Prairie Portraits: Emiliano Lerda
The Prairie Portraits series features founders, funders and community builders from Nebraska's innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Meet Elevator Co-founder Emiliano Lerda
How would you describe the startup culture in Nebraska?
I think it’s filled with promise. And there is a lot of potential. There’s a lot of upside potential from the entrepreneurs themselves. There’s a lot of ideas. You see a lot of people starting businesses that solve real problems in tech, agriculture and other areas. There’s also a lot of promise from the investors’ perspective, where you have people and institutions who understand the powerful economic development tool that investing in startups can be for the state.
How do you balance taking risks and making calculated decisions in pursuit of innovation?
I would summarize it as disciplined passion. That is my personal mantra. I am passionate and like to dream big. That’s why I immigrated from my home country of Argentina to the United States. That’s why myself and Shannon, my wife and partner, started several businesses over the years. And that is why I was executive director of a nonprofit for almost nine years and significantly grew the impact of that nonprofit in the community. I believe in being ultimately successful, even in the pursuit of a very large vision. But that passion, and that dreaming has to be married to discipline. Discipline comes in the form of data, in the form of policies and operational structure. It is how we make decisions and behave within the business internally and also externally in the pursuit of our goals.
It’s easier said than done, but it’s making those tough decisions short term in exchange for a long-term benefit. I personally believe very deeply in that. My thinking is rooted in the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and what he describes as the Stockdale paradox. Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war for over seven years during the Vietnam war. He was always 100% committed to being successful – he never wavered in his faith that he was going to prevail in the end. But he still paid attention to the brutal facts around him at the same time.
How do you define success and what metrics do you pay the most attention to?
When I think of success, I think of how many different definitions of success exist. And all the different people that I have met in life who are truly happy and seem to be living life to the fullest based on their passions and their sense of purpose. Some with very few material things and others with a lot of material things — it doesn’t matter. Some people love waking up and going to work every day. And personally, what that has taught me is to think of the end first, and then work backwards when it comes to defining happiness and success. I think of dying.
I think death levels the playing field and it’s just something that we all have to wrestle with. We are all going to die. I want to live a life that I am proud of. I will look at how much I have left behind in terms of community impact, and how much I have helped those around me.
You know, my parents taught me this a long time ago. My parents told me to leave the campground better than you found it. It was very practical at the moment. But it’s very meaningful if you apply it at a macro level.
What are the top one or two challenges / opportunities Nebraska startups face?
The top challenge Nebraska startups face is access to capital. Access to capital is significant. And because there’s less access to capital, that little access to capital that we find here seems to be, in a general sense, more conservative. And that’s OK. Being conservative in making business decisions is not inherently bad. But it does provide this gravity toward taking less risks when you’re innovating — or when you’re trying new models — whatever it is that you’re doing in your business.
There is a certain level of risk taking that you have to embrace to innovate and to break through the norms and conventional thinking. To do that, you need to know that your investors are going to fully embrace and be OK with taking risks and sometimes losing, so that you can win big time when you win.
What is one emerging industry or technology that you believe will have a significant impact on the Nebraska startup ecosystem in the next few years?
I think there’s more than one industry or technology that’s going to impact our lives. I’ll just name a few areas. First, the area I currently work in and I know well, which is real estate. I think that how we think and how we use real estate, both from an office, retail and residential perspective is going to continue to evolve because people are living, working and shopping differently than they used to. It behooves us to think creatively about real estate — how we use it and how we experience it.
Second, I think that there is a lot of agricultural technology — groundbreaking work that is being done in Nebraska and Iowa. And I think there’s a lot of exciting things that are going to impact the world that are going to come out of the Midwest, particularly when it comes to ag-tech.
And third, there is a lot of tech innovation going on in Nebraska, and rightfully so. We have a group of pioneers that started Silicon Prairie News, and they established Nebraska as a go-to place for startups that are looking to innovate in technology. And for people that are looking for investment opportunities.
We’ll share event highlights, founder profiles and feature stories digging into all things related to Nebraska startups and small businesses. Delivered on Wednesdays.