Collaborating with people and exceeding low expectations is a bigger win any entrepreneur can ask for. Greg Tehven isn’t an exception to this notion.When all he saw in front of him was just metrics and checklists, he knew he had to make a shift and invest in time and experiences instead. Now a Co-Founder and Executive Officer of Emerging Prairie, Greg is dedicated to give value to the community and use his skills to serve others and make a difference.
My guest on The Successful Pitch is Greg Tehven, who has a fascinating story about growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, couldn’t wait to get out, travel the world and then decided to move back after all and make a difference in his own city. He said he’s all about hustle and not desperation. He has a great description of the difference and how that changed how he looked at the world. He said, “When you have limitations and you share them, you create compassion. If you start bragging about all your successes, you create competition.” His big focus is on creating moments and he wants to be time-rich so that he can spend his time with interesting and wacky new people and look at his life as an adventure as opposed to goal after goal to achieve. He has some great insights on how he discovered himself at a young age and now is living in the moment. Enjoy the episode.
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FARGO-Exceeding Low Expectations with Greg Tehven
Our guest is Greg Tehven who is living and from Fargo, North Dakota. I had the pleasure of meeting Greg when I was on the North Dakota Today Show and he has so much insights as to what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur and make an impact in the world. He is known as a thought leader, a storyteller, and that really resonates with me. He literally is an advocate for people who are creative. He loves to put out a message on how you can build a community that you want to live in. Greg believes that if you think creatively and act boldly, you can overcome any obstacle. He has literally done that. He’s proud to be from Fargo, North Dakota. I love his passion for that. He has literally traveled around the world and now he’s back in Fargo and he’s now taking action to make Fargo be known as its own special place with a good message out there. That pride takes on a lot of forms where he takes on big projects not only within his community, but inspiring other people to do it as well. He is the Executive Director of Emerging Prairie where he’s done so many things such as starting the TEDxFargo, 1 Million Cups Fargo, Startup Weekend and a lot of other great things. He’s really well-connected and generous with those contacts. I love his sense of humor and relaxed style. Greg, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks, John. It’s an honor to be here.
I always like to ask my guests to take us back to their own story of origin. You were growing up in Fargo. You can take us back as far as you want, whether it’s high school or earlier or college or earlier. What made you decide that you were going to leave Fargo? Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I don’t think I understood the word entrepreneur as a kid but I had a really, really healthy disrespect for the status quo at a very early age. I would challenge my coaches that there was a better way to do things. I would challenge my parents that there was a more efficient way to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Believe it or not, John, as a young person, it’s not very appreciated. I don’t know if I was always appreciated for that perspective.
Will you call it precocious?
I would just describe to somebody that, “It was Greg’s world and everyone just lived in it.” I wasn’t always proud of that. I was this kid that lived on a farm and I would see things being done inefficiently. As a kid, when you live on the farm on a gravel road and you don’t get to go to town very often or if you forget something at home, you can’t just run home and get it. There was a resourcefulness that came from that. There was really, as a young person, awareness of waste: wasted time, wasted resources, wasted energy. I brought that through my entire journey.
One thing that’s interesting that I wanted to bring is in 1987, North Dakota was the only state in the union with a declining population. The politicians were talking about the brain drain. The best and brightest were leaving the state. The community conversation from when I was three years old until ten was that the best and brightest were leaving. They went to some researchers and they said, “What do we do in North Dakota?” They went to some Princeton PhDs and they came back with a proposal to return the prairies of North Dakota back to the buffalo and create buffalo commons. As a young person, the media was shaping my identity, that we weren’t smart. That if I was smart, then I had to leave. As a young person, I couldn’t wait to get out of Fargo.
I think a lot of us have that quest urge inside to go see the world and leave. The Midwest, coming from Chicago suburbs myself, those roots are usually pretty deep. You decided to go to Minneapolis and then you even dabbled in Stanford, I believe. Tell us a little bit about that journey.
I just knew that there was no school I was going to go to in North Dakota. I didn’t consider any of them. The University of Minnesota had a great business school at the time, and so I enrolled there. I had an incredible experience. I’ve got to live on a campus with 50,000 students, to experience an urban environment. I loved it. I started my first social enterprise when I was ten years into my freshman career with my college roommate and a couple of friends where over the course of the next seven years, we brought close to 30,000 students on Pay It Forward Tours where they would travel around the country and do service on their spring breaks; a fantastic learning experience of building a social enterprise, that transformative time of my life. I learned a lot about community and I learned that those things that my parents taught me when I was a kid about taking care of your neighbor, about serving others made a big impact, not just in Minneapolis but across the country. It really, really was helpful.
