By Erik Pedersen, NetWork Kansas
If you're like me, sometime in the middle of zoom call number 94, you start to wonder things like ‘why did so and so just move from the bottom right corner to the upper left corner of my screen?’ and ‘if I look down at my phone to text, can the others tell I'm not paying attention?’ But this week, as I participated in the wKREDA Virtual Happy Hour and looked at all the participants on my screen, each in their own box, my mind first went to the opening of The Brady Bunch (I'm old and pretty shallow and that show was a favorite of mine) and then started to reminisce about the first time I met several of the people on the screen.
Picture this: Summer '05, WaKeeney, the quarterly wKREDA meeting was taking place. For those who don't know, wKREDA is the acronym for Western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance. The formal description is that it's a coalition of people in the 55 western Kansas counties who've decided to pool their resources, both human and financial, to work together for the common good of Western Kansas. We at NetWork Kansas have come to learn it's 40-60 of the smartest, most dedicated and talented economic development professionals you could ever hope to meet and the quality they bring to the office is maybe even surpassed by the friendship they bring to the dinner table.
On their agenda that day was likely something that said "Kansas Center for Entrepreneurship, Steve Radley and Erik Pedersen." We had been hired a couple of months earlier to open the organization (it's now called NetWork Kansas) for the State. We were traveling around, meeting organizations and resource partners, telling what our mission was supposed to be. No one at this meeting knew us, nor should they. Here's the embarrassing part: Steve and I weren't smart enough to ask the other what we were wearing so we both walked into this meeting wearing brown shoes, tan slacks, long sleeve blue button-up shirts, and carrying our matching briefcases. That's a cute picture, huh?
We proceeded to tell the group about NetWork Kansas and our message went over like the proverbial lead balloon. No questions, no comments, so we said, “Thank you,” and headed out to our car, silently wondering ‘What just happened?’
Sheila Frahm (Colby native, former Kansas and US Senator, at that time was the Executive Director of the Kansas Association of Community Colleges) had been instrumental in the creation of our organization, and she traveled to Wakeeney to support us. She met us at the car and said words that changed everything.
She said "The people in that room are fantastic people, they just have to get to know you."
As we drove back home, we committed that we would attend future wKREDA meetings, so we could start a relationship. Truth be told, for the next year, we flipped a coin each time and the loser had to attend the meeting because it was still uncomfortable. :) But Sheila was right, on both fronts. The people that were in that room ARE fantastic people and once they got to know us, they evidently overlooked our shortcomings because they seemed to like us. We still flipped a coin each quarter because we couldn't both be gone from the office but before long, the winner was attending.
Fifteen years later: It's hard to put into words how much the relationship with the wKREDA organization means to NetWork Kansas. Professionally, 26 of our Entrepreneurship (E-) Communities are in the region. Last fiscal year, alone, they approved $648,000 of matching loans and through the first 10 months of this fiscal year, they had approved $811,000 of matching loans. The number of wKREDA region communities, businesses and students that have supported and partnered with us through programs such as Ice House, Destination Boot Camp, Growing Rural Businesses, Maker Space Boot Camp and Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge are too numerous to mention. The wKREDA voice is respected and valued across the State. Their various committees, whether Legislative, Agriculture or Community Development, carry a strong voice in Kansas. We hold them up as a shining example of professional collaboration and living the motto of "a rising tide lifts all boats." I'm jealous of our two NetWork Kansas E-Community coaches, Sarah LaRosh and Christy Preston, who get to engage with these E-Community leadership teams every day. (And I'm guessing the E-Communities are grateful for these two amazing ladies, as well, because I think they're really talented).
So, as I reminisce about the first time I met many of the people who were on the screen, I remember the line "you never get a second chance to make a first impression," and I'm thankful this group gave Steve and I that second chance.
NetWork Kansas is better as a result of our partnership with wKREDA.