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Sparking Connections and Creativity

University of Iowa grads Andy Stoll and Amanda Styron spent the past few years learning what makes communities everywhere work.

For Stoll, this meant a four-year trip around the world, living and working in 40 countries. For Styron, it meant joining urban theorist Richard Florida and the Knight Foundation on projects to develop mid-size cities across the country.

Now they’re applying their experience back in Iowa, helping the region around Cedar Rapids and Iowa City establish its reputation as Iowa’s Creative Corridor.

“This is where I’m going to build my life,” says Styron. “It’s a chance to go big and stay home.”

Introducing people and ideas

It started with lot of coffee and a lot of conversation.

Stoll and Styron had met at the UI, where they and friends started a series of service- and arts-minded initiatives. In 2010, they’d both returned to Iowa plotting the next steps on their respective journeys.

Stoll had spent time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, watching new, small enterprises sprout from the storm’s wreckage. He wondered if the eastern Iowa floods of 2008 might provide a similar local catalyst.

Styron was looking for a chance to make a difference in a community she deeply cared about.

“I wanted to get back to doing the work of building something,” she says, “but I honestly didn’t know whether I would find that again.”

As they talked, Stoll and Styron realized the circumstances were right for something to take root.

“We’d seen a lot of the same things,” Stoll recalls. “Everywhere, we saw entrepreneurs who didn’t know each other working under the radar.” Their top goal: connect and inspire people pursuing new ideas, and provide the resources they need to succeed.

Together they founded Seed Here Studio, a social-good events and media company that connects eastern Iowa entrepreneurs, creative professionals, and innovators and cultivates a culture that supports people pushing the envelopes and raising the bars.

This focus on community-building made Seed Here the natural choice to lead a project that isn’t about snazzy taglines or bombastic ads, but about bringing together like-minded people around creativity and innovation, connecting with resources, and supporting each other.

Defining a region

While Stoll and Styron were planting seeds for grassroots growth, another group was engaged in a more formal process of charting the area’s potential.

The Corridor Business Alliance had established a Regional Branding Task Force to make a name for the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor area.

“The world has fundamentally changed—everyone can connect with anyone else authentically without the intervention of institutions,” says Chuck Peters, president and CEO of the Gazette Company. He co-chairs the task force with David Hensley, UI interim associate vice president for economic development, and John Lohman, publisher of the Corridor Business Journal.

By 2012, the task force had contracted research and chosen the regional moniker “Iowa’s Creative Corridor.” They brought in Stoll and Styron to build support and recognition, starting at home.

“Both Andy and Amanda bring the attitudes, skillsets, and connections to be effective in this world,” Peters says. “They have national and international connections with people who are making new things happen.”

Stoll and Styron began by doing what they do best—organizing talented people to lend a hand.

“We’re not a branding agency,” Styron explains, “so we looked for writers, designers, filmmakers, photographers, web developers, and others who could help.” The creative team they formed includes about a dozen local companies, including several run by other UI alumni.

Getting back to the roots

It isn’t the first time Stoll and Styron have helped unite people around a community-centered cause. Several of the projects they started as UI students in the early 2000s have become local institutions.

“All this began at the University of Iowa with the James Gang, originally about eight friends who sort of circled around the Honors Program,” Stoll recalls. “We were a group of people who had fun connecting and building things.”

The gang spawned a collection of projects, some of them—like the 10,000 Hours Show, Public Space One, and the Mission Creek Festival—still thriving today.

Stoll’s and Styron’s new projects are powered by the same ethos and energy, but draw on additional real-world experience.

Since teaming up again, the duo has helped found the Vault Coworking and Collaboration Space in downtown Cedar Rapids. They also were instrumental in creating StartupIowa, which provides networking and resources for entrepreneurs.

Talking together about their work, they tend to springboard off each other’s thoughts. Their personalities and perspectives complement each other, but they’re driven by common ideals.

“We’re opposites in some ways, but we value the same things—community, authenticity, collaboration, going big,” Stoll says. “We both aspire to live here, but have an impact nationally and globally. We were both formed by this place and by our experiences here.”

Creating here

Want to know what the Creative Corridor project and the region itself are all about? Look no further than the “We Create Here” campaign launched this spring.

Designed by fellow UI alumnus Nick Westergaard and his team at Brand Driven Digital, the campaign is predicated on the belief that corridor residents themselves are the region’s best ambassadors.

“This campaign is about letting people articulate why they love living here,” Styron says. “Nick’s idea was that we can be humble—we can have pride but be ourselves.”

Creating is all about building something new, and the region’s tight social networks give virtually anyone a chance to breathe life into an idea.

“It’s never been easier for people to create,” Stoll says. “You see it happening everywhere, especially here.” He and Stryon say they’re simply trying to tell the world about the reality of living and working in the corridor region.

“Our communities were already headed in these directions,” Stoll says. “This project just pours rocket fuel on that.”

For both Stoll and Stryon, the project is also another chance to give something back and to share the pride they can’t help feeling.

“Everything cool that ever happened to me came out of something in the corridor,” Stoll says. “My soul lives here, no matter where I am.”

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