I also noticed you have a big philanthropic part of your personality. Can you talk to us about where that comes from?
I think that comes from growing up in a rural community in North Dakota. My parents role modeled for me taking care of your neighbors. When somebody’s house would burn down or somebody got cancer, all of a sudden my parents would be organizing folks around the coffee table on Sunday nights and they’d come over week after week, and I didn’t know what they were doing. Then I’d go to a big fundraiser that they were part of hosting or I would see them do that work. I think growing up in a rural community, that’s all we had, were our neighbors. That’s the spirit of generosity that for generations in my family has been instilled in me and that I believe resonates everywhere. Whether I’m doing work in India or in a small town in Pennsylvania, helping your neighbor makes a big impact. It’s small things and it’s big things. I gain a tremendous amount of joy from that.
How did you go from, “I can’t wait to get out of Fargo,” to being its biggest advocate and fan?
Part of that comes from when I burned out. I was 25 years old. Students Today Leaders Forever was hosting the Pay It Forward Tours. It was growing. I got a little self-absorbed. I looked in the mirror and realized I was more interested in the numbers, how much money we had raised or how many people were on our trips, versus the impact. I lost myself. I decided that I needed to take a break. I didn’t like who I was becoming. I didn’t have any hobbies. I didn’t have any friends outside of work. I decided to take a year and wander around the world. It was during those eleven months of walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago or being in a village in West Africa with Peace Corps volunteers for six weeks that I saw the value of a small community. Because each place I went, I missed the small interactions. I missed knowing my barista. I missed knowing the person that I bumped into every Saturday morning at the market.
It was on that trip, I was in New Zealand on the last leg and I said, “I want to make a difference at home. I want to make a difference on my street.” I had been thinking I was going to be this big global world-changer and then I was like, “Maybe I’ll just try to add a little bit of value in my own backyard.” Unexpectedly, I started working in Fargo. It was the last place I ever, ever thought I would live again. The first project we did was TEDx. It was about sharing ideas. I had given a TEDx Talk in Minneapolis a few months before that and I was like, “I should look for ideas in my home community.” That’s when I fell in love with Fargo. I met a farmer that had brilliant ideas on nourishing the world, a doctor that thought about beauty differently, an artist that thought about their art as a tool to build a community, an entrepreneur that thought about curiosity as the success principle to change the world. These were all people that lived in my hometown.
It’s fascinating to me you took that year off. I did something similar after I graduated from college and traveled a year. I had a fascinating insight. I didn’t stay in any one place longer than six weeks and normally it was way less than that. I noticed, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but you miss people knowing you. Every time you go to a new country and start a new conversation with somebody on a train or whatever, “My name is John, I’m from Chicago. I just graduated. I’m taking a year off.” You have to start your story over and over and over and there’s a lack of intimacy because you’re starting from scratch, as opposed to people who’ve known you your whole life and you can say, “I’m feeling frustrated. I’m feeling sad. I’m feeling overwhelmed.” You can’t really start those conversations with strangers. It wasn’t until I left the country and traveled that I started to really appreciate the relationships I had at home.
I think that’s so true, John. I’m guessing you’re similar to me and similar to folks like Steve Jobs or Sargent Shriver that their global experiences shaped their local actions. For me, I finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a year off, it was actually a year on. I discovered that I’m not a human doing, I’m a human being. Those were some discoveries that were really helpful for me. Some discoveries that weren’t helpful is I realized I wasn’t humble. Because back home, I would describe my work, “I’m part of this cool project.” When I was walking across Spain meeting strangers, they asked me what I did and I took all the credit for my co-founders. I was just disgusted by what was coming out of my mouth. It was a real shaping experience when I just had to show up as me. People are evaluating based on me, on who I am, not what I could do for them. I learned a lot about myself.
That lesson is so fantastic and important because I’ve interviewed a lot of investors and they’re looking for someone who’s confident and humble, confident but not arrogant. Also being a keynote speaker, one of the big lessons I’ve learned is that while the audience wants you to have confidence when you’re on stage, they’re still interested in you telling some vulnerabilities about yourself so that they can relate to you. I think that it takes a lot of self-esteem and work on yourself to be willing to not have to overcompensate and try to impress everybody all the time.
That really resonates with me, John. One of my teachers, if you will, on my year around the world was Steve Lacy, who was from a small town in Australia. This is a young guy, small town, had one of those fast track careers. He shared with me this idea that when we share our success, we create competition. When we share our limitations, we create compassion. It’s a fine line. For my work, I speak around the country, I work in big communities and small communities. It’s a fine line of helping people trust that we’re going to get some work done, but also let them know that we’re human. I’m lucky that I’m very human. In my keynotes, I’m often telling jokes of how pathetic I am.
