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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.

Matt Taylor


Walking into the Tavern – a bar nestled in the heart of the Haymarket – you would never know that the space has been anything other than the warm, inviting establishment it is today. With childhood pictures of regular customers lining the walls, dark wood, impeccably clean and comfortable – a place that offers an instant welcome.

The space is a good reflection of its owner, Matt Taylor, who confidently fills the role of young entrepreneur and owner of two Haymarket businesses. A path he didn’t set out to take, but one that has provided a place to grow and directly impact the city of Lincoln.

When Matt started college, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but figured that the Finance Department at UNL would provide some essential tools to learning about business and managing money.

While finance seemed pretty straightforward, the actual work he experienced during an internship proved to be tedious and far from the type of work he was looking for.

It wasn’t until midway through his education that he took a job checking I.D.s at The Bar and found a surprising connection to real-world business. Each night, he left energized by the person-to-person interaction and the money he was able to earn.

The owner, Neal Grummert, turned out to be the best business mentor Matt could have asked for. Neal took a serious approach to the way he ran things and had thoughtful business practices in place – constantly investing in his employees and keeping an eye on what was going on in the Lincoln business community.

Matt rose quickly in the ranks at The Bar, gaining experience in each role, and eventually becoming the general manager. The Bar provided a place to apply what he was learning in school. After classes, Matt would head to work and sit down with Neal, discussing things like product placement, profit and losses, and even business culture. They were always looking twelve months ahead on how to develop the business.

In 2009, just after Matt had graduated from college and was finding a good rhythm at work, he felt the ground drop out from under him when his boss unexpectedly died. The loss of his mentor-friend and end of their shared plans left Matt floating aimlessly. He applied for all sorts of of jobs and tried to find firm foundation.

Eventually Matt met with his dad and cast a vision for a downtown bar in the former Crescent Moon Coffee building. His dad loved the idea and agreed to the proposal, putting up his home as collateral for a line of credit.

Over the next two months, the space was overhauled and filled with high top tables and bar stools. Matt wanted to create a place geared toward the 25 and older crowd who wanted something different than the college bar scene. It was an idea that took hold quickly.

“After four months, we had made back our initial investment. It was a good time to start a business… I think now is an even better time with all of this opportunity.”

Matt’s success propelled him forward, and in 2013 he decided to launch a second bar, The Other Room, just behind The Tavern. Through his travels, he had witnessed the revival of the speakeasy type bar in big cities and decided to bring the idea to Lincoln.

One of Matt’s liquor representatives, Miles Kos, introduced him to Jill Cockson, an award-winning mixologist, whose reputation helped provide an instant clientele and the passion for her craft matched the vision Matt had for the business. Jill formed a menu of unique specialty drinks while Matt designed the intimate space, complete with hidden door.

Owning two different bars gives Matt the opportunity to offer quality drinks and distinct experiences to people visiting the Haymarket. He values the conversations he has with whoever comes through the door and sees this engagement as the heart of his business.

“A bar can be an interesting human behavior experiment. Every day, I meet all kinds of people – from the homeless man coming in asking for change, the traveling salesman who has decades of experience or the person sitting at the bar who has been married for years. It’s a constant exchange of story, experience and learning what has worked and what hasn’t.”

Matt looks toward the future and is always considering how he can grow and improve. He listens to podcasts and reads articles focused on small business and entrepreneurship. He regularly sits down with other small business owners from around town with no agenda other than conversation and learning. He also sees the wisdom in taking his time to make sure he’s taking good care of the people and businesses he’s currently managing.

Like the historic buildings Matt occupies, his work ethic and priorities point directly to the past. To a mom who daily encouraged him, to the boss who believed in his ability and trusted him with big responsibilities, and a dad who borrowed against his home because he believed his son could make a dream happen.

On a daily basis, Matt reflects on this spirit of generosity and continues the legacy of believing that a good business keeps people at the heart of the process. His story is not only adding to the positive growth of the business community in Lincoln, but to the character and reputation of the city – as he brings attention to the things that really matter.

Justin Jones


When Justin and Jennifer Jones stepped off the plane in Nebraska for the first time, they were wearing shorts and sandals – it was March.

And while they were highly unprepared for the snowy weather, the southern-born couple came ready for a new adventure and lots of hard work.

They came to open Nebraska’s first Raising Cane’s restaurant.

That was 10 years ago. Today, Justin is the owner of five Raising Cane’s locations in Nebraska, but his story starts with a lot of self doubt and a complete lack of clarity.

Back in 1996 Justin was a college student at Louisiana State University who had no clue what to do.

But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Justin put himself through college working construction jobs, fitting pipes, delivering home appliances and loading up 18-wheelers at night. He changed his major five or six times until he decided to graduate with a degree in general studies.

A few months before graduation, Justin attended a college fair. He wandered from booth to booth, talking with recruiters and asking about potential jobs. Then he saw the Raising Cane’s booth, so he marched up to the recruiter and asked, ‘So, how could I own one of these restaurants?’

It was a pretty bold question for a kid who had no direction, but after the recruiter told Justin more about the company’s values and goals, Justin submitted a job application and at the end of the month he was training for the position of store manager.

Honestly, Justin said, he took the job to give his resume a boost. He thought having ‘management’ on his list would be more impressive and lead to a better job down the road.

But not everyone understood his job choice. Justin had just spent seven years pursuing a college degree and he ended up in the food service industry? It became a bit of a joke, but Justin didn’t care.

He was quickly starting to see that his job at Raising Cane’s was more than just a resume booster. For the next three years, Justin helped manage, launch, grow and sustain both new and veteran restaurants in Louisiana. He traveled like crazy and slept in small increments. It was insane, but oddly normal to Justin.

For the first time in his life Justin said he felt like he was doing something that mattered. He was creating something new, helping his team succeed and enjoying every minute of the craziness.

And then in 2006, Justin got the call he’d been waiting for – a chance to run his own franchise.

That’s when he and his wife uprooted their lives and moved to Lincoln – a place with no family and nothing familiar, just Raising Cane’s.

The launch of their first location at 48th and R streets received an overwhelming amount of attention and support during the first few months of business, but things eventually slowed down. Justin remembers talking with Jennifer during their first Christmas in Nebraska about how they could really give back to the community, to show people that they weren’t just another restaurant in the community, but the community’s restaurant. 

In the coming months they instituted coat and food drives and began donating a part of their proceeds to Lincoln as a whole. People started to notice that not only was the food tasty and a quality product, but what Justin and Jennifer were doing was real.

It’s with this mindset that Justin has successfully opened a total of five Raising Cane’s locations in Nebraska.

These days, Justin doesn’t have to wear as many hats around the office as he used to. He’s no longer the accountant, IT guy, facilities manager, developer and store operator. He can delegate these roles to his team, he can look at the big picture and see what’s on the horizon for Raising Cane’s – he’s stepping back, but not stepping away.

Justin said it’s so strange to think back to being a clueless 18-year-old college freshman. He would have never dreamed of being a Raising Cane’s owner, or working his way up and making five locations his own…never.

But that’s just the point, he said. It’s what he often talks about when he speaks to college students. He reminds them to pursue what they love instead of a paycheck, because that’s where his story has shaped him the most.

Making $9/hour as a college grad wasn’t his plan, it wasn’t ideal, it was probably the worst plan he could have devised for himself, but it’s where his story came to life.

Some people might be bashful about being clueless or working at a fried chicken joint, but that’s not Justin. He’s proud of his story, he’s proud of his work and when he heads home at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

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