All roads lead back to Mesa, Arizona
I moved to East Mesa, Arizona in October of 2004. Recently transplanted from the vibrant hustle and bustle of Oakland, California, the quiet of my suburban neighborhood was a little spooky. I would walk outside mid-day and not see a soul. In my typical extrovert fashion, I would wave at neighbors who would look away and duck into their houses. So I stayed inside a lot.
Soon, I was pregnant with our son Joshua (that’s what happens when you stay inside a lot), and, on maternity leave from my consulting practice, I discovered the magical world of the Internet. I started my blog, Escape from Cubicle Nation, in October of 2005. Intrigued by the potential to reach readers and clients all over the world, I started to write more and more.
Through a caffeine-fueled internal rant while pushing my son around the neighborhood in a stroller one afternoon, when I fantasized what I would say to CXOs if I had them all in the same room, I wrote An Open Letter to CEOs Across the Corporate World . On a whim, I sent the post to Guy Kawasaki, who shared it on his blog the next morning. My blog visits went from 50 to 20,000 a day.
Soon, I had clients reaching out from all over the world. I was approached by my publisher Penguin Portfolio and wrote my first book, Escape from Cubicle Nation in 2009.
Growing a global audience was very intoxicating. It was amazing to see how many people could be reached through my blog and books.
Daryl Garcia, a Filipina architect, read my book, and decided to quit her job and start Dream Architects in Cebu City. She now has 7 full-time employees, 2 offices, and a flourishing business.
Willie Jackson, a brilliant 25 year old consultant from Atlanta, came to an entrepreneur retreat I ran with Charlie Gilkey, then decided to chuck his safe career and work for himself. After doing independent projects for awhile, he was hired as Seth Godin’s Chief Technology Officer for The Domino Project. He now runs Abernathy, a magazine for black men.
Somehow, a conference organizer from Estonia found me on Google and invited me to speak at his annual national business conference. I sat in the wings while he stood on stage and read “An Open Letter to CEOs” in Estonian to the entire business community of Estonia, including the current and former Prime Ministers.
I didn’t see that coming.
Working in safe obscurity
Tucked away in a nice office in East Mesa for six years, I continued to coach people virtually, and traveled to speak around the country. I slowly connected with the local Phoenix startup community, but never put the effort into getting involved in what was happening. Having two small kids at home and a busy travel schedule meant that when I was off the road, if I was not working, I wanted to be home with my kids.
I served tens of thousands of small business owners through a decade of writing, speaking and consulting.
My life was insulated, safe and comfortable.
All that would change when I ventured out on the road.
Venture out to discover the beauty within
In the Fall of 2015, as part of research for my new book, I created a 25 city tour, teaching community building skills to small business owners all across the United States.
I rode by train through the Pacific Northwest to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC. I rented a car and sang Kenny Loggins and John Legend songs at the top of my lungs between Sioux Falls and Fargo, Fargo and St. Paul, and St Paul and Chicago. I headed down the Eastern seaboard from Boston to New York, to Philly, to DC.
In each location, I would marvel at the tremendous entrepreneurial talent and passion in local communities. I had amazing hosts for the tour, like Mothership Hackermoms in Berkeley, Nancy Duarte’s beautiful office in Sunnyvale, and CreativeLive founder Chase Jarvis’ private photo studio in Seattle.
But it was a meeting in Fargo that really lit my imagination. After conducting the workshop, I had lunch with the head of the Arts Commission, the Chief City Planner, a retired politician, and the founder of Prairie Den, a startup incubator under the umbrella of Emerging Prairie. The city planner talked about how the creative and tech renaissance happening in downtown Fargo made him totally revise his demographic projections. Instead of preparing for retirees in Fargo, there was a huge influx of young professionals and families, drawn by the burgeoning tech scene and growth of downtown.
Conversation turned to culture. Everyone around the table started discussing how they could build an environment of kindness into every aspect of their economic development. This focus on kindness was reinforced when my 8-year old daughter interviewed the Mayor of Fargo on video for a school project.
I sat back in my chair and thought “Everyone around the world thinks of Fargo as this cold, boring place. Little do they know, it is a hotbed of creativity, innovation, and truly intersectional economic development.”
All roads lead home
A few months after the tour was over, I visited my friend Ivan Martinez at his studio in downtown Mesa. He started talking about the great things happening in town, including a vibrant and active local merchant group Downtown Mesa. Walking with him through the streets, I felt my excitement rise as I saw such an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants.
And it hit me: Everyone thinks of Mesa as this hot, boring place with no real entrepreneurial movement. Little do they know, it is a hotbed of creativity, innovation, and truly intersectional economic development.
The beginning: K’é
At that moment, I knew what to do. Of course!
Why don’t I establish a small business community space right in the heart of downtown? Instead of only serving a global audience, why don’t I create a local community space to incubate business ideas, connect resources, teach business skills and build the leadership capacity of my own local business community?
I have named it K’é (pronounced “keh”), which in my husband’s Diné (Navajo) language means “system of kinship.” It is the feeling you have when you are deeply connected to others, and understand and value your roots.
It is the feeling I had sitting around that table in Fargo, listening to those responsible for the future of an entire city, talk about how their economic development efforts had to be centered around the economic, physical and emotional well-being of all of its citizens.
My vision for Mesa
The great thing about being an underdog is that no one expects a lot from you.
The energy, commitment and hard work of key community organizers has reached a tipping point here in Mesa. The Light Rail is complete. Big projects are coming, like Mesa ArtSpace Lofts, and a proposed ASU downtown Mesa campus.
Here is what I see coming to Mesa in the next decade:
I see an emerging small business community in Mesa that is built on collaboration, creativity and innovation.
I see us experimenting with new, intersectional means of development that involves our creative, business, tech, government, faith, education and non-profit sectors, and all members of our community.
I see us connecting with other small cities around the world, sharing ideas and inspiration for small business growth.
I see people visiting downtown Mesa from around the country because they want to learn how we have created such a vibrant renaissance in a downtown area that everyone had written off as dead.
I see young people and families choosing to live in Mesa because it has such a rich and welcoming business ecosystem, tremendous job growth, top-notch artistic and cultural activities and a high quality of life (at a fraction of the cost of other metropolitan areas).
I see investors recognizing the tremendous potential in our community, and funding new startups, incubators and entrepreneurs.
I see our smart Phoenix startup community actively including Mesa in regional conferences and conversations, because we bring a unique and valuable perspective about the small business ecosystem.
I see inviting my smart and famous friends from around the world to downtown Mesa and hearing them say: “I had no idea this town was so cool!”
Today, in my own neighborhood in East Mesa, after waving at my neighbors for 14 years and having hundreds of conversations, they wave back. We have built a vibrant and welcoming community, where kids and dogs wrestle in the grass with each other, where young families and retired seniors visit on the sidewalks during morning walks. Building local community takes time, but it is the anchor of all that is good in the world.
Are you as excited about Mesa’s small business renaissance as I am? We are running a barn raising campaign through July 10 on Indiegogo. My national community has been so enthusiastic about his model, and has contributed generously. I appreciate and welcome your support!
K’é will have an open house on Saturday, August 13 from 3–6pm (RSVP here). I hope to see you there! If you want to connect, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.