Ecopreneur Profile: Jan Joannides and Brett Olson, co-founders of Renewing the Countryside

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Youth Renewing the CountrysideIn a world overdosed with negativity, Jan Joannides roots for the opposite underdog, building an organization and livelihood around showcasing the positive side of what’s working right.

As co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, Joannides created a means to showcase positive examples of rural revitalization while simultaneously serving as an inspiring example of how one’s purpose and life can passionately blend.

As I write about in the Ecopreneur Profile found in ECOpreneuring, the seed for Renewing the Countryside stemmed from Jan’s master’s thesis work in the late 1990s profiling vibrant, diversified Minnesota farms and ranches. “As I interviewed these folks, I became so deeply inspired by their story and commitment to their family farms that I wanted to get these narratives out to the public, since the media often focus just on the negative decline of rural America,” explains Jan. Inspired by a similar venture in the Netherlands, she tapped into grant funding to publish Renewing the Countryside: Minnesota in 2001, showcasing 44 profiles of successful rural enterprises.

The enthusiastic response to this book led Jan, in partnership with her husband, Brett Olson, to found Renewing the Countryside as a non-profit organization in 2002. Its mission is to strengthen rural areas by championing and supporting rural communities, farmers, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, activists and other people who are renewing the countryside through sustainable and innovative businesses, initiatives and projects. “After all,” she says, “rural America is abundant with prospering enterprises as diverse as colors in the rainbow.” Brett leads the creative side of the organization, developing innovative public education strategies and campaigns.  It’s through our work on the Rural Renaissance book that my wife and I discovered this innovative non-profit organization, an organization that had its pulse on the revitalization happening in rural areas and the net migrations afoot from urban and suburban areas back to rural areas.

Rather than reinventing existing wheels, Renewing the Countryside tapped into the support and resources of a large, established non-profit organization, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Such an arrangement helped jump start Renewing the Countryside without needing to worry about overhead and office expenses, which were provided in kind by IATP for awhile. Collaboration and cooperation are often a common refrain among social entrepreneurs and ecopreneurs. “Working within an existing, flourishing venture like IATP gave our organization a tremendous running-start advantage,” admits Jan. “Aside from saving on expenses, we have this amazing pool of seasoned experts as mentors working in the same building which gave us a credibility boost.”

With the success of the Minnesota book, Renewing the Countryside has worked with other organizations to publish state- or region-specific books and calendars that are tied to public education campaigns. Book projects cover such states as Iowa, Washington and Wisconsin. Eager to expand the reach of the case stories, the organization launched an interactive online story database that can be searched by topic of interest, serving as a premiere means by which people interested in starting a rural business can learn about other’s experiences, from artisan potters to businesses powered by the wind and the sun, and rural communities can find strategies for creating a more vibrant, sustainable economy.

Renewing the Countryside’s latest book project, Youth Renewing the Countryside, shares stories of how young people are changing the world through rural renewal. Produced by Renewing the Countryside in partnership with young writers and photographers from across the United States and with support from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program of the USDA and the Center for Rural Strategies, the Youth Renewing the Countryside book focuses on the smart, young people who are returning to the roots of American agriculture, roots steeped in a tradition and culture of diversity, quality, and respect for the Earth.

As leaders of an agile and innovative organization thriving on new ideas and picking up quickly on trends, Jan and Brett welcome new project opportunities that showcase local foods and ecotourism. One is Green Routes, an informational venture helping Minnesota travelers incorporate their values of preserving natural and cultural resources into their travels through discovering small, unique businesses rooted in local communities. As a leading example nationwide for regionally focused, community-based green travel initiatives, Green Routes has already earned a reputation for its engaging Web-based mapping interface.  Now it’s going national.

With a handful of full-time staff, a flock of interns and a network of independent contractors, Jan credits this entrepreneurial-minded tribe of people with forging the organization’s success. “People who work on issues bigger than themselves, who work in ways much more flexible than the mainstream nine-to-five workforce, tend to be much more creative and innovative,” Jan comments. “I’ve learned, however, to hire folks with a blend of shared values and passion with strong skills, such as meeting deadlines and communication skills. Enthusiasm alone won’t cut it.”

Jan and Brett thrive on blending differing themes with their own quirky, connected workstyle, at times bouncing e-mails back and forth in the same room to keep projects on track. While their organization’s focus is on all things rural, they themselves live in a rambling historic house smack in the middle of a hip, urban enclave. “We live the best of both worlds as we like both the city and rural scene,” comments Brett. “An advantage of being in the city is that we are able to see the possibilities of making urban-rural connections, something we see as very important as we especially need urban people to be advocates for rural people and rural areas.”

Blending also serves as the mantra of their family life, taking an active role in the parenting of their two young children who are often at work-related functions or hanging out at the office. “I never believed that there is just one right way to do something,” reflects Jan. “Work can blend with your passions, family and values, especially if you surround yourself with like-minded people. I can take a business phone call outside at the park while watching my kids play just as easily as I could in an office cubicle.” Working in partnership in both family and work life adds challenging and rewarding lifestyle elements for this creative duo.

“Working together has caused us both to prioritize what’s really important and to improve our communication so we say exactly what we mean, especially when we’re stressed on deadline, are tired and have hungry kids to feed,” Jan explains with a smile. As their husband-wife workstyle tangoes with a shared passion for sustainable rural revitalization, they harvest their own version of the good life, a cocktail of green acres and city living.  The couple did, recently, also purchase a place in the country, destined to put into practice what their books and organization is all about.

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