Posts Tagged: inspired

GrandPad

With one swipe, GrandPad allows seniors to stay connected with family and friends / Photo courtesy GrandPad

The GrandPad tablet delivers telehealth for homebound, and creates an innovative spark for rural entrepreneurs.

By Maggie Sonnek

When Scott Lien and his family traded in one adventure for another, leaving behind their beloved sky blue Victorian house in Wabasha, Minnesota, they silently promised they’d be back.

And 25 years later, they were. In March 2020, the Liens shuttled back to the Midwest from Silicon Valley, where Scott had taken the leadership helm at a handful of corporations. Returning with a newfound perspective gained from travel and experience, he was surprised to find storefronts along the town’s main corridor empty and boarded up. That’s when he decided to combine his love of rural America with his knowledge and innovation for entrepreneurship.

Scott and Isaac Lien (far left and far right) with two of GrandPad’s oldest employees,
another father-son team, Elmer and Richard Thill / Photos courtesy GrandPad

In 2013, Scott and his then-college-aged son Isaac wanted to stay connected to Marlys Lien, the duo’s mother and grandmother. While Scott and Isaac were in Silicon Valley, Marlys lived 2,000 miles away in Decorah, Scott’s hometown. GrandPad, a tablet sans complicated features, was born. Designed specifically for seniors, the tablet has fun games, customized music, and apps, plus large buttons paired with an intuitive interface to make chatting with friends and family a breeze. But, Scott, who now splits his time between Silicon Valley and Wabasha, learned that in the Midwest, attracting funding from investors is anything but a breeze.

“The Midwest is quite risk adverse,” he says. “And, because nearly 90 percent of startups fail in the first three years, local investors don’t jump on board right away. The majority of capital comes from the coasts.”

The data backs this up. According to the Center of Rural Development, less than one percent of all venture capital goes to rural startups. And, in 2017, five metro areas (San Francisco, New York City, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles) accounted for nearly 80 percent of all venture capital investment nationwide. While innovation has concentrated in major urban hubs, rural economies have lacked the entrepreneurship to spark economic growth.

But, with remote work on the rise – this trend has grown by 173 percent since 2005, according to the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a national non-profit that aims to foster sustainable economic success in rural America – more families are swapping crowds and congestion for chickens and country roads.

Families like the Olsons. Two hundred miles straight north of Wabasha, Jon and Hallie and their three kids spend time playing in their rugged, homemade treehouse and feeding their cluster of chickens. In 2019, Jon, an engineer, began working remotely. That allowed the Olsons to trade in their Minneapolis bungalow for a custom-built home in northern Minnesota that sits on five acres of wooded beauty.

“We feel so lucky to be where we are. The kids can spend hours outside,” 38-year-old Hallie says. “And, with COVID-19, we don’t feel as restricted in what we can and can’t do.”

Mark Rembert, Head of the Rural Innovation Network at the CORI, says while it could be months before we know the pandemic’s impact on urban and rural areas, COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the appeal, necessity, and feasibility of living in a big city.

“We don’t know yet if an increase in remote work will result in people leaving big cities,” Mark says. “But, surveys have shown that many people who live in metro areas would actually prefer to live in rural spaces. Remote working could create opportunities for more people to make that move.”

Obviously, it’s much easier to bring a job with you – like Jon did – than to hang out a shingle. But entrepreneur and business leader Scott says now is the time for innovators to open up shop small towns.

“This is an opportunity for rural America to shine. We need to ask what we’re doing to make our small towns attractive,” says Lien, who, during his career has held leadership roles at Best Buy, Bank of America, and Intuit. “In Minnesota, we can’t change the weather, so instead, we celebrate it. Let’s soar with our strengths and try to turn the downfalls into positive attributes.”

Taking risks and forging ahead with entrepreneurship and innovation, especially in rural areas, is key to creating dynamic, progressive small towns.

“There is a fantastic labor force in rural areas,” Scott says, noting that even though GrandPad was founded in California, he specifically engages employees from Midwest towns. “Lots of the employees we’ve hired have been out of the workforce for a while and aren’t necessarily looking for a job; think empty nesters and stay-at-home-parents. They’ve made the assumption that fulfilling, well-paying jobs are only available in large cities. And, because they don’t want to commit to a long commute or relocate, they assume their choices are limited.”

