This Month’s Q & A: September 2021
Ashley Wardlow, Executive Director,
Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit,
Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce
“IN OUR RAPIDLY changing world, we are all technologists.” That’s the theme line for this fall’s eighth iteration of the NWA Tech Summit, the increasingly high-profile project of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. We sat down with the Summit’s Executive Director, Ashley Wardlow, as she wrapped up preparations for the October 17-20 hybrid event, the second Summit under her leadership.
I want to start by asking how an English major came to be Executive Director of the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit. Please indulge me: I don’t get to interview many fellow English majors for this newsletter.
Oh, gosh, that’s a longer trajectory than I care to admit to. I’ll give you the condensed but complete version. I had an opportunity to go to a wonderful college, a very small liberal arts school on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, called Agnes Scott College. It was the perfect fit for me. I studied English literature specifically and did a lot of creative writing and really enjoyed nonfiction writing and poetry, of all things. My poor parents—my mom was a certified financial planner at the time, and my dad is a Math major from Arkansas Tech who’s spent his whole career in banking. I’m their only child.
And they were going, “Where have we failed?”
[Laughs] To their credit, they didn’t bat an eye. They were so supportive. So I graduated, and my joke has always been that the most creative part of that creative-writing focus was figuring out how I was going to make a living.
Fortunately, coming from a liberal arts education, I knew I had a core skill set that could serve me well. I had educators in my family, but I also knew that I didn’t have the personal passion for teaching that students deserve from an educator. So I went into publishing, and my very first job was at a company in the Bay Area in California.
The publisher was called Thompson Wadsworth, which is exactly as sexy a name as that industry deserves. It was a textbook publishing company, and I was an assistant editor. Most of my team was actually located on the opposite side of the country, in Boston, and I spent a lot of time printing out manuscripts to send to members of the team. It was a great adventure, and I loved the Bay Area. I would advise any young person who grew up in a small town to go try out a big city when you’re just starting out. That’s the time to do it.
But it was a long way from home. And besides that, I eventually discovered that sitting at a desk all day studiously marking up manuscripts just wasn’t me. I was too social—I wanted human interaction. So I tried the opposite side of the publishing industry, the sales side, and that brought me to Texas. All of a sudden, I was a little closer to my family in central Arkansas, and that was a huge deal.
So how did the sales side go?
I worked for Pearson Higher Education in Tyler, Texas, and I was really surprised to discover that I had an aptitude for sales. I enjoyed meeting people and talking with them about what they loved doing every day, and then seeing if I had a solution for them that could make what they did even better or easier, or, ideally, both. That was very rewarding work for me.
But I made the mistake that a lot of young people make—I didn’t have any sense of a work/life balance. I was working absurd hours, and obviously there was a lot of travel involved. Finally, I got to a place where I thought: Could I take this same skill set and apply it to the benefit of something bigger than just my bottom line, or the bottom line of the company I’m working for?
Around that time, my parents moved to Northwest Arkansas, and this corner of the state had never been on my radar—I’d never even visited. Now my parents started saying, “This is an incredible part of Arkansas. You’ve got to come visit us and see what’s happening here.” This was in 2010 or 2011.
So I came up to visit and was blown away. There was an energy in Northwest Arkansas that I hadn’t seen or felt anywhere I’d lived before, in big cities or in small towns, and I wanted to be a part of that. It was also really attractive to be closer to my family, so in 2012 I checked the good-daughter box and moved to Northwest Arkansas.
Did you have a job when you moved?
I was really fortunate. I’d been successful enough in sales that I had a cushion, and went to work for my parents for a time. My mom runs an insurance agency, so she needed someone to come help with her book of business. I also think that my parents understood, even before I did, that I was looking at making a change, and that getting me up to Northwest Arkansas could be a good opportunity for that.
So I started by working for my family, and that gave me time to set up informational interviews with some of the folks who’re in the nonprofit community up here. By then, I had figured out that there were transferable skills between good sales and nonprofit fundraising, and I wanted to bring those skills to the table in service of an organization that was doing good work up here.
