Episode 268: Envisioning Progress Through Regional Cooperation with Nelson Peacock

March 27 , 2024  |  By Brent Williams

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This week on the Be Epic podcast, Brent sits down with Nelson Peacock, President and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. They discuss the council's work in supporting entrepreneurs, recruiting businesses, and diversifying the regional economy. Nelson shares his diverse career path working in government, higher education and economic development and how he made his way back to Arkansas after growing up in Eastern Arkansas and attending the University of Arkansas. During the discussion Nelson his focus and the council's emphasis on prioritizing quality of life as Northwest Arkansas faces growth pressures. Brent and Nelson also explore the opportunities for Northwest Arkansas and the University of Arkansas to continue to fuel the entrepreneurial ecosystem and venture capital investment in the region.

Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Nelson Peacock  0:00  
But at the same time we're at an inflection point. And so we have to continue to do that we have to continue to support entrepreneurs recruit companies, diversify the and strengthen the economy. But we're also don't want to lose quality of life.

Brent Williams  0:13  
Welcome to the be epic podcast, brought to you by the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. I'm your host, Brent Williams. Together, we'll explore the dynamic landscape of business and uncover the strategies, insights and stories that drive business today. Well, today, I have with me Nelson Peacock. Nelson is President and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, and an alum of the Walton College. So Nelson, thank you for being here today.

Nelson Peacock  0:45  
Thanks for having me.

Brent Williams  0:46  
Well, excited to have you on and talk about the council, which we partner with heavily. That's really making a big difference in our region, in our state. I want to talk some about like, what are the areas you all are focused on. But maybe before that I want, I want our audience to get to know you a little bit. So native of Arkansas, and along with the college. But tell us a little bit about your history.

Nelson Peacock  1:14  
Well I was actually born in Fayetteville, just a few short years ago. My father was in law school here. And I was born and then we moved to Eastern Arkansas when I was you know two, grew up in McCrory, Arkansas, which is Woodruff County in Eastern Arkansas, came back, went to Fayetteville came to the Business College, of course, ended up staying here and going to law school. And after that, you know, the region was a lot different back then there weren't as many job opportunities back then. So I've moved to Little Rock practiced law for about a year and a half. And they told me I was going to be a business lawyer, but I was a debt collector. So that was not the way I wanted to spend my days. And ultimately, that kind of led me to moving to Washington DC. And I found my way into the Department of Justice for a few years, ended up on the Senate Judiciary Committee following that. And then my Senate experience kind of led me to when President Obama won I was in the Senate, working for then vice or then Senator Joe Biden on his judiciary staff. Through that, I met Janet Napolitano who was the governor of Arizona, and she had been nominated for Homeland Security Secretary, first woman homeland security secretary. And they assigned me to help her get confirmed in the Senate confirmation process. Did that we kind of hit it off. And she hired me to run her Legislative Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security. So that agency includes TSA includes, you know, the Border Patrol, which is gets a lot of attention now, ICE, FEMA, cybersecurity, it's the lead domestic agency for cybersecurity, so a lot of activity, doing that work with her. And it was a lot of fun and getting to see, you know, our service members. And, you know, what they sacrifice on behalf of the country really, I think, solidified my idea that I enjoy public service. And, ultimately, she took the job as the president of the University of California. And that oversees all the UC campuses, UCLA, and Berkeley and all of them. And she invited me to come out with her out to Oakland, California, and did that and was there for about four years. 

Brent Williams  3:49  

Nelson Peacock  3:50  
And then I think.

Brent Williams  3:52  
Doing government affairs there? 

