Fargo-Moorhead is no longer a drive-by community – it’s the place to be.
This past year, the community that is home to Concordia College landed on the top of a USA Today list of cities that are born of deep demographic shifts and the power of technology. Dubbed “millennial magnets,” these cities are attracting 20-something adults and keeping recent college graduates.
Marisa Jackels ’14 never thought she’d be an entrepreneur. But this spring she participated in her first Startup Weekend Fargo event.
Hosted by Concordia’s Offutt School of Business, the event took place over three days. At the end, teams presented business ideas to a panel of judges.
Jackels and her Startup partner, Sarah English, pitched Fargo Hotcakes, which aims to deliver fresh pancakes to downtown workers. The fledgling idea won honorable mention and a flurry of fans who want to know when the breakfast cart will be up and running.
“The whole experience opens your eyes to what you can do and create,” Jackels says. “We did it in 54 hours. It’s empowering.”
The startup event is also one more example of a new culture arising in the Fargo-Moorhead community, one that is embracing innovation, collaboration and artistic ventures on a broad scale.
This entrepreneurial, startup culture is a boon for Concordia students seeking valuable experiences and young alumni looking to make their mark in the post- college world. It’s also a breath of fresh air for those who have called the metro area home long before its flagship city was the name of a Coen brothers film or its TV spinoff.
Instead of shivering in oversized winter coats, these innovators are participating in startup events and flocking to meetups. They’re organizing gatherings like 1 Million Cups and an independent TEDx.
“It’s not an attraction, it’s a feeling. It’s more about an attitude, the energy that’s happening,” says Charley Johnson ’72, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s the prairie cool attitude.”
The Fargo-Moorhead metro is the largest community between the Twin Cities and Spokane, Wash. For generations, it has been a natural hub for agriculture, education and health, fields represented by some of the region’s largest employers.
Yet, for decades the region faced demographic decline and a sense that it had little more to offer than blustery winters and a Midwest nice demeanor.
As recently as 2002, the local newspaper published a series of stories called “Saving North Dakota.” The project jump-started months of discussions about ways to retain those most likely to pack their suitcases and leave North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota – young adults between 18 and 34 years old.
That’s not the case any longer.
The community landed 10th on a Forbes list of cities with the highest job growth. Fargo saw 4 percent growth between August 2013 and August 2014, adding 5,300 jobs. Still, the numbers only tell part of the story.
Every Wednesday morning, the place to be in Fargo-Moorhead is at 1 Million Cups. The national program provides a stage for entrepreneurs to educate, engage and connect with each other. Fargo’s event consistently draws one of the largest crowds in the nation.
During a recent gathering, John Walters played the role of part emcee, part cheerleader as he welcomed a crowd of about 200. Pacing along the edge of the stage, he reminded the eclectic crowd that one of the main purposes of the event is meeting others in the room.
“It takes seven interactions for a meaningful relationship to develop,” he says and then repeats himself for emphasis: “Seven interactions.”
After two local startups share their respective plans for manufacturing green polymers and building a language- learning app, audience members shouted in unison: “How can we help?”
Similar scenes have played out for the past year, as students, business leaders, academics, retirees and more listen to and advise the community’s entrepreneurs. For the opportunity, they flock to a theatre on the edge of Fargo’s largest downtown park.
Jeff Knight ’04 used to apologize for being from Fargo. Now he’s proud enough to boast that this is where he lives. He teaches graphic design at Concordia and strongly encourages his students to attend events like 1 Million Cups and TEDxFargo.
“In Fargo, these successful people (who present) become accessible to students. The walls of leadership get broken down,” Knight says. “Students can ask high-level people questions and reach out to them. There’s a lot more potential for students to get connected here.”
In addition to introducing students to business leaders, Knight invites students to become part of the community. He holds classes in downtown coffee shops so students can appreciate the neighborhoods that surround campus. And this year, he asked two of his graphics students to join his volunteer design team for Fargo’s July TEDx event.
Letting students know that their input and energy is not only needed but valuable is a big part of what can keep them here long after graduation, he says.
“There’s been a big shift. When I was a student, you got your degree and you left – most likely to Minneapolis,” he says. “Now I see students who become invested in this community while they’re here. And they want to stay.”
Ashley Dedin '12 is one of those. She transferred to Concordia in fall 2009 from a junior college near Chicago. Her love affair with Fargo-Moorhead began immediately.
“The day I got here, I decided to stay,” she says.
After graduation, Dedin found an apartment in the trendy downtown area where she can walk to a coffee shop and the baristas know her by name. The young artist rented a small studio space, where she started sewing neckties from recycled garments.
Then one of her Concordia mentors encouraged her to rent a larger space for retail options. She jumped at the chance and opened AENDEE in July 2013. Since then she’s been honored by Martha Stewart and has built a presence on Etsy. She has sold neckties to a wedding party in New Zealand and sewn heirloom items for family members of a late patriarch.
“I’m living the life I want to have and to do what I love is priceless,” she says.
Being in Fargo-Moorhead is a big part of her success, Dedin says.
“People have a different approach to work here,” she says. “People want to collaborate instead of compete. There’s a sense of camaraderie, a sense that we’re all in this together.
“It’s Fargo nice. Minnesota nice. Genuine nice.”
And while nice is, well, nice, it is only the start of what creates an attractive startup community. Emerging Prairie, an organization in Fargo, has been one of the leaders in providing resources and opportunities to support innovation and collaboration. Greg Tehven, who leads Concordia’s Social Entrepreneurship in India experience, is the group’s executive director.
Fargo-Moorhead is experiencing a perfect storm, he says. A strong education system from kindergarten through college paired with a renewed urban core provides a solid foundation for a population no longer limited by geography. An affordable cost of living means artists and entrepreneurs can create a meaningful life in a place with culture and excitement.
“Our community is filled with organizations and people trying to improve the human condition,” he says. “It’s a perfect match to Concordia’s mission for students to become responsibly engaged in the world. They can take what they’re learning in the classroom and apply it in a way that allows them to accomplish something special.”
Jackels has a front-row seat to the work. Not only is she a budding entrepreneur, but she’s a writer for Emerging Prairie.
As part of that work, she recently penned a blog for Tech.Co, which compared Fargo to the Silicon Valley: “Perhaps as a result of this energy, more and more innovators are deciding to stay ... There is a collaborative energy, locals say – a team effort at making this city a place where people want to live.
“At 1 Million Cups Fargo, the last question every time is ‘How can our community help to support you as you grow your startup?’
“The thing is, that support is already present. When that many people consistently show up week after week, it sends a clear message to the city’s brightest and most innovative minds: you are wanted here.”
And it’s a message being heard loud and clear across the community. Everybody benefits as Fargo-Moorhead develops a new name for itself, a name not associated with an Academy Award-winning movie.
“Anything you can do to bring people here breaks down the stereotypes,” Johnson says.
It’s why the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau has helped to sponsor the Misfit Conference, an international event dedicated to figuring out how to live a deliberate life by doing work that truly matters.
During one of the receptions, Johnson struck up a conversation with one of the attendees, who was from Belfast. Yes, there were misperceptions and questions. But there was interest and awe, as well.
“Those (questions) get the conversation started,” he says.
And the conversation certainly won’t end there.