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TechBrew: Q&A with Nicole Chesmore of Grinnell Mutual


On the second Friday of each month, the Technology Association of Iowa hosts an informal networking event at West End Salvage in downtown Des Moines for entrepreneurs, technologists, funders, business professionals and government leaders.

And during each event, Brian Waller, the President of the Technology Association of Iowa, sits down with a local tech executive for a Q&A. After each interview, Waller presents them with a vinyl record of their choice.

On Friday morning, Waller talked with Nicole Chesmore, Assistant Vice President of Infrastructure and Operations at Grinnell Mutual. Chesmore discussed her transition from an English background to tech, the role of mentors in her career and shooting pool with Def Leppard.

She selected the 1987 Def Leppard album “Hysteria” and was presented with it after the interview.

Their Q&A was edited for clarity:

Hometown and high school…

NC: I am originally from Denison, Iowa and Denison High School.

Why did you select Def Leppard?

NC: This was a hard selection for me because I have music taste anywhere from Simon and Garfunkel, to 80’s jazz and everything else. It happened to come up on the radio and at least everybody will be awake this morning.

Where did your journey take you after high school?

NC: I went to the University of Iowa and was an English major. I started in technical writing.

Talk about that transition from English and writing to IT…

NC: It’s been a slow transition but one of the things I said, is my husband is also in IT. So he would take apart my computer that I needed to write my documents and have to put it back together. Then as my career progressed I was able to go from technical writing, to quality analysis and testing, server administration. I moved into coding along the way and moved into infrastructure and service management.

I’m really dangerous in a lot of areas but not an expert in any of them. But I’m strong enough to dabble in all of them.

How did that English discipline help you in the IT world

NC: One of the things we’ve found is I can find some really amazing technical talent, that struggles with being able to communicate back out to our business leaders and senior leadership. So for a lot of years I joked that I was an IT translator, I understood the technical jargon that was being said and able to explain it to individuals on my side who didn’t know much other than rebooting a system.

That capability is something we are missing, we either focus on extremely technical but we forget to focus on that communication part and those soft skills. Those are just as important.

Can communication skills be taught?

NC: It absolutely can be taught. People will always reach the highest bar that is set for them, I have yet to see somebody who does not want to do a good job or do what is right for their organization.

But if you don’t tell them what they are doing wrong, and real-time examples of what is going off track, they don’t have any idea of what to fix. They just know you don’t like them or it’s not a good fit. Everybody wants to do better, we didn’t get into this industry because we wanted it to stay the same. I’ve found being able to have those conversations, have them in real time but have them not be threatening.

Talk about what Grinnell Mutual is and the IT function within that

NC: It’s a 108-year-old new company is what we are beginning to say.

I am responsible for all of their infrastructure. Under me, I have infrastructure, security, service management, help desk and our IT procurement. I’ve only been there seven months and I inherited two more teams since I have been there, so I keep joking the “Other duties as assigned.”

But we’re having a good time and making lots of fun changes.

Did you have mentors in the technology space that helped you get here?

NC: Absolutely, I have had the privilege of having strong mentors both in IT and outside of IT. One of the things that has been important to me is assign myself or look for a mentor. I find that looking outside of my industry I continue to learn.

IT is going to be a continuing changing environment and our environment is moving quicker than some of us are used to. I always tell people to go find a mentor, both inside your industry and outside at a level that you want to shoot for.

Give advice to 18-year-old Nicole

NC: I would have said be more open to new opportunities and ideas. If you would have asked me at 18 if I was going to be in technology I would have told you I’d have been a lawyer.

I was so driven in one direction that I wasn’t open to other experiences. And as I opened that door I got to experience so many other things, and every step of the way I’ve gotten to learn what’s important in those areas. It makes you a better leader and a better manager.

Time for fun questions, what were you doing in the summer of 1987 when this record was released?

NC: Probably getting in trouble.

I was still in high school in 1987 and that record fit right in.

Talk about meeting Def Leppard…

NC: This is a story about being in the right place at the right time.

A friend of mine that I met during my first year of college was a promoter in Chicago and anytime he was in the Midwest he would call and we’d try to meet for a drink. One time he says to come up for the weekend and says he has a dinner meeting first but that we’d meet him in the hotel bar.

So I said not a problem and my girlfriend and I were hanging out. We knew Def Leppard was the band he was going to see, and we realized we were the only ones in the bar. Then these gentlemen are up at the bar, and we realized they have accents.

So that was Def Leppard. But we didn’t move from our table, we sat there and continued to have our drinks. Later, the band came over asking if we wanted to play pool. They asked if we were here to see their concert and we’re like, no, we’re here to see your promoter.

By the time our friend the promoter came back, he’s like ‘You guys hung out with my band all night?’ And we’re like kind of…

Star Wars or Star Trek

NC: I’m a Star Trek girl. I grew up where we scheduled a meeting at everybody’s apartment to watch Star Trek and watch TV live.

Favorite curse word?

NC: I’m not sure I have one. I grew up with parents who didn’t really curse, so there were a lot of sugar, doughnuts and fudges in our world. We always figured it was nice and sweet before we ever cursed where I grew up.

Favorite caffeinated beverage?

NC: I live off of coffee, black coffee and then I switch to Diet Pepsi somewhere around noon.

Crash at a friends house or stay at a hotel?

NC: Probably stay at a hotel. I love to visit friends but I might drag them with me.

Favorite word?

NC: Opportunities.

Your least favorite word?

NC: I can’t or it can’t. I don’t believe in it. I used to joke that we put a man on the moon with a 386 computer, they didn’t say I can’t.

Comedy or dance club?

NC: My dancing might seem like comedy so I’m not sure where to go with that.

Sound or noise do you love?

NC: My kids yelling ‘Mom I’m home.”

What sound or noise do you hate?

NC: This isn’t so much anymore but for a long time I had my phone set to a certain ring that when my service providers had to call, it rang with a noise that was a honking siren, which told me all systems are down.

So anytime I hear that ringtone, I still cringe because I believe all systems are down.

What profession would you like to try someday?

NC: Probably a writer with my English background, other than that I would love to be a party planner.

What would you not like to try?

NC: A daycare provider elementary teacher.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

NC: You tried your best.


Previous TechBrew interviews

Terry Rich, Iowa Lottery CEO – Jan. 12

Linc Kroeger on Pillar Technology –  Dec. 8

John Bertran of Kreg Tool – Nov. 10

Ben Milne of Dwolla – Oct. 13

Rich Schappert of Casey’s General Store – Aug. 11

TechBrew: Q&A with Nicole Chesmore of Grinnell Mutual | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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