Nelson Peacock  5:52  
Yeah I ran leg affairs for the system there, so we did a lot of work in Sacramento working on kind of, they have the same issues there. You know there's a move to under fund higher education in all kinds of states across and you know that ultimately raises tuition and all of the things that I'm sure everyone here talks about a lot. So we really wanted to make the case across the state about the need for the investment in that institution. So we did a lot of work in Sacramento, Governor Jerry Brown was there at the time and then we also had the federal affairs so federal research, you know academic research, federal funding for that, did a lot of work there which is you know have helped or at least tried to shine a spotlight on that here in this role. But then after that, did that maybe 4 or 5 years this opportunity came up to come back and a friend of mine, I did not know Mike Malone, who is my predecesor but someone called me and said if you ever want to come back to Arkansas the perfect job for you is opening up and so I looked into it. The only thing I knew about Northwest Arkansas was it continued to be on the lists of great places to be and every time I would come back for a football game or basketball game there would be something new. Right? And so I knew great things were happening here and so I looked into it, I looked hard, put my name in the hopper, went through the process and ultimately got the job. Had to tell my wife and young children that we're moving to Arkansas and you know we came here in I think 2017 so I've been here quite a while now and it's just been a great opportunity for me to kind of put the skills that I've learned over time to work on behalf of the people that live here and so it's been a good time.

Brent Williams  5:20  
Yeah, it seems like knowing you, you and your family have just really kind of invested deeply into this community. And in many, many ways.

Nelson Peacock  6:01  
Yeah, I mean, it's been great. It's the kind of place where you can plug in, and it's still small enough, where you can make a difference or feel you can make a difference, even at some of those larger institutions. It very senior levels where I worked. You knew you were having an impact, but you didn't think that it was you personally able to contribute in any way. And here feels like, whatever you're interested in, you can find a way to plug in and it's it's high enough to make a difference, but granular and low enough where you feel like it's you personally making that difference. So, so it's kind of a unique place right now, where we are in Northwest Arkansas.

Brent Williams  6:40  
You know, thinking about Nelson, thinking about the council historically. You know, it seems to me that this, you know, the regional cooperation that's happened in this area, particularly amongst cities, counties, and companies, has really been key, I think, to the story of Northwest Arkansas, I think the the council has played a pretty important role in that, it seems.

Nelson Peacock  7:04  
Well that's been the role of the council since the early 90s. You know, the story is, is that Sam Walton got together with, with Don Tyson, and with JB Hunt, and Mark Simmons. And really, basically, they all, you know, kind of decided that, you know, the region, these smaller towns, which and they were all small towns at the time, have to find a way to work together better, we need some key things in this region, as far as infrastructure to help our company so that that we can grow together. And at the time, it was the airport, it was getting I-49 completed and getting 412 out to Siloam Springs completed. And those were the projects. Ultimately, those happened and the council kind of stayed an institution, following that following 1998, when I believe when the airport was open, and kind of stayed focused on highways and roads and bridges, the airport until around 2010. And that's when they hired Mike. And they expanded to workforce development, economic development of this kind of quality of life bucket that we focused on. And we've kind of grown and expanded to meet meet the needs of the region since then. But the key thing that we do is we bring together the mayors of Fayetteville and Bentonville, we actually had a meeting just yesterday, with all the regional mayors to talk about growth and how we're going to handle, you know, up to a million people over the next 20 plus years. And so that's our role that we play, making sure that companies are engaged, you know, with their community and vice versa. So all to towards whether it's recruiting a company or recruiting talent, or a workforce development program. It's like how do you make this the most economically viable place that we possibly can? Can you recruit a business here? Can you scale your business here? Can you have fortune one and get the talent that you need here? It's all of those types of things that the Council works on. But the main role that we play is kind of the center of the wheel getting all the right players at the table.

Brent Williams  9:16  
Yeah it's kind of a unique spot that you all sit in, in this in this ecosystem. And I know I know you've done you do traditional what we call economic development work, but it is interesting to see how how involved you all are in the quality of life and seems like those two things I'm sure have to balance one another and they mixed together I also assume.

Nelson Peacock  9:16  
Well it has been it's been the calling card of this region for for the longest time. You know, come here you can afford a house if you're moving from the coast. Come here you won't have a ton of traffic. You know you'll have good education for your for your kids to go to school. And so that's been kind of the calling card for Northwest Arkansas and you know is clearly it's worked. You know, there are deficiencies with that kind of less urban environment. And you know, we'll probably talk around some of that around entrepreneurship and venture capital, and things like that. But that is what we've always hung our hat on. And I think there's a lot of people here that people that move here, and also the people that live here, don't want to lose that as we grow and make sure that we have an economy that will work for everyone and have an economy that will withstand any issues and you know, with any of our large industries, and that includes the University of Arkansas, you know, what happens, if, if something happens in any of these large companies that we rely on along so long, not that there will, but we need to have economic resilience. And that is really a goal of the council. And it helps those companies attract talent, if there's multiple opportunities. There is a thought around you know, kind of this dinette dynamism, you know, of a place where people can go and have a great career have a great quality of life. And we try to balance those things out and the things that we focus on.

