How the Platte Institute Can Help Nebraskans with Elizabeth Hallgren
Platte Institute Community Engagement Director Elizabeth Hallgren joins Jim Vokal to talk about her experiences as an educator and small business advocate, and how Nebraskans can stay informed and help remove barriers to success in their state. A transcript of this episode is available below.
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Jim Vokal: Nebraskanomics is all about providing solutions that allow Nebraskans to live their own idea of the Good Life. But arriving at the right solutions requires careful listening, so we can properly identify the problems Nebraskans face. That’s why I’m so glad to introduce you to Elizabeth Hallgren. She’s the Platte Institute’s Community Engagement Director—someone on our team who’s here to listen and help you, or someone you might know, overcome barriers to opportunity. Elizabeth, among many things you’re an educator, an advocate for entrepreneurs, and even ran for office as part of your community involvement, so let’s get started—tell us more about you and how your past experiences inform your approach to community engagement in Nebraska.
Elizabeth Hallgren: Great, thank you, Jim. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited for my new journey here at the Platte Institute and if you take a look at my resume—my career on paper—you can definitely see it’s been an interesting ride, twisting and turning between organizations and titles. And that’s primarily a function of the fact that I was the following spouse for an active duty military member and we moved a lot.
I’m really proud that I had the opportunity to support my military family and build my community and career at every new stop. I’m also really proud that Omaha is my final stop and that I’m here. One thing that I want to share with you that remained consistent, regardless of my role or location, was that I was always serving a common a common throughline. I was able to build my community and capitalize on opportunity everywhere I went, whether it was serving as faculty at a Big Ten university, or in working with Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, where I helped startups and small businesses grow. I even offered my expertise as a consultant and even as a community volunteer. My goal was always to bring people together around a desired outcome, or maybe even a problem or an issue, identify obstacles, and then figure out a way together we could leverage our connections and experience to really move the ball forward on that issue. To me, in its simplest form, that is Community Engagement. It’s connecting neighbor to neighbor and realizing that if something’s a problem for one of us, it’s very likely a problem for another one of us too, and that by working together we can find a solution.
Jim Vokal: That’s a great perspective, thanks for sharing that. OK, let’s take a look in the past. At the Platte Institute we were known for publishing research. We still do, but over the years, some of our best work has been from actually getting to know Nebraskans who just needed an advocate in Lincoln, and in your career, you’ve helped more than 300 small businesses get their start and develop sustainable business models. So, what role does community engagement serve in that process of advocating for workers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers?
Elizabeth Hallgren: Yeah, Nebraska is a really interesting place, and one of the reasons why I really like it is that it’s a huge state—but in reality—it’s a really small community. If a policy or, you know, an opportunity is good for a Greater Nebraskan, really frequently you can be sure that it’s also going to serve an urban Nebraskan, because we’re all connected. I mean, 1 in 4 jobs here in Omaha is related to the ag industry, and I really believe that research and advocacy should not be some unrelated, ivory tower university activity, because it really can have a direct impact on day-to-day Nebraskans. And so, at the Platte Institute, one of the things that really drew me to this organization is that they’re looking to not only just put out research they’re also looking to represent the voices of workers and small business owners, and even entrepreneurs and innovators. We want to tell them what they need to know, and empower them to be successful. They will actually be the ones that will lead the discussion on what’s needed to open up Nebraska to opportunity so that we can all benefit across the state. Because remember, we’re all one basically small community.
Jim Vokal: So, big picture question: What does engagement mean to you, Elizabeth, and is there anything Nebraskans listening to this program should know about how our organization, the Platte Institute and our team, can help them moving forward?
Elizabeth Hallgren: Yeah, you know, this is a question we’ve been talking a lot about internally as I build out this program, and I’m also kind of taking a look externally to see what other organizations are doing about that. But as I’ve reflected on kind of my experience and the work that the Platte Institute has already done, to me, community engagement—it really means neighbors put first—it means listening and serving our neighbors and taking whatever expertise or access you have and helping them remove barriers to their success. In terms of the Platte Institute, so if you don’t feel like you have a voice here in Nebraska, as a small business owner, or a worker, entrepreneur, the Platte Institute wants to help you find your voice and magnify it so we can all benefit. And that’s what community engagement is. The Platte Institute— also one of the things that’s really impressive to me is that the quality of the solid research and information that you guys put out—or I guess I can say we now—and just on basic economic issues and policies, and how they’re going to impact our state.
I think we have a responsibility, we as a community now, to be informed on what’s going on, and the Platte Institute’s information really makes that easier, particularly in a time where you can’t really rely on the media outlets to cover state issues closely. So, for our listeners out there if you’re not getting our newsletter, I really suggest that you do and that you check out our website, because there’s so much information on day-to-day policies and issues that that impact our lives as Nebraskans.
Jim Vokal: All right, let’s take a look at your past employment. You were faculty at John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Iowa, but your experiences with entrepreneurship span well beyond the Midwest, you’ve also worked with the U.S. State Department’s Young African Leadership Initiative in Zambia. Tell us a bit about your teaching abroad. Is there anything specifically you learned that might benefit us here in Nebraska?
Elizabeth Hallgren: Yeah, I really think that, you know, the world’s a lot smaller than we think it is. And experiences are way more common than just from your own little place on the planet. I’ve had some really amazing experiences in that program and it actually predated my actual my work in Zambia. I’ve been working with African colleagues since 2017. The State Department every summer brings over about a thousand young African leaders from 26 nations to U.S. college campuses across the country, and we work with them really closely so that we can engage with them around growing opportunity for their communities, their countries, and for Africa. And I got to work with founders and small businesses over a couple summers, and it was as a follow-on program to that, that I was invited to Zambia to teach in-country. You know, it was truly life-changing to see the barriers that those fellows faced in trying to grow their own businesses and also improve their communities and countries. Because as an American, you know, I have lots of access and connections that I honestly take for granted. But that’s not always the case. It’s not always the case globally, and it’s not always the case in in our country, either.
