Tag Archives: Brian Smith

Strawberry-Blue Olive’s Excellent Adventure

February 14, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Strawberry-Blue Olive believes in the power of “ideas worth spreading. This heartfelt belief in the TED tagline—plus her love of innovation, creativity, and community—made her an apt fit to carry the mantle of TEDxOmaha when original license holder Brian Smith stepped away after 2017. 

If you’ve never “met” TED, it’s a nonprofit aiming to spread knowledge and ideas, most notably in the form of TED talks (mini-lectures clocking in at 18 minutes or less) and conferences. TED began as a 1984 conference co-mingling topics of technology, entertainment, and design, but it has evolved into a sprawling network of projects and communities worldwide. The TED mission is ambitious yet simple: to build “a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers—and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.” TEDx events, which launched in 2009, are held locally in communities worldwide.     

“Giving a TED speech is unlike anything else. It’s not a motivational talk, not a conference speech, not a keynote speech. It’s something very different. It’s very prestigious and life-changing for people who deliver them,” says Olive, the executive producer and license-holder for TEDxOmaha. “[The aim] is to elevate what’s great within the community, because the [speakers] will inspire the audience to go and do great things themselves or to reach back to us and with their own idea worth spreading.”

Olive, who has a background in business, organizational leadership, and education, hails from the United Kingdom and spent 11 years working in Germany prior to moving to Omaha five years ago with her husband, Al Cagle, when his role in the U.S. Air Force transitioned to an Omaha-based job. The pair originally met at a Harley-Davidson rally in Norway. 

Olive says because she’d attended TED events elsewhere, she immediately looked into TED’s Omaha presence as a way to tap into the community. She later joined the effort as a volunteer. When Smith announced his departure, she stepped in to ensure TEDxOmaha would continue.

“I said to the team, ‘We cannot let Brian’s legacy go. We owe it to the community to continue this,’” says Olive, whose first order of business after securing the license was reaching out to all past volunteers and partners to gauge their needs, glean their knowledge, and understand how/if they’d like to be engaged in the future. “That’s something that’s never scared me—taking things over and setting up from scratch. As I’ve moved countries and changed careers, each time I’ve been thrown into an area I’m unfamiliar with, I have had to hit the ground running at top speed. So, that’s never phased me.”

While there are thousands of TEDx events around the globe, Olive says the Omaha area is particularly rich with them. 

“We have TEDxLincoln, TEDxOmaha, TEDxUNO, and TEDxCreighton,” she says. “A lot of communities don’t have the richness and diversity of ideas within their own community [to support multiple TEDx events]. We do.”

In addition to the main TEDx events, Olive says Omaha also has TEDxSalons and TEDxAdventures throughout the year to help “keep the momentum, ideas, and engagement going” year-round. Salons are held the third Monday monthly at KANEKO and Adventures occur throughout the community—everywhere from Kugler Vision to Joslyn Castle.   

One important challenge that Olive strives to address is achieving inclusivity. To her, that means creating community-wide awareness of TEDx events and ensuring a multitude of perspectives are at the table.

“Our vision is to promote positive interaction through the sharing of ideas,” Olive says. “Beyond providing events, our focus is to be of the community—to engage with others, participate, and collaborate within our community. So, if we are truly of the community, then we must work to be inclusive.”

Informed by her interest in education, and in an effort to include young people, TED-Ed is another program Olive would like to bring to Omaha in the coming years. TED-Ed is TED’s youth and education initiative, which brings the TED model into schools.

But for now, Olive and her “fabulous” team of volunteer leaders are busy planning TEDxOmaha’s 10th anniversary in 2019, which ultimately means choosing a theme and format, auditioning and coaching speakers, marketing the event, coordinating with partners, tackling logistics, and more.

Olive says they want to create “something special” to honor the decade milestone. Her other hope for TEDxOmaha’s future is to see the conversations sparked at the main event gain traction and create change within the community.

