For those of us in Rural America, we're used to hearing (and often believing, unfortunately) the narrative that our best and brightest are moving away.
The media calls it the "Brain Drain" suggesting that we educate our kids, only to encourage them to leave, stealing any chance for us to realize a return on the investment of that education.
Recently, we sat down with one of our bright, talented young people who returned to our community. At the fresh age of just 24, Addison Magill is running a successful business and she was gracious enough to share with us just how our community and her experiences as a kid shaped her into who she is today.
When we sat down, Addison was one week away from presenting at a conference called Tomorrow's Top Hands with the North Dakota Stockmen's Association. When asked more about the nature of the conference, Addison said, "Basically, it's trying to build leaders in the beef industry. They get to tour some different places within the industry, hear from speakers, and learn about the career paths they can follow within the beef industry."
Specifically, she'd been asked to be on a panel for entrepreneurship within the beef industry. Addison is the founder and lead creator of Addison K. Creative Co., a creative company founded on production ag values, designed to build livestock and agribusiness brands.
When she was a freshman in high school, Addison attended this conference. "I had been involved in some other leadership programs for Future Farmers of America (FFA), and it just felt like a good fit. I knew I wanted to be in the beef industry and I thought it was a great opportunity to connect with other people with similar interests and build my leadership skills."
It's wild for Addison to look back on her journey from being a student in the audience to a presenter on the stage.
"I really got started with the communication side of the ag business when my family had a cattle sale and I started taking pictures and designing the print ads. I discovered that I really loved it. And at that point, I was probably in my sophomore year of college and I had already majored in something completely different.
I always knew that I wanted to be involved in the production side in some capacity and I still help my family and my boyfriend's family. But I picked up a communications major and I ended up double majoring and that's when I really got into the communication side of the industry."
This last year, by working with us at Growing Small Towns, Addison decided she needed to jump in and go full-time with her business. Her design company helps mostly bull sale clients market their bulls by doing all the marketing for the sale from social media to print ads. She goes out to the ranch, takes pictures and videos, then creates a print catalog to distribute. She's a full-service marketing agency for people with bull or cattle sales. She also helps any ag business by creating logos and offering all of the marketing that they could possibly need.
When asked what was the catalyst to make her say, "Okay, I can do this and I'm doing it!" she replied, "I think it was probably the first ad that I did. My family had bought a bull with another family friend and to see my first ad—physically see it in a magazine—was like, wow, this is really cool. I really enjoyed doing the work and it's the perfect blend of my creativity and my love for the cattle business."
Besides being a 4th generation agriculturist, Addison also was highly influenced by her participation in the FFA program made available through Southeast Region Career and Technology Center (SRCTC) in Oakes, ND, where she went to high school.
"Dan Spellerberg, or as we always called him "Spellie", was our FFA advisor. Without him, I wouldn't have gotten involved in livestock judging, which became a huge part of my high school experience; it also led me to South Dakota State University (SDSU) and the chance to judge there. It wasn't really even just about competing; it was about the experiences to go all over the country, even while in high school. There are so many life skills and life-long friends I gained from being involved in FFA that I continue to use to this day."
Addison never considered herself to be a public speaker and she knows she'd never have felt like she was able to say yes to this upcoming opportunity if she hadn't started in high school.
She believes FFA gave her and her classmates skills that they all will use for the rest of their lives. "I use the skills I learned in livestock judging in my job now because being able to know how the animals should look when I'm taking a picture is extremely important."
For us at Growing Small Towns, we get super excited about young entrepreneurs like Addison. She's the kind of young woman our small communities hope will return. She's running a niche service business and she'd recently hit a significant milestone: she'd generated more revenue in her business than the income she'd left behind in a full-time job.
Isn't that fantastic? (We basically get our pom-poms out about this kind of thing around here.)
We wanted to share Addison's story because she's a wonderful example of the value of combining lived experiences with nontraditional educational opportunities.
She credits much of her success to her experience at SRCTC.
"The really interesting thing when I was in high school is that many of the kids in those classes [SRCTC classes] were not necessarily from ag backgrounds. They were taking those classes because they saw the value in learning things such as trade skills or public speaking and leadership that you wouldn't normally learn in a regular classroom which also makes you more employable in the future. You didn't have to come from an ag background to take those classes and learn skills that we all continue to use in our careers now. And I guarantee if you ask kids from years past if they still use the skills from those classes, or if they would be where they are today without those classes, they would tell you that they were absolutely invaluable."
Speaking of kids from years past, we asked Addison to imagine walking up to her 16-year-old self at the Tomorrow's Top Hands Conference and saying, "In less than ten years from now, you're going to be on a stage speaking at this conference."
We asked her to imagine what young(er) Addison would have said.
"I probably wouldn't have believed it. But I think it goes to show, too, that I went into college thinking I was going to do genetics or something super science-based with cattle and I came out doing something completely different. And I absolutely feel like this is where I'm supposed to be."
There is so much to learn about that part of Addison's story, too.
Being willing to explore other avenues, even if it differs wildly from what we thought we'd do, is something that can help us discover ourselves and our passions. Plus, if we can encourage our youth to pursue their own development in this way? It's game-changing.
Addison did get a degree in animal science and loves the cattle industry in general, but is now focused on the creative side of the business.
We asked if there were other things that pointed her in that direction.
