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Barbara Ball


While sifting through her grandparents’ handwritten letters sent during World War II, Barbara Ball discovered the name of her future jewelry business.

She repeatedly saw the phrase, “So Honey,” used endearingly by the two long-distance lovers as they kept in touch during her grandfather’s deployment.

The simple yet meaningful phrase stuck with Barbara, and when it came time to name her business, it clicked.

The phrase “So Honey” is more than just a name, she said, much in the same way that the jewelry she creates is more than just pretty combinations of stones.

Every gem and stone that Barbara picks for her designs has intention behind it, because every piece has its own meaning.

Barbara has studied crystals and gemstones since she was 16 years old and found herself wandering the aisles of Euphoria, a local imports store in Lincoln.

“I have no idea how I found that place, I just did,” she said.

Soon, she began learning from the workers at the shop. She started making her own jewelry out of the gems and stones, and her friends started asking her to make pieces for them.

That was three years ago. Now, Barbara spends much of her free time creating unique pieces that not only look beautiful, but also focus on a lifestyle of healing and chakra balancing. Chakra balancing refers to the seven chakras identified throughout the body, which are meant to be balanced at all times.

Every necklace, bracelet and mala that Barbara creates has a specific purpose and property that aims to create a balance among the chakras, and each stone means something different. Some stones are known for their healing properties, while some are meant for elevating vibrations in meditation, she said.

Most importantly, Barbara said she enjoys promoting wellness within the lives of her customers. Many people buy her jewelry because they see it as another part of a wellness trend, but others purchase it because they’re looking for purpose.

Creating jewelry that helps others get through life is Barbara’s way of turning a hobby into a product for good.

Through the ability to help others with gemstones and jewelry, Barbara found a passion that she didn’t even know was there.

“For the longest time, I’ve felt like I was missing something,” Barbara said. “I just could never find something that was ‘me’… And being able to do this, and being able to be super nerdy with it and connect with people is just the best part.”

She describes it as her “crazy passion.”

It’s a passion that’s exploded, to the point that it’s taken over a room in her home for jewelry making. Nestled in the corner of the room are books that sparked Barbara’s passion, the pages are full of information about the different stones, crystals and meanings. Every week she estimates she creates about 25 pieces, from necklaces and bracelets, to malas.

In the future, Barbara said she would like to become even more of a resource for those looking to gems and stones for healing.

Barbara occasionally hosts gemstone sessions where she can interact one-on-one with people who are interested in her jewelry and crystal healing. There, she can not only create a piece that is tailored specifically to clients, but she can explain the deeper meaning behind it.

So Honey has become much more than just a hobby for Barbara.

It’s a place for people who are looking for a new resource. It’s a place for change. Most importantly, it’s a place where she embodies the simple, caring nature of the phrase, “So, honey…” to those that are looking for help.

John Fulwider


When John Fulwider walks into Leadbelly, the bartender starts making his favorite drink—an Old Fashioned.

While it might seem a small thing to be a regular at a local restaurant, John has aspired to that title for years.

As a kid, John never spent more than three years in any one place. His father’s Air Force career led his family to Texas, Florida, Nebraska, Germany, Virginia, Germany again, Nebraska again, and finally Lincoln.

It’s in Lincoln where John’s story really starts to take shape.

“Lincoln has given me my beautiful wife, my education, my children, my church community, the launching place of my businesses,” John said.

“Lincoln has given me a place to set down roots and call home. That’s something I’ve never had before.”

He came to Lincoln to attend the University of Nebraska, where he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in journalism. John laughed about the fact that he spent far more time reporting for The Daily Nebraskan than actually going to his classes.

Internships and jobs at the Associated Press, Lincoln Journal Star, and The Wall Street Journal came before John took the leap to a startup internet newspaper, Nebraska StatePaper. The startup folded after a few years and John began looking for his next adventure, which led him to graduate school.

“Most grad students are people who loved school,” he said. “But I hated school!”

Two mentors made him love graduate school. D’Andra Orey inspired John’s love of political science, while Denise Bulling encouraged John to turn his research into his second business. She also handed him his first client, so John worked half his time on getting a tenure-track professorship, and half his time building his business.

