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Doug Durham


A few years ago, Doug Durham was spending a lot of time at the Haymarket Scooters. It was close to his office and a convenient place to meet with his employees.

After one of his many meetings, a barista asked him what he did for a living. Apparently, she and her coworkers had been making guesses about Doug’s work based on his frequent visits to the shop.

Doug explained that he was a software engineer at a local startup and was meeting with interns and employees to teach/mentor them as they pursued similar career paths.

The barista laughed and said none of them would have guessed he was involved in something so technical, the general consensus was that Doug was a youth pastor.

Doug laughed at their guess, but said it seemed like an extremely logical guess based on their perspective. This exchange got him thinking about perspective, and how his own perspective has changed over time.

Perspective isn’t just something you get or stumble upon, he said, it’s something that’s gained through various experiences and life changes. It’s something that Doug has thought a lot about as he’s transitioned from a college student, to an air force officer, a software engineer, husband, father and mentor.

Doug’s story starts in Nebraska. It’s where he grew up, went to school and started to match his skills with his passions. He sort of fell into the engineering field because it seemed interesting to him – plus, it didn’t require foreign language classes.

Going to college wasn’t a family tradition, his parents didn’t have degrees and Doug worked hard to pay his way through school. That was, until he discovered an application for the Air National Guard. In joining, Doug could pay for school, gain career experience and travel, which seemed like the perfect combination for his curious young mind.

He graduated and figured out how to put his engineering skills to work by moving to St. Louis to work as a systems engineer.

For much of his early career, Doug said he operated with a strong feeling of inadequacy. He felt like he was in over his head and feared being ‘found out’ or viewed as a fraud if he made a mistake. This mindset emotionally handicapped Doug as he moved up in various companies and grew in his skills and knowledge of the industry.

While he was living in St. Louis, the opportunity presented itself for Doug to return to his home state. There’s just something about Nebraska that he missed and he knew it’s where he wanted to raise his family and put down roots.

He moved to Lincoln and started working with small software companies. Doug enjoyed the process of helping find efficient uses for software and maximizing the potential of software engineers. His skills and passions began to line up even more when he met Steve Kiene, a self-proclaimed software geek and local advocate, and they worked together to launch eSellerate in 1999, and more recently, Nebraska Global’s Don’t Panic Labs in 2010.

As Doug continued to carve out a space for himself in Lincoln, he started to take a closer look at himself in light of his work. He was gaining perspective and starting to put the pieces together.

He realized that the fear-mode he often operated out of was a bad case of the imposter syndrome – which was actually pointed out by one of his kids. Doug knew what it was, but had never put a label on the feelings he’d experienced. For such a long time, Doug had seen this as a weakness, a handicap to his job, but naming and accepting his self-doubt made him start to see things differently. He started to feel more confident in his skills, and even comfortable in his own skin.

Doug realized that while self-doubt was a hurdle in his path, it has also allowed him to openly accept criticism, recognize when he’s wrong, work hard to earn trust and collaborate well with others. It wasn’t just a barrier to his work, it was a part of who he was as a co-worker, friend and boss.

He also realized his desire to please others and work hard were two traits passed down from his father. Doug said his mom would often talk about how his dad didn’t make much money building houses. He spent too much time perfecting each detail and undercharging for his work. He was honest, full of integrity and modest about his character.

Doug said his dad didn’t go out of his way to teach him to value the same things he did, but his actions forever shaped the way Doug sees his work, loves his family and lives his life.

He said his dad always did the right thing, and he’s hoping to follow in his footsteps.

When Doug thinks about how his story has progressed so far, he said it feels more like an unknown journey than a well-planned trip. On his journey, Doug has learned how to live his life by standing by his convictions, acting with integrity, being himself and caring well for others.

He’s learned the value of perspective, of seeing himself and his story from different angles and understanding the beauty of change.

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.

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.

