Growing Together

NICOLE SWEIGARD of the Nebraska Alumni Association introduces Dr. Sam Nelson, the director for the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, during a listening session Tuesday afternoon at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce. Sweigard is a Norfolk native and Nelson’s mother is originally from Newman Grove.

After Dr. Sam Nelson, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, finished talking about entrepreneurship Tuesday afternoon, he opened it up to questions.

One of the questions was what Norfolk could do to make itself more inviting to entrepreneurs and people from other cities or states. It was a question that was bound to get asked given the nature of his audience.

Nelson was a guest speaker at the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce for the Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative, which seeks to transform Norfolk and Northeast Nebraska into a vibrant community. The hope is to get young people in their 20s and early 30s working in high-tech and other well-paying careers, retaining local talent and attracting other young people.

Nelson, who is a Nebraska native, lived about 14 years outside of the state before returning. In his job at the center and as an instructor at UNL, he talks to a lot of students.

“It doesn’t matter whether they are from a big city or a small town,” Nelson said. “This generation really wants to have meaningful relationships and meaningful work — more than any generation I’ve ever seen.”

Nelson told the more than 30 people who attended that he always thought towns like Norfolk could benefit by asking themselves, “How do we create that type of meaningful environment?”

Nelson said his experience growing up in Waverly and Lincoln shaped him. He said his grandfather started Bud’s Sanitary Service in Newman Grove and he spent part of his summer there.

It is his hope that growing up in a small town doesn’t get lost because “small towns are beautiful in many ways.”

“I think if we can find a way to connect that with Norfolk, that would work,” Nelson said. “Even focus groups with students (would help) because I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

 He said many in the current generation don’t endorse the current conservative Nebraska values. That can be a challenge because it is important the new generation feels welcome, especially coming out of college.

“In my experience, it would be bad to assume that they will come around to your way of life,” he said. “That’s not just my belief. That’s what they have told me.”

It is important to build relationships for young people, including people from other areas and states.

“For as nice as we are, the one thing we don’t do a really good job of is bringing people who aren’t from here into our close circle,” Nelson said. “I’ve had some of my friends tell me that, and I realize that they are right.”

Nelson said when he came back to Nebraska, he reconnected with his childhood friends and didn’t make an effort to have his colleague from California do things with him, such as watch a Husker game.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “I never in a million years intended to exclude anyone.”

The Center for Entrepreneurship was created at UNL in 1986. Nebraska was one of the first in the nation to have such a center.

UNL has 583 students taking entrepreneurial classes this fall and is on track to have more than 1,300 students take entrepreneurial classes in 2021-22.

So how many of those students actually start a business?

Nelson said it less than 5%, but that’s a good thing. It’s better to start a business a little later in life because the student is better equipped to see what the needs are.

“The number one reason businesses fail — contrary to popular belief — is not lack of capital. It’s because they built something that nobody wants,” he said.

The biggest challenge is many people fall in love with their idea.

“Their idea is like their baby,” Nelson said. “Don’t tell them they have an ugly baby.”

Successful entrepreneurs want to hear feedback and are willing to respond. Then again, some are ready to change too quickly.

The people who succeed are the ones who can watch the market, find out what people want and adjust. Timing also is huge, he said.