Before I met my amazing wife, I was pretty pathetic at dating. I missed some cues from time to time. I was a guest of our US senator out at the State of the Union a couple of years ago. I thought the State of the Union was in Bismarck. Turns out it’s in Washington, DC. I thought that they brought a bunch of people to it. Turns out only one person can be a guest of each US senator. I forgot my suit on the way out there. I’m at the State of the Union wearing one of the staff members’ suits because I just miss some cues from time to time. I find that just being imperfect actually helps me. The fact that I can share that with folks, I just get to build better relationships and get to know people.
There are very few people your young age that get to do a TEDx talk in Minneapolis. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s taken that and then said, “I’m going to do one in my hometown,” especially in such so early in your career. How did TEDxFargo come about?
It was back in 2012. I was working for one of the great entrepreneurs of North Dakota’s history, Doug Burgum, who built Great Plains Software. He ended up selling it to Microsoft for $1 billion. He’s now our governor. I was working for Doug, working with him and trying to build out the energy, the creativity, the ideation in our community when he said, “Let’s do a TEDxFargo.” We threw an event. It cost us $5,000. We got four speakers. We did it at a beautiful art gallery in the heart of our city. We got 100 people there, and people loved it. It was February 2012. I got excited and I was like, “I’m probably going to go to grad school soon. Why don’t I just get another one in before I go to grad school?”
On summer solstice, we did another TEDx. I brought friends from across the Midwest to come speak. We did some adult fieldtrips that we called adventures beforehand, so folks were going to different businesses, doing some interactive work with chefs. We brought in Brian Murphy who wrote See Mix Drink, the world’s best cocktail book in 2011. People were learning how to mix cocktails before our event. It turns out that’s a really bad idea because then some people had to leave a few hours in and had to get a nap. We sold out three events in 2012. One of them we sold out in nine minutes. People were just excited. That was back in 2012. Since then, we’ve now done eight TEDxFargo events. We have one of the largest events in the country. We bring in speakers from all over the world. It’s made a really big impact in Fargo, North Dakota.
Let’s talk about the one that’s coming up in July of 2018. What’s the theme and what would make people want to come either hear this in person or certainly listen to those talks after they’ve aired?
[Tweet “Use your limitations as your strength. “]
Believe it or not, John, there are not a lot of people that are just stopping into Fargo on a regular basis for no particular reason. We use our limitation as our strength. How are we going to get people to come to Fargo on Thursday, July 26th? We look for world-class content. A couple of years ago, we had Richard Wiese, the producer and face of ABC’s Born to Explore. We had Steve Rohr, the publicist for The Oscars. We bring these folks back. What we’re trying to specialize in is the audience doesn’t just get to meet them on stage. We curate small events beforehand with the speakers. We have adventures. Our mainstay content is strong but we create experiences. We have 2,000 people that get to eat lunch together on the street in the heart of downtown Fargo. We hire musical performers, artists. We spend a lot of time thinking about moments, how do we create moments for our guests, for our sponsors. For our sponsors, we have a private backstage red room where the sponsors can interact with the speakers when they come off the stage. We have custom cocktails, fresh juices. We try to create these micro experiences.
For this upcoming event, the theme is ‘Forth’. It’s the activation of ideas. Some of the folks that we have coming, the President of Microsoft, Brad Smith, will be coming to give a talk on engaging technology in rural America. The University of Minnesota Women’s Volleyball coach, who has won a gold medal in both the Men’s Volleyball Olympics as the coach, and the Women’s Volleyball Olympics as the coach, is going to give a talk on his research that he’s doing with one of Malcolm Gladwell’s context. We look for world-class ideas but we’re trying to create an experience. We also do something which I believe is special in Fargo, where all of our past speakers get invited to dinner the night before. The current speakers and the past speakers get invited. In two years, we’re going to have our tenth event and we’re going to invite all 200 past TEDxFargo speakers for a big reunion weekend. Our past speakers are the governor, the artists and doctors and TV show folks. We’re going to bring them all together because we believe in creating community.
What’s fascinating to me, Greg, is that your lessons learned from the farm of not wasting time and wasting resources has propelled you to take that mindset into creating TEDxFargo by not wasting a moment and creating moments for not only your guests but for the speakers and using your limitations as your strength. I think that’s really a key to success in entrepreneurship and anything you do in your life. Because this is The Successful Pitch, let me ask you, how do you convince or pitch some of these big names to come to Fargo TEDx when they probably have other options of where they could go?
