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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.

Steve Kiene


Simple, but complex. It’s a weird combination, said Steve Kiene, but it’s him. Jeans and a tshirt simple, and software nerd complex.

If you saw Steve around town, you might confuse him for another one of the tech geeks grabbing coffee before hunkering down in their office for the day. Which might be accurate in some sense, but also a gross understatement.

If you know anything about Steve’s story, then you know that well before he was the Managing Principal of Nebraska Global he was well-known in the realm of Mac software. He’s even had some pretty hardcore groupies/stalkers, no joke. But let’s back up a little. 

At 11 he flunked out of summer school because he discovered “the drug” that was computer programming.

At 17 he skipped classes to hang out with programmers and turned down going to MIT because all he wanted to do was program.

And at 19 he had a job offer from Apple that he turned down. 

But Steve doesn’t care about his reputation. In fact, he can be a bit of a polarizing figure in the community because he has some pretty definite opinions. His real mission, like him, is simple but complex.

Steve doesn’t want to build companies, he wants to build people.

Heard that before? Yeah, so have we. But Steve puts his money where his mouth is.

Back in 2006 he had a decision to make – keep pushing his two companies forward or sell. He sold. And while Steve said at times he questions his decision to sell MindVision and eSellerate, he never regrets what he did with the $25 million he got from the sale.

He gave half of the money to the employees who helped him build the two companies, and donated and invested much of other half in the community. For him, splitting the money with the people who had invested time and effort in his companies meant they should share in the sale, and the sheer fact that he was the sole proprietor didn’t matter.

Steve makes up his own rules, much like his dad.

As a kid, Steve would go to work with his dad who owned a heating and air conditioning business. He watched him repair systems and write up bills, oftentimes only charging people for the cost of the materials.

His dad didn’t explain why he did it, he just did what he thought was honest and right, and Steve noticed.

That’s how Steve feels about building the community by building people –  he wants to do what he thinks is right and helpful, that’s it. 

And he’s in it for the long, long haul.

Earlier this year, Steve and his wife became parents again. He clicked his phone on and showed me his home screen – a photo of his happy, pudgy little boy.

“This is what matters,” he said, pointing to the screen.

Steve said being a parent makes him feel like a pseudo-parent to the people he works with everyday.  He feels invested in their well being, and pushes them to create things that matter, not just to fit some entrepreneurial stereotype.

Steve isn’t about smoke and mirrors. He isn’t about spinning his story to make people like him.

He’s just a guy with long hair and glasses, who cares about doing what’s right for the community both now and in the future.

Because to Steve, people matter.

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