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Omaha entrepreneur Willy Theisen helps guide next generation of business builders

Todd Johnson, Emily Massel, Willy Theisen, Brian Lee and Jim Collison at The Nebraska Builder Initiative’s launch event.

In the early 1970s, a young man named Willy Theisen was driving cross country to California when his car broke down on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River. He was assisted by a stranger and decided to move in with his family temporarily until he could save enough to fix the car. What happened from there is now a part of Omaha’s history.

“I don’t know if it could have happened anywhere else,” said Theisen. “I don’t know if it could have happened if I’d broken down in Denver.”

Theisen went on to open Godfather’s pizza in 1973 and by 1985, Godfather’s was the nation’s third largest pizza chain. Over the decades, the company has created over 534,000 jobs, making Theisen one of Omaha’s most successful entrepreneurs and something of a local legend.

Recently, Theisen teamed up with The Nebraska Builder Initiative to help launch their first cohort to the public. The initiative allows students to learn more about their own entrepreneurial abilities and how they can create economic energy and social impact where none previously existed. This skill set is referred to as their “Builder Talent.”

Theisen said he took the strengths test (which helps identify specific areas of Builder Talent) meant for high school aged students at age 69.

He was surprised by the results.

“It was exactly like me, it was like looking in a mirror,” said Theisen. “I was a few years late taking it but it’s important to establishing those strengths.”

Silicon Prairie News was at the launch event and Brian Lee had a chance to catch up with Theisen to talk about his experience with The Nebraska Builder Initiative and the future of entrepreneurship in Omaha.

BL: What is your impressions of this program and the cohort and how you think it will impact Omaha in general?

WT: The group was 11 of 700 that applied [to the program] so this was really the cream of the crop. These are people that excel and finish things. They’re successful, they’re organized. I’m inspired by them.

This testing tells who you are, what you are, what your strengths are and how to focus on 2 or 3 of the top ones. I waited 69 years to take it but what if I would have had something like this at 15, 16, 17 years old like this cohort? My goal, in conjunction with Gallup, is to have this test to be available to 80,000 students in the state of Nebraska. Let’s do it here to begin with and start a movement. Let’s identify the people who have these strengths to be not only starters, but finishers, because that’s exactly what builders do.

BL: You’ve been an entrepreneur in Omaha for a long time, how have you seen the resources for entrepreneurs change over the years?

WT: It was tougher to be accepted back then. A lot of people looked at your ideas as risky. When I got my first loan through the small business administration, I put my hand out and I got what was called a ‘character loan.’ They didn’t have to go through a loan committee, they didn’t have regulators. The man who gave me the loan, Mr. Joe Sullivan, put his hand out and he shook my hand and he held it. I was sweating bullets. I was indebted to him. He made me the loan and I wasn’t going to let him down.

45 years later, investors are more open to entrepreneurs. There are partnerships and there are places like Gallup that nurture these things. Mentoring is also very important. With a mentor, you learn so much from the people who have done it. Omaha is without a doubt the most sharing, generous, charitable city that I’ve ever been involved with. I’ve had numerous chances to leave but it’s like no other city here. There’s something special going on, you can feel it.

BL: We cover a lot of tech startups in the region (which is somewhat of a recent phenomenon), what do you think about the new movement of more tech startups and more tech businesses in the Midwest?

WT: I’m not a dinosaur, I’ve got an iPad that I learned how to use from my granddaughter. I think it’s very important. You’ve got to have tech. I learned how to type when I was in the sixth grade and that was as tech as it got back then. There wasn’t the internet, there weren’t cell phones, but it’s understood now that that’s how you’re going to go forward. You can’t not have an IT background and compete with everybody. You just can’t. We know that. I acknowledge it at my age but if you’re [young], you’ve got to be savvy. Omaha understands that and they nurture it. We talk about Silicon Valley but it can happen here.