The Rural Edge: Heading back home to make a difference

Benya Kraus

We often hear about the rural “brain drain,” where after rural young people go off to college, they end up taking jobs in big cities, instead of coming back home. Benya Kraus, co-founder of Lead For America and Lead For Minnesota executive director, is trying to change that. Lead for America’s Hometown Fellows program selects, trains, and places young leaders into fellowships in local public-serving institutions, to tackle tough challenges facing these communities, strengthen their civic infrastructure, and join a network of transformational community leaders. 

At CORI, we are interested in broadening the conversation about rural America and sharing stories from local change agents and entrepreneurs who are driving innovation in the small towns and communities they call home. Our Rural Edge series features conversations with the people who are changing the narrative about what’s possible in rural America. 

We first met Kraus at their D.C. Changemakers event, and caught up with her recently to discuss her inspiring progress, and to learn how she was using CORI’s Rural Innovation Initiative Community Toolkit to support her work in rural Minnesota. Our toolkit provides communities with a model for digital ecosystem development, empowering local leaders to assess their community’s current progress, map out their key assets, build a strategy and partnerships for digital growth, and create an actionable plan for ecosystem success.     

Below is our conversation with Kraus, where we talked about the value of the toolkit, as well as what the future of rural work might look like and why connecting young people with the power of place can be transformative for rural communities nationwide. 

What led you to co-create Lead for America? 

My dad grew up on a family farm in Waseca, part of six generations of farmers. Born abroad, I loved Waseca but never saw it as the forefront of change, so when I went to college, I studied International Relations, and assumed I’d move to and float between big cities the rest of my life. Then, a tough family situation diverted a DC internship and brought me back to Waseca. I saw the community planning ahead to 2030, saw the town’s creativity, saw the dynamism of entrepreneurial new immigrant-owned businesses on Main Street. I got hooked on this new side of Waseca I hadn’t seen before. 

But when I graduated, I found little infrastructure for recruiting people to small towns like Waseca, especially in public service. There was little narrative for success outside places like Boston or NYC, which was personally devastating to me. I learned that more than two-thirds of college-educated millennials live in metro areas with over one million people, and that struck me as bad for democracy, bad for the economy, and bad for polarization. I joined forces with three other co-founders—all from “flyover states”—to build out a national model for recruiting graduates back to meaningful public service roles in their communities, and seeding the promise of “community renewal” across our country. 

Are the graduates you recruit going back to their own hometowns? What do you see as the value in young people returning home? 

Most of the people who join Lead For America are returnees to their hometown or state. We see so often that young grads have the skills needed and fundamental desire to help their communities. I often share with people that working in public service in a small town gives you an incredibly large canvas for creativity and space to get things done and see real impact. And because of our interconnected network, the work these returnees do can be a model for many other communities. Maybe, when you graduate, you don’t think your hometown community has absolutely everything you want in a place to live, but it is really exciting that whatever you think is current missing, you can take agency and work with the Lead For America team and cohorts to actually create the kind of community that you’d love to live in. 

Waseca seems to be a really important place for you. What role does Waseca play in your work and Lead for Minnesota? 

Today, I’m the director of Lead For America’s state affiliate in Minnesota, which I head up from my family’s hometown of Waseca. With 20 Fellows serving across the state, it is mission critical that our headquarters community be a “demonstration city” for our theory of change. When we bring in Fellows to Waseca for training, we want them to have a corporeal experience of what happens when people invest in place, and what they can do in their own hometowns, too. We’re partnering with a statewide organization called Rethos: Places Reimagined. Waseca will be the demonstration pilot for their Buildings on Main Street project, which involves buying and collaboratively rehabbing a vacant Main Street building, using the building as an open learning lab for people to both learn trades skills and be physically, creatively, and socially invested in their community’s development. 

As part of that process, we’re applying for grant funds to make this building a hub for workforce development, community gathering, digital access, and innovation more broadly. In collaboration with local colleges, Lead For Minnesota will offer participants in Rethos’ rehab workshops the opportunity to pursue adjacent digital and advanced skills training that meet industry needs, grow our digital economy, and create more resilient and equitable economic opportunity after the COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine coming for a workshop on electrical wiring, and leaving with next steps to pursue a two-year degree in electrical engineering or developing smart technology. 

It’s not that far-fetched when you realize that many school districts nationwide are incorporating raspberry pi computer programming into their STEM curriculum. In fact, Itron, our town’s biggest employer, uses raspberry pi technology as a component of the products they manufacture. Why not use this local industry asset as an introduction to computer science for our young people? Could our Waseca building be powered by smart technology, built and tested by local students, and serve as an inspiration to attract new tech ventures? We see this building as a physical manifestation of the digital and innovative possibilities available to rural communities.

