Lauren White, the new executive director of UpDayton. CONTRIBUTED

A talk with UpDayton’s new chief: Working to keep young talent here

MEET UPDAYTON’S NEW CHIEF

UpDayton, a nonprofit that aims to make the community more attractive to young professionals, earlier this year selected its newest executive director — Lauren White, who succeeds AJ Ferguson. White is an entrepreneur and small-business owner who’s the fourth person to lead the 10-year-old organization. As part of our newspaper’s Path Forward project that is focusing, in part, on the local economy, we recently talked with her about how the organization strives to make Dayton a better place to live and work. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity. To learn more, go to updayton.org. — Ron Rollins, Community Impact Editor

Dayton Daily News: Talk about UpDayton for anyone who isn’t familiar with the group. What is it?

Lauren White: Our mission is to attract and retain young talent by engaging them in the community they want to live, work and play in.

DDN: Talk about the annual UpDayton Summit. It’s central to what you do.

White: The summits happen in the spring, typically at the Dayton Art Institute. We conduct a series of community meetings prior where we take in ideas on projects that people want to do, and we narrow it down to 10, three-minute project pitches that they make at the summit. The audience is usually about 300, and it votes on the pitches. The three winners get $1,000 and the support of UpDayton for a year to make the project happen. We typically have a two-thirds completion rate on them – considering that about 85 percent of startups fail, I’m pretty happy with two-thirds. This year we may make a few changes, so stay tuned.

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The best-known project is Dayton Inspires, which was a simple movement of people responding to the haters and getting out there to talk about how living here inspires them and makes them feel good. It grew from a hashtag and a mural in the Oregon District and grew to a real social media movement. Simple, effective and evergreen.

What’s really cool about the summits, though, is that you get a real sense for what young people care about and want to see happen. I’ve seen the pitches evolve over time from being kind of fluffy to becoming really community-focused. Last year’s winners were about how to connect kids with their moms who are in jail, how to provide tech to West Dayton students after school, and how to memorialize those who’ve lost loved ones in the opioids struggle. All great projects, and they provide a pulse on what a certain group of young people are thinking – how they’re becoming increasingly connected to real community issues. What I want to figure out is how UpDayton can play a part in understanding that and helping build it. I like to say we’re awakening people to the potential they have to make an impact. It’s why I ended up taking this new role – that’s what the organization did for me back in 2013.

DDN: Tell us about that.

White: So, I went to my first summit that year. I’d recently moved back to the Dayton area. I’m a native and back then, all my job applications were going to Nashville, where I wanted to do something with social responsibility for musical artists, and that seemed a good place for it. Anyway, someone invited me to the summit, and I didn’t even know what I was getting involved in. Honestly, I went with a chip on my shoulder. Then I got into a conversation with somebody I’d never met – he asked me, “What do you want Dayton to be?” I was like, “I’m actually trying to leave it.” And he said very kindly, “Well, we’re all here to create the Dayton we want. What would you change?” And that took hold of me. For a stranger to gut-check me in a non-patronizing way, I thought, Holy cow, why did I relinquish my responsibility and give up on making Dayton a better place? I was 23, and I thought it was the presidents of organizations and elected officials who were the ones responsible for that – I didn’t think until right then that I could do anything that mattered enough. It really got me thinking.

DDN: So then what?

White: I got involved in things — attending the annual summits, working with people who wanted to do things in Dayton. We started Nucleus CoShare. That wouldn’t have happened if I had not had that moment at the summit. In fact, all the founding partners at Nucleus met at UpDayton; it was a super-tight connection. Then we did the Dayton music video, because we got tired of people talking bad about the town.

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DDN: Talk about Nucleus CoShare.

White: There was a group of entrepreneurs who had a common need of physical office space, and so we came together and converted our leftover space at our business and opened it up to the public for co-working — a model that has happened all over, but had not come to Dayton yet. We gave ourselves three years to see if would work and if the public wanted it; not long ago, we turned it over to the Entrepreneurs Center and they run it out of the 444 Building downtown. We never would have dreamt of that. The idea of co-working is to offer affordable, flexible office space – but more than that, it’s a community that shared experiences, best practices and the organic byproduct is that a lot of us experienced growth in our companies because of it.

DDN: Tell us about your business.

White: Indigo Life Media. Video marketing is the easiest way to explain it, but we’re trying to niche the type of content that shows what is happening in our community, so a lot of our clients are in the nonprofit sector or are community-minded entities. My husband, Andrew, started the company 12 years ago. We met working with various fundraisers, nonprofits and the like.

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DDN: Fill us in about the Dayton music video you mentioned.

White: Rather than sit back and being consumed by the critics and complaints about Dayton, a group of us said, Let’s see how many people we can get to come together and create something that tells how we see Dayton and why we’re proud to be here. We engaged over 1,000 people, some of whom are my dear friends today. It was this great, crazy experience of creating something with other people that’s bigger than yourself. So we shot it downtown and in the Oregon District in late 2015. You can find it on YouTube now, just look up “Dayton Music Video.” It’s had more than 47,000 views.