“I had Plan A for academics and plan C for consulting, and no Plan B, because who needs one?” John joked. Plan A didn’t work out—he came in second in a job search at Texas Christian University—so he cried in his beer for seven days before closing the door on university teaching work and taking his consulting business full time.

Seven years later, John had pivoted his business many times to end up with executive coaching, planning and team-building services for housing, community, and economic development organizations nationwide. He was away from his family more than he liked and it was starting to wear on all of them.

At one point, John got seriously ill while on a business trip and so on top of being away from his wife and two young daughters for six days, he had to quarantine himself from the girls for another week at home. It was miserable, he said, and it was at that point that he decided he didn’t want to travel for work any more.

John launched his third business to focus only on working with entrepreneurial businesses in Lincoln and sixty miles around, allowing him to focus his energy on Lincoln and his family.

There’s a lot of moving parts to John’s story. A lot about his family, his work and his community that he loves to share about with anyone who will listen.

He said so much of his story has been about finding his place, digging deep, putting down roots and experiencing a deep sense of joy in being known. John said that because he moved so often as a kid, he had a hard time making friends. He said he only had one friend at each place he lived, and had to find a new one each time he and his family packed up and moved to their next assignment.

But finding his place in Lincoln has meant the world to him. He’s in awe of the fact that his kids will go to the same high school that his wife attended, that he lives in a neighborhood filled with friends and that he can rattle off his favorite local restaurants and haunts at the drop of a hat.

John loves walking in to Leadbelly and knowing the bartender remembers his favorite drink. He loves anything and everything local, but mostly he just loves knowing Lincoln is his place. It’s a place he knows, a place he calls home and place that knows him.

Ben Pankonin


Ben Pankonin remembers the moment when his regular life and his work life started to melt together – he was in first grade.

His parents had just bought a Hallmark store and they were finalizing the sale of the shop, which just happened to fall on Ben’s birthday.

It’s almost comical, but it’s a true story. Ben said while it felt a little strange and very grown up to spend his birthday in a law office, this kind of involvement in his parents’ work shaped his story in ways he didn’t anticipate.

“For me, this was just what we did. You pitched in and showed up, moved boxes and did whatever was asked,” he said. “I didn’t really have an alternative; I didn’t realize that it wasn’t normal.”

Ben assisted customers at his parent’s shop until he was old enough to see over the counter and then he quickly moved on to running the register. When other kids were learning basic math skills, Ben was counting back change to customers or getting a quick economics lesson from his dad.

Without articulating it in the exact words, his parents were showing Ben how to be an entrepreneur – how to think for himself, solve problems and work for himself. They showed him that this way of life didn’t have to be scary or overwhelming, it could also be exciting and energizing… and soon Ben started to see himself as a young entrepreneur.

During college, Ben studied business and computer science at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He was fascinated by technology, but enjoyed how the social aspect of the business world offset the often isolating bubble of computer science.

He got his first internship by calling up a company and asking if he could rebuild their website. His roommate was confused by Ben’s job because to him, all Ben did was sit in their dorm room and work on his computer.

“What are you doing?” his roommate asked one day.

Ben’s response was simple, “I’m billing time.”

To Ben, working this way felt second nature, and so it was no surprise when he jumped right into a tech startup after graduation. He quickly learned the ins and outs of the startup world, observing what worked well and what didn’t. Although the job only last a year, the experience helped Ben take a closer look at what it took to run a startup.

Ben worked a few other jobs, including a year-long leadership program in Washington D.C., before returning to Nebraska where he began to put down roots in the tech industry again. Within a few years he helped a local IT company go from three to 50 employees, and Ben was enjoying the way his job allowed him to understand the community as well as take a technical approach to his work.

But he was also anxious to do his own thing. Ben stepped away from his job to do some consulting and began testing out a few ideas for his own startup.

In 2012, Ben launched Social Assurance, a marketing software company focused on helping financial institutions utilize digital marketing. It was a concept that filled a major void, but also fit well with Ben’s technical and social strengths.

As he began to spend more time working with other founders and startups, Ben realized that his business wasn’t just meeting a need in the community, it was also meeting a need in his own story. Being an entrepreneur came naturally to Ben. It allowed him space to come up with new ideas, explore a variety of opportunities and watch those ideas and opportunities take on a new life together.

It also made him take a closer look at himself and his own insecurities.