That’s my favorite part of it, John. What I need is I need to get them on the phone. I can’t sell them over email. I get them on the phone and I say, “Come to TEDxFargo. Here’s why you need to do it. No TEDx events can pay you, but what we can give you is world-class production. We give you a great video and great photography. Every single one of our speakers has fantastic images and videos from their talks.” They like that, but they can probably get that elsewhere. Then I say, “Come a day early. We’re going to have rehearsal, we’re going to have a speaker dinner and tell me who you want to meet. We want to activate your ideas in the community.” We had Todd Bol, the Founder of Little Free Library out of Wisconsin, come. Little Free Libraries have popped up all around the world. They’re just a little library on people’s yards or in the community where people can grab a book, take a book, leave a book, whatever they want to do. We had Todd come in a day early and we worked with our local community foundation in the city of Fargo and we had a community build. We built 30 Little Free Libraries the day before, he gives a talk, they go out the next week and all of a sudden, they pop up around the community.
We try to activate those ideas. We try to connect our speakers. Our community has become a laboratory to turn ideas into impact. It’s happened time and time again. We also have a concierge team where we book all their travel, we manage their schedules. We make the speakers feel like rock stars. Sometimes it’s famous people that people have heard of. Sometimes it’s high school students. We had two high school students speak and they both got standing ovations. It was so incredible. My wife and I had them over for dinner a couple of weeks later and I said, “Ladies, do we treat you like rock stars?” They both looked at me and they said, “No.” In my head, I’m pissed. I’m like, “What the heck? You’re in high school. How could you want us to treat you?” They shared with me and they go, “We felt better than rock stars. Our families felt like rock stars. Our community felt like rock stars.” We have these high school kids sneak all their friends in backstage. One of the women is from Somalia. She had all her friends there. The governor was taking photos with them, not the other way around. This young woman, Nastesho, she works at Target at the tail, she’s a cashier. She shared with me that the next day, she was back to work and people were stopping her and they wanted to talk to her about her talk. She just felt so good that she gave a powerful talk on radical inclusivity in communities and the community responded.
That’s making a big, big impact, clearly. Somewhere along the line, you decided to become the Executive Director of Emerging Prairie. Tell us about what that does to the community.
[Tweet “Fargo exceeding incredibly low expectations. “]
For you, John, who’s been to Fargo I believe one time and for others that maybe have been there zero times, growing up there, we go back to that idea of the brain drain. What’s going on in North Dakota? What’s going on in Fargo? When I do a lot of my talks around the country, I open up with the thought of Fargo exceeding incredibly low expectations. I’m with some buddies, all from North Dakota. One is an intellectual property attorney out of Harvard, one is a venture capitalist, one is an entrepreneur. We just said, “People locally are terrible at telling their own stories. We don’t want to be prideful. We don’t want to be boastful. We, as a group of friends, need to be better at telling the people in our community’s story.” We created Emerging Prairie with the idea that we should celebrate and connect our entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Now, here we are six years later. We’ve got a team of five, great folks. We’ve got a bunch of events in the drone industry, in emerging technology in agriculture and we’re building platforms to celebrate entrepreneurs. We’re connecting entrepreneurs to the ecosystem, so the corporations, the legal community, the finance community. Emerging Prairie is making a big impact. We had our third annual Drone Focus Conference and US Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, came out and gave a talk. That talk has made a big impact on policy and partnerships across the country. It happened in little old Fargo.
I want to talk about that because I watched that as part of your talk about the impact that drones had and why Fargo was uniquely the right place for drones to be tested because there was a problem you were solving and you have all this open space. Can you double click on that a little bit on that for us?
Let’s go back to sometimes our limitations are our strength. North Dakota is a state of 700,000 people. If our state was a city, we would be not in the top 50 of biggest cities in the country. We got scarce population. When you have scarce population, you have opportunity. Drones can be tested. We have one of the five test sites in Grand Forks, North Dakota. These folks are world-class. You look at the intersection of a technology community, of a university system that cares and then you add on that low unemployment. North Dakota has really low unemployment. One of our drivers for innovation is lack of talent. We got folks building world-class technologies with drones to monitor construction sites, to test out bridges to see how they’re doing, to fly the drones along electric lines during blizzards so we’re not sending humans out but we’re sending the drones out to make sure that our power is on in rural North Dakota. There is an ecosystem in the unmanned aircraft system that is growing. It’s collaboration. It’s the university. It’s the economic development folks. It’s the private sector. It really is a spirit of possibility. A lot of that has been championed by our elected officials from both sides of the aisle that see this technology as making an impact to improve the human condition.
