t draw lines between, like, we have a group that runs small, organic farms, and then we’re gonna talk to them about these things, but we’re gonna talk