Tag Archives: After Hours

Expanding Times, Expanding Horizons

June 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Networking groups offer ideas and kindle relationships, but they also have drawbacks. “John” only sees the same people at his networking luncheon. “Bill” might desire to join the coffee group, but he needs to open his store by 8 a.m. And “Jane” doesn’t have $200, let alone $1,000, just to come once or twice per year. 

Michelle Schrage and Jay Miralles can relate, which is why they started Business4Business Professional Society in 2014, using a different business model that includes a variety of networking events like morning coffees, afternoon luncheons, and evening gatherings. 

They have been a part of traditional networking groups, including some based on professions such as bankers, drywallers, or real estate agents. Schrage and Miralles decided to bring together connected, motivated, and forward-thinking people, regardless of profession.

In the first couple of years, B4B’s leadership team and board were concerned that not having a regular, predictable meeting schedule might be making it difficult for businesspeople to connect and engage. It soon became evident that this strategy was actually advantageous. 

“We now embrace it,” Schrage says as the organization enters its fifth year and has hosted more than 100 events, or nearly two events per month. “Our members are busy professionals and we’ve found that they want access but not necessarily commitment…we have a core group of regulars but there are always new people from various walks of life and industries.”

As a single mom to a 13-year-old son and a busy professional herself, Schrage understands firsthand how important flexibility is to today’s professionals. 

The B4B founders discovered early that a lot of people did not want to pay a membership fee for a professional networking group. So, although a $249 one-year all-access pass allows unlimited entry to all events, attendees can also simply pay as they go on a per-event basis, Schrage says. Every event is self-contained and offers something different; i.e., in March, B4B was the first group to host an event on Blackstone Social’s new patio. 

“We maintain that our events are held at places that have a unique, interesting aspect to them whether they are brand-new, not accessible to most people, or not known to most people,” she adds. “It’s a great way to bring people together.”

Event elements may include workshops, efforts to support nonprofits, gala-quality fundraisers, speakers, and behind-the-scenes tours in addition to face-to-face networking opportunities. Speakers have included Firespring CEO Jay Wilkinson, Peter Kiewit Foundation Executive Director Emerita Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, and motivational speaker Ron ‘Gus’ Gustafson.

“We’re constantly thinking, ‘what’s something new?’” Schrage says. “It gives us a lot of flexibility to keep our eyes and ears open to amazing people, amazing endeavors, and amazing companies we feel the community can benefit from knowing about.”

B4B regular Christopher Pfanstiel, director of business development for Hustad Companies Inc., says B4B has presented opportunities to connect with new people and businesses, and even helped him gain a new client or two.  

“I really enjoy B4B…it’s networking that’s done in a loose fashion versus a very canned environment,” he says. “You meet new owners, and managers, and entrepreneurs…you get to meet the key players and learn a little bit about them and their businesses.”

B4B succeeds because developing a face-to-face rapport is still important and relevant in the age of electronic communications, Schrage says. 

“When you get to share space with somebody, and read each other’s body language, and make eye contact, and exchange ideas that aren’t necessarily electronically communicated, you create strong bonds,” she says. “I think people are missing the mark if they rely too much on technology.”


To find out more about upcoming events, visit b4bsociety.com.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Michelle Schrage

Coffee for the Greater Good

April 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Coffee is as much a concept as a consumable. The late 20th century into the 21st century has certainly seen coffee as a business concept turn into a multi-billion dollar venture, with those billions of cups resulting in business deals for yet further billions of dollars.

Jason Feldman founded Open Coffee Omaha when he saw an opportunity more than two years ago through talking with some of the area’s brightest community leaders. He sought to bring like-minded people together and remove barriers among people who generally work alone or in small groups but need outside expertise to help their businesses grow.

This casual get-together, held at No More Empty Cups on south 10th Street, starts at 8 a.m. each Tuesday with about 20 minutes of time to meet with these like-minded individuals and chat, followed by a presentation by an influential leader, who provides stories, insights, and connections with fellow entrepreneurs, developers, designers, investors, and folks interested in building a better startup community.