I connected with the United Way of Northwest Arkansas, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to this region. I got to know the community of nonprofits up here intimately and to understand just how generous Northwest Arkansas is. It was a fabulous first dip into nonprofit fundraising, putting me right in that sweet spot of getting to meet new people, learn what they’re passionate about, and then see how I could help them advance the work they were doing toward their own mission. That’s always been a through-line for me.
I was at United Way for about three years. While I was there, I connected with a mentor who worked at Crystal Bridges, and we would meet once a month and talk about art and family and, of course, work. Then one day when I messaged her about getting together for coffee, she wrote back, saying, “I’m looking forward to it, too; also want to talk to you about a position that we have here.” As someone who’d moved to NWA right after Crystal Bridges opened, I was thrilled at the thought of being part of that institution.
My career is maybe best summed up as falling into exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, by grace or good fortune or some combination of both. At Crystal Bridges, I got to work with and learn from my mentor, Sandy Edwards, who’s had a long and storied career in the Northwest Arkansas nonprofit community. She’s well known for the amazing work she did as a fundraiser alongside her husband, Clay Edwards, for the University of Arkansas. Sandy is also a tremendous role model and has been very generous with her time to generations of fundraisers who’ve come up through the ranks. At the museum, we all joked that we wanted to grow up and be Sandy Edwards.
I was on her team as a fundraiser for the museum. If United Way was all about many small grassroots gifts making a large impact, Crystal Bridges was an opportunity for me to be exposed to the opposite end of that spectrum. We were talking to people who felt strongly about the arts, and about the value of access to fine art to everyone.
For me, of course, the measure of my success was in raising funds to help advance the mission of the museum. But personally, I found joy in meeting people from all walks of life who were coming to Crystal Bridges, often for the very first time. If I could interact with them over lunch or on a tour and help them feel a sense of ownership of that place, then I counted that as a good day, a job well done.
How long were you at Crystal Bridges?
I was there about three and a half years, so a good amount of time. And I had always said it was going to take a special opportunity for me to look elsewhere. Then, totally by coincidence, I met Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Graham Cobb and his wife, Lisa, at a museum event where I was serving as a host on behalf of the museum. We had dinner together, and Graham and I talked about the work he was doing at the Chamber, which I’d been hearing about from my parents. My mom’s business is a member of the Bentonville Chamber, and she’d told me how impressed she was with the job Graham was doing, re-envisioning the work that a Chamber can do. So I had that impression already. Then, later, Graham approached me about an opportunity related to the Tech Summit.
If he had framed it as, “Hey, Ashley, this is an event; it needs an event planner;” I don’t know that I would’ve been captivated or tempted in the same way. But he has this vision and clarity of purpose around what the Tech Summit really could be—more than a mere event, it has the capacity to be a convening influence, bringing together a community of people, both in person and online, and helping them better understand what all there is in Northwest Arkansas that makes this such an extraordinary place to call home. And then when you add the thought leadership aspect to it, the idea of existing at the intersection of this warm community welcome and great dialog was just irresistible to me. I’ve never regretted the decision to make that leap. Not only did I inherit this event that has a fabulous reputation—2021 will be its eighth iteration—I also got this amazing committee of volunteers, all of whom are experts in their respective fields, and all of whom are deeply engaged not just with the work that we do at the Chamber and with the Tech Summit, but across the community.
What do you personally, with your particular background, bring to the Tech Summit?
Oh, gosh, that’s a good question. Candidly, first and foremost I am not a trained technologist, as you well know. It’s one of many reasons that I’m so grateful that we have this committee of volunteers, many of whom are trained technologists, many of whom are entrepreneurs, and many of whom are both. It’s a standing committee, and it has grown to more than 60 strong. They are the visionaries, they cast the vision for each year. They help us identify and understand the emerging trends that this audience is going to be excited by.
What I get to do is help them reach a consensus on what that vision is for the year. Then the real fun for me is executing on that vision. That’s not only where my strengths are, it’s where my joy is. Again, it gets back to this idea of talking with a person or a group of people about the thing they care most about, and then thinking creatively about how I can create a platform for that that builds it up, that highlights it, that amplifies it. That’s what the Tech Summit is all about.
It sounds like an Arkansas version of The Aspen Institute.