“There’s a lot of risk involved,” he said. “You’re constantly evaluating if you’re doing the right thing, playing to your strengths or asking the right people to help you… and you have to admit that there are a lot of things you’re not good at.”

Being an entrepreneur can be both physically and mentally exhausting, but Ben said he is fortunate to live with a fellow entrepreneur – his wife, Amber. Having two startup-minded people under one roof has both advantages and disadvantages, but Ben said it’s extremely helpful to have a partner who understands the ups and downs of running a business. They celebrate together when things go well, and work to come up with a new plan when things don’t go so well.

Ben said they often joke about whose job is the more stable. They both juggle the logistics of working lots of hours, traveling, scheduling and then making time to spend with each other. Some days it feels like a hustle, but for Ben it’s work that he’s excited to do because it plays to his strengths.

When he looks back at his story he can see moments when things started to make sense to him. Moments when he absorbed knowledge from his parents without even knowing it, and made decisions that were based on his experience instead of a business principle.

His story is one that’s been about watching, learning and doing. It’s been about being honest with himself, others and the community and working to create a space that’s true to himself and the people he serves.

Case Maranville


Managing over 200 apartments means that late night phone calls are just part of the job.

There are the usual stories – of good folks paying their rent and friendships that form. And then there are other sorts of tales – of the electricity going out in an apartment because of vandalism or a tenant whose mugshot happens to make the papers.

Fortunately, these are the more unusual situations in residential property management, but Case Maranville recognizes that with each new tenant, there is always an element of risk.

Case has worn many hats over the years, and each venture has had elements of uncertainty. He has been a musician of a nationally known band, has a degree in wildlife management, is an entrepreneur, an audio engineer, and currently co-owns a residential property business with his brother.

Despite the variety of his experiences, each situation has helped inform Case’s perspective and has pushed him to continue to take paths that occasionally involve risk.

Before his property management days, Case played bass and toured with a band he helped form called Vota.

While in the music industry, he and his bandmates understood they couldn’t sit around and wait to be discovered – they had to create their art while simultaneously figuring out how to make it profitable. By devoting themselves to their craft and forging partnerships and connections within the music industry, they were able to tour and perform in front of thousands of people.

“I learned a lot about working within a partnership and learned about self-determination. Those lessons help me now in the business I run with my brother Cole.”

In 2006, Case began to realize that he needed to begin considering a career move when his wife Lindsey gave birth to their first son River. While the band had been a great fit before kids, it soon became apparent that touring and having a family wouldn’t remain sustainable.

Case left the band and he and Lindsey decided to move from their farm just west of Lincoln and into a house in the heart of the city.

“This was in 2008, just before the housing market crashed, so the banks looked at our credit and didn’t think twice about letting us take out a second mortgage. We rented out the farm and I quickly started learning what it meant to be a landlord.”

While he and his family settled into their life in Lincoln, Case found a job working as an audio engineer for a large church in west Omaha. This job provided him with a good baseline income, the ability to use his expertise in sound and music and the flexibility to slowly begin exercising his entrepreneurial mind.

One day, Case’s brother Cole called him up to propose a business idea. He had been reading books about investments and thinking about rental property in Lincoln and in the meantime had found an intriguing opportunity in the form of a duplex for sale near downtown Lincoln.

Neither brother had any idea that this initial purchase would take them to the place they are today, with 236 residential units in 37 buildings throughout the Near South neighborhood.

“We now offer a variety of options. We have a lot of tenants aged 20-30 looking for the interesting old converted houses near downtown. We also have people with fixed incomes and those who need subsidized housing.”

Case said that his work has become a really good fit for his personality.

The job requires him to be a “finder” – one of his favorite things to do – of the right properties to buy and the right tenants to fill those spaces. He likes that he gets the opportunity to provide good housing situations for all different kinds of needs and strives to provide fair, good service for his tenants.

He also finds his interpersonal and problem-solving skills being put to use. From lease agreements to conflict resolution, Case finds that forthright, respectful communication is key to maintaining good tenant-landlord relationships.

“I’ve learned a lot about people in the last eight years. Property management is 50% about the buildings and 50% about humanity.”

Case appreciates the opportunity to work alongside his brother and to be invested in the work together, recognizing that they both bring important things to the table.

One of the elements Case most appreciates about his work is the opportunity for both freedom and control, something that has slowly come as the business has developed.