“We want to use the talks as a platform to start more conversations. I’m hoping we can build momentum around these conversations so they can take on a life of their own,” Olive says. “We have to explore where the synergy is in the community and how we can facilitate conversations to help the speakers elevate their ideas and bring in others to further discuss and move these ideas forward. And it doesn’t have to belong to [TEDxOmaha] all the way through, but if we can be the catalyst to start these conversations, that’s fantastic.”


Visit tedxomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Strawberry-Blue Olive

Strawberry-Blue Olive

The Rise of the Contract Worker

May 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha’s slogan is “We Don’t Coast,” but we do…at least in one respect.

Employees in Midwestern cities like Omaha are less likely to work side gigs than are their counterparts elsewhere in the United States, and they’re among the least likely in the country to have changed jobs in the last two years.

Still, 15 percent of Midwestern employees surveyed in late 2017 for an NPR/Marist poll indicated that they identify as contract workers—those hired guns brought on to complete a specific project, or for a specific period of time.

While lower than the rate of 21-23 percent of workers who identified as such in other regions and the 20 percent figure nationally, that number is changing how employers hire, what they offer prospective employees in the way of benefits, and, some local experts say, how or if they can grow their businesses.

Erin Isenhart enjoys working as a contract employee. The sole proprietor of Yellow House Creative has spent the last five years bouncing from one contract to the next. 

She says one client, Joe Pittman of Omaha-based Creative Association Management, has asked “many times” about coming to work for his organization, which works with various industry associations. But Isenhart says she prefers the flexibility of building on her existing relationship with Pittman and his clients, for which she manages projects like social media marketing, website maintenance and creation, and event planning. She also says her decision to stay independent is a form of mitigating the risk of something like an unexpected layoff—a fate she’s experienced too many times already.

“I could just work full-time for him, but as a contractor, you don’t want all your eggs in one basket,” Isenhart says.

Contractual work may also be a plus for many companies. In late March, Virginia Kiviranta of My Staff said she could hardly believe the volume of contractors in the Omaha office of a 300-employee government services client.

“They had 50 contractors on site and that’s the most I’ve ever seen them have,” said Kiviranta, who is a partner with Brad Jones at the Omaha-based staffing company. “I don’t know where they’re putting everyone. I didn’t think they have that much space.”

Government contracting by nature is project-driven, but step back and consider the tight labor market in general: Midwestern companies, on average, took nearly 32 days to fill an opening in January, according to the latest data from New York-based DHI Group Inc. The company uses data from its careers website combined with federal jobs data to derive a picture of about how long it takes to fill a job opening. Its time-to-hire index in January was more than double the duration of the same period in January 2009, when the recession was ravaging the economy and employers were slashing workforces.

A press release from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution states that, “Many vacancy postings for skill-intensive jobs draw few applicants, in line with employer claims that talent is scarce. Yet the typical jobseeker competes with many, many rivals for desired jobs. The upshot is that labor markets are both tight (for employers) and slack (for workers) at the same time.”

In other words, that means current conditions are indicative of a job-hunter’s market—especially for one with desirable skills. And that can pose a problem for a company trying to hire top talent.

“A lot of small businesses just don’t have a huge office, they don’t have a place to put everybody, and that’s costly,” says Isenhart. “Then when it comes to paying for insurance and any of the different benefits, it’s just not in their budget.”

Todd Murphy, CEO of Universal Information Services, takes a different view.

“The gig economy, and its related employees, is great in that it allows employers to use a flexible work force,” Murphy says. “The downside is that if you need ongoing support from someone, they may be busy on another project. I’ve also seen a person go from working gigs to being a full-time employee. This can have the same outcome in that they become unavailable for continued support or development.”

So, with a tight labor market for employers, local staffing professionals say a combination of contractors and temp-to-hire employees may be a good approach for staffing solutions.

