There aren’t many small, rural towns with an international brand.
But Red Wing, Minnesota, is one of them.
Chances are you might even own a pair of the classic, durable boots and shoes that have made the town’s name famous around the globe. Or, if not, you’ve at least heard of Red Wing Shoe Co. — one of the Mississippi River port town’s iconic local businesses along with the likes of Riedell Skates, Central Research Laboratories, and S.B. Foot Tanning Co. The manufacturing heritage also includes a division of the multinational giant 3M. Together, their presence and products bring a renown that few cities of its size can match.
And yet, somehow, Red Wing manages to be so much more than that.
An hour southeast from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the city of 16,500 offers gigabit-speed broadband. Outdoor opportunities abound with the mighty river and nearby Lake Pepin, the birthplace of water skiing, as well as hiking trails along the bluffs and green spaces close to downtown. It’s a regional business hub thanks to Red Wing Ignite, a local nonprofit whose coworking space, programming, and support services are sparking innovation and thoughtful, 21st-century economic development in Red Wing and beyond.
That’s why the Center on Rural Innovation visited Red Wing for the fifth piece in its “Portraits of a community” series — our first installments featured Taos, New Mexico, Springfield, Vermont, Ada, Oklahoma, and Portsmouth, Ohio. These stories are intended to shine a light on the people who make up the unique ecosystems within CORI’s Rural Innovation Network, which connects rural leaders and advocates around the country to accelerate their learning and amplify their work on the ground.
Founder, IvyCat Web Services
Eric Amundson built a national client base for his business, IvyCat Web Services, over a decade and a half in the greater Seattle area — and seamlessly brought it with him to Red Wing when he and his wife relocated in 2019. The move, which allowed Amundson to be closer to his sister and aging parents, was an easy one to make thanks to the town’s gigabit-speed broadband and the services offered by Red Wing Ignite. From his office there, he leads virtual standup meetings each morning with his five-person team, and has seen business revenue grow significantly in the past two years. Better still: Home is just a short walk away, allowing Amundson more time to enjoy with his pets and gardens, and chipping away at home-improvement projects.
“One thing we were able to do when we moved out here is buy a house, and we would like to think the house we have here we would never have been able to buy a Gig Harbor, Washington. I think if you could airlift it to Gig Harbor, it’d be like four or five times the cost that we paid for it, so that was nice. Red Wing is just a nice little community. … Our house is near downtown and basically the town is walkable for us. My wife is disabled. She can walk, but she can’t sit for long periods of time, or drive, so it’s great for her to be able to get out and walk around and, you know, be able to go to the grocery store and all that sort of stuff without having to drive.”
“I always liked the fact that I could be mobile — like, I could go to a conference in San Francisco and still stay connected. But that wasn’t like a big priority of mine early on. I think the bigger priority was like being my own boss and being able to kind of dictate my schedule and that sort of thing. Over time it has been very nice to be able to be mobile, especially like I mentioned, being here to be there for my dad and stepmom. I can go over and spend the day with them at their house and still be on the computer and working. It’s become more important to me as I realized the power of it, like, oh yeah, I can actually be there for them.”
“I would say there is a probably just in general a better quality of life (here), things move a little slower. There’s a lot more wide open spaces. I like to fly drones in my off hours and so there’s lots of cornfields, lots of places to fly. I think for just mental health and reduced stress it’s nice to be in a little less busy place. I don’t have to deal with traffic, I don’t have to drive to Seattle, that sort of thing. I think just that sort of extra clarity and lack of just background noise, allows me to focus a little better. … I could walk to and from home in like 5-6 minutes, something like that. It’s awesome.”
Director of Business Relations, Minnesota State College Southeast
A native of Red Wing, Katie Hardyman left the area for college and lived in the Twin Cities for nearly a decade before making her way home with her young family. She went from a solid, full-time career in marketing and sales to working part-time jobs for the flexibility they afforded when her kids were growing up. But the self-described “sports mom” and Anglophile, dating back to her study-abroad days in the U.K., wound up as the Minnesota State College Southeast’s point person connecting its efforts to the local business community. Her role informs how the school approaches its training to develop a 21st-century workforce.
