Tag Archives: Silicon Prairie

Blockchain

September 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To industries that depend on verification as a core factor of their business, blockchain technology has much to offer, according to Erica Wassinger, co-founder of The Startup Collaborative and senior director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Greater Omaha Chamber. B2B recently caught up with Wassinger to get her take on blockchain and its benefits to companies in Omaha and elsewhere. 

B2B: Please explain what blockchain technology is. 

Wassinger: Blockchain is a new form of the internet. The distinguishing factor between blockchain and the internet as we know it now is the fact that blockchain is not controlled by any central entity or person. It’s completely decentralized and distributed. Think of it like a public ledger that can record transactions of any type. A simple parallel might be that it can be a supply chain for just about anything, including information. When you dig deeply into the industries of Omaha, you think about our density within the supply chain. We’re home to Union Pacific, Werner Enterprises, and some of these big logistics companies. Blockchain fits really nicely into the business models of those types of companies because it allows any organization or person to verify where something is on the supply chain. 

B2B: To make use of blockchain, you have to be appropriately credentialed, digitally, right? 

Wassinger: To an extent. Businesses can operate on blockchain, any person can cooperate on it. If you want to develop on the blockchain, it does require a certain level of skill. There are very few developers. I heard one source say there are as few as 1,300 true blockchain developers in the world. 

B2B: What are those individuals doing? Developing applications for different products? 

Wassinger: Yes. They’re thinking of different use cases just like we would for the internet, where we think of how to create a web platform or an app that solves a problem. Blockchain developers are doing that same thing for blockchain use cases. 

B2B: What are some blockchain use cases?

Wassinger: You see blockchain used in the food industry with the verification of crop growth product formation. For example, if, as a consumer, I want to eat a food, and it matters to me greatly that that is a wholly organic food, I might want to go all the way back to the point at which that was planted in the soil to figure out how the crop was treated, how often was it watered, when was it harvested, where did it go, and what happened to it at the next facility.

B2B: Is supply chain verification the most popular use of blockchain?

Wassinger: Yes, at least here in the Nebraska blockchain market, whether it’s the food supply chain or the information supply chain. 

B2B: What are some local use cases for blockchain?

Wassinger: Let’s dig into the economy of Omaha. We’ve got deep density in financial services— everything from payment processing to banking to insurance. All those bases are completely ripe for blockchain technology, especially when you think about the need for authenticating things. Think about insurance, for example. Wouldn’t it be great if, upon buying a new policy, you could record every transaction very simply? That’s happening now with certain insurance companies. They’re testing that, and some are live right now. You can also look outside financial services and into the food industry. There’s a startup we are working with called BlockEra that’s working on an ingredient-to-table verification process. You can also think supply chain logistics. For example, if I am Union Pacific and I want to watch my train go from here to there, and I want to know what freight was loaded, when it was unloaded, and all of the details of that experience, blockchain becomes very relevant. 

B2B: What about an international use case? 

Wassinger: The United Nations, which works with massive refugee populations, has a really interesting blockchain use case. As a refugee, your anonymity is important to you—the ability to transact in any environment is important. You also fully expect to have a physical wallet on you to carry cash. You’re going to be crossing borders and deal with this, that, or the other. So the United Nations looked at that. We can respect these people’s anonymity through leveraging the block chain by giving refugees tokens that will allow them to transact across any border. As they reach certain points in their journey, we can make sure that they have enough tokens to fuel that piece of their journey. 

B2B: The technology sounds great. How does anybody make money from it? 

Wassinger: A lot of people are still trying to figure all of this out. Because the transactions are happening on blockchain, they require use of cryptocurrency. When you hear “cryptocurrency,” a lot of people are going to initially think of bitcoin. But there are several others that come up, Ether being one. Ether is the cryptocurrency of choice for the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is an open- source blockchain that is hinged around the idea of a smart contract, which is a really transparent way of two entities agreeing on a value for something and then recording that agreement
transaction together. 

B2B: Is there anything you’d like to add? 

Wassinger: I think about Omaha and the talent pools we have here. I keep coming back to this: we’ve got really a strong agribusiness talent pool, we’ve got a really strong talent pool in supply chain and logistics, and we’ve got an incredibly dense and strong talent pool as it relates to financial services, insurance, and payment processing. I think our region needs to embrace blockchain. We need more people in the core industries where blockchain stands to be a major disruptive source to test and dabble and experiment earlier with the technology to look at it and say what levels of verification need to happen in those industries. I would love to see that embraced because I firmly believe that blockchain will be very important to the future of Omaha’s economy.


