NEA Women in Business: Graycen Bigger

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Graycen Bigger
NEA Regional Intermodal Authority Executive Director

Residence: Pocahontas
Education: B.A., journalism, Arkansas State University
Professional background: Prior to her work with Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority (NEARIFA), Bigger studied art in New York City and was a staff photographer at the Jonesboro Sun. She is also employed by Farmers and Merchants Bank and works in community development in four counties in Northeast Arkansas.

What was your dream job as kid and why?

My parents like to tell people that I went through a phase where I would say I wanted to either be a brain surgeon or work at Dairy Queen when I grew up, which is pretty funny. I always remember wanting to be in communications, though. A journalist was my dream job growing up.

What advice would you give young women who are at the beginning of their careers?

Having a strong work ethic and willingness to learn is more important than anything. You’re probably going to have a lot of jobs in the beginning that aren’t the dream, and that’s OK. Learn something from it, and find value in everything you do. It will make you more versatile in the long run.

Be honest and kind to everyone. People can sense genuine passion and want to work with others they can trust. We also live in a small state that is very connected. Building good relationships is so important.

What has been the most fulfilling moment of your career so far?

Working with four counties, there are several moments that stick out. The first big grant I got was to fix a city’s water system so homes wouldn’t flood after every rainstorm. Being able to solve a real problem like that with community members felt amazing.

Graycen Bigger.

The fact that people actually showed up for the first Arkansas Pie Festival was really fulfilling, especially because it was a fundraiser for STEAM education. We hit our anticipated number of attendees in the first hour … and we more than doubled our expectations. Having to scramble to find more pie to feed everyone was pretty cool.

I always feel fulfilled when other people realize how special our area really is. When Cherokee Village was recognized for its unique history and awarded an Our Town grant from the National Endowment of the Arts this year, that felt great. We had worked on that project for about two years.

There’s a real shift happening where people are leaving urban areas and relocating to rural communities right now because they can work remotely and get a better quality of life. The economies in more rural parts of Northeast Arkansas are stronger than they’ve been in many years, and they’re seeing new growth. I am excited about what’s happening and know the best is still to come.

What’s the next big personal or career challenge you plan to take on?

I started a new job at Farmers and Merchants Bank right before the pandemic hit and have been essentially working from home ever since. I am looking forward to being back in the office every day and learning as much as I can about community and business development from a banking industry perspective.

How do you spend your time away from work? What are your hobbies?

One of my favorite things my mom has always said is, “If work was fun, it would be called a hobby.” I’m lucky in the fact that my career has essentially been my hobby for the last several years. When we’re not working, though, my husband [Alex] and I really like to travel. I love art and culture, so we tend to plan trips around that … and great food, of course.

What is something distinctive people would be surprised to know about you?

I went to graduate school for art business in New York and spent time working in an auction house for a bit. That always seems to surprise people now. I wrote my grad thesis on Crystal Bridges [Museum of American Art in Bentonville] and its impact on Northwest Arkansas, though. That’s initially what made me want to come back to Arkansas.

What’s your biggest passion and why?

When I was younger, I thought I needed to leave the state to have the career and the life I wanted. When I came back to Arkansas, I became really passionate about rural development. I’m also really interested in education and arts and culture, as well. I think everyone and every community should have access to both those resources because they’re what make communities unique and vibrant.

Of all the mentors in your professional career, who has been the most influential and why?

I’ve had some great bosses, but Jonathan Rhodes has been the most influential mentor of my career. He was the first person who really gave me a chance to work and succeed in community development and has been a really supportive teammate through the past few years. He had a successful career in public policy and worked all over the world with the United Nations World Food Programme and gave it up to work be the community developer of his hometown in Cherokee Village. His dedication is 24/7, and that is infectious. He has really taught me to believe in the work and to just go for it, even if it doesn’t seem like the resources or support is there. You do it because it is right. Chip away at the problem every day, keep building capacity and success will come.

What’s the last good book you read?

I just finished rereading “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt, which is one of my favorites. It always makes me laugh, and the Southern characters could not be better.

What character traits do you feel have benefited you in your success?

Both my parents are incredibly hard workers, and they instilled that in me from a really young age. They also encouraged me to be really independent and have fun. My house was always a really social one growing up, and I think that has influenced me as an adult to be open and engage with lots of different types of people with confidence.

Can you share what you have learned about your business from the COVID-19 pandemic?

I heard the term “rural renaissance” the other day and really love it. People are realizing that they don’t have to live in a large city to work anymore and are leaving for more rural communities. Broadband expansion and telecommuting have provided new opportunities for us in the last year.

What’s your favorite app at the moment?

Lately, it feels like it has been Zoom and Grammarly. I love Audible and use it almost every day to listen to books and the newspaper.

If you have a bucket list, what are the top three things on it?

Alex and I booked a vacation to Italy this year, which was going to be our first trip overseas together. It was canceled due to the pandemic, so that is at the top. I’d love to visit every continent. I spend a lot of time helping startups and existing businesses expand with my job. Starting my own business is on the list. I’ve always been interested in politics and have worked on Alex’s campaigns. Someday, I’d like to serve in public office. I don’t know when that is, but someday.

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