But by working with these the fellows, I really had a chance to see firsthand how, you know, building businesses can literally change people’s lives and future generations. So I’m really motivated to work collectively to make sure here in my country we are building businesses and business environments and policies that encourage opportunity, not limit it. When I was in Zambia—I just think back of it, it was a really amazing experience. But if I had to consider it, I think that there would be two main takeaways that I think are relevant here in Nebraska. And first, that ownership impacts the wider community. When small business owners, they work day and night to build their dream, to invest in what they’re trying to grow, and when you have that level of commitment, you care about your whole community. You’re investing your time, your energy, and your treasure to build a business, and so you’re really invested in the well-being of your wider community—and access to that level of opportunity raises all boats. So I think how that translates to Nebraska is that we really need to think about when we’re considering policy and regulations that impact small businesses, and small business ownership, that even one new small business can turn the tide of a community. Because having that level of commitment from, you know, a small business owner or a small business owning-family can really change the tide.
And then the second thing I learned, which was really kind of a surprise to me, was that representation matters. I don’t particularly consider myself to be representative, but in my program, in training sessions in Zambia, we had the highest level of female-owned businesses that turned out of any of the previous trainings the American Corner—which is where I was doing my training. My training was not unique in the curriculum or the skills that I was teaching, but I was the first woman, and mother, and wife that had offered that. And so when we asked the female founders why they came, many of them shared that they wanted to learn from another wife, and mother, and woman, because I would understand the issues that they were facing in growing their businesses, by balancing the rest of their responsibilities. So, I think how that translates to Nebraska is that one of the fundamental truths is that we simply don’t have the population to meet the demands of our economy. So we need to make sure that we’re not excluding anybody, and we need to work together to make sure all workers, all business owners, and all entrepreneurs feel like Nebraska is a place that understands what they’re facing, and we really need to lock arms with each other as neighbors to help each other through obstacles that stand in the way of success.
Jim Vokal: All right, I said at the top of this podcast that we provide policy research and legislative advice. But there’s always a confusing amount of data and opinion out there, and plenty of it collects dust. What are you hearing as you speak with Nebraskans about the issues that matter to them, and do you think their top priorities are getting the attention they deserve by policymakers?
Elizabeth Hallgren: So, yeah, and this is where I really heard from the taxpayers. I spent much of the last year knocking on doors and attending events getting to know my neighbors, as I ran for office. I’ve also, you know, worked closely with business owners for a number of years, and I can say with a lot of confidence that most people feel pretty disconnected from their elected representative. I’ve heard that they’re tired of hearing the same thing year after year and never seeing any action or change on the issues that matter to them. Of course, everyone when you ask them…what’s important to them, they want lower taxes, you know, and they want to be able to keep a larger share of their income to, you know, to pursue and invest it, and grow it how they want to. And it is particularly true around property taxes, but one of the things that was interesting is that even when progress is made in those areas, our taxpayers—our average people—don’t know that something or realize that something has changed. So there’s a real disconnect between our neighbors and taxpayers, and our policymakers. I’m hoping to be able to change that as Community Engagement Director here. And building out my program, I really want—the Platte Institute already does an amazing job of producing educational and engaging content—I’m really hoping that we can, you know, widen our net. We already have deep connections in the community. I want to just magnify that effort so that more taxpayers are informed about how their their dollars are being spent and what policies could improve—or maybe not be so positive.
Jim Vokal: Elizabeth, what are some of the ways Nebraskans might be hearing from you at the Platte Institute in the months and years ahead, and how can our listeners get in touch with you if they’d like to participate or need some assistance?
Elizabeth Hallgren: Sure. A couple of spoilers—I’m building a program of community-based events that will roll out in the future. We’ll get together and we’ll talk through important issues that are slowing growth here in Nebraska and impacting taxpayers. I’m also looking to connect with existing groups that are gathering around those issues or connecting business owners, or you know, concerned citizen groups. So it’s highly likely that our listeners will, you know, see me at a coffee or an event in the future. And finally, I’m really looking to expand the reach of the current channels we use. You know, our weekly newsletter and this podcast and our blogs, I would love it if every taxpayer in Nebraska had that information in their hands so that they were informed and empowered to advocate for the better and more efficient use of our dollars and to remove the barriers to growth in our state. So what I’d like people to do—what I’d like our listeners to do I guess—my call to action for you is a couple of things. First, I’d like you to sign up for our newsletter if you haven’t yet. Second, I’d really like you to share one of our podcasts or one of our blogs with a friend or neighbor that you think would be relevant to them, and finally, reach out to me. Connecting on LinkedIn is a really easy way to stay in the loop with what’s happening with the Platt Institute. The Platte Institute has a page, or you can connect with me directly, and if there is a specific way that the Platte Institute or I can assist you or guide you through an issue that you’re facing on the policy front, just shoot me an email or give me a call. All of that contact information is on our website, which is PlatteInstitute.org.
Jim Vokal: Elizabeth Hallgren has been my guest today. She’s the Community Engagement Director here at the Platte Institute. Elizabeth, on behalf of the whole team, we’re grateful to have your perspective and proud to have you representing us in the communities across Nebraska. Thanks for being a part of the Platte Institute and joining us on Nebraskanomics.
Elizabeth Hallgren: Thank you.