“I absolutely love telling everyone about the college. I love the amazing things that we do for our students. I believe in it 100%. … It’s the best job ever because the role that we serve in our community is amazing. We’re upskilling either currently employed or people that are looking to change employment or can’t find a job, we’re helping people that are coming out of prison, or helping people, students that are in school.”
“There’s very few jobs now that don’t require some sort of technical or computer literacy. But even if it doesn’t, there are hardly any companies these days you can even apply for a job without doing it online, and that is so much more difficult than people understand, and that that is a barrier for more people than I think employers realize. … So, digital literacy is huge. There’s a huge gap. I think bigger than people understand or want to admit because no one wants to, you know, no one wants to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing, right?”
“My husband and I loved working downtown Minneapolis. But then we had our first child, and daycare is different in the city, everything’s different. He’s from Austin, Minnesota, so another small town, and we just thought, you know what, I really think we want to raise our family back in a smallish town I think that’s what really, that’s what really brings people back. … Most of my co workers live in Red Wing or live in the area, so we have a vested interest in our kids going to school here and in wanting to make it a better place. And I think we have extremely strong infrastructure as far as our downtown Main Street group, our Chamber of Commerce, Red Wing Ignite, bringing in all of the high tech into this town. I think that’s another big draw, in truth.”
Founder and CEO, Spave
Born in Red Wing and raised across the Mississippi River in Bay City, Wisconsin, Susan Langer left the area after high school and swore she’d never come back. She built a career in marketing and philanthropy, moved to the New York City area and traveled the world, but returned home years later after reconnecting with and marrying her high school sweetheart. It was only then — back in the town where her entrepreneurial ancestors put down roots, exposed to a new world of possibility — that Langer struck out on her own. Her creation, the financial tech startup Live.Give.Save., won the Ignite Cup competition in 2017 and in 2021 its all-in-one financial wholeness app, Spave, was acquired by a Michigan credit union. The exit grabbed headlines and has allowed Langer and her husband a little more time to indulge in hobbies like golfing and kayaking on the Mississippi.
“For me, I guess, I’ve always felt like this is a calling to me, and I’ve always felt drawn to it. I knew I was going to do something with this. This has been in my mindset since 1995, and every so often it would come up but the technology wasn’t available then to do what’s in my mind and what was in my heart. … When I saw the Acorns app, it was like, OK, it’s my turn. I’ve helped other people build their companies, raise lots of money, and now it’s my time to do it — and I had no idea how different it would be and how difficult it would be.”
“I say that there’s three R’s of entrepreneurship, and it’s really for anyone, it’s about life: It’s resourcefulness, it’s resiliency, and it’s relationships. … When I came to Red Wing, I was introduced to a woman named Neela Mollgaard, who was the founding executive director of Red Wing Ignite, and that ignited a whole network of access to resources that I would not have otherwise had. In my back of my mind I’m like, ‘How could I start a startup out of rural community, let alone a fintech, in the Midwest, at middle age — 50s, crazy.’ But with those relationships, those connections, I actually think it was richer for me being in a rural community than being in the Twin Cities where you kind of get thrown into everything else and there’s so much noise around that you kind of get lost in all of it.”
“Now, I’ve traveled all over the world, and I’ve seen some of the most amazing geographies, I will tell you there is nothing on Earth like where I grew up. I mean, nestled in the glacier-created bluffs of the mighty Mississippi that created this beautiful lake called Lake Pepin, that’s just glorious. It’s unbelievable. This little town that was developed by inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s a maker’s dream space here. I just feel so blessed that I came back when I did.”
