Registration for EntreFEST 2015
​Aryn Henning Nichols and Benji Nichols made the trek from Decorah to Iowa in late May in order to enjoy some good food, meet new friends, and get smarter. In short, the husband and wife who run Inspired Media were looking for a creative shot in the arm with the added bonus of the kind of everyday fun that young parents and small business owners crave.

Which is what brought them to EntreFest. Now in its eighth year, EntreFest has grown from a small conference for dyed-in-the-wool techies and business nerds to a three-day event that aims to be an educational summit, urban festival, and resource hub all in one. Although its focus is on connecting Iowa’s entrepreneurial community—something that attracted Aryn and Benji who are yearning to be part of a larger community of start-ups and creative—it is also attracting visitors throughout the Midwest and beyond.

Statewide Startup

EntreFest was initiated by a team of organizations that met regularly to talk about entrepreneurial development in Iowa. In addition to groups like the Small Business Association and utility companies, the group included representatives from all three Regent universities. When the group decided to host a conference, the University of Northern Iowa’s Regional Business Center took the lead organizing the small statewide startup, and the event remained in Cedar Falls for several years.

Three years ago, UNI turned to corridor creative agency Seed Here Studio to produce the event, and a pivotal decision was made to move the conference to Iowa City.

Amanda West, CEO of Seed Here, said the move was based largely on a desire to better reflect EntreFest’s mission. “It’s an event about small business, but in the past we were only supporting one organization: a single conference center. By using downtown Iowa City as our canvas, we can support multiple businesses.”

Growth Phase

The move also signaled that EntreFest was in a growth phase. West and her business partner Andy Stoll started their social entrepreneur careers as University of Iowa undergraduates who helped form The James Gang and the Ten Thousand Hours show. Stoll went on to take a four-year trip around the world and West went to work for creative communities expert Richard Florida. They don’t think small.

In May 2014, the first year that Seed Here helped organize EntreFest, it attracted more than 500 people, five times the number that had attended in previous years. This was despite heavy rainstorms that ruined some of the outside venues they’d planned.

No matter how thrilling the results, West and Stoll knew they were pushing up against Seed Here’s capacity. They fully expected Paul Kinghorn, the director of regional business center and entrepreneurial outreach at the UNI, to ask them to rein things in and to move the festival to a different site. His response surprised them:  Stay in Iowa City, partner more strongly with the other universities, and get bigger.

Headliner Seth Godin

EntreFEST2015 Team
And that’s just what they did. Planners from all three universities were involved throughout the year. Fundraising for the event expanded, allowing them to attract the star power of Seth Godin. With the widest read marketing blog in the country, Godin is a best-selling author whose tactics fly in the face of traditional publishing and marketing. A thought leader and innovator in what he describes as our post-industrial "connection economy,” Godin beats to his own drum and is definitely not about business as usual.

Godin’s appearance was not only a huge win for EntreFest but it also demonstrated a desire to appeal to a broader audience, not just the “bro-culture” for which the tech and science sectors are best known.

“Seth’s message is that we are all artists,” says West. “Artists are about making change, and at this point in history, we are all about making change. I love that definition.”

Diversifying EntreFest

Other speakers from this year who were not the usual suspects but reflected a more diverse group of entrepreneurs and experts included:

  • Jacquie Berglund, co-founder and CEO of FINNEGANS Inc., Minneapolis-based brewery and social enterprise dedicated to eliminating hunger
  • Sumeet Jain, co-founder of the Omaha Code School, a software development training program with focus on mindfulness, inclusivity, and autodidactism
  • Julie Lenzer Kirk, Director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship, U.S. Department of Commerce
  • Sarah Pearson, Senior Counsel of Creative Commons

Berglund launched Finnegans in 2000 in order to funnel profits to hunger-relief efforts. Today, it is the fifth-largest beer brand in Minnesota, available in more than 2,000 stores in the Upper Midwest. Good to her original vision, Berglund gives all of its profit toward purchasing produce from local farms and then donating it to food banks and soup kitchens.  

Berglund’s talk about social entrepreneurship was the highlight of EntreFest for Aryn Henning Nichols. “She provided affirmation that we don’t always know what we’re doing; it’s ok to jump in. She also advises surrounding yourself with people who can mentor you and partner you.”

Inspiring Young Entrepreneurs in Decorah

Aryn and her husband, Benji, run a media company, the anchor of which is their magazine, Inspire(d), which is about positive living in the “Driftless Region” of northeast Iowa and the nearby corners of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Aryn first got the idea of starting a magazine as a University of Iowa English and Journalism major when she had an internship at a magazine in Toronto. Following graduation, she applied for numerous magazine jobs, but it was a tough time for both the industry and young grads.  

She was living with her her parents in Decorah (she grew up near Postville but her parents had since moved), working for the local newspaper and waitressing when she went on a first date with Benji. After sharing her magazine dream, he was immediately in: “Let’s do it!”

Now, with a growing readership and other work in freelance design and sound engineering, the pair is a testament to the power of creating your own work. Aryn counts this as one of the silver linings of constraint: whether economic or geographic you’re forced to find your own niche.

Aryn is enthusiastic about what she learned as an undergraduate at the UI. She thinks that higher education in general could more proactively help students connect their passions to the “real” world. What would it be like, for instance, to have mentors who help a student connect her interests to community partners, such as non-profits and small businesses? She and Benji now mentor student interns, hoping to provide just that kind of foot up for those entering the workforce.

Universities’ Role in the Entrepreneur Community

The question of the role of universities in the entrepreneurial community was on the outskirt of this year’s EntreFest. Julie Kirk, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, shared a graph of the ideal entrepreneur ecosystem. It included:

  • Talent in the form of a workforce and students
  • Innovation in the form of universities, labs, and industry
  • Support in the form of facilities, programs, and policies
  • And capital in the form of investors, grants, and customers

Getting all of the players in a community to talk to one another was a theme of several EntreFest panels, including a conversation about fostering collaborations and sparking connections across sectors. Julie Penner, a program manager at Techstars in Boulder, Colo., who works with startups across the country, said that providing course credit for students who want to intern with a start-up or other entrepreneurial ventures was key. She also suggested specialized entrepreneur tracks for different departments, allowing students in the humanities and arts the same avenues to entrepreneurial experience that their peers in technology and science enjoy.

West said that having all three universities involved in EntreFest was a huge boon:  “It added a lot of legitimacy and demonstrated the role that universities can play in economic development.”

EntreFest 2016 is already online. Before he left, Godin charged West and Stoll with thinking bigger. Perhaps helping undergrads like a younger Henning Nichols to plug into their communities even earlier will be part of this ever-growing Iowa phenomenon.

Captions (top to bottom): EntreFEST2015 attendee registers for the three-day event; members of the EntreFEST organizing team pose with Seth Godin (fourth from left), including Amana West and Andy Stoll (second and third from left, respectively). Courtesy: Justin Torner/EntreFEST.

—Jennifer New—