“Owning your own business is a 24/7 thing. It’s just the way it is. There are eventual perks though – being able to control your own schedule. I want to work hard, but not be a slave to the job. I will work hard for those ends.

“For now, music is on hold and that’s ok. That’s how it’s supposed to be. We still have music around the house. Even the 19-month-old will get on the mike when we’re all hanging out down in the basement. You have to remember that just because things are on hold doesn’t mean it’s over. The things you love will come back around.”

Every business story or idea Case speaks of is laced with a thoughtful approach. He is not simply a straightforward engineer or businessman, nor is he an artist who can’t figure out what he’s about. His self-determination is evident and the ease with which he moves speaks to an inner confidence and peace.

Case isn’t on a crusade, but seems to intuitively understand that the risky things in life are sometimes the most valuable. He works hard to make sure he remains engaged creatively and thoughtfully as he serves the people within his sphere of influence.

Ben and John Siebert


Returning home to the family farm is a common Nebraska story. But returning home to start a farm from scratch, with a crop that covers four and a half acres, is an unusual tale.

“We had approached our dad with nearly 100 business ideas,” Ben laughed.

It wasn’t until they proposed starting a vineyard that he responded positively and wanted to hear more.

Ben and John Siebert were raised on an acreage in the Bohemian Alps between Lincoln and Seward. It was a perfect place to grow up, and the brothers took every opportunity to roam the rolling hills.

While they were provided many freedoms as kids, Ben, John and their brother Jason were instilled with the value for discipline, hard work and engagement in the world around them.

Their parents led by example – their dad waking up early every morning to head into the office, while their mom was busy volunteering, working various jobs and caring for foster kids who lived with them.

When summer arrived and sports were on pause, the boys took on the many available jobs associated with farms: detasseling, roguing, working cattle, even catching and blindfolding a neighbor’s pheasants.

As John and Ben found themselves graduating and entering college, they continued to follow similar paths. Both went to UNL, graduated with business degrees, and landed jobs at Sandhills Publishing.

At Sandhills, the brothers’ work-ethic and desire to learn paid off. John was assigned to ad sales in an aviation magazine while Ben worked with a construction equipment publication.

It was a job you jumped into head-first, traveling, meeting with top-level executives and learning from your mistakes. They developed patience, business acumen and a value for listening to people’s stories.

It wasn’t surprising then, when they came upon a story that became the starting point to their business of making wine.

“We were at a washer tournament (which is a competition comparable to the game of horseshoes) near Sprague, Nebraska when we noticed this guy carrying a pony keg under his arm. He was going around, filling people’s glasses, but it looked more like wine than beer.”

A washer tournament is an unusual place to find business inspiration, but Ben and John did just that.

They came to find out that Chad, the tournament organizer and keg-holder, was indeed pouring wine, and it was good. A certified winemaker who had studied the craft in Europe, California and Washington, he had returned to the midwest and had been experimenting with Nebraska grapes for ten years.

Friends and family had occasionally suggested that the Sieberts attempt to grow grapes on their land. Meeting someone with the unusual expertise in winemaking and familiarity with Nebraska grapes and growing seasons made this seem like a real possibility. The pieces began to fall into place.

Soil samples and a successful test crop led to laying out the first acre of grapes in 2011. In 2013, they planted 3.5 additional acres.

“It took three years before we were able to produce wine. We use 100% Nebraska grapes – a combination of our own and varieties from other vineyards in the state.”

As Ben and John talk, it is evident they have thrown themselves into the labor and learning curve of owning a vineyard.

They discuss their method of production, which mirrors French winemaking. No sugar or preservatives are added in order to allow the flavor of the grapes to shine through.

They speak of the seasonal difficulties they have already encountered, acknowledging one of the most mild and optimal growing seasons and one of the most unpredictable, challenging years in Nebraska’s history.

“In sales, there is a predictability with four or five routines to each week. When you are growing grapes and making wine, your routines are responsive to the weather and your produce.”

They are beginning to enjoy the “fruits of their labor” quite literally.

“Opening a bottle of wine, you remember the year of that harvest and everything that was going on. Every bottle, every vintage, a memory.”

The brothers’ goals have been straightforward from the beginning: Make the highest quality wine and make the business successful.

