Rebecca Undem is an author, host of a popular podcast, and professional speaker that champions life in rural communities. In 2018, she started piecing together a big vision for how she could help move rural North Dakota forward, which involved launching a nonprofit organization called Growing Small Towns in her hometown of Oakes, North Dakota. Growing Small Towns would fuse entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and development initiatives to help improve rural communities. Key to this vision was establishing a physical coworking & innovation space that would bring people & ideas together.
Rebecca got off to a strong start - engaging a couple early funders and identifying a vacant building in the heart of the main street district to house the nonprofit. But a year into the project and she was still struggling to bring her vision to reality.
There weren't any existing models for what she was trying to do and recent conversations with area stakeholders weren't getting her anywhere. She was starting to feel that maybe the idea was simply "too radical" for a small rural community. Who'd ever heard of a coworking space & innovation hub in a town of less than 2,000 people anyway?
The passion and energy Rebecca had when first pursuing her idea was starting to wane and she wondered if her dream was really meant to become reality. Then she got an email from a friend in Iowa, connecting her with an organization that was launching a series of coworking & innovation spaces, called "Innovation Labs," specifically designed for rural communities. Maybe they could help...
Rebecca: From the moment I met with Jordan and Eric from the Rural Ideas Network, I almost couldn’t believe my luck in discovering such an essential partner at such a critical time. First and foremost, they simply make me feel less alone. I often refer to my conversations with the Rural Ideas Network team as feeling like a water station at a marathon. You are tired and worn out, and you feel like you can't take another step forward. Then someone hands you that quick hit of energy, and you summon the courage to carry on. Launching a new business is a long and arduous journey, and being able to lean on people that understand the ins and outs of the startup process is invaluable.
Jordan and Eric, executive team members at the Rural Ideas Network, had piloted a model for coworking & innovation spaces, called "Innovation Labs" and were replicating the model in several rural communities throughout eastern Iowa. After learning more about Rebecca's vision and how her project had stalled, they knew they could help. They invited her to participate in the Innovation Lab Accelerator, a program that provides planning and technical assistance to help communities replicate the Innovation Lab model.
Rebecca: The alignment between Growing Small Towns and the Rural Ideas Network adds credibility to what we're trying to bring to the region. Through our partnership, I’m able to leverage a proven model to offer a physical co-working and innovation space. They have been instrumental in helping me with the overall building plan and design, saving me loads of time and money. They know what works and are eager to share their knowledge.
As a participant in the Innovation Lab Accelerator, Rebecca received comprehensive support and coaching. Working with the Rural Ideas Network team to achieve key milestones, the Innovation Lab Accelerator helped Rebecca articulate her vision, engage stakeholders, and make key facility siting & planning choices. Even more importantly, it gave her a proven set of programs, the training and support to deliver them, and a tried-and-true budget upon which to model her projections. She no longer had to worry about "whether it could work" and could instead focus on "how well it would work."
Rebecca: In terms of programs, we get to capitalize on validated processes and services offered by the Rural Ideas Network. This has made it possible for me to more easily forecast revenues, which, of course, makes my bank happy, but it also reinforces the viability of my idea. Because of the partnership with the Rural Ideas Network, we're already adding value to our service area, and our building isn’t even ready to go yet!
Having a core model upon which to build her organization allows Rebecca to focus on her big vision, which involves fusing arts, personal growth programs, community development initiatives, and entrepreneurship together to create vibrant rural communities. She's already using what she learned in the accelerator to engage partner communities throughout a 7-county region in SE North Dakota.
Participating in the Innovation Lab Accelerator helped Rebecca launch her vision faster and more efficiently than she could on her own. Plus, the Rural Ideas Network is also helping Rebecca stay focused on the big picture by directly administering many of the tasks involved in operating a successful coworking space, like coworker enrollment, meeting space rentals, billing, and managing door access permissions.
Rebecca: Ultimately, as I consider who to partner with to bring this vision to life, it's vital to me that there is a clear alignment of values. The Rural Ideas Network’s approach to fostering innovation and creativity in rural communities makes me genuinely excited about what comes next for small towns. By harnessing the power of the people who already live and work in rural America, we can rewrite the story of who we are and what our future holds.
While Growing Small Towns, just like every innovation lab, will adapt to meet local needs, Rebecca knows her vision is built on a proven model and that she has the support of an entire network behind her. With funding, programming, and partners in place, construction on the new Growing Small Towns facility is launching soon and Rebecca plans to open the doors to the public early next year!
Rebecca is so passionate about helping rural communities that, after spending 1/2 a year working with her, we just had to invite her to join the Rural Ideas Network team! To learn more about how Rebecca helps support Rural Ideas Network communities check out her bio here >
To learn more about the Innovation Lab Accelerator and how it can help launch a coworking & innovation space in your community, click this link >