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Ryan Johnson, Published February 16 2014

Connecting Fargo: Greg Tehven helps shape the future of the city he loves

FARGO - It’s a simple enough question, but one that Greg Tehven hates to answer: What do you do? The 29-year-old could say he’s an adjunct professor for Concordia College, teaching the school’s Global Business in India program on social entrepreneurship in Bangalore.

Or maybe he’ll reply that he’s trying to raise the self-esteem of Fargo, or dub himself an “experiential design consultant.”

Talking to Tehven, a 2003 West Fargo High School graduate, it becomes clear he has his hands in so many things that he prefers an aspirational answer over an explanatory one.

“I kind of identify with the self-given title of Fargo’s evangelist, telling the story and celebrating this amazing community that I get to be from,” he said.

Miguel Danielson, an intellectual property attorney, met Tehven about a year and a half ago at a conference in Portland, Ore., and they bonded over their shared ties to Fargo. He often tries to explain what Tehven does to new acquaintances.

“I’ve never gotten very good at it,” he said, chuckling.

But terms like “community builder” or “community connector” seem to aptly summarize Tehven’s role in Fargo, he said.

“There are a lot of people who just really see him as very special and a real gem of our community,” Danielson said. “I traveled thousands of miles back home primarily to be around both him and all of the many things that he’s involved with here.”

Falling in love

The fifth generation North Dakotan grew up on the family farm 4 miles outside of Fargo, the son of a hobby farmer and AgCountry Farm Credit Services employee father and a mother who works as a dietitian. He said his parents instilled a “familial kind of heritage of contribution to your community.”

If there was a fire in the neighborhood, he said, his parents would host a fundraiser. During times of flooding, the Tehvens helped organize volunteers, and when a neighbor died, his mother was sure to make bars for the relatives.

“I grew up in this rural area where my family, looking back, took its role as neighbor very seriously, and I think that’s pretty special,” he said.

At West Fargo High School, Tehven became a leader of several student organizations – not to pad his resume or college applications, he said, but to make a difference.

That commitment to the needs of the community stuck with Tehven when he started college at the University of Minnesota in fall 2003. Just 10 days into his freshman year, he started chatting with new friends about how they could do something special over spring break.

A previous trip to Australia introduced him to the idea of a “pay it forward” tour of volunteering and community service, he said, and the group decided it would organize a trip from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., performing service projects in cities along the way.

With that initial discussion, Tehven had co-founded Students Today Leaders Forever, at first a student organization that became a full-fledged nonprofit that has since gotten more than 5,000 college students to devote their spring breaks to doing good works across the country.

“We essentially got to hire ourselves after graduation, which was really cool,” he said.

After seven years with Students Today Leaders Forever, Tehven said he was “pretty burned out” and decided to wander the world for a year.

He walked hundreds of miles on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that took him through parts of France, Spain and Portugal. He went to Thailand for two weeks to attend the first-ever social enterprise conference in Southeast Asia. A six-week stay with a friend in a rural village of Africa’s Burkina Faso was eye-opening, taking him far away from running water and electricity.

“That was really important for me,” he said. “That whole year away really gave me perspective on quality of life, on art, on stillness, on what are your real needs.”

Tehven returned to the United States and was awarded a Rotary International ambassadorial scholarship, getting $27,000 to study anywhere he wanted outside the country. He was accepted into the University of Manchester’s Institute for Social Change in England, the most prestigious such program at the time. He was on track for the next phase of his life.

But then, he was re-introduced to an old friend and fell deep in love – with the city of Fargo.

Spurning school for city

Tehven had to wait a year until he could begin his studies in England. He was invited to work with a mentor he considered a “hero,” Doug Burgum, and agreed to join Kilbourne Group – Burgum’s downtown development firm – for a year as a fellow.

Burgum said Tehven already was a “proven founder/entrepreneur with tremendous enthusiasm for making Fargo a better place” when he joined Kilbourne Group. The business leader and entrepreneur had followed Tehven’s work since meeting him through Students Today Leaders Forever.

“Greg is a catalyst,” he said. “He is a great connector of people. He is a curator of ideas and concepts. And he puts ideas to actions very quickly, and implements them with improvement at the next edition.”

In his role with Kilbourne Group, Tehven was tasked with helping to bring the TEDx program to Fargo with the goal of organizing conferences here to spread “ideas worth sharing.”

“At that point, there was still a lot of negative attention around the city, ‘Why would you move back to Fargo? There’s nothing to do there,’ ” he said. “But yet, I was like, ‘I could do TEDx Fargo, and I could go find really interesting people doing fascinating things.’ ”

The first TEDx Fargo event sold out in February 2012. Two more programs organized that year also drew sold-out crowds of about 100. A fourth event with 600 people at the Fargo Theatre was held last year.

But Tehven said his real excitement was getting to be “catalytic” – with the success of the Fargo programs, similar TEDx conferences were organized in Grand Forks and Brookings, S.D., and TEDx programs geared toward women, youth, the North Dakota State University campus and the medical field were also held in Fargo.

“I get really inspired by that,” he said.

The next TEDx Fargo is planned for July 24, and there’s talk of a TEDx Bismarck and a TEDx Concordia College down the road, he said.

Somewhere along the way, Tehven’s goals changed. Despite getting the once-in-a-lifetime Rotary scholarship, he decided he preferred to keep “contributing” rather than return to school. He sat down one day, and drafted a “love letter to Fargo” he sent to friends to explain why he was passing on graduate school.

“I met someone,” he said. “I met a city that I love and I care about, and I just really wanted to continue to stay involved here.”

Building Fargo

For Tehven, Fargo’s appeal is multifaceted. There’s “fantastic” energy here, a community where many artists are able to make a living, he said.

He gets excited watching startups like Myriad Mobile quickly grow to a business with 30 employees. He thrives on the willingness of mentors and community leaders to listen to and support the new ideas of the next generation.

Tehven said he’s inspired by the people from all walks of life who dedicate time to projects and committees, showing up early and staying late. “It’s this place where people can count themselves in and create and build and introduce new ideas, and there’s a willingness to get behind it,” he said.

The rest of the country is starting to notice North Dakota’s success, he said, though the oil boom in the west is better known than the “cultural boom” in Fargo that he believes is poised to make it one of the world’s great cities.

Tehven has no plans to leave Fargo again. He’s now self-employed, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what he might be doing on any given day. Tehven helped launch 1 Million Cups Fargo last month, a weekly gathering at the Plains Art Museum to hear about a local startup and talk over coffee.

He serves on leadership and advisory boards, occasionally takes on client projects to create events like Health Pitch Fargo for Family HealthCare and earns some money through keynote speaking gigs.

Tehven runs the North Dakota Student Leadership Forum on Faith and Values, a weekend gathering for college students, and helped start a social entrepreneurship dialog group that meets monthly.

His primary focus these days is developing Emerging Prairie, an organization “committed to creating world-class experiences” and raising the profile of local entrepreneurs. He said it will “encourage more risk-taking” and support “creative events that the innovators are up to.”

Much of Tehven’s time is unpaid, a concept he said many don’t understand. Just don’t call it charity.

“I don’t think I volunteer, and I don’t think of it as donating,” he said. “I really get into this concept of contribution and creating the city I want to live in. It’s not even something that goes through my mind. It’s just like I want this to happen in my city, so I do that.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587