Levi Nelson


Levi Nelson has lived his entire life in Lancaster County – and he has no plans of moving anytime soon.

It’s the place he grew up, where he learned, met his wife, works and is raising his kids. It’s also the place where his story has taken shape. In small bits and pieces Levi has learned what he likes, what he’s good at and why all of that matters.

He’s learned to be content, and that’s no small thing for a 28-year-old to claim.

Growing up, Levi said he was always tinkering with something tech-related. In high school it was programs like Photoshop and After Effects. He and his friends would goof around with the programs, until he realized he was actually pretty good at coming up with creative solutions. He’d never actually considered himself creative, because he couldn’t draw or paint, but the computer gave him the tools to express himself creatively.

Fast forward 5+ years and Levi is graduating from UNL with a Marketing degree and starting a job at Anderson Auto Group.

He described his job as being the one-man, in-house ad agency. Levi was responsible for anything under the marketing umbrella, including media buying, filming commercials and managing the budget. He learned a lot and really put his degree to work.

After leaving Anderson, he had a short stint as the Creative Director at Reliant Studios before doing freelance work full time.

Doing freelance work gave Levi the freedom to pursue projects that he loved. He built websites, shot videos and worked his creativity into every project he touched. He was constantly reading up on the latest gear and digging into more technical aspects of coding than ever before. The challenge of creating something useful was addictive and he loved finding the best solutions for his clients.

But as he did more work, his client list grew and the amount of work became overwhelming. Levi had a decision to make – he either needed to hire someone to help him or cut back on the number of projects he took on. He also had a third option – quit freelancing – which was exactly what he did.

Levi said he wanted to move out of advertising work and start building products, so he joined the best digital product company in town – Hudl.

He was launched into the world of product design where he was surrounded by experts and submerged in the startup scene. Soon he was one of the growing number of young people around town sporting a bright colored Hudl shirt and sneakers, and it was a perfect spot for him to grow in his skills.

Less than two years later, Levi took another risk with a new startup and joined the team at Travefy, a company that makes group and corporate travel simple.

It’s been a good move for him, and it’s made him appreciate the unique atmosphere that working in a startup brings. He’s part of a team that’s full of humble experts who are passionate about solving problems and maximizing their combined skills.

But Levi’s story isn’t just about work. It’s about doing things well.

Working at two local startups has made Levi think about starting his own business. He’s a self-described pessimist who sees problem after problem and he started to wonder if it was wrong for him to be solving ‘first world problems’ when there were bigger problems in the world. He’s consistently asking himself how to fix so many of the problems he sees.

But here’s the thing, Levi said he won’t be starting a company anytime soon.

He’s not lazy or lacking in ideas, but it’s just not the right time.

Levi said he’s seen how much time and energy it takes to get a company up and running. And for him, this is just the wrong season in his life.

Right now he’s working on being a trusted employee, an available husband and a good dad. That might sound simple or humble, but over the past few years Levi said he’s learned how to be content in where he’s at in life. He’s learned how to prioritize and not get ahead of himself.

He’s a guy who works hard and digs into his community. He invites his neighbors over, plays with his kids and also loves reading up on the latest coding techniques out there.

Just because he isn’t starting the next Hudl doesn’t mean his story is any less important. Levi gets that, and it shows.

His story is about living in the now, focusing on the present and doing what matters most in the simple and everyday moments.

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.

Kendall Warnock


There were lots of late nights when Kendall Warnock sat in his car in a grocery store parking lot.

He was working up his courage to go inside and grab groceries. In his hand he held his currency – food stamps.

As a now 38-year-old, Kendall said he has no problem talking about his late night shopping trips to avoid the stares of fellow shoppers. He knows shame is part of his story, but it’s not his entire story.

Kendall’s story starts in his hometown of Rosalie, Nebraska, within the bounds of the Omaha Indian Reservation. It was a village of 90 people and few job opportunities – his dad managed a filling station just outside of town and his mom worked odd jobs to make ends meet for Kendall and his four siblings.

