An innovative thinker, promoting the entrepreneurial spirit in Greater Peoria
Startup Peoria exists to develop, encourage and promote the entrepreneurial startup community in central Illinois, and over the past year, we have worked to enable entrepreneurs in the region. Some of the highlights include bringing Startup Weekend to Peoria, creating a Summer Kids Code Club in partnership with ICC, and launching a STEM camp for girls in collaboration with Bradley University and the University of Illinois Extension. We also launched an event called 1 Million Cups that introduces a local entrepreneur and his or her endeavor each week.
Through the Focus Forward CI initiative, I served on the Leadership Institute Action Team, designing a program for leadership training in our region. But our largest contribution to the Peoria area has been the establishment of The Nest, a coworking space for entrepreneurs and freelancers, and Project | Rocket Science, a “launch lab” where new ideas can be tested and new thinking in design, development and business can be learned.
Our best days are seen in the accomplishments of others, whether that is an entrepreneur who received funding for an idea and starts a new business, or an intrapreneur, who brings ideas to life within long-standing businesses.
Tell us about your educational background and career path.
I graduated from Canton High School and benefited by taking my general education credits at Illinois Central College. I pursued a design degree because I saw the ability to visually communicate messages as a powerful medium to reach audiences. I feel it was one of my better decisions, and I’ve used my degree consistently across every position I’ve held.
In the early 2000s, I worked for Employers’ Association (now AAIM), focusing heavily on human resources within member organizations throughout the state. During this time, the Young Professionals Organization of Greater Peoria was formed and became part of the central Illinois landscape. At a time when we were losing talent to better opportunities in other regions, YPGP was effective in creating community among the fragmented.
In 2009, as we were experiencing the flight of the creative class firsthand, a group of friends and I started ci|creative, a movement to provide resources, communication, connection and education to the creatives in central Illinois. We helped designers and developers brand themselves, as well as market and sell their creations both in person and online. We held “idea nights” where individuals could come and share new thinking, and TED talks to connect us globally. We partnered with ArtsPartners to lead the region in “SHIFT”ing toward collaborations to build prosperity.
Seeing the speed at which the world was changing and feeling I needed more knowledge, I decided to pursue my bachelor’s degree in 2010. I chose to attend school online and completed a BA in business, with emphasis on organizational innovation. I chose this degree because I saw the ability to pivot and shift with change as one of the most valuable skillsets a business leader would need in the coming decades.
Working in technology, I witnessed how business and the world of work were transforming. I read about startup cultures and found them fascinating. I could see how these shifts would change the way we do business in the coming years and how little we were stepping up to this vision as a region to meet that shift. That is where the roots of Project | Rocket Science came from: melding technology with the emerging business thinking of startups.
Tell us briefly about growing up and the influence of your family.
I was raised in an environment that was a lot like Little House on the Prairie meets Star Trek. My parents made sure we had every new technology as soon as possible, regardless of the fact that the rest of our life was well-water, pastures and country roads. It was part of my dad’s work and play, and he never tired of the questions my sisters and I would present. I have a great deal of respect for the patience and love my parents showed us.
One of the greatest gifts my parents instilled in me was a strong dedication to citizenship and leadership through membership in 4-H. Pledging my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living motivated me to always be active in making our community a great place to be.
Describe some of your major accomplishments in recent years.
Over the past year, Jake Hamann and I, along with a colorful crew of entrepreneurial minds, founded Startup Peoria. Our drive is to strengthen community resources that help entrepreneurs by building missing pieces and reinforcing those that currently exist. Over the past year, we laid our cornerstone mission and received some seed funding to get us started.
We opened the doors on The Nest, a coworking space for people with ideas and a desire to succeed, and began hosting classes for designers, developers, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Project | Rocket Science focuses on turning “wantrepreneurs” into entrepreneurs by hosting learning experiences in design, development and business. It’s a place for intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs to begin experimenting and realize their potential.
From Peoria’s Warehouse District to small towns like Farmington, it has been inspiring to see so many areas work to transform themselves into strong choices for 21st-century living. More and more, Greater Peoria is becoming a vibrant region and attracting millennials to call it home. Our initiatives are attracting the attention of people who have moved away, calling them to return and become part of the renewed vibrancy of our region. To this end, I have been honored to be a part of The Whiskey City Collaborative, driven by Erik Reader and many other talented writers, which shines a spotlight on the features of our region that are attractive to young professionals.
What is your leadership philosophy?
My leadership philosophy is the understanding that every moment spent in life is leadership, and those who are able to dedicate their time and resources to their interests are the lucky ones. However, in today’s world, the strongest revolutions are the ones being led “leaderlessly.” These movements are being led by everyday people who live their lives dedicated to their vision of the future. Individuals can connect with their causes online, follow thought leaders on Twitter, read and write blogs, sign petitions, and participate in discussion groups. They are able to make a difference through their choices in how they live their lives, spend their time, and vote with their dollars. These seemingly small choices add up to effective, deep-rooted change. An added benefit of consistent dedication to a cause is that it can inspire others and lead to widespread change.
What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
In 2012, I chose to leave Heart Technologies, one of the great companies in central Illinois, to dedicate myself to my goals around our community and startup culture. For years, I had been working in my off-hours to build something within the creative community. I wanted to help build our region as one of the best places for young professionals to live and work. It was a monumental shift from working for someone else to working for one’s own goals. I was lucky to connect with Jake Hamann when he came to ci|creative to talk about a new idea he was working on. He had just founded OneFire, and I joined the team as director of learning. It turned out that he shared the goals I had laid out for myself, and we began laying the groundwork for Startup Peoria.
Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career?
I met Cathy Worlow, my first mentor, when she was the HR director at Ruppman Marketing, where I worked in the late ‘80s. For years afterward, she gave me solid insight into how I could overcome my challenges and uncover my path. David Walty was a great mentor, both during and since my time at Heart Technologies. He encouraged me to pursue my creativity, challenged me to stand beyond my perceived limitations, and inspired me to be courageous. When I met Linda Bolliger, a visionary, national thought leader and activist, I was immediately drawn to her. Her passion is effervescent and inspiring as she champions good corporate citizenship and empowering minorities and women to their potential.
What is the toughest life lesson you have had to learn?
To accept myself, and to be dedicated in that acceptance. I hate being right at the cost of someone else being wrong and will build all sorts of mechanisms to disbelieve in myself. I now see that one of my gifts is the ability to connect the future dots in such a way that I can foresee developments and opportunities. It’s easy to accept the status quo, but to invest in your own vision and see it through to fruition is downright frightening. I had to learn to trust my knowledge and foresight above the din of “that is never going to happen” and be patient in working toward its arrival. I have had to learn and respect my own potential. iBi