Yes, that’s exactly right. I couldn’t have put it better myself. And this is where I get to thank my alma mater for that liberal arts education, because we get to think on a much higher, more macro level. One of the things we’re excited about this year is how technology—as it stands today, and as it’s being shaped for tomorrow—is positioned to help solve some of the most interesting challenges of our time.
Every year, that’s a different story. There’s always a new chapter that we get to tell. This year we’re really interested in how technology is accelerating things like access and inclusion, how it’s helping companies better understand and execute on these intangible ideas of equity, in real and actionable ways. It’s thrilling. We’ve also got a few different perspectives on emerging technologies regarding supply chains.
Tell me about some of the speakers you’re excited about this year.
That’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child, but I will say a couple of folks spring to mind. Jerry Geisler, who’s the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at Walmart, has agreed to speak. That’s really exciting, especially if you look back on the last six to nine months and consider how aware we’ve all become about the importance of cybersecurity and information security.
Another speaker will be Shelley Bransten of Microsoft. Her title is Corporate Vice President, Retail and Consumer Goods Industries, and she has responsibility for the parts of that business that have to do with the CPG sector—consumer packaged goods. When you think about this part of Arkansas, with Walmart and Tyson, to have someone coming in who’s so strong in topics like retail tech and e-commerce—Shelley Bransten is a rock star, and we’re thrilled to have her.
Also, Craig Harper with J. B. Hunt is going to talk about commercial fleets and the question I’m sure he gets every day, which is, “Why don’t you just make all those trucks electric?” So Craig will unpack the nuances of that from an enterprise-business perspective. Then as a bookend, a different perspective, we’ve got a panel of speakers who’re all start-up founders, and they’re working in the space of emerging drone and airdrop technology. It’s just the coolest thing.
Two other ones I want to give a shout out to: Venture Noire is an incredible organization built to advance and accelerate the success of black entrepreneurs. They’re based here in Northwest Arkansas, and they do phenomenal work. They’ll actually be curating for us a keynote address and then four subsequent breakouts that are all designed to get at how we make entrepreneurship equitable. I’m thrilled to have them onboard. I could go on and on, but the last one, Endeavor Northwest Arkansas, has been a long-term supporter of the Summit. They’re working on bringing some really exciting speakers to the floor under the mantle of emerging trends in entrepreneurship. That’s one to watch, as well.
I would be remiss if I didn’t pause here to say that one of the coolest things we get to do, because of our sponsors, is to provide complimentary access for educators, for administrators, for students, for entrepreneurs. That reflects the Chamber’s and the Tech Summit’s commitment to inclusion, and it’s something we’re empowered to do through the support of our sponsors.
When we talked earlier, you mentioned three ongoing “core commitments” that the Tech Summit will always meet. Tell us about those.
The first thing you can always expect from us is a commitment to bringing the very best in thought leadership to the table, whether that’s in person or virtually. We hope to continue to grow the in-person presence of our speakers and our attendees as things get back to normal. But at the risk of sounding glib, one of the silver linings that we discovered when we went virtual last year was that those presentations get to live on. So we’ll actually be able to make access available to them for another 12 months.
The second pillar that we’re always going to be committed to is creating that experiential welcome. The incorporation of virtual into what had previously been an all in-person event really challenged us to raise the bar. But beginning in 2020, when we were all virtual, and now in 2021, when we’re hybrid, we’ve come up with some new and dynamic ways to engage audiences, whether they’re in the room with us or watching from their couches from California to Maine. That’s exciting to me.
The third thing you’re always going to see from us is a Tech Summit that’s more and more inclusive, and more and more representative. We hope to outpace the tech industry, and we do that in a few ways already. Our committee has more female representation than the tech industry average, but our work isn’t finished. We’re conscious of this ongoing commitment starting with who’s at the table as we begin to plan, then who we’re positioning as that thought leader who’s leading the conversation, how we’re creating access for our audience, and how we’re welcoming people in and demonstrating to them that the Tech Summit specifically, and the community of Northwest Arkansas more broadly, are welcoming places for everybody. We want everyone to know that this is a big tent, and we want them here.