From what started in 2012 as a blog, the entrepreneurial ecosystem advocate that is Emerging Prairie has made huge strides in a short time. To learn more about the journey of one of our area’s most impactful organizations, we sat down with Emerging Prairie Co-founder, Greg Tehven.
Why was Emerging Prairie originally started?
The first inklings of Emerging Prairie can be traced to 2012, when Jake Joraanstad, Miguel Danielson, Andy Christianson, and I were discussing the momentum of entrepreneurial ecosystems in the Twin Cities, Omaha, and throughout the UpperMidwest — fondly called the “Silicon Prairie”. We realized that there weren’t any organizations committed to telling the stories of local entrepreneurs that were part of this movement. We wanted to create an online content blog to help tell those stories and keep up the momentum.
The challenge was, none of us were journalists by training. Our original content work resulted in a total of five articles written by the four of us combined. All of us were working on Emerging Prairie on the side; at the time, I was a Fellow at the Kilbourne Group and we had just finished organizing the first TEDx event in North Dakota. However, in the fall of 2012, I started putting more time into Emerging Prairie. As we developed the organization, we continued to develop our original idea of the online blog — but ultimately realized our strength was in launching events that bring entrepreneurs together.
From the beginning, our “why” behind Emerging Prairie has been to connect and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem. This was our mission then, and it is today — but what that looks like is constantly evolving and adapting to the needs of our community. In the early days, we started building momentum by creating world-class local experiences for national movements — such as TEDxFargo, 1 Million Cups, and Startup Weekend. We also started creating other ways for local entrepreneurs to meet and build community, such as our monthly Startup Drinks event.
In 2015, following our “why” meant opening up a co-working space — a truly unanticipated (but fun) addition to the Emerging Prairie organization. As our startup community continued to grow, we saw a need for a space where local startup founders, independent workers, and engaged community members could meet up and work. A coworking space run by CoCo opened up in Fargo, but it didn’t quite catch. So, a year later, Emerging Prairie decided to continue the co-work space concept and opened up the Prairie Den.
Over the years, our vision of the relentless pursuit of improving the human condition guided us to new, original events focused on specific industries and communities — Founder’s Retreat, Drone Focus, Cultivate, and Cart Summit. Today, Emerging Prairie continues to brainstorm meaningful ways to bring our community together and build our entrepreneurial ecosystem — whatever that looks like. Most recently, it’s led to starting Emerging Digital Academy and launching the Grand Farm initiative — something Miguel, Jake, Andy, and I could have never imagined when sitting around talking about launching a blog all those years ago.
Yet while our work may look different, our core mission and vision have remained the same: to connect and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem, with an ultimate vision of improving the human condition. Watching our community, both local and beyond, rise to support us in that mission over the past 8 years has been an incredible journey. We are constantly filled with gratitude for the countless folks that contribute time, talents, and treasure to support our work.
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When did Emerging Prairie start branching out from the event space?
In March of 2018, Barry Batcheller, Founder of Appareo, spoke at 1 Million Cups Fargo and asked, “What is Fargo’s major? What are we inherently good at that we can contribute to humanity?”
I was inspired and challenged by his questions and followed up with him to work on the answers. The conversations lead to a moonshot concept called the “Grand Farm Initiative”. Could we create the world’s first 100% autonomous farm? We wanted to consider this possibility. We started by focusing on:
- A robust ecosystem for agriculture technology
- An innovation platform to connect startups, academia, and corporations
- A physical test site for research, demonstrations, and connectivity
- Upskilling the workforce through accelerated learning opportunities
- Engaging with policymakers to support innovation
As that idea came into focus, Barry introduced the concept in July of 2018 at TEDxFargo. Shortly thereafter, Kevin and Stacy Biffert gifted 40 acres of land for the beginning of a test site. In March 2020, Plug and Play North Dakota was launched and Emerging Digital Academy enrolled 13 learners in April as part of North Dakota’s first accelerated learning program for software. In May, 20 projects on the Grand Farm Test site are active with academic leaders, corporations, and early-stage companies.
The organization has changed a lot in its short time. Do you see changes with the structure coming down the line?
Well, certainly every organization needs to evolve. The three-division structure is the current thinking that works well for us. In addition, we’re upgrading the Prairie Den and moving it to the Black Building, which allows us to design the space for the future.