“For the temp employees we put out to our clients, if there is a longer-term need than just a short three-to-six-month project, those [temp] individuals are the frontrunners to take those positions,” says Josh Boesch, shareholder at Lutz Talent, which specializes in finding employees for the accounting and finance industries. “The temporary employees oftentimes are performing working interviews, whereas a typical applicant or candidate for a job may only get an hour or a half hour to attempt to impress the hiring manager.”

Brian Smith spent almost a decade in retail banking before focusing on marketing; now, he works on a contract basis with political candidates and corporate clients as a consultant. Unlike Isenhart or other industry-specific contractors, he says he’s on a more fluid course and is currently angling to work with municipalities on urban innovation initiatives.

And with the right combination of contract work and flexibility, he may well reach his goal.


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

Erin Isenhart

Old Buildings, New Art

November 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since Omaha was founded nearly 160 years ago, many of its older buildings have seen their demise. But in at least two of Downtown Omaha’s historical structures, creative artists and imaginative entrepreneurs have replaced staid bankers and burly beer makers, enabling these pieces of history to continue on with a new purpose.

Carver Bank

An abandoned building near 24th and Lake streets became a renovated space this year for:

  • Artists in residence. Visual and performance artists receive workspace and a $500 monthly stipend for one year.
  • Art. Exhibitions, events, and workshops are available for youth and adults.
  • Participation. A cultural and economic resurgence is happening in North Omaha.
  • Environmentalism. Finishes inside are mostly made of salvaged and recycled materials, such as a gymnasium floor from a decommissioned school in Panama, Iowa.
  • Delicious food. Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop is open till 4 p.m. every day but Sunday, even serving a roast-beef sarnie called The Carver.

Carver Savings and Loan, named for scientist George Washington Carver, opened in 1946 as Nebraska’s first African-American bank. Vince Furlong, who conducts walking tours for Restoration Exchange Omaha, says that the bank closed in 1966. After housing several nonprofits, the building shut its doors in 2006.

In 2010, Hesse McGraw, then chief curator for Omaha’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates began talking to people in the neighborhood about the needs of North Omaha, according to Jessica Scheuerman, program coordinator for the Bemis Center.

After two years, McGraw and Gates decided to renovate the abandoned Carver Bank building. They wanted to spearhead a program with an emphasis on visual and performance artists of color or who are North Omaha-minded.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron, the eponymous owner of the sandwich shop, says the neighborhood was excited about the renovation that began last year. “People would come by and talk about how happy they were to see something go in there.”

The Carver Bank building is owned by the City of Omaha and leased for $1 over five years to the Bemis Center, which renovated and programs the space.

The artists’ program fits in well with the City of Omaha’s long-range, public-private plan to revitalize North Omaha, focusing on the 24th and Lake Cultural Arts District.

The building’s renovation is a good example of recycling. Framing lumber torn down during the building’s demolition was reused to frame new walls. Says Barron: “I’m a person who believes in recycling things, and I hate to see old buildings torn down. That’s a part of history being torn down.”

Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot

The stable is gone. The ice house is gone. Even the beer vault is gone. All were destroyed by a fire.

What remains is a quaint, brick building that was an office when the brewery’s complex was built in 1887. At 1213 Jones Street near the Bemis Center, the building has housed The New BLK (pronounced Black) advertising agency and art gallery for three years.

“‘The new black’ is a term in fashion for the next hot thing,” says Brian Smith, who gives his title as connector, catalyst, and co-conspirator.

The building was remodeled in 1988 by its current owner, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, which had offices there before moving. The architecture firm added a mezzanine loft area for nonprofit offices, and the space is still set aside for that use. “A recent example was Aqua-Africa, which builds wells in South Sudan,” says Smith.

The New BLK spreads out on the main level in a modern, open, workspace. The advertising firm also runs an art gallery on the lower level, featuring emerging artists.

Gerard Pefung, born in Cameroon, is one such artist who exhibited his work at The New BLK. “He recently did a mural installation at Omaha Police Headquarters,” Smith says. “Some of our partners are active artists and some have managed artist studios in Europe.”