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QA with Kauffman’s Victor Hwang on entrepreneurship in the heartland


Victor Hwang, Jeff Slobotski and Phil Whickman at the KANEKO in downtown Omaha. Photo courtesy of the Kauffman Foundation.

Earlier this month Victor Hwang, Vice President of Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, and Phil Wickham, Executive Chairman of Kauffman Fellows, set out on a road trip to take the pulse of entrepreneurship in America’s “middle.” Starting in Kansas City, the pair traveled to Omaha, Neb.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Columbus Junction, Iowa; Peoria. Ill., St. Louis, Mo. and back again. SPN caught up with Hwang last Monday to see how the trip has changed his views on entrepreneurship across the region.

SPN: Why did you decide to take this road trip across the region?

VH: When you’re in a foundation there’s a risk of being detached from what’s going on in the field–what real entrepreneurs are doing, what real people are building.

I’ve been in the foundation role for a little over eight months now, so what I wanted to do was to reconnect with the real practice and get a feel for what’s going on out there. That was the first thing.

Two, we’ve had this sense that there’s been a rebirth of the heartland that’s under way. We wanted to get a first hand look at that, and to chronicle that, to understand it so that we can support it.

SPN: Kauffman does a lot research on entrepreneurship. Did you see anything on your trip that either confirmed or challenged the research you’ve done?

VH: The most simple observation is that this resurgence of entrepreneurship in the heartland is true. It is happening. It’s got tremendous potential to ignite the economy in the middle of the country. That was great to get that confirmation. The coming years are going to be a very exciting time for the Midwest.

The second observation is that–especially in a political climate that’s not been very good at providing solutions–to see people building solutions and making their communities better was so refreshing.

If you listen to the broader dialogue, you would think America is falling apart. But when you get down to the ground level you see people are rolling up their sleeves, getting back to work and solving problems.

SPN: Looking at the communities side by side, were there any common challenges that kept coming up?

VH: One that kept coming up was access. So much of the great entrepreneurial tech boom has been on the coasts. If companies in the Midwest want access to that it takes extra effort. There’s also common themes around capital and access to capital in the region. The building of capital is going to be a great challenge and a great opportunity.

SPN: What would say are some stereotypes of the region that were challenged?

VH: Honestly, I think for people outside the region it’s a blank slate. I don’t think they know what’s happening in the middle of the country. I think people on the coasts don’t think too much about it. It’s not in the national narrative. I think it should be. The national narrative was originally written in the middle of the country.

You go back 150 years and this was the narrative of America. I think that as this new wave of entrepreneurship begins to build there’s a real case to made that the American spirit is alive and kicking.

SPN: Now having the “big picture,” what would you go back and tell everyone that you talked to?

VH: The spirit of the Midwest is powerful. I was a child of the Midwest when I was young, and there’s a special quality to it. It’s radically horizontal. People don’t have a lot of pretense. Anyone in the community can talk to anyone else. And if anyone in the community needs help, they are willing to help out.

I think that civic mindedness, that willingness to pitch in, that willingness to take risks and help others reach their ambitions is uniquely American and special. That culture is still there in the Midwest. It’s exciting to see that starting to make change happen.

For more videos from Hwang and Wickham’s trip visit the EshipCITY On the Road website.

Ryan Pendell is the Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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