Embracing the future: Small business conference opens with robust speech from retired university president, challenging leaders to look ahead, not behind

by Tom Coombe -

Adapt to a rapidly changing world, or get left behind.
That was the crux of the message delivered by the keynote speaker at a two-day small business conference that opened in Ely Wednesday night.
Jim Bensen, former president of Bemidji State University and a director of “Bemidji Leads,” challenged about 75 attendees at the Grand Ely Lodge to “know what’s coming from the future and use it to our best advantage.”
The 80-year-old Bensen, who is credited with transforming both Bemidji State as well as Dunwoody University during a storied career, joked with and exhorted an audience of small business owners, budding entrepreneurs and area leaders during an energetic, hour-plus address.
In retirement, Bensen has helped coordinate Bemidji Leads, a grassroots group of community leaders that has helped bring growth and change to Bemidji, including the mentorship of business owners and high school students to efforts that have led to tens of millions of dollars in community investment.
According to Bensen, Bemidji is attracting 70 new families per month and “we have 1,000 jobs we can’t full...Our community is unbelievably successful right now.”
Bensen said he believed similar change can happen in Ely and other small communities, if communities adjust to changes and anticipate the future.
“So much of it relies on attitude,” he said.
Economies are being “unbelievably reinvented right now,” Bensen told the group, and success hinges on moving forward.
Nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies of the 1990s are out of business, Bensen said, and he noted the fall of companies such as Blockbuster, Borders and Kodak, contending that all failed to adapt.
The changes, Bensen, said are being driven by advances in technology, and he predicted that “unbelievable” advances are around the corner.
He pointed to the possibility of driver-less automobiles, perhaps within five years, and smart phones that “will be as thick as a piece of paper” and with even more capability of those today.
Bensen, who has conducted seminars on futuristic thinking with leaders at the Mayo Clinic, predicted advances in the fight against cancer and spoke of the concept of singularity, or “technological changes that will soon become so rapid we can’t keep up.”
Bensen used his own family’s progression as an example, nothing the changes since his grandfather farmed on 160 acres in western Minnesota to today, when his grandson in a digital game designer.
“Grandpa Bensen’s time was a muscle power world,” said Bensen. “He (his grandson) is living in a virtual world.”
Bensen would also circle back to his time at Bemidji State, when he inherited financial woes that included struggles to make payroll and the layoffs of 10 percent of his faculty.
With innovative marketing that led to national awards, the school turned around and has become a destination.
“They knew they had a problem, and I showed them how to get out of it,” said Bensen.
The lessons Bensen has learned can be applied to small business and communities, he said, as he challenged the group to “think differently.”
“Great ideas, if you don’t get in the way of them, can change the world,” said Bensen.
The keynote address served as the ceremonial launch of an event that included networking opportunities, seminars and breakout sessions for business owners and those looking to start their own business.
About 100 people were expected to participate in the conference, which was aided by the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Center for Economic Development.
Among many topics Thursday were an “ask the experts session,” tips on using social media to market business, and utilizing JI VISA programs to hire additional workers.
The event follows a similar conference held in early-2016 and is one of several initiatives of Incredible Ely, which formed several years ago in an effort to revitalize Ely’s downtown and enhance economic development.
“We tried as a group to spruce up the downtown area,” said Kelly Klun, who helped start the organization and has served as its director until this week, when it introduced Pam Ransom as executive director.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak welcomed the attendees to the community and hailed the efforts of Incredible Ely.
“My whole agenda is economic development,” said Novak. “How can we increase the number of businesses and the number of people who work in Ely.”
Novak also said that the downtown has undergone a “renaissance,” thanks largely to developers John, Becky and Tanner Ott.
“Businesses have been successful in the buildings that they have renovated,” Novak said of the Otts. “We need people here with entrepreneurial instincts to grow the economy in Ely.”