GROW Nebraska CEO works to preserve rural lifestyle through global opportunities
Rural Nebraska is the perfect place to find fresh air, 4-H and plentiful opportunities. It’s also where Janell Anderson Ehrke first found her voice, a voice that has helped hundreds of Nebraska entrepreneurs.
As CEO of GROW Nebraska, she works to preserve that rural lifestyle through helping Nebraska entrepreneurs bring their products and services to the global marketplace.
“I hope to give future generations the opportunities I had growing up,” Janell said.
GROW Nebraska is a non-profit organization that works to create sustainable economic development by supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses through promotion, creating market access and training opportunities.
It is based in tiny Holbrook, Neb., just a few miles down the road from Arapahoe High School where Janell graduated with a class of 27 students. She has fond memories of growing up in rural Nebraska.
“I had like 47 different projects in my 4-H career,” Janell said. That included showing cattle and giving speeches, which wasn’t her favorite. “I’m not going to say I liked it,” Janell said honestly. “But it paid off.” Those speech skills help when she’s giving presentations to business owners on how to use social media or meeting with elected officials to promote GROW Nebraska.
City life detour
After high school, Janell set out for the city life, moving to Lincoln and obtaining a two-year degree in fashion merchandising. She then went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and earned a degree in psychology with a minor in history. She was planning to stay in college and pursue a law degree when her dad encouraged her to stop studying and start working.
So, Janell moved to Kansas City where she successfully worked for seven years selling securities. Then, her family asked her to move back to rural Nebraska to help expand the family’s cattle business. When she moved back, she immediately got involved in the local Chamber of Commerce and started teaching Sunday school.
“When I was in Kansas City, I worked all the time,” Janell said. “The nice thing about a small town is you can get involved right away.” She even found her soul mate back in Nebraska and married Stamford-area rancher Leon Ehrke.
The birth of GROW
Then Janell heard about a part-time job opportunity with the Central Plains Foundation, which was a business incubator based in the former Holbrook school that had closed down. The foundation was on their third director at the time. Janell accepted the foundation job, volunteering to fundraise her own salary.
It was through her work at the foundation that she started GROW Nebraska after learning about a similar program in Kentucky. She met with then Lt. Governor Kim Robak and, along with help from her volunteer board, developed a business plan for the new project.
At about the same time as GROW Nebraska was born, she gave birth to her first child, Haley, who was 12 weeks premature. Janell spent 55 days at Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney with her daughter and worked on the GROW Nebraska business plan at the same time.
GROW Nebraska started with 61 members in 1998. It now has more than 367 members and has helped create and retain more than 2,200 jobs. It now offers 20 business-building services and is 75 percent funded through memberships with the rest coming from donations and grants.
Members have access to business trainings and opportunities to sell products and services on GROW Nebraska ecommerce sites, including buynebraska.com, Amazon and eBay, as well as retail stores at the Hilltop Mall in Kearney, Conestoga Mall in Grand Island and Eppley Airfield in Omaha. GROW Nebraska products are even sold at a temporary store at the Nebraska State Fair.
Online marketing will define the future
Janell said one key to the future success of GROW Nebraska and small businesses is online marketing and sales.
“Nebraskans are really good at selling to other Nebraskans,” she said. But, she hopes to encourage businesses to sell outside of Nebraska to bring money into the state. Janell said recent sales on the new GROW Nebraska store on Amazon yielded 87 percent sales outside of Nebraska.
“That’s all new money and is really totally new markets,” she said.
In the next five years, Janell hopes to continue to help businesses with ecommerce and to double the number of GROW Nebraska members. She would also like to bring the GROW Nebraska program to other states, maybe even the entire country, with a Shop Rural America program.
For more information…
PO Box 7
416 Center Avenue
Holbrook, NE 68948
GROW Nebraska retail locations
5019 2nd Ave., #20
Kearney, NE 68847
Grand Island Store
Conestoga Mall, #144
Grand Island NE 68803
Omaha Eppley Store
4501 Abbott Drive
Omaha NE 68110
From wine and books to home décor and food, the GROW Nebraska retail and online stores offer some great ideas for Christmas gifts.