In order to do so, they have maintained a philosophy of partnering with good people and facilitating a place where ideas and mistakes are part of the process.

Which is reflected in their name: Junto Wine.

“We had originally had a name that played off our location. One night, John called me and said he had a better idea,” said Ben.

John had been watching a documentary when he learned about a club Ben Franklin had begun to promote conversation about philosophy, community involvement and politics.

The name and intention struck a chord with Ben and John. The name reflected their own beginnings and pointed to their love of history.

Junto Wine is now in full swing, with a tasting room and an event space built right next to the vineyard. Friday nights are busy with local music and guests gathering after the week of work.

Ben and John speak of agritourism and the good relationships between Nebraska vineyards, but eventually come back to the simple pleasure of working so close to the land.

“There is a divinity in the process of making wine. It points to a higher quality of life. There is a delicacy in everything you do and in everything that is involved. Makes it easy to be proud of it.”

Ben and John are living out a new Nebraska story with Junto Wine. But it’s the weaving of history and tradition with the new industry of Nebraska grape-growing and winemaking that makes this place particularly special.

Mark Zmarzly


Mark Zmarzly knows where his story starts to take shape.

“It’s when I met my wife,” he said.

That answer might sound a little strange for a guy who’s in the startup world. But Mark said meeting his wife changed him because he saw his potential. It wasn’t that his wife asked him to be different or changed him in anyway, it’s that Mark started to clearly see what mattered to him and how to lean into his unique skills.

As a 20-something-year-old Mark was a driven, energetic kid who lacked direction. He had graduated with a bachelor’s degree, moved to Atlanta for a job, then moved back to Nebraska to figure out his next step. He moved in with his parents and waited tables at Lazlo’s, Lone Star and the Garden Cafe – which is where Mark first met his wife, Angie.

A few months after Mark was Angie’s waiter, they ran into each other. The two remembered each other, exchanged numbers and made plans to go on a date. Four months later the two were engaged and six months later they were married.

Now, 14 years and three kids later, Mark said meeting his wife was the fire he needed to figure out his next step in life.

“We were madly in love within a few days. And she didn’t care that I was a waiter who smoked and who ‘maybe would go to grad school.’ She didn’t care about any of that, which is why I started to care,” Mark said.

Mark stopped smoking and went on to earn his Master’s degree in English and creative writing and then he applied for a copywriting job at a bank consulting company.

Being in the banking industry had never been on Mark’s radar, but the job would give his family stability and he was ready to try something new.

He asked tons of questions and became fascinated with the psychology of finance. Mark was quickly promoted to the manager of his department and then asked to join the sales team.

He remembered thinking to himself, ‘Well, if I don’t do this then I won’t be growing, so I might as well go for it…’

Mark’s first few weeks in sales were rough. He was told to figure things out on his own, with no marketing budget and he even had a bank president swear at him over the phone. Needless to say, Mark quickly realized that he’d need to find a more innovative sales method. He started networking and hosting webinars on LinkedIn  and focusing on other tech-related ways to connect with banks.

By the end of the year, Mark had brought in more sales to the company than his manager.

That’s the thing about Mark, he’s a curious guy who can’t stop learning. He said his wife jokes that he’s ‘always got something cooking’ and Mark takes that as a huge compliment.

Figuring things out is just the way his brain works. He loves solving problems and finding solutions in the most creative way possible. Which is what ultimately led him to quit his job and start his own company.

Mark calls April 15, 2014, his “liberation day.” It was the day he quit corporate America to start his company, Hip Pocket. Mark launched a software company that creates apps to help people make better financial decisions from their phone in just a few minutes. It was his take on the best way to help people and banks communicate better about valuable savings and finances.

For the past two years Mark has spent his time building his company, developing new ideas and speaking at conferences. He’s crazy about work and hates the thought of anyone outworking him. This attitude has paid off. Mark’s company has been successful in a short period of time and he recently raised over $21,500 in a Kickstarter campaign for their newest app, Hip Money

But fast growth has its own challenges.

Mark pointed to his arm and then pulled up the rest of his sleeve to show off a series of leaves, branches and colorful bird tattoos. He got the tattoos this year. Each bird represents a member of his family – his wife and kids. It serves as a visual reminder to take life “bird by bird.” To slow down, breathe, be patient and focus on what matters.

