Discovering the Heart of the Heartland: The Great Kansas City


Image courtesy of Tad Carpenter

Discovering the Heart of the Heartland: The Great Kansas City

by Neil Brown

It’s 3:45pm. It’s Wednesday. Drowning in a sea of beige and brown. The conference room has two doors, no windows, a long conference table runs the full length, snacks and coffee off to the side, lights slightly dimmed for the projector and sixteen people in high back leather office chairs. The meeting started at 9am. Lunch catered. Jen and I have dinner plans in Kansas City, MO, tomorrow night. Current location, Atlanta. Time is stubborn. It will not budge for anyone — much less us! The meeting adjourns. I’m out the door. Fighting traffic. Meet Jen, finish packing the car, and we’re off. Creeping through rush hour heading north at a snail’s pace, hoping we can make it to Nashville and crash at the Hyatt. That will put us eight hours from Kansas City, which will take ten hours to drive with snack, gas and bathroom breaks. Google Maps can not properly calculate the time requirements of our hunger cravings, nor creative detours in pursuit of the perfect Instagram crop. We make our dinner date, albeit fashionably late.

Why Kansas City? Why not! It is a rapidly changing city in the heart of the heartland, brimming with potential. A perfect waypoint for our journey circumnavigating a third of the nation.

Wandering around downtown on a hot, humid June morning with a cold-brewed coffee in hand, I’m on the hunt for a turn of the century red brick building that is home to Think Big. Google Maps guiding my path one glance at a time. Found it! I head up a long flight of stairs to find a beautiful, raw open space filled with people.

“Today, global competition really is between cities to provide the best quality of life for its citizens, and Kansas City is helping to lead the charge on innovation in the Midwest,” says Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s EVP of Industry Solutions and Chief Globalization Officer. “This kind of thought leadership at the municipal level is what helps pave the way for a smarter, more connected and sustainable city.”

At the forefront of innovation in Kansas City sits squarely Think Big Partners, helping entrepreneurs build exceptional companies. Think Big is also a key partner collaborating with Cisco to help develop a digital ecosystem that will establish Kansas City as one of the most connected cities in the world. The implications are significant. Consider smart street lights creating energy savings upwards of $4 million annually that also simultaneously deliver wi-fi access stretching across the city. A digital nomad’s dream!


Think Big is a multi-faceted business: multiple accelerator programs, co-working office space, capital advisory, and marketing, creative, and professional services. Their broadly talented team — strategy, growth, marketing, design, development — daily deliver innovation on-demand. Blake Miller, Partner and Director of Accelerator & Technology, says “We’re investing in our diverse team and entrepreneurs locally in order to reimagine the city of the future.” Blake is a Kansas City native, and his commitment to his hometown was instantly evident in our conversation. And yet he also is fully aware of the potential global influence of Kansas City, as well as other cities that choose to prepare and invest in their future today.

In a collaborative effort to accelerate innovation, Cisco and Think Big are nurturing a “living lab” for entrepreneurial development. This ecosystem is designed to incubate solutions to the city’s greatest challenges. According to Mayor Sly James, “this is a win-win for everyone and furthers our efforts to be the most entrepreneurial city in the nation.”


While KC is busy building its future, it has not lost sight of its roots. Nor has Quinton Lucas. One of the beauties of our travels are the serendipitous collisions that occur simply because we dedicate margin for such encounters. And Quinton is one such collision. We connected through mutual friends at a large, outdoor festival next to the river just outside downtown. Between the DJ sets, live musical acts and drag shows, we were able to talk — however sporadically. That evening we talked more over dinner. And a few mornings later as I was heading out of town, we happened to both be satiating our caffeine needs at The Filling Station. Conversation ensued.

Quinton is a fourth generation native of the great Kansas City. Growing up was tough, but his hard work and dedication paid off. After graduating law school from Cornell, working as a successful lawyer in KC, and being the youngest tenure-track law professor in the country, he was recently elected to City Council in a landslide with 74% of the vote. As a young successful lawyer, Quinton has his pick of opportunities anywhere in the world. He has chosen his hometown, he has chosen public service. In conversation, his passion for the history and future of his home is immediately apparent. He knows — and believes — he can make a difference, and is actively investing in the community and the city.


When asked why Quinton chose to run, the answer is rather straightforward. “I could complain and write letters, or I could jump into the race.” Given he is a newcomer to politics, he was pleasantly surprised to realize that most Kansas City residents — regardless of their district — hold many similar views and desires for the long term success of their city. Focused on job training and job creation, the improvement of city services (especially public transit), greater transparency on fiscal accountability, and building a positive work environment within city government, Quinton would have my vote if I were a resident of the Third District.

