Tag Archives: talent

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.

Revamped Radio

March 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When the band Train came to Omaha’s Baxter Arena for a concert in December 2016, there were plenty of flashing lights and excited fans. “But when the lights go out and the audience starts screaming, there’s no rush like it in the world,” says Andy Ruback, general manager of NRG Media. Ruback knows a great deal about screaming fans—when a big concert comes to town the likelihood is that Ruback had his hand in the planning. His role as general manager has evolved over the years from managing radio stations to include managing events brought to town by NRG Media Live.

The business is a natural fit for NRG, which owns stations ranging from Power 106.9 to 1290 KOIL. The company was looking to the future for broadcasting and leaning toward live shows as a way to increase profitability. NRG used their strengths in connecting people to music to expand into the business of concert production. With the radio stations’ on-air talent knowing their listeners’ preferences, the media company naturally knew what acts had potential to bring in revenue, and which ones might not.

Ruback came to Omaha from Lincoln, where he served as general manager for their NRG stations. Upon his arrival at the NRG offices in Omaha in 2012, Ruback went full speed ahead. He says the intention was never to focus on live shows over radio shows; rather, he called his plans a method for “diversifying for growth.”

Concert production is a challenge that Ruback gladly accepted, but in it, found unique bumps in the road. Some of those bumps included special requirements, such as permits, that needed the legal team’s help. Shock rocker Alice Cooper, for example, required the team to acquire special insurance because of the pyrotechnics involved with his show. Ruback and his team figured out how to get the right insurance, and now know who to ask the next time someone wants to light up fireworks onstage.

Ruback says some of the more surprising challenges he and his team have faced come from smaller, more routine details.

“I would say it’s more about the crowd experience logistics,” Ruback says. “How do we try to work with the arenas to make sure there’s enough concessions on the floor? What should be the entry ticket price? What should be the price for the front row?”

Logistics is the simplest description for the business of producing concerts. Is the specific artist available at the time? Is there enough interest in this artist to fill the seats? Is a venue available on the day needed?

“We could have the great idea, and the right price, but there could be a UNO hockey game and a Lancers game on the night we want, and we’re out of luck,” Ruback says.

It is a revenue stream in which many community businesses desire to participate, and there are many ways for them to participate, including attaching their name to experiences such as meet-and-greets with the band before or after the show, and attaching their name to souvenirs. Attendees at the Train concert, for example, vied for flashing bracelets and cups branded with a sponsor’s logo. Signage prominently displayed throughout Baxter Arena featured sponsor logos.

The scenario is beneficial to everyone involved: the band gets to play to a well-attended venue, the fans get to enjoy the band, and the sponsors get to present their message in an effective way.

“On that day, no other media group is producing a concert,” Ruback says. “So you’re looking at content that advertisers want to be a part of, but no other client can do.”

The diversification proved wildly successful. Ruback says that since 2014, more than 100,000 people have attended an NRG Media Live event. Associate athletic director for University of Nebraska at Omaha Mike Kemp enjoys his business dealings with NRG Media Live and says that when Ruback puts on a concert at Baxter Arena “… it’s not just a concert—it’s an event. He has great vision and ideas and that’s the true charm of what he does.”

“I think NRG Media does a great job of engaging the community to get behind the events,” adds Kemp. NRG Media has the ability to promote coming shows using the radio stations on their roster and their strong social media presence. This equals solid attendance numbers at concerts and happy sponsors.

“Andy’s full of energy and great ideas,” Kemp says of Ruback. “He’s an honest guy with great enthusiasm for what he does.” Rubak’s vision has evolved NRG Media into much more than an organization simply running local radio stations. In fact, the next time there is a popular concert in town, there is an excellent chance that Ruback can be found there, smiling and enjoying the rush.

Visit nrgmedia.com for more information.

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

Show Of Hands

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you love trips to the museum and trips to the manicurist, Imagine Uhlenbrock is your one-stop shop for a day of art, style, and self-care all rolled into one stunning experience.

