Kentucky’s young leaders, gathered at Emerge14, heard about projects priced from $350 million to $3.5 million to one pencil. And the message was the same: Build a movement and the success will follow.
The day-long conference at the Hilton downtown was a project of Commerce Lexington, with Forcht Bank as a presenting sponsor. (Ace, celebrating its 25th anniversary was a Silver Sponsor). Lexington’s Mayor Jim Gray kicked off the festivities, with his voice hoarse, and just four days from a primary election to retain his seat.
The $350 million project — the “freeing” of Rupp Arena with a renovation project and a new convention center and Town Branch linear park — was his.
The ballroom at the Hilton was packed with young Lexingtonians — most just 5 to 15 years out of college. After the mayor’s welcome and introduction, attendees could choose breakout sessions in the Hilton. From a panel on running for office featuring two of the Kentucky House’s youngest Representatives and one of its most powerful lobbyists to a panel of young entrepreneurs who urged attendees to follow their passion to success, the hallways were filled with people networking as they jostled for breakout rooms.
One of the breakout sessions featured some of Lexington’s most established business people talking about how their businesses support and recruit young leaders. Executives from KentuckyOne Health, Big Ass Solutions and Kentucky Eagle distributing talked about internships, training, and preparedness.
At lunch — because, a tornado had touched down in Charlotte, briefly stalling the scheduled keynote luncheon speaker — two Lexington entrepreneurs — Randall Stevens of ArchVision and Nate Morris of Morris Industries and Rubicon Global, slung advice. Fail fast, fail a lot, don’t fail. These two have really seen their ideas — solving niche problems completely — succeed. They’ve attracted VC and are able to say things like “We’re the Uber of Waste Removal and Recycling. ” Both cited help and energy from being in a university city. (Morris cited Colonel Sanders as a role model, building what went on to become a global empire, at a point in life when most would’ve been content to collect social security.)
The second set of breakout sessions got people really out — onto the streets of the downtown to other venues. Some went to ArtsPlace on Mil Street. Some went to the Lexington Children’s Theatre on Short Street. Some went to the Farish Theatre at the Central Library — all keeping with Mayor Gray’s early theme about the importance of the downtown to economic growth and success in Lexington.
A session on NonProfit Leaders Shaping the Bluegrass and a session by KSR’s Matt Jones on his growth of the phenomenally popular website and radio show known as Kentucky Sports Radio were among the offerings. Jones, in particular, is a good example of someone building a movement — with the KSR fan following for his UK basketball related commentary one of the most rabid and devoted.
Whit Hiler and Griffin Van Meter of Kentucky for Kentucky simply named their session “Growing A Movement.” They talked about how their enthusiasm for Kentucky and their attempt to crowdsource $3.5 million for a Super Bowl commercial for the Commonwealth of Kentucky led to their “Kentucky Kicks Ass” unofficial slogan for the state. Using social media, good design, humor and Zero Dollars, they got an avalanche of national media attention for their attempt to usurp the official “Unbridled Spirit” tourism slogan. Their suggestion? “Kentucky Kicks Ass.” The movement exploded. The two offered to pay for a tattoo for anyone who wanted their “Kentucky Kicks Ass” logo on their body. Many came forward (as the video attested). And, the offer still stands. “You can go full back piece with it,” Van Meter joked — “We’ll get a line of credit — from Forcht Bank…”
The slogan video turned into a sticker and t-shirt business and a specialized art print business and a “Scents of Kentucky” candle collection featuring a “Fried Chicken” scented Kentucky candle. Also popular is the “Y’ALL” sweatshirt that echoes the classic “YALE” sweatshirt. It didn’t start as a business. It started as a movement. But Van Meter, now sporting a 70s feathered pageboy with his Old Dan Tucker beard, said they may break a million dollars on this not-a-business. They’ve had to hire three full-time employees to keep up with demand (or maybe just….participation).
Hiler and Van Meter — both with fulltime jobs at respective branding agencies in the city — say that social media was the enabling platform that allowed them to bring their other elements to a large audience. (That and Jennifer Lawrence sporting one of their t-shirts). Of course, Kentucky for Kentucky art prints were given to the audience members who posted the best Instagram photos of the two holding the print. And, there were stickers for everyone.
The afternoon ended with a return to the Hilton ballroom for the prodigal keynote speaker — Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise. In a presentation that was poignant, fascinating and informative, Braun told some of his remarkable life story and how at 25 – raised in Greenwich, Conn., educated at Brown and sharp at business — he walked out of his high-comp job at Bain & Co. in New York and into rural Laos to build a school to dedicate to his grandmother. She and his grandfather, Braun told the group, were both Holocaust survivors — and always had credited their access to education with allowing them to escape with their lives.
Braun’s success too, hinged on many participants with enthusiasm, small donations, large scale and social media. Today, Pencils of Promise has built more than 200 schools — each funded by groups of individuals who put their small donations together. Sometimes a participant will cycle across the United States to fund a school. Sometimes a college group will take on funding a school as a project. It all begin with a poor child in India who told Braun that if he could have anything in the world, he would want a pencil, like those he saw the children who could go to school carry.
One of Braun’s strongest points was that even though Pencils of Promise is a 501 (3)(c), he will not call them a non-profit — the profit, or benefit is tangible and large — it’s just not money.
But that doesn’t mean that Adam Braun isn’t an astute businessman. He’s the Nate Silver of developing country rural education, figuring the numbers and odds and possibilities of life impacts of his Pencils of Promise schools like a day trader. And then he puts on his daypack and heads off to a new rural school site.
Kakie Urch is an associate professor of multimedia at the University of Kentucky and an Ace contributing editor.
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