“Originally, the intent was to connect high-growth entrepreneurs, largely millennials, in an open coffee to bring together people with different backgrounds, discuss ideas, and network,” Feldman says.

Dell Gines, a past presenter at Open Coffee Omaha, sees great value in the connection that happens among people with common interests and passions.

“This is important for entrepreneurs because network building is an essential element of building a successful business,” says Gines, a community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “In the ecosystem world they call it ‘collisions,’ but more importantly, I think these sessions are beneficial to the city as a whole. They provide unique perspectives on a wide variety of economic and social issues that can help Omaha move from good to great.”

The original concept was to bring people together to network, but it has become more than a place to glad-hand.

“That has since expanded for us to think about who is an entrepreneur and who do they serve? That can be someone from a tech company or someone who has started a nonprofit or a community initiative. Ultimately, we want these innovators to value the social impact they are making just as much as the economic benefit in the communities where they live.”

Fellow entrepreneur Kent McNeil, who joined Feldman as a co-organizer and producer of Open Omaha Coffee after its inception, says he views Omaha as having all the right components for these types of meetings to be successful and contribute to the greater good—noting a large presence of people wanting to solve problems as well as a strong philanthropic and investment community. 

“Entrepreneurs tend to be independent thinkers, so gathering them together is a great way to share ideas and build momentum to launch new innovations,” says McNeil, who left a career path in medicine to follow his entrepreneurial calling. “It’s an incredible thing to see when people align their passions with ways to create a living.”

“There isn’t a lot of public education for people who think and want to start social enterprises.  We’re often directed toward career paths. But we give these people an opportunity to learn from other like-minded people and succeed to not only identify what their passion is for their communities but also how they can turn that into a business to solve for that challenge.”

Feldman and McNeil say they are working on opening meetings to streaming talks for those who aren’t able to attend, and they’re contemplating occasionally changing the meeting time to an early evening gathering so those entrepreneurs who may not be morning people, or are more available in the evenings, have the opportunity to benefit from Open Omaha Coffee.

Right now, they are focused on creating opportunities for inspiring people to interact with other inspiring people and being a catalyst for thoughts outside of the box.

“Our next step is continuing to build our already robust programming to offer what the entrepreneurs who come to our coffees need and want,” Feldman says. “That includes social impact investing, business incubation programming, business pitch competitions, etc.

“Entrepreneurs come from all different backgrounds with varying levels and areas of expertise. We see it as our mission to connect them with each other and other resources so they can fulfill their calling in business and positively impact the communities where they live and work.”

From left: Kent McNeil and Jason Feldman

This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

Providing Uncommon Creatives a Common Community

February 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Luke Armstrong is in the midst of completing a facelift. Fair warning: he’s never worked under the knife, favors knit cardigans to scrubs, and has no expertise in the medical field whatsoever.

A botched procedure, this is not. Instead of erasing wrinkles and chiseling cheekbones, Armstrong is restructuring Cali Commons to become the starting point of a local renaissance. In January 2018, the organization’s antiquated midtown building ceased being a pseudo-gallery and co-working office, and shifted focus to become a base for artists, makers, and performers looking for a collaborative creation space. Think of it like a club for grownups, only way cooler.

“Cali Commons is now a marketplace for people who want to pursue multiple things and test ideas with other talented artists and entrepreneurs,” Armstrong says. “It’s about growing a common network and helping one another find some fulfillment.”

The corner of California and 40th streets is not new to Omaha creatives. It’s been a home for them since Armstrong and his roommate, Molly Nicklin, bought what was once a grocery store and turned it into a co-working office in 2013. Like any good artist, inspiration struck and it was time to switch up the organization’s business model.

This new and improved Cali Commons boasts access to shared spaces for events, cutting-edge technology that includes everything from live-streaming cameras to editing and marketing software, and a staff of agents who will help sell and promote work. Ideally, Armstrong hopes to recruit 40 to 50 members, asking they pay a $90 monthly fee for membership.