Uhlenbrock is the “nail genie” and artist behind Just Imagine Nails. Keratin is her canvas and her work is constantly showing on the hands of happy clients throughout Omaha.

“I started doing my own nails when I was about 4, because I was an only child and it was something I could do for myself,” Uhlenbrock says.

Her interest in nail art grew through middle school and high school, culminating in her first steady nail job at a downtown Omaha salon. It was meant to be her college job, but Uhlenbrock loved the craft so much she launched her own business doing natural, ethical nails at age 19.

For those skeptical that a manicurist can be a “real” artist, one look at Uhlenbrock’s vibrant Instagram portfolio provides ample evidence of her artistry and talent. Intricate, hand-painted designs, patterns, and messages mingle with hand-placed bling. Colors and textures pop, and unique, creative themes inspire the urge to scroll right on down the rabbit hole because no two sets are alike and your eyeballs will want to collect them all.

 

 “It’s just like commissioning any other piece of art,” Uhlenbrock says. “I always have ideas, so I have clients who just come in and let me do whatever I want every two weeks, or sometimes they come in with a theme or idea in mind. Most of the time it’s a collaborative process and we customize it based on the vision and what they’re feeling like that week.”

This process has resulted in galaxy nails, Vegas- and beach-themed vacation nails, desert sunset nails, snowflake and Christmas nails, Fourth of July “red, white, and bling” nails, Ouija board nails, Netflix and chill nails, ice cream and French fry nails, nails that are geometric, plaid, rainbow, floral, color-blocked, gradient, holographic or chrome, and nails that mimic abstract paintings, among others.

“I take inspiration from everywhere. The print of your dress, the pattern of that chair, the texture of this pillow, someone’s artwork,” Uhlenbrock says.

Then there are the pop culture nails. She’s done sets that honor artists including Eartha Kitt, Prince, Beyoncé, and Frida Kahlo, that appreciate cultural icons ranging from Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson to Grumpy Cat, that recognize the Broadway Hamilton phenomenon, that reference literature from Harry Potter to local author Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, and that celebrate TV shows from The Golden Girls to The Powerpuff Girls. Her popular annual Halloween special has taken inspiration from The Addams Family, Stranger Things, The X-Files, and Hocus Pocus sets, as well as one of her personal all-time favorites: Michael Jackson “Thriller” nails.

“You can see from my themes that I like weird,” Uhlenbrock says. “I’ll put anything on a nail as long as it’s not problematic.”

Uhlenbrock’s political work is also incredibly compelling. She’s done anti-pipeline nails, Black Lives Matter nails, and nails that read “Go Vote,” among others.

“One of the roles of an artist is to get people to think or to spread certain messages. Nail art is no different than any other art form in that way,” Uhlenbrock says. “That’s how art and social justice can intersect by creating visuals, sounds, or whatever the medium to raise awareness, to educate, or to relieve pain and pressure for the oppressed. So, a lot of what I do is people’s regular self-care.”

In December 2016, Uhlenbrock opened her Hand of Gold Beauty Room space in the Fair Deal Village Marketplace, near 24th and Lake streets. She currently shares the space with two subcontractors, Qween Samone and Ria Gold, who help support the service menu of natural nails, makeup, and braiding. Uhlenbrock enjoys working in the thriving area among neighboring small business owners and she’s committed to using her space to support her peers.

“We support small businesses here,” Uhlenbrock says. “Economic disenfranchisement has been a huge tool of oppression against people of color. So, it’s really important to me as I grow and have my own economic development to reach out and empower others through that as well.”

Uhlenbrock stocks body care products from Lincoln-based Miss Kitty and Her Cats, pieces from Omaha’s Amaral Jewelry, and gets all of her regular polishes from Ginger + Liz, a black woman-owned, vegan-friendly, toxin-free nail lacquer company. She also sells jewelry from her other business, The Bigger the Hoops.

