OAKES, N.D. — Rebecca Undem doesn't believe the size of a person's life is determined by the size of their zip code.

Simply put, Undem believes many people can achieve their career and life goals, regardless of whether they live in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area or a rural community like Oakes.

Undem is the founder of Growing Small Towns, a nonprofit "that helps small towns in southeast North Dakota be a place people love to call home."

She didn't always feel that way. Undem admits she initially felt a sense of shame when she returned to her hometown of Oakes in 2009 after a brief career in banking.

"I felt a bit of shame like I had not made it in Fargo and only people who can't make it move home," Undem said. "It's not like anyone told me that, but nobody told me I could make it here. That's a story we need to take back," she said.

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Undem is currently renovating and converting the former Ben Franklin store in Oakes, once owned by her grandparents, into a multi-purpose training, co-working and event facility. She'll unveil the space July 29 when she leads a Rural Resources Road Trip to Oakes and the surrounding communities. Undem has chartered a bus and invited business leaders from Fargo-Moorhead to join her to see what her community has to offer and to talk about the benefits of urban-rural collaboration.

The road home

After earning a degree in business administration from North Dakota State University, Undem accepted a position with a small community bank.

"I wouldn't say banking was any sort of passion. I got out of school and I needed a job with benefits," Undem said. "But it was good. I actually liked it."

When her husband, Jeremiah, got a job in Montana, Undem went to work for a "big box" bank.

"I thought, 'This will be great. I can scratch that corporate itch and there will be all this room to move up,'" she said. "But I just felt like a cog in the wheel of a really, really big machine and I hated it. I truly hated it."

When the couple returned to Fargo a year later, Undem said she knew she was done with banking. Instead, she reached out to Tonya Stende, then co-owner of the local Dale Carnegie franchise, and started down the path of becoming a facilitator.

Then came an unexpected call from her mother, Jean Rodine.

Rodine had plans to start a seasonal pumpkin patch on the family farm and invited Undem to join her on a trip to Madison, Wis., to purchase merchandise for the accompanying gift shop.

By the time they returned, they had hatched a plan for Undem to return to Oakes to help run the business.

They had a plan for Jeremiah as well. Undem's father is a fourth-generation farmer without a fifth to carry on his legacy, so Jeremiah agreed to move back home to learn the ropes.

In addition to helping run the pumpkin patch, Undem continued working for Dale Carnegie.

After sharing the stage with motivational speaker Renee Rongen at an On the Minds of Moms event, Undem said her career path took another turn. Rongren agreed to help Undem transition from corporate training to public speaking.

"That was when I really kind of started getting into speaking for rural communities and I wrote my book 'How Mommy Got Her Groove Back,'" she said.

Undem got involved with her local economic development board and served as president of the Oakes Chamber of Commerce. What she soon noticed was that both organizations were very insular.

"You need to be introduced to and exposed to new ideas" in order to innovate, Undem said. "Everyone says that small towns are small-minded and I don't know that that's really it. It's that they don't know differently. If you don't leave the community much for work or otherwise, where are your new ideas going to come from?"

"I've always felt like our small town, we don't need a ton more people, but we need to unlock more of the potential and the capacity of the people who live here," she continued.

Listen to Undem's Growing Small Towns podcast here.

Undem began to dream of establishing an organization to help that happen.

The answer to her dreams came in the form of a building on Main Street in Oakes once owned by her grandparents.

"My mom's parents ran a Ben Franklin store when I was a little girl. My mom worked there, so a lot of my elementary school and middle school memories are tied and wrapped up in that building," Undem said.

When she returned to Oakes, Undem felt drawn to the building that had sat mostly empty in recent years.

"It kind of started to become a thing where I'd go for a run in the morning, and I'd run onto Main Street and I'd run right by it," she said. "I'd think, 'She belongs to me. I'm supposed to do something with that space.'"

In 2019, she formed Growing Small Towns and began the process of acquiring the building to house its headquarters as well as a multi-purpose training, co-working and event facility.

Rebecca Undem, of Growing Small Towns speaks at a StartupBREW event June 23 at the Scherling Tennis Court Complex in Island Park. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Rebecca Undem, of Growing Small Towns speaks at a StartupBREW event June 23 at the Scherling Tennis Court Complex in Island Park. Chris Flynn / The Forum

The three pillars

Undem said when she established Growing Small Towns, she wanted it to rest on three pillars:

Promoting entrepreneurship and small business development. "It's about growing our own mom-and-pop, locally-owned stores. It's not about one giant employer anymore. It's just not sustainable for our small towns," Undem said.

Celebrating art and culture: "I think art creates community. That's something I really want to highlight," she said.

People development: "I think my personal mission is to encourage people to steward their gifts well. ... I really just try to encourage people. I don't care if you monetize it. That's not the point. I want people to have pride in what it is they do," she said.

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Convincing the naysayers

Undem admits not everyone shares her vision.

"A lot of people resist me and my ideas and what we're trying to do, but I really want to be a bridge between the past and the future," Undem said.

She said she's been very intentional about honoring those who helped grow and build her community.

"I really want to hold space for the people who are veterans of this community and welcome them into the conversation," she said. "Thinking too much about what's to come is kind of scary for them. .... You can't come in and say 'We're going to change everything.' It will never work because you'll have such resistance. I'm all about trying to show people what's possible."

She also needs to convince stakeholders in Fargo.

"I'm really trying to articulate through this organization that it's not just about rural North Dakota, but about the partnership between our bigger cities and the outlying communities near them. Fargo needs us as well," she said.

Justin Neppl, executive director of the Southern Valley Economic Development Authority (SVEDA) based in Wahpeton, N.D., believes in Undem and her mission.

They share the philosophy that "a rising tide raises all ships."

"That's been my philosophy down here in the southern valley. I look to our friends in Fergus Falls. We're not going to grow here apart from Fergus. Fergus is not going to contract and all the sudden we're going to grow. That's not going to happen. And that's her mentality over in Oakes. It's a little bit of a different situation there, but it's all the same issues."

He's excited to see what Growing Small Towns can accomplish.

"It's just a startup. It will be nice to see where things go in the next year, next three or five years," he said. "If she can keep the steam and passion with it and can bring people along with her vision, she's a big thinker and she can make things happen."

The Rural Resource Roundtrip will include a Rural Resource Roundtable from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 29 at the Growing Small Towns headquarters at 510 Main Ave. in Oakes. Lunch will be served. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP by calling 701-799-1115 or email director@growingsmalltowns.org.