DDN: What would you tell someone about Dayton who doesn’t know it?

White: That it’s a place where you can show up and be supported in whatever you want to be up to. A place where you can easily make something happen overnight, that’s small and well connected enough to get things done.

DDN: So, now y ou’re the fourth director since UpDayton began just over 10 years ago. How do you think it and the city have changed?

White: The original mission was based on the sense that there wasn’t a lot happening in Dayton then – there were a lot of young people leaving, there weren’t many ways to get involved. I think in the last 10 years UpDayton has done a lot to change that – I see people active in organizations and working hard on great local projects that aren’t even attached to UpDayton. I don’t think that was happening then. We have a density of inspired, excited young people who are getting a lot of great things done. I want UpDayton to be able to help all those other projects happen, to be the springboard for more impact and amplify other people’s efforts.

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DDN: What does that look like?

White: I don’t know the right word for it, but it’s something like creating an incubator of community projects. How that would fit into our original mission is where I’m stuck. Stay tuned on that one. Basically, past leaders of UpDayton projects were self-starters who weren’t given a lot of organizational resources from a process perspective – it was kinda like, OK now go! But if we could provide a kind of project blueprint on how to get things going, that would be helpful to a lot of people. Also, right now most project leaders are privileged, people with great jobs already. What if somebody who’s working at McDonald’s has a great idea they want to do? If we had that organizational structure, anybody could come through us and get started.

DDN: What are some examples of those other projects going on?

White: There’s a group of young people who have adopted a park on Salem Avenue who are renovating it, cleaning it up and making it a place where people want to go and hang out in nature. There’s another group that’s working out of the Wesley Community Center, trying to organize and engage the Westwood neighborhood. Very organic and cool, and not connected to UpDayton, even though I think you can trace a lot of these things back to the momentum the organization has created among young people in the last 10 years. But now, how can we help these projects that are popping up on their own?

DDN: What are some other changes you imagine?

White: Well, there’s the age thing. Typically, we’ve worked with young professionals, so 18 to 40 has been our unspoken demographic. But what if a 14-year-old wants to pitch? All we’d need would be parental permission, right? Last year, we had a 50-year-old give a pitch, and it wasn’t a thing. And there are some people still with us who are in their 40s. I think it would be innovative to break down our demographic by mindset rather than by age, race, gender, the traditional demos we’re used to. In some ways, Facebook knows that – they break down by behaviors. As much as I understand why UpDayton was originally created for young people, I think it would be really neat to captivate a certain kind of mindset. It would have to be a board decision, but we’ve never been through a strategic planning process before, so it may be about time for a serious pivot that is intentional, where we redefine our mission and our audience. Dayton is not what it was 10 years ago, and our organization needs to change with the landscape. I’m anxious to see what that looks like, and what freedoms it gives us. It would be a big change for us, and it might make a few people uncomfortable, but all the great innovators in history have made people uncomfortable. Maybe Dayton could use that.

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DDN: You’re still in that unspoken demographic, right?

White: I’m 30. I survived to my 30s, so it’s funny to look back at that 23-year-old who wanted to leave so badly. When you’re that age it’s true the world is your oyster and you can do anything, so I don’t try to convince people to stay here. I actually think being a boomerang – going to a bigger market and then coming back — is valuable. I was just talking with a group of UD students the other day, and I said I’m not here to convince you to stay – but I will tell you that anything you learn in the big city you can do here tenfold, and we’ll be here waiting when you come back. Oh, yes – and it’s so affordable to live here, too.

DDN: And yet, you got talked into staying.

White: Well, that was because of UpDayton and the positive experience it cultivates. I’ve made a lot of friends through it. I wouldn’t be there without it. You know, before this job came open, I was over the summer gung-ho on living in California for a year and then coming back. Not officially leave Dayton, but do a bigger market and then come home, just to say I could. So I can say that UpDayton has kept me in Dayton twice. Literally.

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DDN: Do you see UpDayton still being here in 10 years?

White: Yes, sure, but it will look at lot different. To me, it’s an organization that stewards the rich history of innovation we have here. I really want to keep creating a culture of being OK with being uncomfortable, having diverse perspectives and pushing the envelope. Why not change and see what evolves?

DDN: Any regrets that you didn’t move to Nashville?

White: I think about it a lot … how could you not? Everything’s a double-edged sword – I love Dayton, but the reasons I love it are also the same reasons I need to take a break from it every once in a while. For instance, it’s great to bump into people you know all the time, but when I’m in a focused state to get work done or need my private time, it’s different. I guess the truest answer is that it’s always the people who make a place. Every place I’ve ever been, I treasure the people I’ve met – the scenery is secondary.

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