Besides providing an important platform for a network of artists and makers, the petite Hand of Gold Beauty Room just feels like a place you want to be. A plush, amber-colored couch beckons from the pedicure platform that Uhlenbrock and her mother hand-built. The walls are decked with striking work by Lincoln artist Brittany Burton, featuring black-and-white depictions of “thick” women with sparse flashes of green and yellow. Soul music fills the air and large windows let ample natural light stream in.

“Everyone should probably go to a therapist, but not everyone does—some people get their nails done instead,” Uhlenbrock says. “They can come here, have a good conversation, and leave feeling like a million bucks with something good to look at for a couple weeks. It’s a lot easier to feel like you have your shit together when your nails are on point.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Littleton Alston

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Littleton Alston’s 8-ft bronze statue of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson catches the moment the ball’s just been released. “It’s when the will and the training and the gift come together,” says the sculptor. “It’s the crescendo of intent.”

Alston’s sculpture embodies motion in its dynamic pose. Leaning into the pitch, the muscled body spirals upward from the left foot—the lower body forward, the shoulders and arms swung wide to the left. The right arm and leg are powerful horizontal flourishes; the left foot, like a dancer’s en pointe, anchors man to earth and channels a diagonal bolt of sheer energy. Only the head is still, as Gibson’s intense gaze follows the ball to its precise target.

Such flawless execution comes from years of training, exercising through fatigue, inclement weather, or personal discouragement. Equally important is the determination, the focus on one’s goal. And thirdly, an inherent gift. This trivium is the foundation of a career in sports and in the arts.

Alston played baseball for one semester in high school, but it was enough to give him a better understanding of himself. “It’s both an individual and a team sport,” he said. “Sometimes you have to forgo the ego for a greater good.” And although he liked baseball, he recognized that it was not his gift. Besides, Alston’s school experience was not one of free time and hobby sports.20130307_bs_8479_Web

Growing up poor in Washington, D.C.’s Northeast neighborhood, Alston and his two closest brothers quickly learned the value of self- and mutual reliance, street smarts, and independence. From home, they could look all the way down East Capitol Street to see the Capitol dome, topped by its statue, Freedom. After one astonishing Christmas when each child got a bike, Capitol Hill became the boys’ playground. Bicycling a couple of miles from home to Hill was hot work in Washington’s humid summers, and the inviting waters of the many reflecting pools were irresistible. They leap-frogged from one to another, sometimes with police in pursuit. Alston particularly liked the pool at the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) with its 40-ft Calder stabile. A cool dip was what first appealed to the children, but Alston was unconsciously absorbing the lessons of form embodied in the public art and distinguished buildings.

In junior and senior high school, police presence signaled a much more dangerous environment than summer shenanigans, and violence seemed an unavoidable whirlpool. It was Alston’s gift, an insistent urge to draw, and his mother’s recognition of that talent, that provided him a way out—acceptance at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It was a gift that demanded constantly that he push past his definitions of endurance, of ability, of understanding. And when he won the senior art prize and a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, the training continued. As his skills were honed, so was his will, so that one night, after his job as a janitor, he was determined to finish a painting assignment. When it was completed, he was so exhausted that he laid his cheek against the wet paint and slept.

After 35 years, he still feels the derision of the teacher and other students, and his own bitter anger. But, sometimes, the ego has to be put aside for a greater good.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Littleton Alston got his degree from VCU, and an MFA from Rinehart School of Sculpture. He is Associate Professor of Sculpture at Creighton University and maintains a private studio. Among his awards, the most recent is Midtown Business Association’s 2013 City of Omaha Community Excellence Award for “The Jazz Trio,” located in North 24th’s Dreamland Plaza. Alston has worked in abstract style, but prefers figurative. His website’s home page bears this statement:

“The human form holds endless fascination for me, and it is this vehicle through which I believe can best express the joys and sorrows of the human condition.”

