Rural America and the Reframing of Opportunity

  • Elizabeth Cameron
  • VP of Client Engagements, Free Range
Elizabeth and her husband in rural Humboldt

Growing Up In a Small Town
Growing up in a small town of 30,000 people, in a county of less than 350,000, I always felt the need to get out. I was told again and again that there wasn’t any opportunity for me at home, and everything around me seemed to indicate that this was true. Crime rates had been increasing steadily, unemployment was rising, and there wasn’t a single booming industry in sight. Plus, I was already growing tired of small town politics, the lack of diversity, and a sense of isolation that seemed to preclude any exploration of other cultures.

Escaping to the Big City
And so I left. At first just by taking international trips during the summer whenever I could, and then by choosing to go to college across the country in the big city of Boston. I thrived on the knowledge I was gaining on all levels: cultural, academic, social. I was being challenged on a daily basis, and it felt like my mind was constantly expanding. I felt truly alive.

Facing the “Now What?”
And then, I graduated. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but from that moment on I was trapped in a cycle of “now what?” How do I continue to explore and learn and challenge myself while simultaneously needing to get a real job to pay the bills? While trying to help my high school sweetheart, now husband, achieve his dreams? While commuting three hours a day? Essentially, how do I find passion in my day to day? And as I worked to find the right solution to satisfy all of these questions, I found myself still asking, “now what?”

Deciding on the Impossible
Despite my inability to answer that question, I had still never considered moving back home to be an option. I was confident that was not the answer. So when my husband brought up the idea of doing so, I was pretty reluctant. What will I do? What about my dreams? Won’t I be bored? But, after much discussion, a great job offer for my husband, and the gracious offer from Free Range to allow me to work remotely, we decided to make the move.

Reframing Opportunity
While everything seemed to be going well, I was still terrified. What if working remotely doesn’t go well? Will I be stuck in a small town with nothing interesting to do? As my husband and I grappled with my questions, he asked me a question of his own:

What if you thought about what you can offer this community instead of what it can offer you?

As I replayed those words in my mind, I got more excited than I had in a longtime. My definition of opportunity had shifted.

Now, I realize that my ability to have an impact in the here and now is likely greater in my hometown, than it would be anywhere else. Not because the problems my hometown faces are smaller or simpler than those of the big cities, but because there are less people looking to solve them. I now see that it is a privilege to be able to ask “now what?” and that the only way I will ever come close to satisfying my hunger is by reframing opportunity as what I can offer instead of what I can get.

Realizing I’m Not Alone
And I’m not alone. The data shows that large cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago are seeing a mini-exodus as people leave for cheaper places to live that still offer quality jobs. When you combine this trend with the desire of many millennials to be social entrepreneurs, we have an incredible opportunity to help transform previously declining communities.

Some such communities are working to capitalize on this moment by launching boomerang efforts aimed at incentivizing young professionals to return home. Investors are also starting to look to new regions. J.D. Vance, a principal at Mithril Capital Management LLC and author of Hillbilly Elegy, recently moved home to Ohio to help expand Revolution LLC’s Rise of the Rest initiative. The initiative invests in promising startups outside of Silicon Valley and New York with a goal of increasing prosperity across the country.

Joining Together
With this new opportunity rising, I bring us back to the question my husband asked me: what can you offer your community?

I’d love to hear your answers and collaborate as we each work to better the places we call home. Feel free to email me at elizabeth@freerange.com or give me a call at (510) 883-3944.