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Big Omaha, Day 1: Tech Wit and Wisdom

WRITTEN by: Crystal Olig |
categories: News

May 2013


My first time at Big Omaha surprised me for several reasons. I expected to meet cool people and hear about cool projects. I expected great speakers. I even expected to have a bunch of fun—after all, a conference that includes yoga, manicures, a fashion and a skate show has to be awesome, and it was.

What I didn't expect is the spirit of community and inclusion, the overwhelming positivity of everyone I met and the shared excitement about what is going on in tech in the Midwest. It went beyond intellectually engaging to be an experience not only of the mind, but of the soul.


I went to the conference with three goals in mind:

1) To meet interesting people from whom I could learn

2) To hear big ideas I could take back to my team and my clients

3) To be reinvigorated to tackle the everyday challenges of being part of a technology business

I achieved all three. Instead of a long narrative speaker recap, which you could find on Silicon Prairie News, the conference co-organizer with the Kauffman Foundation, here are some quotes and snippets of wisdom that were meaningful to me along the way.


Tony Conrad, @TonySphere, founder of and Sphere. Startup guy with True Ventures, WordPress, MakerBot, Typekit and Blue Bottle Coffee

"Why am I spending my time on About.Me? To reframe social media so individuals have a voice and more control over how you're presented online," he said.

"Google algorithms should not define you…My tweets don't define me."

"I think of you and me as entrepreneurs and founders, and I get it. It's a lot of stress, how get funded, stay funded, get hired, no detail is too small for any of us. If you can think, 'How do you start a movement,' that is your path to true north."

Megan Casey, @megancasey, founder of and formerly of Squidoo

Something Megan said really resonated with me, because I've felt the same thing:

“[I was] starting to feel a bit of stress about not building anything real, tangible, crafted. But then realized that we're building worlds. Don't ever let yourselves think you're doing something trivial if you're doing it online. We're connecting real human stories, creating wealth, supporting families."

"It's a really uncanny thing that we're building worlds— and we're just sitting there typing." (She used a great dog on laptop .gif to illustrate.— LOL.)

Megan also gave special invites to her product, PackLove, to Big Omaha attendees. See my new page for my dog Fenway!

Peter Hudson, @peterhudsonmd of iTriage

The key to getting great talent to work for you: "People can pick cool tech or cool tech + mission," he said. "People will pick cool tech + mission."

He spoke at length about making data actionable and working in partnership with people who benefit from the software on both ends of the spectrum—healthcare payors and healthcare consumers— to be truly disruptive with the (free!) product offered.

Catherine Rohr of @defyventures, Defy Ventures

This was one of the most moving stories of the day. While some seminars were based on how software solved a problem, and others spoke directly to entrepreneurs about the challenges of running a business. Catherine started a non-profit, and she had a real mission. She "transforms the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey." She told a story about being the child of immigrants, who believed that anything was possible for anyone in America—and found that people who were formerly incarcerated were not able to live the American dream after paying their time. Her program includes a selection process to "make sure they have the heart." It's a one year long, MBA -like program; a semi-shark-tank with more than $100,000 in micro loans available. It teaches character development and life skills that many former cons did not get in their old lives. There were two utterly remarkable things about the results of her program: 1) These formerly troubled people have since launched 44 new businesses and; the first initial ones made $250,000 in their first year of operation and created 24 employment opportunities. She had more stats that I didn't get down, but generally, there were no instances of recidivism. They are paying an immense amount of money through their businesses back into the U.S. economy and tax system. Ultimately, she stopped the cycle of poverty, discrimination and violence for these people—through entrepreneurship. 2) She brought three recent graduates of the program up on stage. For several it was their first time in front of a crowd that large, and it was utterly moving for them and for us to see them stand up, in suits, and share their mistakes and their business goals.

Anil Dash, @AnilDash, Co-founder and director of Activateinc

One of the most intellectual presentations of the bunch, I left feeling like Anil Dash was the Sam Adams of our time. His presentation was about the freedom of information on the web, and the values of those who create technology translating into personal values, not business ones. "Empathy and humanity helps build open source communities," he said. "We must not fund our products at the expense of our communities." "We want to believe that software is neutral, that it doesn't affect our culture," he said. He spoke vehemently about the need for openness and transparency on the web, repeating that "technology has values," and "we can do better," railing against the pages and pages of Terms of Service agreements that we've all agreed to, but not understood. He pointed out real issues with the way personal data like photos and posts are treated by big companies— that it's disposable and temporary. "We must build things that last again," he said. Something that struck me as a new parent was this comment: "Our kids will know our real life stories by what we've posted in our lives." I stopped and thought about what feelings and stories my son will know about me, simply because I've posted them along the way. That's transparency in parenting redefined.

Ben Milne, @bpmilne, of Dwolla, an internet payment network

This tech and finance entrepreneur is trying to revolutionize how payments work on the web. As I know from working on numerous e-commerce web projects, our monetary system is untenable today for the way real consumers and businesses need to share money digitally. His Dwolla product has the potential to be transformative across the web. His technology was impressive, but I was just as heartened by his perspective on the values of the Midwest. "You probably want to see your kids and eat dinner with them; you don't want a future on Skype," he said. "There are a lot of people on the [East and West] coasts who are creating and consuming. But having a family out there is at astronomical cost. We have something special in the midwestMidwest worth protecting." His company is based out of Iowa, and he shared why: "I'm happy we didn't leave, I think it was the right choice," he said. "There's a certain level of humility that is unique to the Midwest. Those are traits that are unique to this area, don't lose them." Ben also shared his belief, with which I agree with, that, "Creation is greater than consumption. We should create vs. just overwhelmingly consume. The person who can create no content creates no value and maybe isn't that valuable." Other gems from Ben Milne: "Ask people around you to go home." "Scale how you think, not how much you work—you won't do more efficient work." "Adopt new methodologies, find ways of making the world work for you. Figure out how you can operate, not just take on more work." "If you make decisions about who people should be without their consent, trust me, that will go sideways."

"People are not empowered because they have these views about what normality is. It creates what average people should be."

Next Post: Day 2, coming soon. Postscript: As a Gen Yer I just can't help but mention: I'd say the majority of people at this conference were under the age of 35. Despite the general bad press Gen Y gets today, I was heartened to see the passion, humility and drive of the young professionals I met at Big Omaha, and believe our generation will do great things.

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