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Is the middle the new edge?

The extremes have defined us for too long

We live in a nation where public discourse is increasingly strident and whose loudest voices are typically at the extremes. Yet we are by nature a more moderate nation, and it’s time to reclaim the middle ground.

The middle ground is too often dismissed as unremarkable, when it is truly necessary. The middle should be appreciated as an admirable place to be – where people work together to solve big problems and move our nation forward.

We often think of leaders and innovators as uncommon people with exceptional skills. Always the contrarian, our founder, Ewing Marion Kauffman, referred to himself as a “common man who did uncommon things.” To this view, “middleness” is not a liability; it’s an asset.

Middle is the New Edge Videos

Wendy Guillies, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, discusses what it means to be in “the middle” in a Sketchbook (left) and TEDx Fargo video.

What is “Middleness”?

Middleness is not about geography. It exists in the Midwest and on the coasts. It’s a state of mind, an approach, a way to break through the logjam caused by extremes. Stereotypes like “flyover country” and “vanilla” no longer apply to those who live in and approach life from the middle. There are a few key attributes.

Middleness is practical. Instead of buying into some magic-bullet philosophy or technology to save the world, we’re interested in what works—which is often a mixture of many approaches.

Middleness is humble. Instead of doing flashy, provocative things, we first listen to the communities we serve and encourage others to create solutions with us.

In this time of extremes in our country, that’s a crucial quality. And research backs this up: According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the ideal leaders are people who can foster learning and collaboration in challenging times.

Middleness is resilient. We don’t blame others for our problems, or get defeated by setbacks. Instead of making excuses, we try to make it better. Former President Teddy Roosevelt, who made the Dakotas his second home, said it best: “Do what you can, with what you have, from where you are.”

Can “Middleness” Work?

4 out of 5

metro areas with the highest percentage of companies financed by successful crowdfunding platforms are in the middle of the country.

6 out of 10

metro areas with the biggest jump in entrepreneurial activity are in the middle of the country.

There’s evidence that this spirit is re-emerging in a new, powerful way. Not coincidentally, it’s happening in the middle of the country, where “middleness” is especially appreciated.

Of the 10 metro areas with the biggest jumps in entrepreneurial activity last year, six are in the middle of the country. Of the five metro areas with the highest percentage of companies financed by successful crowdfunding platforms, four are in the middle of the country. The city with the highest percentage of women-owned businesses is Denver, Colorado. Entrepreneur recently ranked The 25 Best Cities for Entrepreneurs. Ten were in the Midwest—two more than the West.

Why is this important? Because studies show that startups punch way above their weight when it comes to creating jobs, innovation and opportunity in our economy. Most net job creation in America comes from firms less than five years old.

Bottom line: A robust startup environment in the middle is good news for the entire economy.

Startups in the Middle

Startups don’t need to be tech or super sexy to be successful. In fact, they can be downright dirty. Take the example of Fin Gourmet Foods.

The Mississippi River watershed is having trouble with an invasive species of fish called Asian carp. Asian carp are quite different from our common carp—and turns out, they also taste good. So Vietnamese immigrant Lula Luu started a company in Paducah, Kentucky to solve this problem.

Fin Gourmet contracts with people to fish for Asian carp, hires unemployed individuals to do the processing, and sells a variety of fish products—creatively branded as Kentucky Blue Snapper—to restaurants and consumers.

As a result, they’re turning an environmental issue into an industry, putting people to work, and reducing our reliance on imported foods.

Do you want more good news? This momentum from the middle goes beyond starting companies. People are coming together to solve problems in other interesting ways.

Like in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a high-school teacher and local citizens decided to do something about the fact that our education system is out of touch with modern realities.

So they started the Iowa BIG School, a new public high school built around an entirely different model. BIG School students spend a lot of their time working on real-world projects to develop real-world solutions, such as using advanced technology to create a virtual-reality display for a history museum and improving inventory flow at a local distribution company. One student worked with a mentor in the garment industry to design clothing for women who aren’t shaped like fashion models. Other students are working with architects and engineers on city-planning issues.

It’s time to embrace “middleness.” It’s time to focus on accomplishment rather than attention; to solve our nation’s problems rather than simply raise its decibel levels.

A grounded, practical, collaborative approach is increasingly what our nation needs. The middle is the new edge that can give our nation a crucial advantage in the 21st century.

EshipCity: Zero Barriers Movement

When Victor Hwang, vice president of Entrepreneurship, came to the Kauffman Foundation, it became very clear to him that there was a renewal happening in the heartland.

Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.

The Midwest mindset sets the structure for business measurement and becomes an attractive beacon to venture capitalists who like to put their money toward winners.

How are Silicon Valley’s latest Collaborative Economy startups stacking up to Midwestern values of strong work ethic, modest integrity and helping others?

Neither pushing our kids to excel in activities nor being mostly hands-off will result in happy, balanced children who have enough internal motivation and strong character to thrive in the 21st century’s fast-paced, dynamic environments.

Middle-class prosperity is a signature of American society. It has made America the most hopeful and dynamic country on earth and it is a foundation of strong democracy. Yet today, America’s middle class is in trouble.

The “unsexy” ideas brewing in places across the Midwest are solving real problems and providing new economic opportunities. One example is Fin Gourmet Foods, a company that has taken invasive Asian carp and created a new American industry.

What Do You Think?

We’d like to know what you think about the middle ground. In what ways can you start to incorporate the values of “middleness” in the work you do and the life you live? How can we be better at listening to and understanding each other, solving problems and building solutions?