Bentonville welcomes notable speakers, including Boris Johnson and Matthew McConaughey, to kick off Heartland Summit

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 4,511 views 

Steuart Walton, left, and Boris Johnson discussed several topics during Wednesday's Heartland Summit in downtown Bentonville.

Boris Johnson may not be the person who comes to mind when discussing the American Heartland.

But the former London mayor (2008-2016) and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2019-2022) did make an appearance in downtown Bentonville on Wednesday (Nov. 8) at the opening session of the Heartland Summit.

Approximately 350 policymakers, investors, business and thought leaders and entrepreneurs from across the country are in Bentonville for the two-day, invitation-only gathering. It is the signature annual event of Heartland Forward, a nonpartisan “think-and-do” tank 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 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.

At its core, the summit is an economic development event. Steuart Walton and his brother Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and Tom’s wife Olivia Walton, board chairperson of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, all live in the city. They co-founded the gathering five years ago to kick-start economic growth and help change the narrative about the middle of the country. Organizers tout it as a forum for having candid conversations about shared challenges, creating positive action and strengthening connections.

Steuart, Tom and Olivia welcomed attendees to Bentonville late Wednesday afternoon, joined on the stage by moderator Kelly Corrigan, a New York Times best-selling author and podcaster and host of the PBS series “Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan.” The Waltons discussed what motivated them to convene leaders from around the country in Bentonville for the unique event and what impact they hope to make.

“The recipe for quality-of-life investments is something our communities and cities are starting to figure out,” said Tom Walton, a member of the Walton Family Foundation board of directors. “People realize [that] now more than ever, that’s important. And with remote work and work flexibility, people see [Northwest Arkansas] in a new light, and the communities here are figuring that out.”

Steuart Walton is a Walmart Inc. board member and a co-founder with Tom of Runway Group. The diversified holding company invests in real estate, hospitality and outdoor recreation in Northwest Arkansas. He said the cycling culture that has flourished over the past 15 years excites him most about the region’s future.

“There’s no stopping it now, in my view,” he said. “It’s a snowball rolling downhill that will keep rolling and getting bigger. The power of the bike is a phenomenally successful tool and invention. It is embraced by this community today in a way that is almost unthinkable from a decade ago. I feel so excited about the momentum today and the potential of more and more people being on bikes.”

Walton predicted that a decade from now, more trips would be made on bicycles as a percentage of travel in Bentonville than any other town in the country.

“I believe we have that kind of potential,” he said. “The bike is a simple solution to a lot of complicated problems.

Olivia Walton later noted that there is room for all modes of transportation in the city.

“We welcome people who also drive and walk,” she joked.

Academy Award-winning actor and New York Times best-selling author Matthew McConaughey also spoke at Wednesday’s event. Other attendees who spoke were:

  • Anya McMurray, president and COO of Welcome.US, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the support of Afghan refugees in the United States.
  • David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City
  • Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Vote Latino

In an entertaining 30-minute conversation with Steuart Walton — a discussion dominated mainly by the former prime minister — Johnson hit on many topics, including Brexit, broadband connectivity, healthcare and politics.

“Donald Trump [once] said I was the ‘British Trump,’” Johnson said. “Which didn’t do me much good at the time.”

Johnson also shared his opinion on how governments can sharpen a region’s competitive edge. In Bentonville, dubbed the “Mountain Biking Capital of the World,” investments from the public and private sectors have helped the city and region gain a competitive advantage as a growing tourism destination.

Johnson, who described himself as a “militant” cyclist, humorously recounted how he used cycling and building cycling infrastructure to bridge political divides as the mayor of London.

“When I decided to run for mayor, it was because I was on my bike, and I almost got killed by an enormous bus,” he joked.

Johnson also revealed he is writing two books, and he continues to follow politics with interest. But his life is dominated by family.

“I have three children under four years old now, and my wife has been sending me voice notes consisting of my youngest son crying,” he joked. “So, the message could not be clearer from mission control — I’ve got to get back [to London].”

In a conversation with Corrigan, McConaughey discussed the impact of the deadly shooting at an elementary school in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022 and his motivation to react in the aftermath.

“I don’t know that I would have done anything differently if I didn’t have [three] children of my own,” he said. “But because it hit my hometown, I had visuals. I know where the shooting took place.”

He hopes to effect positive change for school safety with the Greenlights Grant Initiative (GGI). McConaughey and his wife, Camila McConaughey, announced the GGI this past summer through their nonprofit just keep livin Foundation. Its goal is to “empower high school students by providing them with the tools to lead active lives and make healthy choices for a better future.”

The GGI helps school districts nationwide access $1 billion of available federal funding to create safer school environments and ensure the children’s well-being.

“We’re the bridge to the government,” he explained. “The government wants to spend it; it’s use it or lose it money. If the money is not spent through 2026, it will probably be reallocated elsewhere.”

He said that since GGI’s launch three months ago, 3,000 school districts have applied.

“Our goal is to get 156 of those [districts] who applied awarded,” he said. “The Department of Education says if we can get 156 districts awarded, that will be a game-changer.”

McMurray, Holt and Kumar discussed how social and economic silos within a community can impact people’s perceptions about their safety, well-being and ability to thrive. They also discussed how heartland communities embrace connection and belonging to fuel progress. In one question, Kumar asked Holt how to create impact at the local level.

“A successful city is a city that has a mission, and I think we’re the most mission-focused in America,” he said.

In several breakout sessions scheduled Thursday at multiple venues throughout Bentonville, other attendees will discuss strategies on various topics, including outdoor recreation, maternal health/childcare, biomimicry, adolescent mental health, artificial intelligence, impact investing, agriculture innovation, advanced mobility, domestic and global insights, entrepreneurship and reimagining America’s healthcare system.

Some of the dozens of attendees who are scheduled to share their insights Thursday include:

  • Robyn Tannehill, Independent mayor of Oxford, Miss.
  • Carmen Tapio, founder and CEO of North End Teleservices in Omaha, Neb.
  • Candice Matthews Brackeen, general partner of venture capital fund Lightship Capital in Cincinnati
  • Emily Oster, author and economist at Brown University
  • Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz
  • Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code
  • Cindi Marsiglio, SVP of corporate real estate for Walmart Inc.
  • Jessica (Wahl) Turner, president of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR)
  • Brad Garmon, director of Michigan’s Office of Outdoor Recreation
  • Bill E. Ford, chairman and CEO of General Atlantic
  • Ann Chung, senior managing director of Blackstone
  • Laura Modi, co-founder and CEO of Bobbie
  • Harold Koplewicz, founder and president of the nonprofit Child Mind Institute
  • Larissa May, founder of the nonprofit # HalfTheStory
  • Cynthia Germanotta, philanthropist, entrepreneur and president of the Born This Way Foundation, which she co-founded with her daughter, Lady Gaga
  • Emma Bloomberg, founder and CEO of Murmuration
  • Conor French, chief regulatory officer at Zipline
  • Miriam Vogel, president and CEO of EqualAI and chair of the National AI Advisory Committee
  • Mary Snapp, vice president of strategic initiatives for Microsoft
  • Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation

A Heartland Forward spokesman said the views expressed by speakers are their own, and their appearance in Summit programming does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent.