Prairie Roots run deep: new virtual conference grows connections in the entrepreneurial ecosystem

Last Friday marked the first-ever Prairie Roots Spring Show, a virtual event showcasing a variety of companies, creative projects and causes in that have survived—and in some cases, thrived—in the Midwest despite a tumultuous year. Created and curated by Scott Henderson, managing director of Lincoln-based NMotion Accelerator Studio for gener8tor, Prairie Roots gathered 100 business,…

Photo courtesy of Prairie Roots
Photo courtesy of Prairie Roots

Last Friday marked the first-ever Prairie Roots Spring Show, a virtual event showcasing a variety of companies, creative projects and causes in that have survived—and in some cases, thrived—in the Midwest despite a tumultuous year.

Created and curated by Scott Henderson, managing director of Lincoln-based NMotion Accelerator Studio for gener8tor, Prairie Roots gathered 100 business, creative and thought leaders for the two-hour conference, which was billed as an effort to spark new collaborations and connections between “this amazing collection of people creating the future in Nebraska.” 

Henderson said the premise of Prairie Roots was to celebrate the resilience of the entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems of the Midwest, which Henderson described as “ready to bloom” just like the hardy native grasses of the prairie survive harsh winters.

“This is your sneak peek to what’s going to be blooming here on the prairie,” he said.  

Native Nebraskan Henderson, who moved away from the state 20 years ago, returned six months ago to direct NMotion, a gener8tor program that helps founders launch new companies and grow existing ones.

“Everywhere I’ve been, it’s always about finding great talent and then celebrating them, and that’s what matters,” he said. “There’s great talent already living here in Nebraska, and today we’re here to celebrate them and see how we can support and collaborate with them.”

Throughout the event, 20 curated exhibitors showcased their businesses, creative projects and community advocacy efforts over the past year. 

One particular showcase, for example, featured the creators of a new community hub based in North Omaha called Culxr House (pronounced “Culture House”), which offers artists and creatives a safe space to grow their talent and obtain access to resources necessary to turn their art into economic opportunities that have historically been denied to Black creators and founders. Founders Marcey Yates and Ja Keen Fox took guests on a tour of the facilitywhich featured a music studio and record librarywhile explaining the work Culxr House has done over the past year.

A highlight of the conference was a keynote address from Robert Blackwell Jr., CEO of EKI Digital and Alpha Mission: Omaha. In an address titled “Love Is a Verb,” Blackwell Jr. focused on the need to remove barriers to entrepreneurship for Black and Brown communities through collaboration. 

From Blackwell Jr.’s perspective, one of the key ways historically marginalized groups can move from poverty to prosperity is through economic activity and entrepreneurship.

“We need fewer saviors and more business partners,” Blackwell Jr. said. 

Running parallel to the showcases, Prairie Roots’ State of the Arts Salon offered a look at the central role the arts play in helping create the future; a pitch competition allowed members of NMotion’s Accelerator Studio to make their case directly to an audience of potential investors; and a live recording of the Nebraska Made podcast gave attendees a look into how organizations have adapted to the pandemic, including Omaha’s Do Space, a first-of-its-kind technology library created to tackle the digital divide and digital poverty while promoting digital equity for all patrons. 

In an interview with podcast host JT Martin, Rebecca Stavick, former Do Space executive director and current CEO of Community Information Trust, said, “Pre-COVID, this place was just a moshpit of activity. Kids everywhere, robots flying through the air.”

However, as the pandemic forced Do Space to dramatically adjust its operations, Stavick saw a door open to an idea she’d had for a while: a mobile app called “Hey Librarian” that puts patrons in real-time contact with a librarian and is currently in the development stage. 

The Better Nebraska Panel, organized by the Nebraska Tech Collaborative and moderated by Jona Van Deun, gathered leaders in the local entrepreneur community to discuss issues that will affect Nebraska businesses in the near future. 

One such topic, mentioned by Retail Aware Co-Founder and CEO Keith Fix, was the impact of increased acceptance and adoption of remote work.  

“We’re not competing for jobs across Omaha (any longer),” Fix said. “We’re competing globally.”

Prairie Roots ran on the virtual event platform Gatherly.io, which, by simulating the social aspects of a conference experience, allowed guests to mingle, network and customize their own experience based on their interests. The event was sponsored by Nebraska Tech Collaborative, NMotion, EKI Digital, Nice Healthcare and GrainBridge.

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