Visit blockgeeks.com for more information about blockchain.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

Erica Wassinger, co-founder of The Startup Collaborative and senior director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Greater Omaha Chamber

Prairie Fire

January 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hidden Figures, last March’s box-office hit that grossed nearly $170,000,000, revolved around a group of African-American women working as “human computers.” A study done by the American Association of University Women revealed that, from the 1960s to the 1990s, more than one-third of the employees in computer and mathematical careers were women.

While the same study shows that this number now sits at 26 percent, several key women are a part of what makes the Silicon Prairie a rising star in the tech realm.

Four of these women, all millennials, all leaders in Omaha’s tech industry, recently discussed a clear passion and vision for the future of tech in the area.

Karen Borchert came to Omaha after leading tech startup projects in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. She knows women who remember the day they were first allowed to wear pants to work, who were first “allowed a seat at the table” to make important decisions. Borchert herself sees a different landscape than an older generation who remembers that those groundbreaking moments were “a big deal.”

“It isn’t [a big deal] anymore,” she says of those moments, “and the fact that it isn’t anymore is the biggest deal of all.”

She sits at the executive table of Flywheel. Since starting in 2012, Flywheel has been among Nebraska’s big winners in the startup community. According to its website, in 2016, Flywheel nearly tripled in size, adding 45 employees and expanding into a new 7,500-square-foot facility.

Borchert partially attributes her success at Flywheel to greater gender equality here in Omaha.

“Is the work that you do, the pay that you get, the roles that you have a chance at, the opportunities that you have to grow—is it as good, and in as welcoming an environment, for women as it is for men in Omaha?” Borchert says. “I’d argue that, in a lot of ways, it is.”

Sally Elatta

On that point, Borchert might get agreement from Sally Elatta, president and co-founder of Agile Transformation, another Omaha startup that has outgrown its original space. Agile Transformation uses proprietary data and evaluation software to help large and mid-sized companies build better teams and company culture.

If Elatta ran into any gender bias, she did not notice. If anything, she says, her company lost one bid because the large company felt her startup was too small. She couldn’t think of a time where her gender was an obstacle to overcome.

Elatta was born in Sudan, educated in Scotland, and became a proud U.S. citizen when her family applied for political asylum, she says.

“My mother,” she says, “influenced me to not carry that as a chip on my shoulder, to actually know that I am very strong, and that I can balance being a mother and being an entrepreneur all at the same time.”

While the environment in Omaha is perhaps better than it is in places like the Silicon Valley—where there have been recent reports of blatant sexism and harassment—that doesn’t mean all is well.

While hard data is not available, anecdotally, women report that men far outnumber women in Omaha’s Silicon Prairie. Borchert, at Flywheel, is acutely aware of the disparity, expressing chagrin that her full-time development team of 17 has just one woman.

“That’s not what I want,” she says. “We are doing a lot of work on this right now.”

She added: “Our main strategy on recruiting and on building a more diverse workplace is creating wonderful and equal experiences for our team, and making sure we’re doing right by them,” she says. “We really want people to feel comfortable at Flywheel.”

The lack of women at Flywheel hints at a potentially larger issue with the talent pipeline. For whatever reasons, there may not be as many women available in tech fields. The pipeline problem is one that Rebecca Stavick, executive director at Do Space, is working to change.

Rebecca Stavick

“The biggest lie out there is that women don’t like technology,” Stavick says. “The challenge, I think, is that historically there has been a lack of learning opportunities for women. I think we have done some incredible work on that in the past few years.”

Last year, Do Space started a recurring program that put 20 girls through a computer coding course. Additional work on a national level has increased interest and awareness for girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

A librarian by training, Stavick has a knack for big data and likes to think of herself as an “information activist.”

“The better info you’ve got,” she says, “the better decisions you make, the better life you can lead.”

What Stavick and Do Space provide for the Omaha community is a level of technical information that is unmatched almost anywhere. A unique library that has been studied from afar by several major American cities, Do Space provides free and easy access to some of the most advanced software and hardware systems available.

Do Space makes an effort to see that its membership numbers match the surrounding community. For example, Douglas County is approximately 11 percent African-American. Stavick reports that 10 percent of Do Space members are also African-American.