His parents worked hard to provide for their large family, but they needed the added help of food stamps and commodity foods. Kendall laughed, still remembering his boyhood excitement over getting commodity cheese on their bi-weekly trip to Winnebago, it was the best cheese around. 

(We’ll be clear, Kendall isn’t trying to send some message about food stamps or poverty. He isn’t trying to prove some point, this is part of his story.)

As he grew older, Kendall realized he wanted a life beyond the bounds of Rosalie. Those years in his hometown positively shaped him, and Rosalie will always be his home, but Kendall wanted more, and that’s how he ended up in that grocery store parking lot.

He said he vividly remembers those moments before he went inside the store, thinking ‘Is Lincoln really where I belong? Will I make it? Will I have to move back home?’

Kendall said he desperately wanted there to be more to his story, he just wasn’t sure if there would be. However, what he was certain of was how to work hard, a trait he inherited from his parents.

So, he hauled trash and mowed yards, taking whatever job he could to put himself through school and help support his parents who were struggling to pay their bills back home. For a season, Kendall even dropped out of school to work more hours to help his parents.

As he started working more hours he noticed how easy it was for him to fit into the automotive industry. He’d grown up helping his dad at the filling station after school and on weekends and always wanted to do something different, but the truth was, Kendall was great with people and cars.

For the first time in a long time, Kendall said things started to make sense and point him toward his next step in life. He started to work fewer odd jobs and more industry-related positions, and in 2005 he opened A1 Automotive.

In the years after starting his own business, Kendall’s life changed a lot. Not everything changed at once, but things definitely changed.

He went from being an owner to a boss, a single guy to a husband and a dad. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He dug into the Lincoln community and sought out mentors and friends to help him dream big, but stay grounded. In 2010, he added the title Chief of Logistics for Lincoln Fire and Rescue to the list as well.

Kendall said that while it might be easy for others to look on and see how he grew up with little and is ‘making it’ now, that’s not how he sees his story.

“I haven’t made it,” he said. “But I feel good about the journey.”

But what keeps him going? Why does he work 80+ hours a week? Why is he up every day at 4:00am? Why does he push so hard?

Kendall paused for a moment and then said he’s just used to the work. It’s in him and part of who he is. But it also comes back to those moments in his car, in the nearly vacant grocery store parking lot.

“I’m afraid to fail,” he said. “I’m 100% afraid to go back … I can’t imagine depending on someone else again.”

Kendall admitted that his fear is borderline unhealthy, but it’s also pushed him in ways he couldn’t have pushed himself.

His story is one of perseverance and struggle, of low moments and dark years, but it’s also the story of a man who isn’t afraid to put in long hours to serve his family and community.

You won’t find Kendall sitting in dark parking lots, working up the courage to go inside and use his food stamps, but those moments have changed his story, and that matters.


Jennifer Rosenblatt


Kurt Knecht turned his chair toward Jennifer Rosenblatt to ask her a question. She leaned over and explained a few things and then two of them went back to their respective work. This is what running two startups with a spouse looks like, said Jenn with a smile.

She and her husband are Florida natives who joke about the fact that they’ve “survived” ten winters in Nebraska. But this Nebraska chapter of Jenn’s story is about way more than surviving the winters, it’s where she started connecting the dots.

After raising two kids and working nearly ten different jobs, Jenn is now the CEO of two Lincoln-based startups. Yes, two.

One side of her office space is home to Argyle Octopus, a print and graphic design company that started in 2011. The other side is MusicSpoke, a marketplace for composers to promote and sell their music.

You might think it’s a little wild to have two startups in one place, run by the same person, but it’s not that strange for Jenn.

Remember when we said she had a lot of jobs? Jenn said she always thought there was something wrong with her because she didn’t stick with one job, or even one industry for more than a few years. 