In startup culture those things are hard, Mark said. Life happens fast and you have to execute quickly, but Mark also doesn’t want to lose track of life.

And being patient doesn’t mean Mark subdues his passion or represses his driven personality. Instead it means working to find a balance.

It’s little things like disregarding his phone when he gets home in the evening, making dinner, doing yard work and playing with his kids. It’s about learning to celebrate the wins, to stop, listen and witness his family grow and change.

“These things fill up my bucket more than anything else,” Mark said. “Just being fully present.”

Getting married and having kids has given Mark some of the best motivation he’s ever had. Sure, he builds his company for his awesome clients, but he’s also doing it to secure a future for his family and to show kids kids what life can be.

Mark’s realized that his work life and home life aren’t separate. They feed off one another, and in the end it’s the combination of the two that make his story one that matters.

Steve Glenn


Steve Glenn gets giddy when he talks about work.

Almost a giggly, middle school girl kind of giddy. He listed off the agenda for his Friday afternoon, consisting of an assortment of phone and in-person meetings extending from 12:30 until after 6:00 that evening.

“Doesn’t that just sound like a fun day?!?!!” said Steve as he looked up from his calendar. He wasn’t being sarcastic or overly optimistic, he just loves his work.

No, Steve doesn’t give away puppies for a living, he’s a business owner and entrepreneur. More specifically he’s the owner of Executive Travel, Headwind Consumer Products, four True Value hardware stores, a Batteries+Bulbs franchise, a few shopping centers and a Subway in his hometown of Pawnee City, Neb.

It’s a lot, but it doesn’t stress Steve out because it didn’t happen overnight. 

Steve started his first company, Executive Travel, after reading a book titled, ‘How to start a travel agency.’ He started out in a small office where his desk doubled as the top of a 4-drawer filing cabinet.

Steve sold travel door-to-door, slowly building his business and coming up with innovative ways to make travel more accessible. He even gave away computers to his customers as a way to excite them about travel and technology. People thought he was crazy, but Steve saw how intrigued people were with his out-of-the-box methods, and his business boomed.

“I’m disruptive,” Steve said. “Doesn’t that sound like a bad thing?”

Being disruptive has fueled Steve’s daily excitement to try to new things, but it doesn’t mean he hasn’t had his fair share of failure.

Steve said he’s started more than 40 different companies, and a handful of them have been duds, but that’s fine by him. He sees failure as part of the creative process and he’s taught himself how to deal with failure head-on.

He learned how to fail from his experiences as a Husker football player, businessman and political candidate. Each season showed Steve that there was always someone faster, stronger, smarter or more popular than he was. It didn’t feel good, but Steve realized that he could either be defeated by those realities or learn from them, and he chose the latter.

Steve directly attributes his success to his ability to fail, pick himself back up and try again. He’s not afraid to fail, and he challenges others to do the same.

But what stood out the most about Steve’s story is that he knows who he is and who he’s not.

Steve is not a Type-A boss and he doesn’t try to be. He’s more of a visionary, and hates the idea of a plan with no flexibility.

He’s a big picture kind of guy who knows how to dream big, take risks and push the envelope.  He’s not very good at focusing his own thoughts, but he’s an extremely thoughtful and inspiring mentor.

Steve doesn’t claim to have all the answers, he doesn’t boast about his success or any of his skills. Instead, his story is about knowing what he loves, doing what he loves and staying aligned with his passions.

Blake Lawrence


This might sound cliche, but Blake Lawrence’s heroes are his parents.

His mom is a well-known Kansas City anesthesiologist and his dad is the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Kansas City.

But these prestigious positions have nothing to do with why Blake admires his parents – they are his heroes because they have shown him how to make his story matter.

Blake looked up from his desk and pointed to a poster on the back of his door, “That’s me,” he said.

It was a photo of a Husker football player.

It was hard to recognize Blake in the photo, what with the helmet, red jersey and pads, but Blake said when he played football he felt like he had found what he was meant to do. He described how he carried around a football since he could walk, and had grown up being known as ‘Blake Lawrence the football player.’

But Blake doesn’t play football anymore.

In October 2009, he went from being a starting Husker linebacker to a former player because of numerous concussions, and suddenly he was no longer ‘Blake Lawrence the football player.’