Greg, do you have a vision for your life of where you want to be a year from now or three years from now?
I used to be really goal-oriented, John. I used to have metrics, goals, checklists. When I was on that year around the world, I shifted my perspective as I just want to be time-rich, meaning I get to choose to spend time with interesting, weird and wonderful people. Then I can use my skills and abilities to make a difference. I’ve thought about life more as a videogame such as Zelda, which is an adventure of multiple things you can do, versus the old school Mario where you passed levels and moved up. I don’t really see where I’m going to be in three years but I hope I’m loving my community, I hope I’m adding value, I hope there are twists and turns, and I hope it’s an adventure. I’m not focused on big numbers anymore. I’m not focused on certain accomplishments. I just want to have an interesting, wild and wonderful life that hopefully leads to other people benefiting from it.
[Tweet “Be TIME rich “]
When you have that clear of an intention, you are literally free from what I call the self-esteem rollercoaster, which is only feeling good about yourself if your numbers are up, and you feel bad about yourself if your numbers are down. That’s where you and I really align, Greg, is that’s one of my biggest goals is to get people off that self-esteem rollercoaster who are always looking outside of themselves for validation. There’s a whole new way to live your life. The irony is when you let go of that fear of not being good enough based on your results, the results typically come in because people want to help you. I’ve seen it time and again in my own life and I see it happening with you and what you’re doing not just for yourself but for all of Fargo.
Let me piggyback that one, John, for a second because what you said just resonated with me. There are a couple of thoughts I want to share. If this is helpful for everybody, great; if not, disregard it as fast as possible. Our organization, we need to raise money. I was on a pitch for $200,000 because in the nonprofit space, we still have to raise money too. I’ve thought of our work as a laboratory versus an outcome. I think the beauty that science gives us is the spirit of exploration. There’s an Einstein quote that said, “If we knew what was going to happen, we wouldn’t be able to call it research.” In my world, in my team’s world, we try to focus on having a great setup to our experiment versus predicting the outcomes. We think of our work as a lab and it takes the pressure away from certain outcomes and deliverables. That’s helped us.
The second thing is there’s a huge difference between hustle and desperation. Hustle is busting your tail. It’s achieving results, making an impact. Desperation is fear. Desperation has anxiety in it. We try to hustle and try to remove that desperation behavior. The last thing that we’ve learned is that we need to collaborate. In everything we do, we have to have collaboration. The projects that our team takes on, we can’t do alone. We fundamentally cannot do it alone. It forces us to collaborate. It turns out, when you collaborate and you have clear mission and intention and you bring people along for the journey, great things happen. In our organization, we struggle to put our name on our events. We struggle to put our name into the “branding world.” It turns out, when we shine through others and we collaborate and we let other people be the hero, or our mantra is “Give the wins away,” we just get way more wins. It’s a lot more fun. That’s been a principle that has percolated into the organization of, “Pass the microphone. Give other people the opportunity to be the hero,” and it’s working.
Greg, how can people follow you on social media both for TEDxFargo as well as Emerging Prairie?
Nothing that we do is all really unique. Our handles on social media for Emerging Prairie are just @EmergingPrairie, for TEDxFargo, @TEDxFargo. Personally, my Twitter handle is @GregFromFargo. My email is GregFromFargo@Gmail.com. We’d love for folks to follow along. John, you asked, “What’s the why behind this?” For me, it’s to show off my community, to show off my neighbors, my friends, my family that I believe are doing world-class work. You came to visit Fargo and we went to Young Blood Coffee shop. That’s been around for a year and a half. I’ll put their toast up against anyone. They make great toasts. It’s $6 for a loaf and $5.50 for a slice, but it’s damn good toast. The biggest honor anyone here would do is come visit, come check us out, let us know. We’d love to buy you coffee. We’d love to show folks around. Fargo is a special place right now and we’d love for people to come explore it.
I personally can attest to the warmth and the hospitality of everyone I met there, including you. Thank you so much for being a guest on The Successful Pitch and sharing your passion and insights on how to make a difference in the world.
- Greg Tehven
- Emerging Prairie
- 1 Million Cups Fargo
- Startup Weekend
- Pay It Forward Tours
- Students Today Leaders Forever
- Doug Burgum
- See Mix Drink
- Richard Wiese
- Steve Rohr
- Little Free Library
- Drone Focus Conference
- Emerging Prairie Facebook
- TEDxFargo Facebook
- Greg’s Facebook
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