Brent Williams  9:50  
You know, one of the areas at least where I feel the most connected to what you are doing, it's probably one area where we've partnered the most is, is on entrepreneurship. So would love to just hear your perspective, because you do sit in a unique chair of since you've been here since 2017. What are you seeing happening in that ecosystem?

Nelson Peacock  11:31  
Well, a lot when I came here, from, from UC, I got to see what had happened with some of those institutions, and the impact of, of an institution of higher education, working with the business community inspiring entrepreneurs, you know, either from Berkeley in the Bay Area, or what happened at UC San Diego with the biotech industry, and really how those institutions engaged with the public. And one of the the main things, obviously, the attraction of talent here in providing that center, but it was the inspiration of students, and faculty that think that they could go out and change the world, they're going to get their degree in, whatever, but they're going to go change the world. And we saw that across the board. And, and, you know, and so when we got here, it was really interesting, I knew that the university was going to be one of these pillars that we needed to rely upon. And when I came in, it was around the same time, that Ross Devol came and started Heartland Forward, he had a background in Arkansas in the role of innovation and entrepreneurship, and, you know, institutions of higher education in that role. And so, you know, we really wanted to focus our members on that, and, you know, the the university really stood up, and really, you already had programs, and each of those have really grown them and developed them over the last five years. And I think it's important, not only for the institution, and the type of students you want to get here, and can get here, but also for the region, the type of region that we want to create with this kind of resilience economically. So, you know, I think both of those things are really important, you know, and the kind of faculty member that wants to do research that wants to commercialize, I think that creates, in my view, kind of a well rounded institution, a well rounded region, well rounded state. And I think and hope that we're going to continue to grow those programs, strengthen those relationships between the university and the business community, and continue to, to do our part, I think, to help ensure that, that the University of Arkansas can be the best that it can be. And then that turns around and makes the state the best that it can be.

Brent Williams  13:52  
I couldn't agree more, you know, when I think about our our students, some almost 9,000 of them currently, you know, I think what what our objective really is in the Walton College is to input or develop maybe is the is the better term, an entrepreneurial, innovative mindset, you know, and then those students, right, there's going to be in our region in our state, and companies everywhere, you know, some are going to start companies immediately, some are going to spend their whole career in large enterprises. But when they do that, you know, they can cause those enterprises to grow and morph and be resilient of their own. Some will start in those enterprises and then come out and and start their own businesses. So, but it's this, it's this group of students that I think that really are going to be fuel for the future.

Nelson Peacock  14:42  
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, for the college when you look at what you've done in supply chain over the years, I mean, those are problems that these large enterprises and small are facing every single day. And to have a set of students with that skill set and an innovative mindset is really is a significant value add of these companies to start ups, you know, across the board.

Brent Williams  15:06  
Not too long ago, I got to attend a lunch that the Council put on that was really focused on trying to get trying to get, I guess, venture capital, private equity firms to the region and investing in firms that are starting to grow here. Can you talk a little bit about how you see the capital landscape evolving, and maybe even your role in it?

