Tara Onken, Economic Development Director, City of Marshall

From a farm field to a conference room, Tara Onken is proud that her journey in life has never veered far from where she grew up in southwestern Minnesota.

“I’ve always had a passion for the area in which I grew up, a farm near Balaton, so unlike many of my peers, I knew I never wanted to leave the area,” she explains. “Some people know exactly what they go to school for, doctor, nurse, lawyer, et cetera, but I didn’t have a clue – all I knew was that I wanted to stay in the area where I grew up, and I wanted to work to make it better – and this career sort of just fit.”

Onken is now the Economic Development Director for Marshall, Minnesota, a role she has held for two years now and a role she relishes. As the region grows, so does her workload. So how does she manage it all?

What appealed to you about the role you have now?
“Even though I am from a small town, I know the importance of the regional hubs such as Marshall that provide for educational opportunities, quality healthcare within close proximity, and a wealth of resources that small towns just don’t have. So, when Marshall succeeds, so do the small towns, and vice-versa. We all need each other to support our economy, whether it be workforce, housing, etc. there’s no doubt we are stronger together. I am proud to be leading that charge and working for the success of the region.”

Is there a certain way you like to start your day?
“I am cognizant of the impact our own personal thoughts have on our day to day lives, so I aim to start my day out with a positive thought. It helps get the day started on a positive note. I also create a to-do list, and start with the ‘easy stuff’ so I can cross it off and get the momentum going.”

What is one thing you couldn’t live without in your professional life?
“Flexibility with this position is key to success. In Economic Development, often times it is imperative to be available outside the normal office hours – whether it is meetings outside of normal office hours or phone calls, or a quick response to an e-mail to keep things moving, I couldn’t do my job without having flexibility. Especially when the job requires business visits and out of office meetings. One thing that helps with that is my mobile device, so I can do most of my job from anywhere I am.”

You have to work with a variety of different agencies. How would you describe your leadership style?
“I try to be the affiliative force that keeps groups together – whether it is a project team, an internal development team, or people within the business community. By nature, I strive to build personal connections with people – whether it is employees, fellow colleagues, business owners, developers or entrepreneurs, it doesn’t matter. I strongly believe genuine, authentic relationships are imperative to continued success in all arenas of life. I would describe myself as a coach, and I look at the long term implications of decisions, vs the short term immediate results. I am adamant and passionate about living a life with purpose and I enjoy helping others do the same.

“In general, here is another thought of mine: Acknowledging others is important to me – whether it is a personalized e-mail follow up, sharing an article that may be of interest to someone, or writing a handwritten thank you note, I believe a little time and thoughtfulness means a lot to others, and I personally find it very rewarding.”

Is there a certain way you end your day to make sure you are ready for the next one?
“I make a short list of things that are still outstanding – by writing things down, I am able to let it go and not think about it, because I know I will remember the next morning when I see my sticky note.”

Your favorite thing about Marshall?
“There are so many great things, but I would have to say our downtown is one of the things that stands out. There are so many great places downtown with lots of restaurant and retail options – and the owners are always friendly and inviting. You don’t always get that in a big city.”

Onken Out of the Office
“I am 100% a Minnesota farm girl, born and raised. My dad, grandpas and great grandpas all farmed, and I am so thankful to have grown up on the farm. It has taught me a work ethic, and great things take time. It has taught me to finish whatever you start, to stay grounded, to have gratitude, to pay it forward, and also that you can work hard and have fun at the same time! Hobbies include mowing the lawn, shooting guns, and spending time up at the lake with family and friends.”

Lisa Cownie

Editor of Connect Business Magazine