That’s where GrandPad really shines. Employees are hired – by referrals from current team members only – to work a flexible schedule from home.

Member experience agent Lori Lechtenberg, who lives outside of Decorah says, “I can be in my home chatting with people across the globe. It’s the best of both worlds.”

“We’re creating long-term, durable, high-paying jobs,” Scott explains. “And, most importantly, these positions are family-oriented.”

Indeed, family is the main reason why Anna Arens applied to GrandPad after receiving a referral. Anna worked in healthcare at Mayo Clinic for 12 years when her husband, a Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army, learned he’d be deployed overseas to Syria for one year. With three young kids at home, Anna knew her current schedule wouldn’t adhere well to her husband’s absence.

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anna Arens works from her home office / Photo courtesy Anna Arens

“I needed to find a job that offered flexible hours without a commute,” Anna says, noting that the options are limited in a small town. Since accepting her role as member experience agent at GrandPad three years ago, she’s been encouraged to put her family first.

“Scott expresses to us that when we’re able to take care of our homes and families first, we do our jobs better. Because of that mentality, I’m able to be more present in my life.”

Anne Meurer, also an agent at GrandPad, accepted her job just before the global pandemic surged across the country in the spring of 2020.

“I was able to be home with our kids and help them with online learning,” she recalls. “I would sit at my desk and they’d sit on the floor next to me.”

After working in government administration for several years, Anne craved a job that better aligned with her life. More than just a steady paycheck and paid holidays, she wanted meaning and mission from her employer.

“I wanted something more rewarding. When I learned about GrandPad, I was all-in,” says Anne. “I was born into a family of five living generations and was fortunate enough to grow close to my Great Grandma Jean. I truly learned the importance of our elders and grandparents.”

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anne Meuer works from her home office / Photo courtesy of Anne Meuer

Member experience agents like Lori, Anna, and Anne develop deep and substantial relationships with GrandPad users. Like, calling seniors on their birthdays type of exchange.

“Our clients rely on us when they need help with a specific app on the tablet or when they’re lonely,” Anne says. “And, there’s always someone there…always a friendly voice on the other line.”

Throughout the global pandemic, several home health agencies and healthcare companies have turned to GrandPad to facilitate video visits. The company began offering expanded capabilities, like GrandPad Daily Connect. This remote care solution delivers data – like blood pressure and heart rate – to remote caregivers who can detect abnormalities and coordinate further care.

GrandPad Daily Connect, a remote care solution, delivers data to remote caregivers / Photo courtesy GrandPad

Meanwhile, GrandPad users – and their families – continue to express their gratitude to agents for this tool that not only keeps them connected during COVID, but staves off loneliness too.

One family member notes, “Mom could no longer use her computer with passwords. The GrandPad allows her to stay in touch with her contacts. It has been a lifesaver for our family!”

We asked Scott how other entrepreneurs and innovators can take hold of this pivotal moment for small towns.

“Keep investing in your communities,” he encourages. “Read the local paper. Talk to your neighbors. Be kind.”

Investing in his own community, Scott leased a space, bought some paint and fresh carpet, and hung a bright, shiny GrandPad sign in the window. Used for demos, videos, training sessions, and as an optional shared workspace for employees, this is Scott’s way of shining a light on rural America. In the small town of Wabasha, in the Midwest, in the U.S., GrandPad is open for business.


Maggie, her husband Eric and their three kids love living in their small town of Wabasha. When she’s not writing, Maggie is packing lunches, helping kids with homework, or (after bedtime) binge-watching shows on Netflix.

Probituary: Phyllis Green

Phyllis Green, interviewed by daughter Pat Beck

phyllis-green

Originally published in the Fall 2016 Inspire(d) Magazine, Phyllis passed away July 28, 2020.  Our condolences to Phyllis’ family and friends.

