Heartland Summit organizers hope gathering ignites change

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 843 views 

Heartland Forward CEO Ross DeVol and Angie Cooper, Heartland Forward's executive vice president, spoke during the Heartland Summit. The invitation-only gathering was held Nov. 8-9 in Bentonville.

Angie Cooper is big on collaboration to get things done.

“I always say, ‘The magic happens when you bring the right people together in the room,’” Cooper said.

Cooper herself is part of a collaborative, year-long effort to bring people together in Bentonville. She is the executive director of the Heartland Summit, an invitation-only annual event hosted by Heartland Forward, a nonpartisan “think-and-do” tank in Bentonville.

This year’s summit brought 350 policymakers, investors, business and thought leaders and entrepreneurs to the city on Nov. 8-9.

The summit welcomed dozens of notable speakers, including former London mayor (2008-2016) and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2019-2022) Boris Johnson and Academy Award-winning actor and New York Times best-selling author Matthew McConaughey.

Johnson and McConaughey headlined the summit’s opening session Nov. 8 at the Record event venue, followed by a day-long agenda and multiple speakers at venues throughout the city.

A few days after it ended, Cooper spoke to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal to discuss the gathering’s impact and her takeaways.

“You could feel the excitement during the event, and even through the many kind notes and things we’ve received post-event,” said Cooper, Heartland Forward’s executive vice president. “There’s a lot of momentum happening in the heartland People want to continue to work to make positive change.”

Organizers tout the summit as a forum for having candid conversations about shared challenges, creating positive action and strengthening connections. That’s in Cooper’s bailiwick. Before joining Heartland Forward in early 2020, she worked for Walmart Inc. for nearly 17 years in various public policy roles ranging from local, state and federal to ultimately working as senior director of global policy.

“I think people adopted our summit tagline of ‘meet in the middle’ because we had a lot of different views and opinions on stage,” she said. “At the end of the day, we need to advance the heartland and collaborate in a time when, maybe, it sometimes doesn’t feel like our country is doing that.”

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. It is the first U.S. think tank focused exclusively on the economic situation of the Heartland region.

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 Bentonville. They co-founded the gathering five years ago to kick-start economic growth and help change the narrative about the middle of the country.

During the summit’s opening-night gathering, they 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.”

During the summit’s final day, in several breakout sessions at multiple venues throughout the city, attendees had free-flowing conversations. They discussed 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, economic development and reimagining America’s healthcare system.

Some of the dozens of attendees who shared their insights Thursday were:

  • Bill Ford, chairman and CEO of General Atlantic
  • Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Department of Development
  • Robyn Tannehill, Independent mayor of Oxford, Miss.
  • Miriam Vogel, president and CEO of EqualAI and chair of the National AI Advisory Committee
  • Alice Walton
  • Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz

During her appearance Thursday, Walton, the arts and healthcare visionary and billionaire philanthropist, touted the importance of technology and artificial intelligence in the future of healthcare. She is investing heavily in that endeavor to make a transformative approach to health and well-being available to everyone. Whole Health Institute and the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine (AWSOM) are under construction in Bentonville.

“The doctors of tomorrow — today — need to be very comfortable with technology and AI,” said Walton, the only daughter of Walmart Inc. founders Sam and Helen Walton. “They can help rural America in healthcare more than anything else. That combination will allow us to connect people in our rural communities who traditionally lack access to healthcare expertise.

“I want our doctors of tomorrow to be part ‘techie,’ with a great big heart.”

Another session examined how specific heartland regions leverage their assets and resources to attract economic development investments and public-private partnerships.

Mihalik, a former mayor of Findlay, Ohio, discussed the work done to position Ohio for a $20 billion investment from Intel, which is building two new chip factories in central Ohio. As the most significant single private-sector investment in Ohio’s history, the initial phase is expected to create 3,000 Intel jobs and 7,000 construction jobs.

Ross DeVol, the chief executive of Heartland Forward, said the attendees who were in the audience were equally as important as the panelists on stage.

“We have a good group of public policy and corporate business leaders, philanthropists, investors, venture capitalists, bankers; people who can make things happen,” he said. “When we suggest solutions to problems, we want to have people in the audience that can help execute them.”

Cooper shared an example from the 2028 summit to underscore DeVol’s point.

“An entrepreneur met an investor, and her business is scaling in the heartland to [the point] people are now living in Bentonville because they attended the summit,” she said.