“The greatest benefit of being a member is working in a community of like-minded creatives who aren’t necessarily in the same field but share an interest in collaborating and assisting with other members’ projects,” says Christopher Vaughn Couse, local visual artist and member of Cali Commons.

To build this network of burgeoning creators, Armstrong started a year ago by recruiting those he has met while operating Cali Commons as a gallery. Next, he and his staff began employing grassroots marketing tactics, passing out literature espousing the benefits of membership. In an effort to contact key demographics, the organization plans to attend networking events to reach more business-minded creatives, such as graphic designers or software developers. 

Together, the 40 to 50 members will form the Uncommon Core, a group that works together to launch engaging products, services, and experiences while growing their own income. Each member has a reserved spot on a shared gallery wall at Cali Commons, where they can display work, ideas, or innovative merchandise.  

“My hope is this experiment proves that an engaged group is more valuable than any individual working on their own,” Armstrong says. “If it proves successful, maybe this is something that can be replicated elsewhere.”

Another benefit for members is the interior of the building has been designed to aid in holding myriad events, from skill-development classes and lectures to pop-up art shops. Cali Commons also hosts collaborative and competitive art nights once or twice a month.

“Members have access to events, material resources, everything they need to do something new,” Armstrong says. “Sometimes people just need permission to explore multiple things, and here, you’ll get that.”

Visit calicommons.com for more information.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

AIGA

June 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you’re passionate about an activity, you want to seek out others who share your interest. The more niche an activity, the harder it may be for those with a common interest to come together.

Nebraska’s design community, though, has just the organization to meet that challenge.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts calls itself “the profession’s oldest and largest professional membership organization for design,” and it features an active chapter in Nebraska.

Amy Markham, 33, is a user-interface designer for Kiewit and the current president of AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Nebraska. She studied graphic design at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and became involved with the organization because her professors stressed
its importance.

Amy Markham

“They were the ones that really pushed the idea of being a member of AIGA because being a part of that community is essential to your career as a designer,” she says.

AIGA Nebraska, Markham says, is all about bringing people in Nebraska’s design community together, putting potential collaborators in touch with one another and providing each other with job opportunities. The organization caters to graphic designers, web designers, user-interface designers, and the like, but AIGA has started connecting with other design professionals such as coders, videographers, architects, and animators.

“It gives them a platform to come together so they can have a voice as a whole entity,” says Cathy Solarana, 51, AIGA Nebraska’s diversity and inclusion director.

Mary Allen, 34, AIGA Nebraska’s director of communications, discovered a passion for design when she made graphics for the Facebook account of the parent-teacher organization at her daughters’ elementary school. Now she’s a full-time graphic design student at Metropolitan
Community College.

“In addition to hosting valuable events and providing design resources, AIGA offers discounts on products, software, and event admission,” Allen says. “Really, though, it’s the intangible things—friendships forged, passions discovered, and changes made—which make AIGA membership so rewarding.”

This year, many of AIGA Nebraska’s events are focused on helping its community to become more diverse and inclusive. Holding events, Markham says, is one of the local chapter’s hallmarks.

“Since we are an organization that is mostly events-focused, the events that we put on kind of create that sense of community,” she says.

“We’re not communicating particularly well if we communicate to only one particular culture or community,” Solarana says.

Cathy Solarana

On May 17, AIGA Nebraska, the Omaha Public Library, and 1877 Society hosted the Human Library at the W. Dale Clark Library. Visitors had the opportunity to come to the library and “checkout” people by speaking with them for 20 minutes, people with whom the visitors may not typically have the chance to interact, including Muslims, sex-trafficking survivors, and transgender people.

“It’s really hard to dislike someone when you are standing in front of them,” Solarana says. She also says that AIGA Nebraska hopes to hold another one in November and to hold two every year
going forward.

Allen recognizes that committing to the organization can be demanding.

“I understand that our membership and potential members are busy people, because I’m a busy person myself,” Allen says. “But something else I have in common with our membership is that we’re passionate people—passionate about design and about serving this community.”

Visit nebraska.aiga.org for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.