Part of the history of Emerging Prairie has been building a connection between the local and the traveler. I think part of the magic of Emerging Prairie has been the intersection that happens when someone from out of town comes here — we help them build relationships and they help provide opportunities for people in our community. We continue to think that’s a priority, as well as the intersection between entrepreneurs, technologists, and innovators. We think these intersections will continue to provide opportunities for both our community and the country as a whole.
“James Burgum sat me down one day and said, ‘Think of Fargo as a whiteboard with a lot of open space. Each of us has an opportunity to help create the future of this state and this region.’ I was really inspired by that.Greg Tehven
Emerging Prairie has been well known for the Prairie Den, a co-working space that has 92 active members. However, they’re about to move into a much bigger space at the historic Black Building in downtown Fargo.
You talked about how the new location of the Prairie Den should give you increased access. Can you tell me what you mean by that a little bit?
Emerging Prairie is inspired by the Black Building; its history, its design, and the tenants that are there. Pre-COVID, we were really busy at the Prairie Den and we needed more space to include the Emerging Digital Academy. We’re very thankful to work with the Kilbourne Group and the Fargo-Moorhead Area Foundation, and together we created a financing package that is allowing us to improve the space and serve more community needs.
It’s going to be really good for us for a couple of reasons; we’re going to have a dedicated space for Emerging Digital Academy, and we’re going to have increased room for event space, conference rooms, and gatherings. We’re also going to be in a building that already has Bobcat’s innovation team, as well as early-stage companies that are going into the fifth floor, with a food hall on the main level. The building connects to the skyway, which connects to Block 9 — home of the new RDO headquarters, a world-class hotel, and a plaza that’s going to bring people together. So, for us, it makes sense to move to meet the needs of our evolving community, and help attract companies to do business in downtown Fargo.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with Emerging Prairie early on?
Early on, it was funding. Money is always a challenge. For a long time, I was operating out of scarcity. When you’re living in fear — questioning if you’re going to make payroll, or if you’re going to exist — it doesn’t always bring out the best in a person. I think I was taking on a lot of stress and pressure and that impacted a lot of my personal and professional relationships.
Another challenge was the team. Emerging Prairie has always been fortunate that we can attract high-quality teammates. However, having teammates that have to adapt and adjust to new environments and move quickly causes a level of fatigue. I think one of the things that I struggle with is that our staff hasn’t always been treated to the best of my ability. There have been some great people that have left the organization because things didn’t go well for them. That’s challenging for me to think that great folks didn’t appreciate their time here. I was young and they were young and I think we lacked the maturity to have difficult conversations with each other.
I found additional challenges around culture and technique. In order to get attention nationally with a business or community, I needed to be more aggressive than the generally accepted culture in our region. A lot of my time was spent bringing attention to our community and our startups. The challenge arose when I would use the techniques that worked nationally yet were rarely appreciated locally. In Fargo, most folks refrain from leading with their accomplishments when getting to know someone from a business perspective. We kind of try to get to know each other at face value and then work from there. I learned quickly that I needed to adjust and adapt more quickly to my audience.
How have you learned from some of those things?
I think one of the things about going through hard times is it helps you get better and helps you grow stronger. We’ve been able to work with more resources and more experience on the team. I think my role is as a visionary with a high level of entrepreneurial skill. However, I’m limited in managerial experience. Now, we have folks with more managerial experience that can help navigate a relatively young and small organization.
Goals of Emerging Prairie
Accelerate Entrepreneurs. We believe entrepreneurs need things; access to each other, platforms to share their work, and customers. Our events and activities are designed to increase the likelihood of all three areas coming together.
Educate our Region. By bringing ideas to the region and challenging the status quo, we are moving our community forward. Through events, programming, and using our influence to convene leaders, we are able to move ideas to action and impact.
Infuse the Arts. We create opportunities for the arts and artists to be incorporated into our events and programs. We believe artists are the vital culture creators in a community and culture is a key factor in building community.
Build on our Bright Spots. We are cheerleaders and champions of the people who are doing great things in our community. Working from the idea of “a rising tide lifts all boats,” we celebrate those who are making progress and positively impacting our community. We strive to be the “First Fargo” vs. a replica of somewhere else.
Practice Radical Inclusivity. As the fabric of our community becomes richer, we need to create an environment that welcomes people from a variety of backgrounds, faiths, lifestyles, etc. We firmly believe we have a responsibility to reduce barriers, increase the comfort level of new folks, and actively engage folks in our community.
What still drives you with Emerging Prairie?
