To learn how to better support thriving local businesses in rural communities, the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) launched a two-week listening tour in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. It’s the opening phase of ‘Heartland Together,’ a partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (EMKF) to generate leadership for rural entrepreneurship in these four Midwestern states. KLC’s Damon Young, Lucy Petroucheva and Chris Green toured the state of Iowa. After many conversations and miles, Damon sat down to reflect on the experience.
Mainly the Same on the Plains? Kinship and Difference
As the sun rose in Wichita on a typical morning late in March, we left the Kansas Leadership Center for a week-long listening tour in the neighboring state of Iowa. By typical, I mean the day’s weather disagrees with the calendar on what season it is. In both Kansas and Iowa, just when you think spring has come, winter’s wind slaps you in the face. But Kansans and Iowans are alike in this: it takes more than a brisk, changing wind across the prairie to discourage us.
As my colleagues Lucy and Chris discussed the roads and terrain along the way, we observed that Kansas and Iowa share other things in common. The towns on our list—Belmond (2,500), Iowa Falls (5,100), Marshalltown (27,000), and Knoxville (7,500)—have characteristics similar to our own cities in Kansas. Along with one or two other core industries, many of our towns were founded on agriculture, and we grow generally the same crops—corn, wheat and soy beans—albeit in different quantities. And in many cases, those industries have shifted, leaving a void in tax base, philanthropic investment and jobs. The derelict skeleton of a once thriving building remind us of the changing complexities of economic development in the Heartland.
As we made our way deeper into Iowa, we noted differences as well. One of the most glaring was the lack of center pivot irrigation and other watering devices on large fields. I asked at one of our stops about this and a resident replied, “Yeah, our climate is a little cooler than Kansas and we don’t have the same aquifer problems that you do.” I found it fascinating that he knew about one of our biggest concerns in Kansas.
Listening to Iowa
Our purpose on this tour was to listen and learn more about the entrepreneurial ecosystems across Iowa. What support could these communities use to start and grow new businesses that will drive industry, support sustainable population and help the Heartland’s economies, communities, and families thrive in the 21st century?
We were amazed by the hospitality we received and the eagerness and earnestness with which our new friends communicated the concerns and aspirations they hold for their communities. Listening is an honor, and we were curious about what makes it difficult to start and grow businesses and leverage connections. What have they tried? What has worked? What hasn’t? And perhaps most importantly, what’s next and how can we think and act differently?
What has worked? What hasn’t? And perhaps most importantly, what’s next and how can we think and act differently?
Chief Business Officer, Kansas Leadership Center
The first thing that was clear in all four communities was that the participants who showed up are operating out of limited margin. I don’t mean financial margin (although I’m sure that is true in many cases); I mean capacity. These amazing folks were taking time away from families, non-profit service, jobs—in many cases second jobs or startups—and more. This lack of margin fuels a hunger for more people to join their ranks. Most express this through hospitality and honor to celebrate the others in attendance, but there was a rising theme that they need others.
Engaging new voices
This capacity issue begged the question: Where will these others come from? And this brings me to a second theme, namely, that these ‘other voices’—what we at KLC would call the ‘new voices’ who must be engaged—are elusive. In some cases, it is ethnic diversity in emerging businesses and communities that is not yet integrated into the broader economic and community development eco-systems. In other cases, it is generational, with aspirations for younger entrepreneurs and ‘boomerangs’ coming back who had moved away. There also seemed to be a collision of generational ambitions between those who have stewarded businesses for years, who will retire and need to transition their business to new local owners, and the emerging generations who will sustain, re-invent, and grow those businesses. The ambition from both stakeholders was evident but the bridge between them remains to be built.
The last theme that was elevated was the consistent feedback from many participants that a ‘mindset shift’ was needed. Often when we speak of mindset shift, what we really mean is that others should think more like us. Yet with these communities, I sensed a deeper longing. They want to think differently themselves. In this way, they seemed wise, knowing that thinking differently will lead to acting differently. And beyond their wisdom, they seemed passionate to collaborate with other communities on the tour and to make progress together.
An ancient proverb says, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
These listening tours are a demonstration of this proverbial beauty. People came together to listen, exchange, learn and dream about what leadership looks like to build, grow, and sustain flourishing Heartland communities in the 21st century. While some from outside the Heartland may not see that beauty, to us it was as radiant as the vast, open sky we share.
We recently shared reflections from the Heartland Together Listening Tour in Nebraska, Missouri and Cowley County, Kansas. Over the coming weeks, we’ll share a blog reflecting on our Spanish listening sessions. To learn more about the listening tour and the Heartland Together partnership with the Kauffman Foundation, visit our announcement.