People around Decorah know Phyllis Green as a bridge player, club member, cookie baker, reliable volunteer, teacher and loyal friend. These qualities, plus a cheerful outlook, and a pragmatic can-do attitude have had a positive effect on people who have known her over eight decades. Phyllis was born August 16, 1928, and grew up on the Erickson family farm near Burr Oak. Though it was during the Great Depression, her life was rich with farm activities, 4-H, church, a sister, cousins, chores, and her pets. She learned the rewards of hard work, of challenging herself, of true love, and of giving.

phyllis_siblingsPhyllis lived in Decorah during her high school years because there were no school buses. She made this big transition shortly after she turned 13; she shared a room with people she didn’t know, cooked for herself, and was introduced to running water and electricity. Decorah High School offered High School Normal Training to prepare teachers for country schools. Phyllis’s long teaching career led to recognition as Scott County Teacher Award, North Scott Community Arts Patron, Iowa Social Studies Teacher of the Year, University of Iowa Distinguished Teacher Award, and The 51st Point of Light given by President Bush.

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I am rather averse to advice. I learn by example. My mother taught me to try new things because that’s how you learn if you can do them or not.

What is the worst advice anyone ever gave you?

Since this is not a part of my thinking, I usually count on my own ideas – sometimes good and sometimes questionable. Isn’t that how you learn?

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was in second grade, my teacher showed me the love and understanding that touched and impressed me. It was in second grade that I set my goal to become a teacher.

When I finished high school, I taught two years in a country school. Then I married K. Ted Green, my life partner. We have five beautiful children. When they were all in school, I started college and completed my degree at Upper Iowa University. Because of Ted’s job with Oscar Mayer, we moved to the Quad Cities. I taught at North Scott Schools for 25 years. Living just 50 miles from The University of Iowa was incentive to continue my education. I completed my MA in two areas and was accepted in the doctoral program. Ted knew I wanted to further my education and he made this dream a reality by his complete support, encouragement, and understanding. These were the building blocks that made my dreams come true. I’ve always been curious about people and places. Ted and I enjoyed foreign travel so this was a part of our yearly plan.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?

I’d want lots of pictures of our family – children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, a good book, paper and a pencil, and a Hershey Bar. I know that is more than three things, but I usually get what I want.

Try to describe yourself in one sentence.

I am a hard worker, an honored wife, a loved mom, grandma, and great-grandma.

If you could eat anything everyday for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A Hershey chocolate bar.

Name one thing you could not live without.

I need a pencil and paper to record my feelings, my wishes, my poetry, my dreams, my stories, my ideas, and to communicate with family and friends – but if I can really have only ONE thing, it would be my family.

phyllis_ted_weddingTell us about your favorite memory.

I will never forget meeting Ted. I was at the county fair when a friend introduced us. He was the county boys’ 4-H president and I was the county girls’ 4-H president but we had never met. I finished high school, taught two years and Ted went to Madison to start his career.

Our wedding day started 63 years of “favorite memories.” We were married at Upper Lutheran Church and had our wedding reception at the Winneshiek Hotel.  We were blessed with four sons and one daughter. Each birth, baptism, confirmation, graduation, wedding have added to our favorite memories.

Also our 60th wedding party, planned by our children, was also held at the Hotel Winneshiek. I have so much to be grateful for!

green_family2016

What’s Leadership Iowa?!

Inspire(d)’s Benji Nichols participates in 2019-20 Leadership Iowa Class.

It’s not very often that we get to do interviews with each other, so I (Aryn) jumped at the chance to put Benji Nichols in the hot seat! Honestly, even though we work in the same office, it’s kind of tough to catch up with him – that guy is busy! When he’s not out bringing the world the latest Inspire(d) Magazine, or doing his many varied tasks for our business, he’s been on the road to far-flung Iowa locales, learning about different aspects of our great state.

Why, you may ask?

You might have seen some of Benji’s posts on social media talking about a program he’s doing through 2020, Leadership Iowa! We are super proud he was selected to participate, and wanted to share a little more about its purpose.