We heard you were using CORI’s Rural Innovation Initiative Community Toolkit. How have you used the tool, and how has it shaped your thinking around rural community development? 

So much of our understanding of how to build out our work investing in Waseca comes from CORI’s Digital Economy Ecosystem model. Some of that is understanding what CORI sees as core components that drive success in rural places, like broadband access and higher education, and it was motivating to see that in many ways Waseca is primed for this growth. For example, Waseca is located in an Opportunity Zone, so seeing how CORI has been able to leverage Opportunity Zones in rural growth shows us the potential we have here, and which of our assets are currently underutilized.

The toolkit also has been really helpful practically in grant applications. I’ve directly referenced the CORI toolkit in several proposals, using the visual of the Innovation Hub as a design model for our building in downtown Waseca. It offers a blueprint for what components are needed for a small town to grow their digital ecosystems beyond one building into an entire region. For an organization like Lead For America, this concept of scaling is key. When our Fellows come to Waseca to train, they’ll all be grounded in the CORI model, using our Waseca Innovation Hub building as a visual example of what digital economic growth can look like in their rural communities. 

At CORI, we believe there’s incredible potential in rural entrepreneurship. How have you seen the entrepreneurial spirit play out where you are, and how do you think it can be built on? 

In a lot of the entrepreneurial activity I’m seeing in Minnesota, especially rural Minnesota, the common thread among the best entrepreneurs is that they are people who see possibility in their places. This vision is contagious. Our Fellows are recruited and trained to be an accelerator of this vision. Their role is to believe so vehemently in the possibility of their place that maybe they start a business themselves, or mobilize and attract other people who see the energy in their hometowns, realize they have a skillset to make a difference, and activate themselves into starting their own ventures, run for office, take a class, or volunteer on their local boards. Even the act of seeing people return — and celebrating it — can spark that creativity. It inspires others to think about what makes their community great and “worthy” of return, and how they can build on that greatness, too. 

It seems like with all the changes in the world, driven in part by COVID-19 and in part by big structural economic forces, the nature of work itself is changing. Have you seen that in Waseca? Where do you see rural communities fitting in the future of work?

We’ve definitely had challenges with traditional manufacturers coming and leaving our community. That said, we also have high growth clusters of industry in our region, primarily in the agri-tech, food and beverage, energy, and advanced manufacturing fields that are experiencing significant workforce shortages and unable to grow their operations because of it. These are well-paying dynamic jobs addressing some of our country’s greatest challenges, yet young people are clustering to the cities thinking that these challenges are only being solved there. To rewrite this narrative, we need to ensure that we are actively cultivating these talent pipelines in our region, and nurturing the kind of welcoming, diverse culture and quality of life experience that attracts this talent. 

We also have to rethink the way we approach economic development. So often, we are caught up in “chicken before the egg” debates; We can’t recruit young people until we get full coverage broadband. We can’t get full coverage broadband until we have the critical mass of people who know how to use it. Development isn’t linear, and we need to get better at weaving across multiple timelines and applying momentum from all angles. Traditional economic development also prioritizes what has worked in the past, the level of education our communities currently have, what people are presently interested in, as our indicators for what type of industry we should attract and workforce training we should develop. That’s important, but it’s only part of the solution. What we need is a lifelong training curriculum that both prepares people to meet current needs while putting people on a path to longer term reskilling, helping our communities to advance into more digital, creative, and sustainable careers that we haven’t even imagined we need yet. And we are primed for this! Waseca is in driving distance of leading higher-ed institutions, regional hubs of biotech innovation, agricultural transformation, and entrepreneurial networks filled with co-working, tech incubator, and business accelerator spaces that CORI has helped to develop, such as E1 and Red Wing Ignite. There are pockets of possibility for rural transformation all around us. We just need to believe that seeing possibility is possible here, too. 

For example, you may ask: What blue collar small town needs an Innovation Hub that is powered by smart technology, and houses tech ventures, remote workers, TED Talks, and freshly baked bread? If you use traditional “feasibility study” metrics, you’d probably say, “No way in Waseca.” But I believe that if you have leadership who dare to breathe possibility into these gaps, the jump between home electrical wiring to Raspberry Pi system coding really isn’t that far at all. 

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To explore CORI’s Rural Innovation Initiative toolkit, click here. This free resource can help a community with forming readiness assessments, mapping local assets, creating strategy templates for digital ecosystem growth, and forming action plans for driving innovation in rural communities. It’s a powerful tool in the journey to building local digital economy ecosystems, and can help you communicate your plan for your town both internally and externally. If you want assistance on how to use the toolkit or a consult on your own town’s digital ecosystem development, contact us

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