Another key player in shaping the future (and history) of KC is Hallmark. Just ask Tad Carpenter. “Hallmark invested in the city a century ago, and helped build a foundation for creatives in the midwest. Thanks to Hallmark’s commitment to our city and industry, we have a flourishing creative community.” His father has a 40 year career with the company as an illustrator and creative director. With exceptionally talented artistic parents, Tad literally grew up in the arts. He was kind enough to invite us into his office (and home). He and his wife, Jessica, have designed and built an amazing live/work space — one that would strike envy within any creative. And if you need any KC BBQ tips, Tad is the guy to ask.

Both designers, Tad and Jessica are building a growing business focused on brand, design and illustration for a wide variety of clients — from the smallest to the largest. Ultimately, they bring powerful messages to life through a process that is effective, artistic and honest. Their brilliant work can speak for itself. They have also launched a recent endeavor, Made in the Middle, to educate, inspire and bring awareness to the creative talents in their hometown. They are building community and commerce with creators and makers in the mid-west, and welcome recommendations on who to feature.

Tad also highlights a geographic perk. “We have clients all over and on both coasts, so I can be in New York or San Francisco in a quick two and a half hours, door to door.” They had considered moving to a larger city — either east or west coast — given so much of their business is based in those markets. Yet it’s quite practical to stay geographically neutral. Their roots in KC are deep, both familial and professional. And possibly more importantly, it’s home to the Royals!


No stranger to risk, Shawn Polowniak mortgaged his home to help cofound Blacktop Creative more than a decade ago. Shawn is calm, collected, and laid back as we talk about the firm’s history, recurring risk-taking and the ever-present refinement of their business. Focus is paramount. As an agency, strategic partnership with their clients is a key ingredient to consistently delivering successful outcomes. Shawn believes that “great work must be defined. For the success of creativity and creatives in the future, we’re going to have to understand how to create value in the work we generate and also diminish any subjectivity in that same work.”

In the early days, they focused on delivering or executing creativity. Over time they came to realize they were hypothesizing the clients needs, building upon many internally developed assumptions, presenting concepts that were aesthetically pleasing, and ultimately attempting to build their value through the debate of subjectivity. A few years in, a heightened awareness of the state of their work and the future challenges facing the firm began to take root. Everything needed to change! A change to fundamentally shift their perspective, alter the acquisition of new business, forge stronger partnerships with clients, and redefine the course of their methods and process. All of which have positively and significantly influenced the outcomes the firm consistently delivers.


The change Blacktop dove into was a big risk, but a risk that paid off. It was also a truckload of work. And is still a lot of work. Defining clear objectives, identifying key insights, building strong business cases, establishing contextually relevant strategy, and delivering consistently engaging creative is hard work. As designers, this is what we live (and work) for! To clearly identify a critical problem, and to then eloquently articulate an effective solution.

Kansas City has great potential that will be fully realized thanks to the diverse set of individuals invested and committed to their community and city. These individuals realize their own potential as part of the collective opportunities that abound. It is this mindset — this orientation — that sets the tone for innovation bred in part by by a culture that embraces empathy, vulnerability, and experimentation which is foundational to open collaboration. It is this mindset that we are seeing as a recurring pattern, a common denominator.


We set off on this journey to discover; knowing we had no idea what we would find, who we might meet, nor where we should arrive. We do know that we believe the future is in the hands of those that create, take risks, fail frequently, vulnerably collaborate, and invest in a larger community. The future does not lie in the hands of the critic, so the bold, the brash and the creative set the pace. It is this responsibility of those shaping the future that we seek to explore to greater depths.

We are 5,800 miles into this misadventure, and are planning our next segment. We’d be thrilled to connect with others along the way. Please reach out to us directly, and hopefully we’ll be able to buy you a coffee! You can join in on our journey online at and with #TheFuturesProject on Instagram and Twitter.

Neil-JenBaker-Brown-1About Us

Neil & Jen Baker Brown are design futurists, navigating the adventure that is life for the last 12 years in marriage and partnership across a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors and experiments. They have collaborated with others on projects ranging from an arts and event space in Manhattan, to a grassroots film festival; they have taught leadership development in Vietnam, coached young entrepreneurs, and built an agency to partner with early stage companies. You can consistently find them on the road and online. @bakerbrownco

GROUP-U7636-U7638_2 (1)Breakthrough Thinking by Thomas Vogel is a guide to developing effective creative thinking skills, and applying them to challenges in the competitive business environment. Whether you struggle with the brainstorming process or problem solving, or just want to further shape your creative process, discover techniques and exercises that will help you develop a more flexible thought process. Plus, with industry examples from successful creative professionals and top creative organizations, you’ll be able to utilize several effective models of creativity to boost the performance of your own. In a constantly developing economy innovation is key, so utilize the principles and examples presented in this book and tap into your creative potential!