Benya Kraus Beacom and her college friends developed the idea of creating Lead for America — placing recent college graduates in rural towns to build or enhance community-based initiatives. To seek support for the idea, she made a cold call to Land O’Lakes, headquartered in Arden Hills. Land O’Lakes is an international farmers cooperative. Her ask eventually made its way to Tina May, chief of staff and vice president of rural services, who offered a 15-minute block on her calendar. “It was the start of the pandemic, so it was easy to make that time available,” May indicates now.
Beacom nervously prepared for a 15-minute elevator pitch about the program. As an almost throwaway line of introduction when the call started, she mentioned her roots were in Waseca in southern Minnesota. May indicated she was from Stacyville, Iowa, a town of fewer than 500 near the Minnesota border.
“We ended up using that full 15 minutes to talk about our hometowns. That turned into 30 minutes, and 45. I later learned that she had pushed back another call to continue the conversation,” Beacom says. “Because of the pandemic, the first year our conversations were only on Zoom. The first time we ever met in person was by accident at a backyard event.”
Tina May: You were telling me about what you and three colleagues had dreamed up to launch Lead for America. This mission to commit to public service in a way that was uniquely rural, that didn’t exist anywhere else, was something you dreamed up in your dorm room. Then you moved back intentionally to rural Minnesota.
I kept thinking, what if this existed when I was eighteen? How can we scale this faster? I was hooked right away. In a rural community, what if you saw someone you looked up to who intentionally moved home? And their job was to build community and coalitions? I think that is the game changer for the rural and urban divide.
I was so impressed with the vision that you had. I asked you to be my mentor. We kept meeting and really started dreaming together.
Benya Beacom: I was scared to talk to you that first time. But it became a conversation about: “I know you are a person, also with a hometown, or tied to a particular place. Let me tell you about what my tie to a place means for me and why I do this work.”
I went in with the lens of what can we do here in Minnesota? As our relationship grew, that trust grew into an idea that expanded past the boundaries of Minnesota — the American Connection Corps, a national effort to bridge the digital divide in rural communities.
On one of our Friday afternoon calls, you were telling me you had to leave early because you were going back to Stacyville for the Brat Trot [a bratwurst-themed festival and race created by Tina and her sisters]. To me, someone who is so successful in the government relations space, so high up in a corporation like Land O’Lakes, who also spends her weekend back home at a Brat Trot — that was huge for me.
I am now at the University of Chicago, at the Booth business school. My microeconomics class teaches laws of supply and demand. You see the ways they fall apart in rural communities. I am taking that extra step about thinking of the business world and how it can apply in a rural community. Few careers and people are trying to think about these big challenges. The way you live your life — able to hold an identity in both worlds — is something I am aspiring to figure out.
TM: Sometimes I don’t like the word “mentorship” because it implies rigidity and formulas. We are partners. We have had to be ruthlessly honest, open, and transparent to a fault with each other as we have built. There are multiple partners included in this work with us, and it has been a gift that we have worked through it together.
I think I have learned more from you. There is a fearlessness you have. I think it is because if we don’t try together, we will regret the alternative. So you just put one foot in front of the other and you try.
BB: I think sometimes I am hopeful to a fault.
The path of entrepreneurship is not one that I thought I would be on. I was good at building things, and getting people excited, but everything I had built was in the realm of a structure that had already existed.
I said no to a corporate law firm office offer after graduating from college, and then moved to a state where I knew nobody, with a group of three people l had never really met in my life. I lived on ramen and $12,000 for a whole year, trying to pitch a program that didn’t yet exist. Our first year, we had no national funding. Everything we raised was from the communities themselves. We sent 54 fellows back to their hometowns. I was the one calling every local government saying “this is how amazing this person is.” That is how we got the money.
There is no way to build fearlessness other than being totally fearful and doing it. I don’t think I was born fearless. I was an international relations major. I grew up in Thailand and thought I would be bouncing from city to city and move every three years. After a family situation, I came to Waseca. I was so inspired by the way my uncles talked about our legacy to this place. I was 21 years old and had never known the story of who my grandfather was, of how our family got there.
When you see a virtue reflected in somebody — when there is something so infectious about them — you want to bring some of that into your life too. The draw for me is to see you in action, because there is something you have that I was desiring in my own life.
TM: I realize what a gift it is to be from a rural place, and to have the gift of that experience. I view it as an absolute privilege that I get to do the work I do for a farmer-owned cooperative. The business structure of a cooperative is different — we are able to take the long view. When you think about rural wealth creation, the model is cooperative. We put money back into these rural communities.
My rural roots are my superpower. I grew up on a dead-end gravel road. There is something about driving past a dead-end sign every day that does something to your psyche. I never thought I could have any of the jobs I have had. I surely didn’t dream it. The work ethic that I have is from those roots.
BB: The reason I am here now, at the best business school in the world, is because of you. I asked you to write a recommendation letter for my application. Again, there was a little fear because we were in the center of what we were building, and I was asking you to vouch for me to spend time in another part of my life. If our relationship was just based on outcomes, and “what can this person do for me,” it would have been a tougher conversation.
Seeing you operate in this corporate space, but with this rural ethos, I knew there were hard skills that I needed to figure out and invest in so I could be better for our communities. I remember writing this long email about why this was important, how it wasn’t going to compromise our work. You simply responded back with “yes, absolutely.” Then you connected me to all these other people to build out this dream further.
People are not what they do, but who they are. I think that is at the heart of a true, good partnership, friendship, and mentorship.
You have been a partner, a sponsor, and a door opener. You have believed in not just what we’re doing, and what I can produce, but also who I am.
TM: When we think about the rural communities that we love so much, it is on all of us. It is our responsibility to lean in. What you are building and scaling is the future.