Something Old Is Something New

January 7, 2016

On September 27, 2012, I attended an event at the offices of the McKnight Foundation, a massive family foundation worth over $2 billion based in Minneapolis. Based on the popular Inside the Actors Studio, the event was called Inside the Leadership Studio and the subject of the interview was Omar Ansari.

Here in Minneapolis, Omar’s pretty well-known as the founder and owner of Surly Brewing Company, and the company had announced it was going to build a “destination brewery,” the first of its kind in Minnesota and a really interesting project. It necessitated a change to Minnesota‘s laws, acquisition of a brownfield site, and a massive construction undertaking.

It, uh…it turned out pretty cool.

The Start of Something

Beer got me a job. Take that, guidance counselors of America.

Beer got me a job. Take that, guidance counselors of America.

The McKnight Foundation provided the space, but the organization behind the event was the Urban Land Institute (ULI) of Minnesota. I was trying to find an outlet for my interest in how the Twin Cities were developing, and that led me to do a little research on ULI. I stumbled on the Surly event and thought it might be good to look into.

In truth, it was a confluence of several interests. I was following the burgeoning craft beer scene in Minnesota, and I’ve been a big fan of Surly since moving here. I was curious to hear about a project that was quite literally illegal only months earlier, and at that time I was just starting to tap into my interest in urbanism and city development. Under some strong encouragement from my lovely wife, I snuck out of work a little early to attend.

If the event hadn’t involved Surly, I’m honestly not sure I would have ever convinced myself to go to anything ULI did, but it turns out it was a pretty good call. More than three years later, on Tuesday of this week, I started a six month contract with the possibility of extension working for the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota.

I’m pretty excited about it, but let’s jump back in time again to see how we got here.

Dipping My Toe

The Inside the Leadership Studio event was cool and interesting, but after it was over I did something so remarkably out of character I still can’t believe it happened. I–voluntarily–attended a social event–by myself–where I did not know ANYONE.

This kind of thing is…not a strength of mine. Ask me to give a speech to those same people? No problem. But socialize aimlessly? Blargh. Worse, I didn’t belong at all. The Urban Land Institute primarily draws people working in real estate, development, urban planning and the like. You can be certain there were no other IT workers from Target in attendance. In spite of all this, I went to the happy hour where I talked to approximately 2.5 people before freaking out and running away, messenger bag flapping in the wind like a busted sail.

But during the relatively brief time I spent at that happy hour, I told one of those 2.5 people, an actual ULI employee, that I was interested in volunteering in some capacity if there was anything that made sense for someone who knew absolutely nothing about the industry to do. Again, a bit out of character, but I figured I was safe. I didn’t know anything, so what could I possibly do?

My Gifts to This World: Surveys and Twitter

It turns out they wanted someone who knew (a little) about Twitter and could design and execute surveys. Welp. Couldn’t dodge that, I guess. Mostly they just wanted warm bodies who were willing to show up to meetings and help out. That’s me! My body is warm!

Sorry. That sounded kind of gross. Blech.

I got involved with ULI’s Young Leaders Group (YLG) and helped plan, and participated in, their 2013 Annual Program. As an outcome of that involvement, I joined the Young Leaders Group Executive Committee the next summer. I’m now on my third go-round with that group where I have continued to be the only person doing absolutely nothing with real estate professionally. That’s right. I’m on an executive committee. Also, you should check out that last link above. There’s a photo of someone really, really, ridiculously good-looking* on that page.

The YLG is a really cool collection of people, and I’ve learned a lot being a part of it. My lack of involvement in real estate, land use and planning has almost been something of a calling card. The people who participate in ULI are really passionate about what the organization does–which, among other things, is bring smart people together to share ideas, solve problems, and do awesome stuff–so they’re naturally curious about what someone like me who is not in the weeds thinks about projects and policy. Going to that Inside the Leadership Studio event back in 2012 was one of the better decisions I’ve made among many deeply questionable ones.**

Networking! It Works!

It’s impossible to disconnect my choice to attend that very first event from the position I now have with ULI. They are inextricably linked. This is how networking should work, I think. Almost none of the time I’ve spent working with ULI or attending its events has actually felt like “networking,” but it enabled me to meet new people, show them some skills I have, and build enough trust that could lead to this kind of opportunity.

So what is the opportunity? Here are the basics of it.

"Let us engage in mutually beneficial business transactions! To networking!" I assume this is how good networkers speak.

“Let us engage in mutually beneficial business transactions! To networking!” I assume this is how good networkers speak.

ULI Minnesota wanted someone to help them with “communications,” broadly speaking, among other things. I’ll be working on their website, helping to manage and grow their social media presence, and working to enhance how they present and share data for the many, many things they do. I’ll also be looking for new ways ULI can use data to better understand and interact with its members to help them get the most out of their membership.

In short, it’s a combination of all the things I’ve done professionally up to this point, and it’s pretty cool that I get to do them for an organization I was already in strong support of as a volunteer. There’s writing and design and data analysis…all sorts of good nerdy fun for me to have.

It’s also part-time, which means I’ll still have time to work on my writing. I’m totally gonna finish The Witches of Nicollet Island this year, you guys. I mean it. I only have 2,000 hours*** of editing to do and then I’m DONE.

The only downside of this new venture? I’m no longer the only person not involved in the industry.

But I think I’ll get over it.


*Zoolander is one of the greatest movies of all time. Fight me.

**I once dyed my hair black, poorly, to really commit to my Bruce Springsteen Halloween costume in 2005. It was like the opposite of when lots of white guys were bleaching their hair like Eminem, but it looked every bit as stupid.

***Figure is a rough estimate and should not be considered gospel truth.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Molly Olson January 7, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    Cool opportunity!! Yay to stepping out of the comfort zone:)

    • Reply David January 7, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks Molly! Stepping out of the comfort zone DOES pay off, at least some of the time.

    Tell me what you think, but be chill about it.