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Midwestern Humility is Great, Unless You’re Growing a Startup (or a Startup Ecosystem)

Humility is a fundamental value in the Midwest. In fact, it may be the fundamental value, followed very closely by niceness. An emphasis on humility and niceness is a relatively new thing for me since I didn’t grow up in the Midwest.

I spent most of my adult life living in Phoenix, and I moved to the St. Louis area after a short stay in Florida. It’s not that people in Arizona and Florida aren’t humble or nice, it’s just that being thought of as humble and nice isn’t as important.

That’s an important distinction. My impression of the Midwest after five years of living here is that the cultural values of this part of the country dictate that people both be humble and be thought of as humble.

Wanting to be thought of as humble is not the worst thing in the world. Far from it. The Midwestern sense of community the region is famous for stems from an emphasis on humility and niceness. Because of that sense of community, my wife and I immediately felt at home when we moved to St. Charles, Missouri. We can’t imagine calling anywhere else home—especially now that we are both deeply involved in the St. Louis regional startup community.

But it’s through our involvement in the startup community that I see how Midwestern humility may be a barrier for both individual entrepreneurs and the startup ecosystems being built in cities and communities across the Silicon Prairie.

Over the last few years, I’ve met several extremely successful entrepreneurs in the Midwest who aren’t comfortable telling the world—or even just the community they live in—about the amazing work they’re doing. They just aren’t comfortable bragging. I see the same dynamic at the civic level. In the national media narrative, the cities of the Midwest range from bland to down-on-their-luck Rust Belt stereotypes.

The reality is far different.

The communities of this region are also a lot more than big towns in the middle of cornfields and/or Rust Belt nightmares. Kansas City is one of the coolest cities in the country. There is a reason why Warren Buffet never left Omaha. The place I call home—St. Charles County, Missouri—has several communities ranked as some of the best and safest places to live in the whole country.

Population dispersion alone makes it so there will always be more high-potential startups on the coast, but that doesn’t mean the startups in the middle of America are inherently inferior. In fact, the Silicon Prairie has strategic advantages in specific industries like high-speed transportation and agriculture.

In other words, as anyone who lives here knows, the national media’s take on the Midwest is often biased, simplistic, and wrong. However, if we want talented entrepreneurs and thriving startup scenes to define our regional brand, we have to leave a little of the Midwestern humility behind. That’s how brand definition works in 2017. If you’re the best at something—or even really good at it—you have to tell the world.

Of course, in defining our brand we shouldn’t make things up. We shouldn’t say entrepreneurs in the Midwest have just as much access to venture capital as they would anywhere else. However, we can say that the entrepreneurs here can afford to take a risk because of a low cost of living and that there is a growing amount of venture capital flowing into the region.

And we need to say that as many times as we can, as loudly as we can.

Midwestern startups also need to be more aggressive about tooting their horn. As a writer for multiple national publications, I receive pitches for articles from startups on the coast on an almost daily basis, yet I must actively seek out Midwestern entrepreneurs for my articles—in part because founders from the Silicon Prairie can be uncomfortable with the spotlight. That lack of coverage leaves the impression that all the startup talent in America lives an hour from an ocean.

Those of us who call the Midwest home know that’s not true.

To change that narrative, though, we have to change the way we approach telling our story—starting with leaving a little of our humility behind.

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Dustin McKissen is a consultant based in St. Charles, Missouri. He’s a two-time LinkedIn Top Voice and a columnist for Inc. and CNBC. 

  • Hear! Hear! Great words, Dustin. Thanks for sharing.

    We’ve been challenged with our “Kansas City Nice” attitude for quite sometime. On one hand, it’s great. On the other, it is likely holding us back. But overall, good things are happening in our city and across the Silicon Prairie … and the rest of the nation is taking more and more notice.

    This is yet another reason for Amazon to seriously consider middle America as the location for their HQ2. So many great things happening across the prairie.

    Raise the volume while we raise the roof. Let’s do this!

  • Vickie Keiser

    I like Midwestern humility when that translates into avoiding “hype”. I do think some people here don’t see the many benefits of living here and downplay their successes and abilities. I grew up in NJ in a town where close to 100% of high school graduates went to college. In rural communities that is not often the case. HOWEVER, that does not mean the people are less intelligent or capable. In fact, there are opportunities here that don’t exist elsewhere and people with the skills to take advantage of them. I am a big fan of grass-fed organic beef and in this part of the country I can find a farmer who raises it and sells it directly to me. Wow. That is impressive.