Nelson Peacock  15:30  
Sure, you know, as you know, and I don't know if the listeners know, but over the last, I don't know, five years, there have been a lot of there's been a lot of focus on accelerators and incubators. And coming out of the university, the Walton Family Foundation has played an instrumental part in setting up these programs to help the formation of young companies. And we need that that's a priority. But we've also found at the same time that that, you know, if they don't get that very early stage capital, you know, after they've been to friends and family, but kind of the seed round, you know, those companies are either going to fall off and they're these individuals are going to go work somewhere else, or they're going to take their company, wherever that funder is, or asks them to go. And so that'd be the worst case scenario for us is to spend time and effort, incubating entrepreneurs here, getting their ideas out starting a company, and then having to go somewhere else. And so we all know that outside of a couple places on the coast venture capital, especially early stage is difficult to come by. And so what we've started at the council, we're not investors, obviously. But we have been trying to and have started to focus on firms in and around the heartland, primarily because there is a coastal bias on what those types of venture capitalists see is happening in Arkansas, or other states. So places like Tulsa, places like Houston, Dallas Fort Worth, Austin, St. Louis, there's a lot of venture capital firms there. And we're trying to shine a spotlight on what's happening in Northwest Arkansas, at the University and beyond. And so, and just basically curating visits for them. And this was part of the luncheon that you went to, let's make it as easy as possible for these firms to come here experience Northwest Arkansas, and meet companies that we think are investable, and you know, if they meet their thesis, you know, that's going to be great. Let's get them coming back, it may not happen after one trip or two. But we're going to try to do that quarterly, where we kind of curate these visits from these investors. And so far, we've done two. And they've been blown away with not only the region and the way it's developing and growing and the vision for the future, but also the quality of startups that are here. And for them, they can get this at a discount of what the same company would be if it were located in the Bay Area. So that's exciting for us. We're looking for some of these relationships to bear fruit. The university is obviously been key to that. When you combine that with all the programming that you all do, you know, I think we're really going to see a lot of growth in this space over the next couple of years.

Brent Williams  18:20  
Yeah, you can feel it. And just at least at that one meeting, you could feel the the excitement, the exuberance about the region, some that had never been here before that just were totally blown away. 

Nelson Peacock  18:32  
Yeah. Yeah. 

Brent Williams  18:34  
Well, as you as you start to look forward for the council working with with all of your members, what are some of the things that that you're working on as you're going into the future? And then, you know, some of the things you're excited about for the region?

Nelson Peacock  18:48  
Yeah, I think you know, what we've been doing. And we talked about this two years ago, when we released our strategic plan, basically said, we're kind of at this inflection point for the region for the last, let's say, 20 years of the council's existence is been, whatever, what can we do to grow, grow, grow, grow, let's get the road built, let's get the airport built. Let's get the workforce programs, let's keep continue to grow as fast as we can. And that is, by and large worked. We are one of the fastest growing regions in the country. And we're going to continue to be as we talked about the population projections. But at the same time, we're at an inflection point. And so we have to continue to do that. We have to continue to support entrepreneurs, recruit companies, diversify the strengthen the economy, but we're also don't want to lose quality of life. We don't want to have what happened to some other places. Let's take an Austin for example. A lot of people there feel like Austin lost it's character that people loved about it, you know, 20 years ago along the way now, it's a different place and a lot of people love it, others not so much. I think for us, it's like how do we preserve what people like about it now? And of course, it's going to change. But what people like about it now is, it's easy to get around. It's a slower pace of life in it that you don't have a lot of hassle factor, you know, you can get to pick up your children from school, or you can, you know, get from Bentonville to Fayetteville in 15, 20 minutes. How can we maintain that? How can our nurses our firefighters our teachers, can they live in the community where they serve, and if you go to, like, we lived in the Bay Area, teachers would have to commute two hours to get to their job. And that's just really the way I think about it, there's just really no way you would want to live your life. And it's not what we want, here. And so how do we handle the growth actually continue to stimulate that growth, but also handle the infrastructure needs, the housing needs, that will help preserve the character of Northwest Arkansas? 

Brent Williams  20:58  
Well, it is a wonderful place to live. And, you know, one thing I get to do, I get to meet a lot of prospective students and their families and, you know, get to tell them about not only what's great about the Walton College and University, but what a place to live for these four years and start your career. And, you know, just the overall set of opportunities for our students, both quality of life while they're here, career opportunities is like I just maybe couldn't even imagine when I was first time I was here in 2004.

Nelson Peacock  21:30  
Yeah, yeah. Well, when I left in 98, or whatever it was, there weren't really that many opportunities here in the same way. And that's what we want is a region and as a state and when you attract students here, in state out of state, whatever, we need to keep them here, 

Brent Williams  21:49  
That's right. 