"I got an internship with the North Dakota Soybean Council. It was honestly my favorite place that I have ever worked because I loved the people and I loved the work that I did. I had the opportunity to tell the story of North Dakota Soybean farmers by interviewing and photographing researchers, farmers, board members, and staff.
I learned how to tell a story with my camera. I don't do as much of the production side of it anymore, but it's still the same concept. With a bull sale, people work all year for that. It's not just taking pictures and it's not regular advertising; it's telling their story. Especially with a catalog design; a lot of catalogs really tell a personal story of that family and the work they put into the cattle to get them to that one day. They work all year long, and sometimes it’s generations in the making, for that one sale day."
With someone as young as Addison who has already accomplished so much, it's helpful to consider all the other people and experiences that helped shape her into the person she needed to be to start and grow this business.
"I was really influenced by my high school and college judging coaches and those experiences. It’s not just about the competition. I gained lifelong friends and a network within the industry through these programs.”
When service-based businesses are just starting up, we always encourage entrepreneurs to get a client. That's it. If you want to get more clients, you have to start with one. You learn from doing, not thinking about doing. Finding and servicing your very first client can be one of the trickiest parts of getting going, so we asked Addison how she landed her first client.
"I helped the Quandts [a local family farming/ranching operation] clip their bulls to prepare for picture day for a number of years. At the time, I was back in the chutes—not out doing the pictures. At that time, I hadn't yet taken a paid professional photo. I had a college class that required students to find a real client to work with to create a social media graphic – I chose the Quandts, and they loved that first project I did for them. That got my foot in the door, and the next thing I know, they told me, 'You better practice up your picture skills; we want you to take our pictures.' So the only practice I could do was to go out in our pasture with our dog. I'd sit him down and try to get the cattle to look at him and take pictures. The Quandts were my first big client and they took a chance on me. I definitely wouldn't be where I am in my business without them believing in me."
So for our small communities, that's also a valuable lesson; we need to be open to taking a chance on young people. Give them opportunities to start!
Addison also reflected on the simple value of paying attention and putting herself in the way of opportunities to help her learn.
"When we had our sale, we had photographers come out and I watched them work as much as I could, absorbing their process and watching how they did it. Also, growing up and looking at tons and tons of pictures helped me determine my own aesthetic."
It's one thing to develop photography as a passion and maybe pursue it as a side hustle. It's entirely different to pursue it full-time and quit your job to do that. Sometimes, the people who love us the most struggle with these kinds of decisions, only because they want to protect us.
We asked Addison how her family responded.
"My mom is always pushing me to just jump in and do it because I am an overthinker. I was at the point where I really didn't enjoy the job I was doing. I liked the people but the work itself was not inspiring. I was taking pictures of parts. Then I applied for this other job that I thought was absolutely my dream job. I got to the last interview and I ended up not getting it. That really made me think, 'Okay, I know I don't love what I'm doing. I need to be doing something else.' My mom totally encouraged me and probably pushed me a little bit to just jump in and do it. My dad can be brutally honest at times so he was probably a little more worried for me than my mom was. But now that he's seen me do my work, anytime I get a new client or he hears about something, he will call me up to chat with me about it. He's always throwing out to some of his friends that have bull sales, 'Hey, my daughter does this. You should probably look her up.' I've gotten a lot of clients that way because my business is based on recommendations and word of mouth."
When Addison first came to us at Growing Small Towns, one of the things we talked about was giving it a definitive trial to ease some of her worries about making it work. We wanted her to remember that she is employable with solid marketable skills, so really, what's the worst that can happen?
When instead of taking the leap into a full-time business, we try to pursue our passion in whatever time's left over, we can easily burn out because the tax on our energy, mental capacity, and creativity is real.
Addison was going to go hard for a year and re-evaluate then. Turns out she didn't even need a full year!
Frankly, we'd like to clone Addison because it's been so fun to watch, and when a bunch of people are pursuing work that delights them? This is what we think makes towns amazing.
Because people show up differently everywhere they go when they're lit up for what they're doing instead of being at a job they don't like.
But the best part? We don't have to go to such scientific lengths to replicate what Addison's accomplished! Our small towns can set the table for young people who want to start businesses. We can support them with strong programming. We can take a chance on them. We can invest in their development.
We can (and should) be their biggest fans. Because if there's one thing about entrepreneurship that's true for nearly everyone—it can be a lonely road and you need a strong support system.
Addison's had that from the beginning.
"Growing up, my brothers and my parents always treated me as being able to do everything that they could do, which is not always the case for girls, in particular. I'm a little blond 24-year-old girl who's come to take their pictures, right? There are times when it can definitely be intimidating walking on someone’s farm or ranch to take command of the picture pen. But for me, it helps that I have confidence because my family treated me like I absolutely can do everything they can. Even when I probably couldn't lift as much as my brothers could, they'd just tease me and say, 'Are you even trying?' My boyfriend has also been a huge support to me throughout this entire process. He's so supportive of my work and really wants to see me succeed. It would be hard without that daily support."
There's a narrative being perpetrated about who Rural America is. There's a story being spun about what our future looks like.
At Growing Small Towns, we want to write a different story and it starts by telling the stories of neat young entrepreneurs like Addison.
Because to us?
This is who Rural America is.
She is the future of small towns. Looks like we better get out our shades.