“My advice then to the startup community, and any other community in town, is to at least start aiming to match the population as a whole surrounding you,” Stavick says. “If women are half the population of Douglas County—I would assume it’s close to half—then they should be half the startup community in Omaha as well.”

Getting to half might sound like a tall order. It should sound ideal to Erica Wassinger, co-founder of the Startup Collaborative, an incubator space in downtown Omaha that gives startups a greater chance for success.

“The best thing in my career is partnering with male co-founders,” Wassinger says. “I think if more founding teams are male and female, you’ll have a lot of wins here.”

Wassinger credits Mark Hasebroock, founder of Dundee Venture Capital, as the “greatest feminist influence on my entire career.” He bet on her as startup founder, and proceeded to treat her just as he treated all of his other founders.

She has seen unintended bias that has been unintentionally harming. For example, a male employee might hesitate to invite a female coworker to join male colleagues at an after-work function.

“Yes, I am outnumbered…but I do really feel like I have a ton of male allies,” she says, adding that the key point is equality.

Wassinger’s solution seems simple enough. It involves treating people, male or female, with respect: “Just act like peers.”

Visit agiletransformation.com, dospace.org, and flywheel.com for more information about the companies noted in the article.

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of B2B.

Erica Wassenger

The Silicon Trail

March 28, 2017 by

When United Airlines’ first daily nonstop service flight from Eppley Airfield to San Francisco International Airport eased away from the gate in September 2016, Randy Thelen made certain he had a seat.

The senior vice president for economic development at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce saw the importance of that 7 a.m. flight—believed to be the first regular nonstop service between the two cities in a quarter century. Shortly after 9 a.m., he was on the West Coast, in the fertile Silicon Valley, ready for business.

Despite Omaha’s firm footing in the Silicon Prairie—with tech giants like PayPal, Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo all maintaining a significant presence in the metro—Omaha long struggled with a serious shortcoming when it came time to recruit more. The same shortcoming didn’t help local technology startups secure financial backing from the apparent over-abundance of thick wallet in the Bay area.

Getting from Silicon Valley to Omaha’s corner of the Silicon Prairie was more than a hassle. It usually required at least one connecting flight, stretching a three-hour nonstop flight into nearly a full day of airplanes and airports … and that’s the delay-free version.

“As much as we don’t want location to be a barrier, there’s a very real situation where Silicon Valley investors won’t fly somewhere if they have to switch planes,” says Dusty Davidson, the CEO and co-founder of Flywheel, an Omaha-based startup that builds and hosts WordPress websites. Davidson is also known for his role in creating Silicon Prairie News and one of the largest entrepreneurial tech conferences in the region, Big Omaha.

“It’s not the connection, it’s the time,” he adds.

The required connecting flights cast a pall over Omaha’s distinct advantage as a low-cost jewel compared to the Silicon Valley. Omaha’s lower cost of living and more affordable housing helps save companies on their largest expense: wages. Add in the various business incentives available from the state, along with a strong talent pool and sound infrastructure, and Omaha makes an attractive option for startup and established tech companies, with that notable exception.

“We came up short on the connectivity or on the flights in and out of Silicon Valley,” Thelen says.

Then United Airlines made San Francisco’s International Airport the nation’s 25th airport with regular nonstop flight services to and from Omaha. This spring, a 26th regular nonstop Omaha route will open between here and Houston via Southwest Airlines.

“Now, we’ve taken away that competitive disadvantage, and we’ve been able to promote it as an advantage,” Thelen says. “It really has changed the conversation as we try to continue to build that pipeline between here and Silicon Valley.”

“The ability to have direct service does have an impact on the businesses that choose to do business here,” says Nancy Miller, vice president of operations at Travel and Transport, a national travel booking company based in Omaha. “I think it helps Omaha businesses.”

That an airline would add a regular nonstop flight to San Francisco lends credence to claims of Omaha’s growth as a potential hub in the Silicon Prairie.

“The Omaha economy really seems to have been doing well over the last couple of years,” says Dave Roth, deputy executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority. “It’s just a really positive combination of Omaha and the airlines for those additional flights.”

Omaha has popped up on several national lists as a new hot spot for tech startups. SmartAsset named Omaha the best city in the nation to work in tech in 2015, and Nebraska has been No. 3 on Forbes’ list of Best States for Business for two years running.