I love the people here. I love the values. I think of airline flights; when you get off a flight to Fargo, everyone helps each other get their bags off. That doesn’t necessarily happen in other places. There’s a subtlety about this place that I appreciate. I’m drawn to the values of resilience in the community, and the desire to leave a place better than we found it. I love the possibility. I think it’s the optimism of the entrepreneurial spirit that drives me. We get knocked down, but we’re betting on the next opportunity to contribute and make an impact. I love that we get to support folks with Emerging Prairie and be champions for risk-takers.
What is the goal for 2020?
Going into it, it was: Let’s keep kicking butt in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Let’s put on events that matter. Let’s keep attracting entrepreneurs and creatives from around the country to be part of the community. Let’s bring energy into the core of our community and get people excited.
We were dedicated to a strong launch of Emerging Digital Academy, to greater form around the Grand Farm Test Site, and to launch Plug and Play in North Dakota. As COVID has shifted the world, we are committed to rebuilding our events and programming with blended world-class events that allow for both in-person and digital experiences. We are doubling down on our efforts to gain momentum with Emerging Digital Academy and we are building additional partners to push the Grand Farm efforts forward, faster.
What do those events in the face of COVID-19 look like so far?TEDxFargo in July is going to be a smaller experience outside at the Fargo Air Museum and folks will have the ability to drive-in and stay in their vehicles to watch the speakers. We’ve also got some surprises under our hat to help those people learn, connect, and experience the magic at TEDxFargo while social distancing.
As we look to 1 Million Cups Fargo, Lunch and Learns, our Hackathon, and Founder’s programming, we’ll be experimenting with models that allow for folks to participate in person (safely) and online. We are designing our efforts to build and strengthen community.
Where does Emerging Prairie make the greatest impact?
We have a philosophy of giving our wins away. We try to lead through others, partner with our elected officials, and engage with leaders to create change. I think the biggest impact Emerging Prairie makes is in the things people don’t see. We help make micro-connections. We help entrepreneurs get connected. We challenge ourselves to be better and hope others copy and steal our best practices to improve their work.
I think the greatest impact of Emerging Prairie has been helping people discover and fall in love with our community. We’ve helped elevate the voices of people in our region and have shared some of the magic of this place with others. I’m often most excited about the work of others — the artists that are creating, the vendors that are making, and the folks that are doing what they can, with what they have, to improve the lives of others.
The lifeblood of Emerging Prairie is its events. In 2019, Emerging Prairie:
- Hosted 135 events at various venues across Fargo-Moorhead and North Dakota.
- Had 11,579 people attend those events.
- Spent $382,786 on local goods and services, 53% more than in 2018
Prairie Capital Summit
This summit connects investors, founders, and ecosystem builders to talk about risk capital and angel investing. It gives each network a space to share, learn, and promote business growth in the region.
This is a weekend-long event offered in partnership with AT&T for people across the technology spectrum to engage in collaborative projects, typically centered around building tools to better understand a data set.
Possibility Symposium on Social Business
This symposium is a gathering of community leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs, exploring how social entrepreneurship applies business models and strategies to solve unique social challenges in our community.
Each year, Emerging Prairie has an all-day event filled with speakers, performances, adventures, and smaller events around Fargo. These events showcase the best of innovation, research, and discovery. They work to accelerate our community and social impact through the power of big ideas, transformative live events, and empowered communities.
- 2,027 attendees
- 28 speakers and performers
- 40 event day sponsors
- 29 musicians and artists performed
- 155 event volunteer
- 36 auxiliary events hosted
- 25 TEDxFargo talks produced
Since 2012 Emerging Prairie has
- Produced 189 TEDxFargo talks
- 7,062,928 views of all TEDxFargo talks
- Hosted 11,079 TEDxFargo attendees
1 Million Cups Fargo
This program is a free, national program developed by Kauffman Foundation, and designed to educate, engage, and connect entrepreneurs. 1 Million Cups Fargo is one of the most successful in the nation and features men and women who are building their ideas, launching products, and starting companies — with an emphasis on innovative technology.
Founders Programming: Facilitated learning groups and social gatherings held for entrepreneurs to gather, learn, and connect.
Founders Drinks: An opportunity for founders and entrepreneurs to come together for connection in a casual and laid back setting.
Founders Only Retreat: A retreat that encourages founders to invest in themselves, create a support network, and have time away.
Lunch and Learns: Monthly gatherings that allow community members to meet over lunch while sharing their skills and industry expertise with each other.