When offered the Bob Gibson commission, Alston took time to think it over. He’d never sculpted a sports figure, but felt “immense respect” for Gibson as a “trailblazer” in terms of racial equality and changes to the game. He was fascinated by the form of a ball player in action, and by the “aging champion” who sat for him.

Alston’s sculpture of Bob Gibson was unveiled April 11 at Werner Park. The presentation was a time of honor for Gibson, but also for Alston. Each man has created a life using will, training, and his unique gift. Every release of the ball, every unveiling strikes a crescendo of intent, an expression that goes out into the world contributing its own perfect harmony.

To view more of Littleton Alston’s work, visit alstonsculpture.com. To view the Bob Gibson Project, visit bobgibsonproject.org.

Keith “Keymaster” Martz

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Talent can present itself in many forms. For some, it’s through an aptitude for academics; for others, it’s via intellectual curiosity. But for Keith “Key Master” Martz, it can be found on the 88 keys of a piano. Inspired by every genre from classical to modern jazz, the 29-year-old Omaha native has the gift of music that stems from an enthusiasm and passion for the art itself.

“My music has its own style,” he says. “What sets me apart as a musician is that it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.”

Mostly self-taught, Martz was encouraged by his mother to take up the piano when he was about 7 years old. He received some formal training until the age of 9, but it was minimal. Later, as a student at Millard South, he joined the high school band where he once again played the piano.

Martz’s approach to the form is unique. He says he’s a slow sight reader, meaning he plays faster than he can read music notes. For this reason, and because of his love of improvisation, Martz doesn’t play sheet music and instead creates new songs each time he sits down to play.

“If I was asked to play music by other people, I couldn’t,” Martz says. “I play from my heart, and I play my own type of music.”20121127_bs_5679 copy

When he’s not pounding out melodies on a keyboard, Martz stays plenty busy working two full-time jobs, during the day at specialty grocery store Trader Joe’s and at night at Lakeside Hospital. Luckily, Lakeside Hospital has a piano in its lobby, and his coworkers often ask him to play for them when he’s not occupied with his duties as a valet.

Christie Abdul, manager of volunteers and business innovations at Lakeside, oversees the valet services where Martz works and has had the opportunity to work with him.

“Keith is someone who is very warm; he greets everyone with a positive attitude,” she says. “I truly believe he cares about every single person he meets. His happiness is kind of like something you want to catch. It’s contagious.”

“What sets me apart as a musician is that [my music] doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.” – Keith Martz

Abdul says that Martz goes out of his way to embody the hospital’s “every patient is my patient” philosophy. Even if a car isn’t using the valet service, she says, he’ll run to the car and open the door.

“He’s genuinely a warm and caring person and just gentle,” she says.

Paul Lukes and Kyle Eustice, regular customers of Trader Joe’s, say they look forward to seeing the kind and chipper employee during their shopping trips. “The first time I came across Keith, it seemed like perhaps he was just having a really, really good day,” says Lukes. “Then I realized, after shopping [there] for so long, that he’s always having a good day. That’s Keith.”

“His positivity is contagious and I would challenge anyone to leave a conversation with him without a smile on their face,” adds Eustice.20121127_bs_5753 copy

As any artist would, Martz gains inspiration from other talent and his list of favorites is quite eclectic. Some of the performers he regularly listens to include Mozart, Coldplay, Hans Zimmer, U2, and internet sensation Ronald Jenkees.

“I only listen to music once a week because my own music satisfies and comforts me most of the time,” he says. “I love listening to music from scores like Bourne Supremacy, Batman Returns, and Inception.”

Martz is planning to record a CD of his music and one day, he’d like to tour. Until then, music lovers can listen and watch him perform on YouTube with the search terms “Keith ‘Key Master’ Martz.”

But the promise of fame or fortune isn’t what pushes Martz to continue his art. Rather, the sheer pleasure of playing is enough for him.

“One time I played, I played until my fingers bled because I was just pouring myself into it,” Martz says. “I get really itchy feet, and I just let it all out at once. I love expressing myself like that in the music that I play.”