She said it took having an “entrepreneurial seizure” to see that she wasn’t doing anything wrong, she just needed space to let her ideas grow. So when Jenn started Argyle Octopus she slowly began to connect the dots.

When she hired an intern and added employees it all felt even more real. She realized that it wasn’t about having a job, it was about doing work that felt like herself.

It was bold, exciting, fun and serious, but not too serious. She had people tell her that naming a company Argyle Octopus was ridiculous, and it probably was, she said, but now it’s just fun and memorable.

A few years later she and her husband came up with the idea for MusicSpoke and wasted no time getting the new venture up and rolling.

Jenn is proud she started two companies and has become a well-known figure in the startup community, but it’s been far from easy.

Some might confuse her bright lipstick and bubbly personality for total confidence, but Jenn said there were and still are many days when she wants to give up. Being an entrepreneur isn’t glamorous.

Sure, there’s a sense of gritty independence that comes from setting your own schedule and pursuing a problem you’re passionate about, but it’s also hard.

The fear of missed deadlines and disappointed clients is work that feels all too personal. There are complex employee relationships and realizing that your close friends don’t want to always talk about startup-ish topics.  And then there’s the night you eat at Taco Bell because it’s a cheap meal and you’d rather put money into your company than dinner.

So why do it? And why do it twice?

It’s kind of like childbirth, Jenn said.  If you think about it too much you wouldn’t do it because it’s painful, but the other side of it is awesome.

It’s also about context and perspective. The first few years of a startup are incredibly challenging and time-consuming, but it’s a season, and at some point the crazy ends, she said. Unless you start something else, which is always a possibility for Jenn.

But for now, she’s pretty content with the way her story is unfolding. She’s no longer the newbie in the startup space. Now she’s the one people ask to speak on panels, to students and at events, and Jenn gladly accepts.

She no longer feels like she’s doing something wrong or weird in a job that she hates. Now, she’s just Jenn – a local entrepreneur and community cheerleader – and it feels just right.

Allison Newgard


Every now and then Allison Newgard overhears someone refer to her as ‘the cookie lady.’

That kitschy title cues an internal eye roll, but here’s the thing, she actually fits that title pretty well. After all, she knows her recipes by heart, can smell when a cookie is done before it burns, makes her own vanilla extract and brown sugar…and she’s the owner of Kitchen Sink Cookie Company.

But the thing is, Allison is and was about 10 other things besides just ‘the cookie lady.’

When she was 21 Allison felt stuck, really stuck.

Living with her parents and 3-year-old son in her hometown of Hallowell, Maine, Allison had a college degree that she didn’t want to use and no idea what to do next.

Then came a question, “Allison, what did you want to do when you were eight years old?” posed her mother.

And with one question, Allison was unstuck.

She went to culinary school, graduated, worked in a restaurant kitchen, moved to Nebraska, worked at the University, moved back to Maine, then back to Lincoln, worked at three local restaurants and then started Kitchen Sink Cookie Company in 2014.

Her cookies are creative and spunky, with nostalgic flavor combinations like peanut butter, dried strawberries and Cheez-Its, inviting cafeteria flashbacks in her Magic Lunchbox cookie.

And while you might think baking cookies all day would be the best job in the world, it’s pretty demanding work. In a typical week she clocks of minimum of 10-12 hours each day, plus whatever farmers market she’s selling at on the weekend.

Sometimes she stops and thinks, “What am I doing? Why am I baking cookies??!?!”

She said she has plenty of doubts, but also tons of support from her husband and friends who keep her zoned in on the fact that being ‘the cookie lady’ is a big part of her story.

Allison knows her unorthodox cookies won’t change the world. They’re not actually magical or life-changing in that sense, but cookies are to Allison what hugs are to others – familiar and individually unique.

There’s no playing it safe when it comes to Kitchen Sink Cookies and that’s exactly how Allison knows it should be.

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