Founder and CEO, Xena Therapies
A wide-ranging professional career brought Tammy Lee to the medical technology industry, and her medtech startup to Red Wing. Originally hailing from Kensington, Minnesota, where she graduated with a class of 34, Lee worked in news, politics, the airline industry, and led the Series A funding round for a genetics company before launching her own venture, Xena Therapies. Her company has two lines of cool-therapy products — Onyx and Opal — that are made from plant-based phase-change material sourced in the U.S. and made in Red Wing, a small town whose workforce and business-support network where both draws for the startup.
“I think you’ve got a talent pool that is more reliable, particularly in Red Wing, and you’ve got a community that’s really supportive. We’ve done work with Red Wing Ignite and the Red Wing Port Authority — they’ve been incredibly supportive, as are the people that we lease our building from. You know, they are an extension of our business … being part of a small town, you know, people that are there, they’re all cheering for you to succeed. I think that’s what’s really different than in a large metropolitan area. When you’re in a small town, everybody knows you and they all want to be part of your success.”
“When we launched the company we really thought that the focus was going to be selling the orthopedic products into medical institutions like Mayo Clinic and elsewhere. But we launched the plant in February, right before COVID, and then had to close in March of 2020 — a terrible time to try and break into new medical markets. So we really kind of shifted the focus from B2B to a more of a direct-to-consumer. Our products are on Amazon and Walmart.com. But we haven’t really invested a lot in the advertising that you need to build a presence there. The best exposure that we’ve had is from being on shows, and being selected to be on shows like ”Good Morning America.” If you just see them online, I think people don’t get the full effect of what the products do or how the technology works. But I think when we can show and demo the technology it connects well with consumers who need to use the products.”
“Most of these products are not under patent, but it’s really how you make the products, and make them into different forms and shapes that is what makes them a success in the marketplace. So we started with orthopedic products and then invented some new products on our own — products for women under the Opal Cool brand using the same technology, really adapting them for women with menopause or who have MS, or cooling bra inserts for new moms who are breastfeeding. We took an existing technology and just turned it into a different line of healthcare products really targeting women.”
Roger Sievers, Renee Sievers, and Jessica Sievers
Co-founders, Sievers Creative
Before it grew to employ a team of eight, Sievers Creative, a full-service marketing and design firm, started as a side hustle: Roger Sievers building websites when he wasn’t doing digital marketing work for the local newspaper. By 2017, it had become an operation that demanded full-time attention from his wife, Renee, and sister, Jessica, and prompted Roger to leave his day job with “a gulp and leap of faith.” Together, they’ve built the company from their kitchen table to a shiny, renovated space at the Anderson Center, an interdisciplinary arts residency location west of downtown Red Wing. Their big bet has paid off with steady, substantial revenue growth and a solid standing in the local market.
Roger: “Actually the business plan that became Sievers Creative I tried giving to my previous employer, a media organization up here in the four-state area. My initial goal was to find a way to make the newspaper viable because they were struggling real bad. And so I basically said this is a blueprint for how you can make the company successful online. Once you get a website set up for a customer, all the digital marketing and branding and PR, the video, the photos, and then, obviously, the advertising (follows). I laid out the entire blueprint, went all the way up to corporate, and they basically said, ‘Ah, we don’t really think there’s any money in it.’ Renee was kicking me for it.”
Renee: “I was like Roger, why are you giving them our plan? But he was loyal — it was the bread and butter of what took care of our family — and he’s like, ‘No, I gotta do this.’ When he came back home and told me they said, ‘Absolutely not,” I was like, ‘What?!’”
Roger: “There’s a lot of companies that offer what we offer, there’s a lot of companies that are web design companies or Google AdWords companies or video companies. And so really the only thing that stands out is the relationship that you build with your client. I kind of recognized early on with my side hustle that when you build a company’s website you kind of de facto become their consultant for all of those things … and it really made sense that — I don’t wanna say that you own a relationship — but if you build a really good relationship, they come back to you for everything. That was the idea that I tried to pass on to the newspaper companies I was working for. And by the grace of God, they didn’t take it.”
