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Penny Lewandowski

Penny Lewandowski

Founder, Change at the Edges; former Vice President, Edward Lowe Foundation

Deeply engaged in the economic development benefits of building entrepreneurship communities, Penny Lewandowski believes today’s challenges have been here all along, and the makers and doers of the world will champion necessary changes.

Q: Why is now the time, and what do we “double-down” on to leverage this moment to take strides for long-lasting change?

Far too often we wait for chaos to drive change. We’re comfortable, so we convince ourselves, our employees, our board, our community, that change will fit somewhere in our future. “We’ll start this project next year. We’ll broaden our scope to include other communities in the next strategic plan. We’ll stick our neck out once we’ve become established.” And then it hits. An event like a pandemic, a major company leaving the area, increased crime, or racial unrest brings our challenges to the forefront. They’ve been there all along, but something causes one or all of them to explode. And we wish we hadn’t waited.

If you believe change happens in the midst of chaos, then this is your time. Now more than ever, waiting is perilous. This is our time to build sustainable partnerships with those who are willing to put themselves on the line to ensure opportunities are equitable and lasting. Our work to create the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) Entrepreneurship Development Professional certification is a first step. In these courses, attendees are challenged to look outside the realm of traditional economic development to ensure individuals, regardless of who they are or what they look like, have not just the opportunity to start a business, but the infrastructure and support to be successful. These individuals will change the face of their community. Change is in the wind, and I am convinced we will make a difference.

Q: For real systems change to happen, how must perspectives, and how we approach the economy and education, shift to meet the needs of an inclusive, equitable economy?

We are more equipped to drive change when we become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We are more equipped to drive change when we become comfortable with being uncomfortable. And to many, accepting the fact that life is not a level playing field is excruciatingly uncomfortable. There are just too many unknowns. Too many unanswered questions. My Grandmother Says to Tell You She’s Sorry is a book about an eccentric granny. In a fairytale she created for her granddaughter, she says, “Sometimes the safest place is when you flee to what seems the most dangerous.” Then she described how the prince rode right into the darkest forest and the shadows stopped – hissing at the edge. For not even they were sure what might be lurking on the other side of the trees, and nothing scares anyone more than the unknown.

When we become at peace with the unknown, with being uncomfortable, we are inclined to not only work with those who are different than us, but to begin looking differently at ourselves. Our biggest risk is staying the same. This will not be a simple task for traditional thinkers and lovers of hierarchy. But it will be a wish come true for the dreamers and doers who have been waiting for their day.

Q: Where do you find hope in the work, conversations, and shifts you see happening, and how does that shape your thinking?

While we are besieged nationally with the sensationalism of our differences, we find hope in the network of our local communities. More often than not, that hope comes not from the top down, but from the fringes. Seth Godin’s philosophy about change drove me to name my company, “Change at the Edges.”

Our biggest risk is staying the same.

“At any gathering of people, from a high school assembly to the General Assembly at the United Nations (UN), from a conference to a rehearsal at the orchestra, the really interesting conversations and actions almost always happen around the edges.

If you could eavesdrop on the homecoming queen or the sitting prime minister, you’d hear very little of value. These folks think they have too much to lose to do something that feels risky, and everything that’s interesting is risky.

Change almost always starts at the edges and moves toward the center.”Seth Godin

I find hope at the edges. From those in our communities who are used to the attention and those who are not. Our hope is not found in a blank canvas, but in an existing community canvas that comes with space to blend new shapes and colors.

Inspiration curation: Share who or what you look to for inspiration.

Fifteen months ago, I was in a near-fatal car accident. From the time I was fully cognizant, my hope and inspiration were driven by gratitude. My sister, Debbie, and brother-in-law, Elmer, left their home for six months to stay in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while I was recuperating. Their selflessness inspires me to this day. My niece, Michelle, dropped everything to come be with me. My partner, Vin, inspired me with his own recovery, cheerleading, and love. Surgeons, doctors, nurses, and physical therapists worked miracles. My network of colleagues and dear friends lifted me up over and over every single day. It changed me. Never have I been so driven to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. And never have I been so grateful.

I encourage you to let gratefulness be the inspiration in everything you do. To let the little victories give you the courage and faith to keep moving toward what too many will tell you are unattainable goals. This work is seldom easy. But piece by piece, person by person, it will change the world. And for that I am grateful.

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