His dream and identity were gone. Now what?

Blake said he sought out his parents for advice as he frantically began searching for his next steps.

More than words of encouragement, Blake said he found their own stories as the best fuel for moving forward.

Before his parents became a doctor and CEO they were high school sweethearts who became teen parents. The two got married and raised their family together for a few years, before divorcing when Blake was 4 years old.

However, the labels of pregnant teen and single parent didn’t stop either of his parents from pursuing what mattered. For Blake’s mom, it was becoming a doctor. She balanced life with two young boys and the demands of medical school. For Blake’s dad, what mattered was helping others. He worked low-paying jobs at a runaway shelter and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program long before he was ever promoted.

Yes, they went on to become well-known in their fields. They both remarried, giving Blake two additional parents who he loves and admires, but that happened because they made a choice early on. They chose to let their decisions, not their circumstances, dictate their lives and shape their identities.

And as a 20-year-old college student, Blake had a similar choice to make.

He decided that just because football couldn’t be his dream anymore, didn’t mean he was out of options. Especially in the context of what his parents overcame, Blake said he had no excuse for not pursuing another goal. 

Blake quickly saw that finding unique ways to solve problems was a strengths of his, which led him to launch Hurrdat, a social media marketing company, in 2010.

Three years later he and a few friends started opendorse, a company that connects marketers with athletes to build stronger social media campaigns.

Some might question how fast Blake pivoted from football to the entrepreneurial world, but to Blake it just made sense. As a kid, he and his brother were always finding ways to turn a quick profit. They bought and sold candy bars on the playground and even started a basketball league where they promised kids new shoes and a ride to games – needless to say this endeavor was quickly shut down by the principal – but that kind of innovative thinking set the stage for Blake’s future.

Blake knows how to see a problem and find a solution. Much of his story is about finding what matters in the midst of disappointment, and choosing to move forward.

Blake is 26 years old, and a lot of his story is yet to be told. But if it continues to be about building great companies with people who care, that’s what matters most to Blake.

Jill Liliedahl


Jill Liliedahl is a self-professed crazy dog lady. We’re talking the, she and her husband made a Facebook for their dog caliber of crazy dog lady.

Which is why it makes perfect sense that she’s the CEO of SitStay – an online marketplace for dog supplies.

But working at SitStay wasn’t part of Jill’s plan, mostly, because a lot of her story is about changing plans, trying new things and finding her place.

In college, Jill was a political science major who didn’t want to go into politics. She went down the social work track and then on to earn a graduate degree in sociology. She’s lived on the east coast, dove in to the nonprofit world and moved back to Lincoln. She took a job that exposed her to the startup scene and then ended up launching a premium popsicle business. Now, she’s at SitStay.

These are just the highlights, but you get the idea – Jill has had a lot of jobs.

It’s not because she’s flakey or indecisive, actually it’s the exact opposite – Jill is crazy smart. She has a high capacity for learning and trying new things, but this has also been a challenge for her. She’s interested in so many things, that picking one seemed incredibly difficult.

But more than her litany of jobs, what’s held Jill’s story together is her family and her community.

Jill grew up in Hastings, Nebraska, a town less than two hours west of Lincoln. As a kid, she watched her mom open her own fabric store. Jill thought the shop was just another cool place to hang out, but as she got older, she realized that not everyone gets to watch their mom start something.

Sure, it wasn’t some techy, hard-hitting business, but it was her mom’s way of meeting a need in their community and Jill was proud of that.

So, when Jill started her speciality popsicle business her mom and dad jumped right in. Their phrase was, “Let us know what you need!” and they meant it.

Sure, it may have been just popsicles, but that didn’t keep them from spending every summer Saturday at the Farmer’s Market with Jill. Her family became her go-to taste testers, sales team and chief marketing officers – they knew the startup world because they’d been there.

And while Jill loved what she did, and her family understood, she realized that running a business – whether it’s popsicles or dog supplies – can be isolating. Her schedule, interests and frustrations felt unique, and yet she wondered if there were more people out there with similar struggles. It was hard because Jill felt like she’d found her place, she was building a company and using her wide range of skills, but something was missing.

Jill shared this with her friend, Amber Pankonin, and in 2013 they started a group called Ladies Launch Lincoln as a way to connect with female entrepreneurs. They were shocked at the number of women (and men) who showed up to talk shop, get advice and share their latest ideas.