Jessica: “I think he also recognized that, you know, people wanted that one place to go. Sometimes they would come for recommendations like, ‘Hey I really need to get this done — do you know where I can?’ And if you can say, ‘Hey, I can help you with that,’ they’re relieved because they don’t have to track down eight different people to just get what they need done for their business.”
Renee: “When we moved to Red Wing and started building our family, priorities changed for me when it came to being home with the kids and that type of thing. But I think I’ve always been an inspired designer. I had the dream of owning my own business but not knowing where to start … but also be married to somebody who kind of shared that dream.”
Jessica: “I don’t think I ever initially set out to be an entrepreneur. I figured I would just get a job somewhere and work there and build up a career. But the entrepreneur life and the freedom that it affords is something that I always wanted, I just didn’t realize I could do it on my own. And it wasn’t until we started talking about Sievers Creative and building this company that I thought, ‘Hey, there’s people here that I could do this with, it’s a possibility.’”
Despite living in Rochester, a larger city about an hour away, Andy Vig and his Shrpa co-founder, Chris Lukenbill, sought out the entrepreneurial programming offered in Red Wing to accelerate their nascent startup, which allows businesses and consumers to share experiences in their communities. The E1 Ignite Cup, a business competition for area businesses, helped the pair hone their vision, which was a winner on their second try in 2020. Vig, who grew up on a farm in South Dakota, came to southeast Minnesota after a decade at Microsoft and a half-dozen years based in New York City. A remote worker for more than a decade, his job traveled with him when his wife took a position at the Mayo Clinic; now his home office above the garage offers a perch onto the toy-strewn backyard where their two young children play.
“I worked at Microsoft for a decade, which is in some ways the opposite of entrepreneurship. It was great, but it was a gigantic corporation and you were just a cog in the machine. And I think part of my farm roots is me wanting to build things on my own, to drive my own destiny … and especially after that long at a big corporation, I had a draw to do my own startup in some form, I just didn’t know what that was like, I was never exposed to that. I basically left Microsoft and then steadily shifted to smaller and smaller companies until going off on my own here and starting Shrpa.”
“We had a good idea that provided this core value of local experiences, exploring local, and the tough question for us was then how do we actually make that into a business? How do we manifest that core value platform in ways that are specifically valuable and sustainable? So it took us a good 18 months to wrap your head around that. These competitions in both Red Wing and the Minnesota Cup really helped force us to go to do that. And then the last 12 months has really been a rapid, rapid growth and change for us. We just started selling in December (2020), basically, and we’ve got a pretty steep trajectory of bringing on customers, getting actual sales, actual revenue in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And now we’re looking at how do we really scale the business … how do we explode that ultimately to a national or international level?”
“It’s interesting. I’m 39 now, so it’s amazing how much things have changed. When I was 18 I wanted just to get out because there wasn’t enough interest and it wasn’t enough intellectual stimulation on the farm where I grew up. But now there’s so much opportunity with the internet and with remote work and with collaboration — to me that’s really changed the game quite a bit. You don’t have to just work at one of the, you know, three employment options in a small town. You have all kinds of opportunities thanks to the power of the internet and remote work.”
It doesn’t end here.
Red Wing is a great example of what can happen when America’s small towns embrace the hard work required to reimagine what is possible and begin creating digital economy ecosystems that can meet the future head-on.
Through its Rural Innovation Initiative, CORI’s work makes it possible for local leaders to connect and learn from each other in a community of practice. RII communities have a range of resources at their fingertips to help implement what CORI has identified as Direct Drivers of vibrant digital economy ecosystems:
- Access to Capital
- Scalable Tech Entrepreneur Support and Incubation
- Inclusive Tech Culture Building
- Access to Digital Jobs
- Digital Workforce Development and Support
Each of these elements allow rural communities like Portsmouth, Red Wing, Ada, and others to compete in the broader tech economy.
To meet the Rural Innovation Network communities doing ecosystem building in small towns across the country, you can find a list here.
If you are a community interested in working with us to grow or build your own digital economy ecosystem, please contact us.