Leadership Iowa is “Iowa’s premier statewide issues-awareness program for current and emerging Iowa leaders.” Basically, it’s a like a grad program for civic leadership on a state wide level. The program brings together 40 diverse adult professionals for eight monthly sessions across the state, and provides an in-depth look at different topics –economic development, education, government, agriculture, and more. Leadership Iowa exists to educate, inspire, and grow a network of informed leaders and to encourage their ongoing local and statewide involvement to create a better future for Iowans. The program is a part of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry Foundation, now in it’s 38th year, with over 1,000 alumni across the state and beyond.

Check it out, and make sure to follow along here and on social media for more of Benji’s adventures – you know he’s going to have them!  Inspire(d) Facebook  –  Inspire(d) Instagram

To kick off the series, here’s a quick Q&A between Aryn and Benji!

Aryn: Why Leadership Iowa?

Benji: In March of 2019, I had the opportunity to attend the Iowa Rural Economic Development Summit in Grinnell. While there, I connected with a couple of other Leadership Iowa (LI) Alum, including Jenae Jennison, director of external engagement at Central College in Pella. Through conversations it seemed like the LI experience could be a great fit, and I was nominated to apply for the 2019-20 Class. The program accepts only 40 participants from across the state each year, with a full application process and tuition. It truly focuses on giving participants valuable, professional insights into the issues and opportunities that Iowa faces as a state, and that follows through the entire eight-month course.

In terms of why I really wanted to be a part of the program – I feel like now, more than ever, we all need to keep reaching to find the common ground that makes rural America work. The Midwest is a highly misunderstood, and often overlooked place from a national viewpoint. Decorah, and Northeast Iowa hold those same exact traits on a state level (misunderstood and overlooked). We (Aryn and I) have spent the last 12 years building a company that focuses on the positive in the world, and we believe we can make real influences within that, and would like to be a part of the larger picture in our state and the Midwest. It’s an exciting time to be in the midwest – and opportunity abounds!

Aryn: (YES! Love it!!!) … Is Leadership Iowa a political program?

Benji: No, not as such. The program does bring together statewide leaders from a professional, often grassroots level though, and several notable Iowa politicians are alumni. Being sponsored by the Iowa ABI Foundation, obviously the hope is to help continue strengthening the Association of Business and Industry’s ties across the state, but those cross almost every imaginable sector and part of our State’s economy. The program does tend to find access to several state leaders, which provide amazing small group opportunities to engage.

Aryn: How often do you meet? Are you finding it hard to make the time?

Benji: LI meets for 2-3 days each month for eight months, with essentially an optional month thrown in the mix (January… in Iowa!). We meet all over the state, so yes, it is a pretty big commitment, but also a fantastic way to see locations in the state that one might otherwise not. Our first meeting was in Perry. Talk about a town that is working hard to reinvent themselves not only for visitors, for for future generations, and current business owners. Last month’s meetings were in Iowa Falls, focusing on agriculture in Iowa. Central Iowa is definitely home to big ag, but also to some really innovative ag education programs, as well as the heart of Iowa’s booming wind energy sector – which leads directly into agriculture as most windfarms are located on ag land.
Living in the northeast corner of the state, the sessions can be quite a drive – but our class has members from Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids. We work to do some carpooling, and luckily I enjoy driving! Being self-employed adds a real challenge to the equation as well. Many full-time employers often encourage participation by employees, and help fund tuition costs, travel, and time off from work. Luckily Inspire(d) is helping me take on the expense, travel, and time to be a part of the program (thanks Aryn!). In just our first two meetings I feel that the program has been completely worth it. The level of connection with other participants, and our access to explore issues across the state is unparalleled.

Aryn: What’s next?

Benji: We’ve had our first two meetings – orientation in September (Perry, IA), and our session on agriculture in Iowa in October (Iowa Falls, IA). I’m headed to Ft. Dodge next week for our session on education, and look forward to breaking down some of the topics in posts here on the Inspire(d) blog! The program runs through June of 2020 for our class, with opportunities to stay engaged through the alumni network – it’s an amazing group of Iowans, and I’m truly grateful for the chance to be a part of the organization.

Look for another post soon with updates on Benji’s experiences with Leadership Iowa!