Thelen used his first flight to the Silicon Valley to meet with a dozen tech companies, some who already have outposts in town, and few others he’d like see set up shop.

“For the cost of one hotel stay and a pretty simple flight in and out, you can get two full business days of work without the hassle of changing planes and the risk of getting delayed,” Thelen says. “The convenience of business travel just went up exponentially, and you can expect that connectivity to continue to grow.”

Executives headquartered in San Francisco can more easily visit and engage with their Midwestern operations. Or, employees based in Omaha can more efficiently meet with leadership in Silicon Valley. Officials at PayPal and LinkedIn—which employ about 2,800 and 300 people, respectively, in the Omaha area—say there is frequent travel between the Silicon Valley and their operations in Omaha, but exact figures were unavailable.

“To have firms like that, that now have much, much easier access back and forth, frankly it makes our location all that more integral to the operation because it’s a simpler connect now,” Thelen says.

He added: “That simple flight makes a big, big difference.”

And even homegrown startups can take advantage. They can get twice as much done on recruiting trips from the valley, whether they are looking for talent or financing.

Davidson, the CEO at Flywheel, says the increased connectivity will indeed make a big difference for local companies raising money. There still remains a lot of work to put Omaha “on the map” with more sources of local capital and slowing the export of the state’s top technology talent, to name a few.

“I don’t know that you’re able to look at [direct flights to San Francisco] and say, ‘Hey, look, we solved the problem,’” he says. “I think there’s 50 things that are contributing, and what you really want to do is, just one at a time, start whittling away.”

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

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

Stefanie Monge Introduces

December 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The birth and growth of the tech industry—specifically Silicon Valley and the Silicon Prairie—gave rise to a new generation of entrepreneurs. Young Americans from Generation X, Generation Y, and millennials harnessed the power of the internet and open-access technology to build apps, solve problems, and disrupt traditional ways of doing business.

In many cases, these entrepreneurs have been young men. But in recent years, the voices of female entrepreneurs have grown louder, their success stories gaining more attention.

It stands to reason, then, that in a country where women have historically earned less than their male counterparts (and secured fewer promotions and board seats), women deserve a space dedicated to finding and networking with professional peers.

Meet Stefanie Monge, an Omaha-based serial entrepreneur, speaker, writer, and consultant who has launched a local platform for such women. Monge started an Omaha chapter of FemCity, which bills itself as a community of strong entrepreneurial women supporting one another, both in business and in life.

Monge and her all-female board of directors host monthly events around the Omaha area featuring guest speakers who tackle topics ranging from self-awareness, self-empowerment, mindfulness, and even failure. Women may drop in to any FemCity Omaha event for $15 or join the organization for $125 per year.

Monge knows a thing or two about pursuing her many passions. A former Omaha World-Herald reporter, today she serves in many roles: a managing partner at Petshop Gallery; CEO and founder of Think.Start.Do, Welcor Enterprise Yoga, and Stefanie Monge Consulting; and a content strategist and event producer at San Francisco-based Serverless.

“The thing I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is that my work is never done. I will always work more. I will always have the capacity to work more. And if I don’t set the boundaries and decide when is work time and when is non-work time, everything by default turns into work time,” Monge explains. With technology and email, it’s also about setting boundaries—being responsive to emails, text messages, and the like, but not setting the expectation that she is immediately responsive or always available after hours.

FemCity Omaha strives to empower women to work and live mindfully, making choices that improve both their business and their whole being. Monge can relate to other women who may strive at work, yet see their personal relationships suffer as a result.

“It quickly became apparent that I could not function without figuring that out,” Monge explains of finding her realistic work-life balance. “But as I became more successful, I had more freedom to implement it.”

For example, there are consistent days of the week and even set times that are off-limits to Monge’s clients and co-workers.

“And it’s beautiful, because it means that I start every day and every week basically on my own terms, and it feels much less hectic. It helps me to be more productive. It helps me to be more calm. It helps me to be more efficient. Ultimately that all goes back to mindfulness,” Monge says.

Which is why FemCity Omaha has proven to be a meaningful and impactful organization for Monge and the more than 150 women who have attended a FemCity event since it launched in April of 2016.

“The thing that really impressed me and really drew me to this group, and ultimately was a major deciding factor in launching a group in Omaha, is they really focus on women as whole human beings,” Monge says. “It is definitely about building a successful business. But it’s also about having a balanced life, and having a really strong support system of other successful, motivated women who are more than willing to share their resources and share their experience.”

