Inside the downtown Bentonville event venue Record on Wednesday night (May 11), famed singer/songwriter and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams perhaps summed it best.
“This is a very powerful room,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of energy in here tonight.”
Williams made the comments before a high-level crowd of approximately 300 policymakers, investors, business and thought leaders and entrepreneurs from across the country who are in Bentonville this week for the Heartland Summit.
The two-day, invitation-only gathering convened Wednesday at the Record with several speakers, including members of the Walton family.
The summit is the signature event of Heartland Forward in Bentonville. Heartland Forward formally launched in the fall of 2019 — one year after the Heartland Summit’s first iteration — and is spearheaded by members of the Walton family and led by former Walton Fellow and Milken Institute Chief Research Officer Ross DeVol. It is the first U.S. think tank focused exclusively on the economic situation of the Heartland region.
Organizers say their goal is to promote action by convening people playing a role in the success stories of thriving areas of America’s heartland. Tom Walton, a grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton and member of the Walton Family Foundation board of directors, said he hopes attendees have multiple takeaways this week.
“Hope would be one [thing],” he said in an interview. “To believe more in the work that they are doing. That they can have a real impact in changing the trajectory of the heartland.
“I think [the summit] is an event that celebrates what’s happening. We’ll talk about what’s working and what’s not working. But at the end of the day, we’re going to need the people in this room to step up and support the communities they’re in.”
Walton and his wife, Olivia Walton, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art board chair and a co-founder of the summit, welcomed attendees to Bentonville on Wednesday night. They were joined on stage by Steuart Walton, Tom’s brother, and his wife, Kelly.
Steuart Walton is a Walmart Inc. board member and a co-founder with Tom of Runway Group, a diversified holding company that invests in real estate, hospitality and outdoor recreation in Northwest Arkansas. He said the summit’s goal in 2018 was to raise awareness about the heartland. Four years later, he said there’s been progress made, but work to be done. He said a critical goal is for people to invest back in the communities where they live.
“We’ve got a long way to go to really get people across the country understanding just how tough it is for rural America,” he said. “And for big swaths in the middle of the country. We need to raise awareness about some of the issues we are having.
“We’re not asking for handouts. We’re asking for investment. We’re asking for ideas. We’re asking how we can empower some of these people to solve some of these problems with us.”
Other attendees who spoke at Wednesday’s opening were:
- María Teresa Kumar, a Colombian American political rights activist and president and CEO of the Latino political organization, Voto Latino.
- Carmichael Roberts, a partner at Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’ climate finance firm.
- Kath McLay, CEO of Sam’s Club.
- Patrick Conway, the CEO of Care Solutions at Optum at UnitedHealth Group in Massachusetts and an advocate of value-based healthcare.
Caryl Stern, executive director of the Walton Family Foundation, and Williams, the record producer and recording artist, also had a discussion on education.
“To be clear, I am a musician, not an educator,” Williams joked.
Williams discussed an educational nonprofit he founded called Yellow, which opened a micro-school last fall in Virginia. He said Yellow’s approach is to engage every type of learner. He wants to expand the program throughout the country.
Besides speakers, Wednesday’s opening session included performances by movement artists Jon Boogz and Lil Buck.
In several breakout sessions scheduled Thursday at various venues throughout Bentonville, other attendees will discuss strategies on various topics and share insights on advancing the heartland.
Some of the dozens of attendees who are scheduled to speak Thursday include:
- Sindy Benavides, CEO for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
- Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase
- Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution
- Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation
- Saeed Amida, CEO and founder of Plug and Play Tech Center
- Nelson Peacock, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council
- Cornell Wesley, director of the department of innovation and economic opportunity for the city of Birmingham, Ala.
- Gayle Jennings-O’Byrne, founder of the WOCstar Fund, a venture capital firm that invests in women of color and diverse inclusive teams in the tech sector.
- Cyrus Sigari, the co-founder and managing partner of UP.Partners and the executive chairman and co-founder of jetAVIVA. Earlier this year, he was appointed the chairman of the Arkansas Council on Future Mobility by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
- Byron Kominek, a community solar entrepreneur
- Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach For America
- Kathleen McLaughlin, president of the Walmart Foundation
- Alice Walton, philanthropist and founder of Bentonville nonprofit Whole Health Institute
- Mayors of Tulsa, Okla., Duluth, Minn., Monroe, La., Fort Worth, Texas and Montgomery, Ala.
- Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards
In addition to discussion and speakers, the summit’s two-day agenda also has numerous opportunities for attendees to experience the region’s other cultural, recreational, wellness and nature offerings.
Organizers also plan two community events to bring the conversations to the broader public. A free screening and open discussion of the HBO documentary “Our Towns” was held Wednesday at the Momentary. Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, “Our Towns” reflects on the rise of civic and economic reinvention and how it transforms small cities and towns across the nation.
Thursday, the public is invited to a concert featuring two-time Grammy award-winning string band Old Crow Medicine Show and country singer/songwriter Brittney Spencer.
Gates open at 6 p.m. The concert is part of the Momentary’s Live on the Green Concert Series on the Coca-Cola Stage.
Tickets range from $20 to $150 and can be purchased online or at (479) 657-2335.