Emily Betts Susanin: ‘You just have to be tenacious’

When Emily Betts Susanin moved back to Des Moines from Chicago, she wanted to reconnect with her community.

She’s now a project manager at the Iowa Center for Economic Success, which works with Iowans on business and financial planning. Strengthening communities by empowering small business owners has become her day-to-day.

“(The Iowa Center is) a nonprofit based around economic development. To develop an economy, you’re really building a community and that’s what I was looking to do in moving back to Des Moines,” she said.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

C&M: What do you do at the Iowa Center for Economic Success?

EBS: In October I started at the Iowa Center as a project manager for our Women’s Business Center (WBC) and our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA). It started as a client-facing role, but it’s also a planning role. So, I get to work with clients to help them start a business plan, but then I also get to work with our volunteer pool and recruit mentors and subject matter experts to help our clients. …

C&M: What keeps you motivated to pursue this work?

EBS: It’s the clients. It’s the community. It’s getting to hear people’s stories and what they want out of life or out of their idea. Making it possible and helping them to even sometimes change it. Because someone might come to us with one idea and as they go through writing a business plan or one of my classes, they pivot it and refocus and it becomes actually viable as opposed to just an idea.

C&M: Who do you consider to be a mentor?

EBS: My whole life I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by role models, both personally and professionally. The word mentor isn’t one that I use much in my vocabulary, so I can’t think of a single person that has guided me or “shown me the way” but rather, many people. From my professors in business school, to past and present employers and colleagues, to family members and friends. While part of me would like to be able to say, “Oh, Jim? He’s my mentor!” or “I owe it all to Susan Sarandon,” I think mentorship is a much more organic, living process of continuing to build strong, genuine relationships.

C&M: What excites you about living and working in Iowa?

EBS: So much. I think Iowa has so much growth potential and so much to offer, especially (for) a young-ish professional as I look to really get rooted here and make a difference and connect with the community. Iowa is really just the place. It’s easy living. It’s great living. There’s people here I consider to be lifelong friends.

I think there are low barriers to entry here. It just seems easy to get things done. You’re a part of different groups if you want to be, but the biggest one of being able to say “I’m an Iowan.” I love saying that. I love that ethos really. It’s something I feel really connected to.

C&M: What advice do you have for other people looking to get involved in Des Moines and build community?

EBS: I would say move here and do it. Move here and put yourself out there. I know a couple guys who just did that—Brad (Penna) and Nam (Ho) from Horizon Line Coffee. They seemed like they literally just moved to Des Moines and are starting something. I think you just have to be tenacious. From the advice side, there’s no better place to do it in my mind because of the cost of living, the places like Gravitate* that exist. That’s a place where there’s a community built in and people you can be around. I think as (that community) continues to grow, it will speak for itself.

C&M: How do you stay sane? What do you do outside of work?

EBS: I chose to start a gallery in my house. So that’s keeping me real sane. I have wanted to do that for a year though so I finally realized the time was now, and with enough people interested, did that recently.

About Emily Betts Susanin

Age: 27
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Iowa Center for Economics Success Twitter Handle: @TheIowaCenter

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer based in Des Moines and a regular contributor to Clay & Milk.

*Editor’s note: Gravitate founder Geoff Wood is a co-founder of Clay & Milk.