Traditional networking environments, Monge says, often feel more like a non-stop sales pitch than an opportunity to develop deep connections with other individuals. Even today, she evaluates new networking opportunities based on what they will yield and what they will cost—largely, her time.

“I felt there was an opportunity [with FemCity Omaha] to take the mission of helping women form really authentic relationships, to help support each other’s professional and personal growth, and promoting a welcome environment that is authentic,” says Monge, noting that the genuine warmth, kindness, and general sense of community that she both witnesses and personally experiences at each FemCity Omaha event is unlike anything else she’s seen in Omaha.

“As women, female entrepreneurs, and female business leaders, it’s easy to get caught up in the competitive nature of networking. Getting rid of that has been really appealing,” she says.

Women who attend are in their mid-20s upward to age 60. They are business owners, women who seek to own business, and some are freelancers or consultants part-time. Others still are simply seeking an outlet to meet other professional and dynamic women.

“The idea was to create a space that is only women, that is a safe, supportive space where women can feel less inhibited about speaking their truth,” she says. “The reality is, my experience as a female serial entrepreneur is very different from that of my male counterparts. The things I think about in my daily life, or the ways I balance my work and my life, are specific to being a woman. There is value in providing that place where women feel safe to voice those feelings and relate through shared experiences.”

Visit femcity.com/omaha for more information.

Stefanie Monge

Stefanie Monge

Women’s Networking Groups

Christian Women’s Business Network
Contact: Pamela Korth
402-829-5486 or info@cbwf.org
cbwf.org

Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW)
Contact: Jenni Shukert
402-551-3400 or jshukert@aoomaha.com
crewomahametro.org

FemCity
Contact: Stefanie Monge
402-813-7530 or omaha@femcity.com
femcity.com/omaha

Heartland Women’s Network
Contact: Mindy Kidney
402-926-9928 or membership@heartlandwomensnetwork.com
heartlandwomensnetwork.com

Ladies Who Launch
Contact: Leslie Fischer
402-203-0451 or leslie@togetheragreatergood.com
facebook.com/ladieswholaunchomaha

Metro Omaha Women’s Business Center (MOWBC)
Contact: B.C. Clark
402-201-2334 or bc.clark@mowbcf.org
mowbcf.org

Nebraska Women in Architecture
Contact: Kristi Nohavec
kmnohavec@leoadaly.com
facebook.com/nebraska-women-in-architecture

Omaha 30+ Women
Contact: Kay M. Rowe
embracelifellc@gmail.com
meetup.com/omaha-30-plus-women

Omaha Business Women Connection
Contact: Barb Brady
402-882-1062 or barb@simplifiedaccountingfirm.com
facebook.com/groups/omahabusinesswomenconnection/

Omaha Coding Women
Contact: Sandi Barr
sandi.k.barr@gmail.com
meetup.com/omaha-coding-women

Professional Women Connect
Contact: Janyne Peek Emsick, Ph.D.
402-346-5856 or janyne@integrowinc.com
Sarah Ericson, sarah.ericson@csgi.com
pwcomaha.com

Women in Insurance and Financial Services
Contact: Tonya Mathison
402-401-2330 or mathison.tonya@principal.com
wifsnational.org

Women in Technology of the Heartland
Contact: Colleen Schinker
colleen.schinker@hdrinc.com
meetup.com/witheartland

Women to Women
Contact: Sarah Bernhagen
402-293-0999 or sbernhagen@johnagentleman.com
(No website available)

Women’s Council of Realtors Omaha
Contact: Katie Clemenger
kclemenger@celebrityhomesomaha.com
wcromaha.com

Women’s Conferences

American Association of University Women
Contact: Marilyn Bombac, 402-292-6245 or mbombac@aol.com
Denise Britigan, 402-884-0185 or britigan@cox.net
aauw-ne.aauw.net

ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference
Contact: Lisa Turner
402-392-0746 or lturner@icanglobal.net
icanomaha.org

Do the Damn Thing
Contact: Catrice M. Jackson
402-706-4244 or catriceology@gmail.com
catriceology.com

Women on a Mission for Change
Contact: 402-403-9621 or womenonamissionomaha@gmail.com
womenonamissionomaha.org

Women’s Fund
Contact: Michelle Zych
402-827-9280 or mzych@omahawomensfund.org
omahawomensfund.org