The group became Jill’s safe place. It was where she received tangible advice, but also where she saw her story more clearly.

She realized that a roundabout academic and job history was pretty common in the startup world, and it didn’t matter that she was a former poli-sci major or wasn’t necessarily putting her Master’s degree to work every day.

Perfect planning, while tidy and helpful, hasn’t propelled Jill. Instead, it’s been the love and support of her family and an amazing community.

Jill’s story can be confusing because of her long list of loosely connected jobs, but it’s also extremely simple. It’s about pursuing what she loves, being content in the unknown and pushing forward, knowing full well that sometimes no plan is the best plan.

Jay Wilkinson


For Jay Wilkinson, it’s pretty normal to get quoted in nonprofit circles, retweeted by marketing gurus and interviewed on local or national TV…all in one day.

Back in college he started four businesses. Yes, four. One of which went-big and prompted a move to New York City post-graduation.

In 1992, he sold the company that took him to the big city and came back to his home-state of Nebraska.

Upon his return, Jay bought a printing franchise that he eventually turned into Cornerstone Printing and Marketing, which has since become Firespring.

Those big steps, and the little ones in between, are all important milestones in Jay’s story. He’s a well-known entrepreneur, nonprofit activist, community builder and webinar facilitator in Lincoln, but he admittedly has spent a big chunk of his life trying to be someone he’s not – his father.

“He’s my vision of what it’s like to live a life rather than have life happen to you,” Jay said.

Now, it’s not wrong to want to be like your parent, but Jay put a lot of pressure on himself to not only be like his dad, but to be his dad. And much of Jay’s striving to be his father has shaped his own story.

Gilbert (Gil) Wilkinson is a scrappy hustler with a strong work-ethic, a present mindset and a wise spirit. Gil showed up and participated. He was at every practice and football game and he led Jay’s Boy Scout troop, guiding eight boys to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout.

Having a parent like this is amazing, Jay said, but it’s also extremely frustrating. Jay was constantly working to measure up to this incredible man, but nothing he did ever seemed like enough.

This pressure was 100 percent self-inflicted. Jay said his dad never compared their careers, work ethic or abilities. He’d probably hate that Jay has spent so much of his life feeling like he’d come up short. But it’s all part of Jay’s story.

As he grew older and more successful, Jay decided that saving his money and using it to build a massive homage to his father could be his way of paying back his dad for every example and bit of wisdom he’d sewn into Jay’s character.

But if you’re looking for a hospital wing or collegiate library named after Gilbert Wilkinson, you won’t find one. A few years ago, Jay realized that dedicating a building to his father wasn’t where he should be investing his energy.

Jay pulled a piece of off-white paper out of a folder and handed it to me. It’s a quote that he took from an impactful leadership training he attended as a 16-year-old.

“I’ve carried it with me ever since,” Jay said, going on to read the quote.

“ ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’ ”

Jay said he’s read this Stephan Grellet quote over and over again, but a few years ago the words ‘do it now’ jumped off the page.

Do it now.

Jay realized that in his constant striving to be his dad or pay him back, he’d been waiting to live out the quote that he’d theoretically structured his life around.

He realized he would never be his dad, and that was ok. He also realized he needed to stop waiting.

So that’s what Jay did.

He changed Firespring’s mission statement to reflect his decision do good in the present, not just the future.

In 2014 Firespring became the first and only certified B-Corp in the state, holding to a high-level of third-party accountability and transparency. It’s a label that requires a company to hold up to its promised giving, not bend to the whims of a good or bad fiscal year.

Jay said this is usually the part in his story where people tend to nod off. After all, everyone has heard about companies ‘giving back’ or incentivising their employees to volunteer and donate. Blah, blah, blah. Right?

But Jay is actually doing this. He’s living up to the bold letters and almost cheesy sayings that are painted on the walls at Firespring.  He’s giving, empowering, motivating and teaching as an outpouring of his personal beliefs, not because of the way it looks.

A few years back, Jay probably would have said he was doing all this good for his dad, which would have been okay, but now, he’s doing it because he thinks it’s what matters.

It’s part of his story and his legacy.

Jay can’t be his dad, and that doesn’t bother him anymore.

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