My childhood was not unlike that of most kids in the 1980s: It was shaped by my yearning for the latest Star Wars toy and Atari game.
Of course my parents also played a key role in my upbringing.
My mom was born and raised in the small towns of Arizona that were home to my grandfather’s ranching business. My dad was raised in central Phoenix and played basketball at Phoenix Union High School and later at Arizona State University.
I’d spend every summer in Williams, Arizona, visiting my family and playing outdoors, and then the rest of the year going to school and hanging with friends in central Phoenix.
In the small town or big city, I always found common ground in the conversations I had with friends and family.
Years later, after I graduated from ASU, I co-founded Arizona Outback Adventures and outdoor travel company — because what else are you going to do when you have a degree in wildlife-conservation biology?
The tours included hiking and mountain-biking trips along with multiday tours to Havasupai in the Grand Canyon. As a novice guide, I explained to my clients in depth how fast a saguaro grows, and yes, the cholla cactus really does jump.
I believed people really wanted to learn all about the Sonoran Desert flora and fauna.
But many of my clients were just trying to escape a conference room for a few hours, and they would often nod along with whatever I was rattling on about. A few asked memorable questions: e.g., at what elevation do deer turn into elk? Others complained. “We’ve already been past that tree,” they would say as we floated down a river.
I gave them a pass: The Arizona desert does start to look the same after a while.
Curious or not, my tour clients were a diverse group of people, and when you spend days on end with different people at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, you start to see how the power of both listening and conversation helps to bridge divides of backgrounds and beliefs.
The walls we put around ourselves in our daily lives seemed to be less high while sitting next to a creek. The seemingly wide chasms between us narrowed when we realized that the challenges and opportunities we all face are more similar than different.
I moved to Portland in 2003, and after a short time getting my bearings, I started to volunteer for a variety of organizations to grow my network.
And while there are a plethora of incredible organizations in town, I started to gravitate more and more to the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network.
The mix of people at OEN events ranged from food-company founders to drone-enterprise executives. A melting pot of backgrounds and beliefs was the norm. It was as if I’d found my tribe: crazy and talented entrepreneurs aiming to take on the world with their ideas.
So I dove in and ended up on the OEN board for a total of six years, including two as board chair.
The greatest joy I found was meeting with everyone in the statewide ecosystem; Listening to entrepreneurial challenges. Looking for opportunities to connect them to a resource that could help them get one step further down the road. Engaging in conversations about breaking down the silos and echo chambers.
I listened to stories and realized each one formed a piece of this tapestry that makes up Oregon.
As I look back on my journey to this point, I see the common theme in all my adventures and career choices has been the effort to bridge gaps through interaction and dialogue.
I started to see that what I had learned growing up and taking people on tours to new terrain is that the power of a story can bridge gaps between disparate groups and connect people to companies and regions through shared challenges and opportunities.
It’s a lesson that seems even more relevant today, as the entrepreneurial community seeks to bridge industry silos and the rural-urban divide.
I co-founded Built Oregon more than two years ago as a way to build on that simple belief: that stories can raise awareness of companies and regions and help drive economic development.
Over the past two years, we’ve told almost 100 stories through our website and podcasts.
Throughout that process, I’m constantly reminded of what I’ve learned over my journey up to this point: Conversations matter. And the most important conversations take place with those outside of your sphere of influence, and with people who possess opposing views.
The value of a given dialogue hinges on conversations that are inclusive, honest and transparent.
My wife, Jen, still laughs when I email people we’ve met on our travels over 10 years ago, like our B&B host from Derry, Ireland, or hotel owners in Playa Grande, Costa Rica. But divides of regions and cultures only remain if we choose to ignore the opportunity to engage with new people and forge new relationships alongside each of our journeys.
Mitch Daugherty is a co-founder of Built Oregon.