What I learned at Big Omaha

Dream big, but start simply. Give yourself space for creativity. And look for innovation opportunities in things like food, soap and your front door. These were a few of the lessons I learned from Big Omaha 2014. The conference on entrepreneurship and innovation is produced by Silicon Prairie News, and 2014 was its sixth year. I was part of a small but mighty group of Iowans who made the voyage. (At right: Josh Krakauer of Sculpt and I try to find Iowa City on a map of the top 50 cities in the U.S. by population. It was harder than you would think.) After taking a few days to reflect (my earlier post was about the idea of creative space, after all), these are the ideas that struck me. Some of these were recurring themes within Big Omaha, while some stand out because I’ve heard them multiple places during the past few months. What would you add? Think big. Start small. Blogger began in 1999 as a simple way to update a website’s homepage. Twitter was intended for updating friends and family. Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and now Medium, told the audience to remain open to what an idea might become, but to just start somewhere. Case in point: the first version of Blogger was built in a week. It was part of an FTP trick that was built for a different project Williams and his business partner were working on. They decided to make the hack available online “for, like, the 100 people in the world who want to start a blog.” What resulted was part of the democratization…

Diversity in tech: ‘This is not about charity, this is about necessity’

Watch Laura Weidman Powers’ whole Big Omaha 2014 speech above, and join us Wednesday to continue the conversation.  Two ongoing trends represent a huge challenge - and a huge opportunity. The first is the explosion in tech careers. More than 1.4 million STEM jobs will be created in the U.S. by 2020, and 70 percent of those will be unfilled if current trends continue. The second is the rapid diversification of America. Between 2040 and 2060, there will cease to be one majority group in the U.S. These statistics and more were shared by Laura Weidman Powers, co-founder and executive director of Code2040, at Big Omaha 2014. Savvy employers in Silicon Valley see welcoming diversity as a foundation for future growth. “This is not about charity at all, this is about necessity,” she said. Code2040 focuses on access to tech jobs for black and Latino/a computer science students and graduates through a fellowship program and networking opportunities. “In a lot of cases, companies are good at recognizing talent that looks like the talent they already have,” she said, because they rely on recommendations and internal networks to pre-screen candidates. Although 18 percent of computer science graduates are black or Latino/a, these groups represent only nine percent of tech industry workers and a tiny sliver of tech leadership. “There’s an issue with those students who have made it through the education portion of the pipeline actually making it into careers in tech,” she said. That said, Weidman Powers also noted that early exposure to technology careers and inclusive instruction techniques are also needed. The prevailing culture of a firm - think of a startup office laden with Star...

Big Omaha 2014: Reflecting on the idea of creative space

Open spaces and open minds One thing that struck me from day one of Big Omaha was the idea of creative space - both as a personal escape and a physical location. The venue for the conference on entrepreneurship and innovation was inspiring in itself. KANEKO is a group of historic warehouses in Omaha’s Old Market neighborhood, with soaring ceilings and exposed brick. It’s big enough to hold a 500-person conference, but also regularly hosts smaller group conversations and art exhibits.  “It’s its own entity,” said Mike Ecternacht, KANEKO’s executive director. “When people are here, they feel more creative.” As Cedar Rapids continues to rebuild from the floods of 2008, I hope we will see spaces like this emerge. We have the new convention complex for large groups, and intimate spaces like the Cherry Building and CSPS that promote artistic creativity. The new Geonetric building might be able to do both, with a few larger spaces for special events and a few hundred creative types from Geonetric, the Iowa Startup Accelerator and Vault calling it home on a daily basis. I’d love to hear from you: Where do you find space to create? KANEKO: ‘Open space for your mind’ KANEKO was founded in 1998 by Jun Kaneko, an Omaha-based ceramic artist, and his wife Ree. Jun Kaneko previously helped start the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, which has hosted nearly 700 artists in residence in its 30 year history. KANEKO is dedicated to exploring the artistic process, not just finished products and performances. “We strive to explore the hows and the whys - the creative process,” Ecternacht said. “We want to drill...