Nelson Peacock  21:50  
And that is a function of, I think, their experience here and what they grow to love here, but also the opportunities that they have, and we have to do both.

Brent Williams  21:59  
That's right. Well, you've had a kind of switching back to a maybe almost where we started. So we started with your background. And it's it's quite very, you know, you know, you spent time in DC, around the political ecosystem, you've been in higher ed, you're now in economic development, you know, so I might get you to think about our students, you know, that are beginning, you know, the next phase of their life, kind of what have you, what have you learned by moving throughout your career, and any just lessons learned that you would share with them?

Nelson Peacock  22:36  
Well, I would say, you know, I am a jack of all trades and master of none really, you know, when I look at our different work streams, whether it's housing or health care, or economic development, I'm not I'm not an expert in any of those. But I think what I've learned to do over my career, and I think this is the lesson for anyone is, you know, I was very lucky growing up, or I did, I learned to be a very, pretty good writer. So I can communicate with people I learned over time, how to be comfortable with who I am, and not try to be someone else. If I'm not an expert. And I know this is really, really hard for me when I was young and moved to DC. How do you admit what you don't know? So you can seek that knowledge and get it in for yourself without just pretending that you don't and, you know, when Joe Biden was a senator and I worked for him, he taught me a lesson about people's positions. And like, you know, there is a and this is particularly instructive now, is like, you know, if someone takes a position, whether it's political or whatever, that's opposite of yours, you should never assume bad intent on their part. Because you don't you don't know where they're coming from. And he tells a story. I forget, I think I was some senator from North Carolina, maybe. But at some point, when Senator Biden was a young senator, they wanted to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act at the time. So this was, I don't know, early 80s, late 70s. He had just gotten there. And there was a powerful senator from North Carolina that wanted that opposed it and was blocking it. So Senator Biden then ascribed all this, ill intent toward that he doesn't know he doesn't care where, the other senator was just saying, hey, you know, I don't believe the federal government should be doing this thing. So turns to find out that that senator has a disabled child that is in a wheelchair. And so it was totally his view was not about empathy for someone with this disability or condition. It was about the role of government as he saw it. And so that said, you know, he taught him a lesson about trying to work through issues and meeting people where they are. And he says that really helped him over time have all the legislative successes that he did have, because he tried to, tries to do that in every situation. So I would just say that story just as a way of, for your students, if they're facing a problem or challenge, like, don't take everything at superficial value, like dig in and figure out why someone is, you know, doing what they're doing or proposing what they're proposing, it's probably a really good reason that you need, whether you agree or not, it's different, but there's probably a really good reason why they are taking the position that they are. So I think that's really important, especially as you grow, and you get on a career path. You know, it's a small world, and the way you treat people in any situation is going to follow you, no matter what. I mean, I'm still working with people I met in Washington. You know, I met some in Boston the other day, and I needed I needed help from them. And because I, they always saw me someone that I treated them fairly, I was actually above them in the org chart. And now I need their help. Because I treated them the right way. They're willing to help.

Brent Williams  26:24  
Yeah, what some good lessons one, treat people around you well, 

Nelson Peacock  26:29  

Brent Williams  26:30  
But then two that first, the first thing you said, I think is really important as well, particularly, you're right, particularly when you're early career, you know, you feel this need to prove yourself, but sometimes proving yourself is, you know, being willing to say what you don't know, but that you are wanting and willing to learn. And that learning mindset is something that is important for all of us in a future that is going to require learning more than ever before.

Nelson Peacock  26:57  
Yeah. And if you have a mentor at your work, or wherever that person wants to help me or they wouldn't be in that role. So you know, be willing to ask.

Brent Williams  27:11  
Well, Nelson, thanks for the work that you're doing in Northwest Arkansas and in our state and, and for the partnership with the University of Arkansas and the Walton College. I deeply appreciate it.

Nelson Peacock  27:22  
Thanks for having me.

Brent Williams  27:25  
On behalf of the Walton College thank you for joining us for this captivating conversation. To stay connected and never miss an episode. Simply search for be epic on your preferred podcast service.