May 25, 2023

#119: Tanya Budler (Rise Together)

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Tanya Budler, Founder of Rise Together, on building an impact consulting firm based here in Cleveland that partners with civic, public, private, and nonprofit organizations to create systems-level change that enables and empowers international newcomers to join the local workforce.

Tanya is a people-centric problem solver with a unique background that blends private sector, government, and non-profit experience. She started her career building global youth programs, crafting international events, and facilitating leadership workshops in eight different countries. While the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she began exploring other sectors, including impact consulting for nonprofits. Tanya has since served in various levels of government, first as an Economic and Social Recovery Fellow in the Office of the Governor of Connecticut and most recently supporting workforce efforts in the US Department of Transportation.

Through these experiences, Tanya saw great power and opportunity in working at the intersection of all these sectors and decided to move back to the Midwest, originally from the farmlands of Nebraska and Missouri, after 10+ years on the East Coast — based here in Cleveland and serving the larger Northeast Ohio region, she launched Rise Together in January of 2022. Since then, she and her team have been working to create a welcoming workforce for international newcomers by developing policies, coalitions, and workshops that play to the community's assets and strengths.

In our conversation, we dive into Tanya's background and path to entrepreneurship and Cleveland, founding Rise Together, creating and growing a for-profit service organization, and her reflections and learnings throughout the journey. Please enjoy my conversation with Tanya Budler.


This episode is brought to you byImpact ArchitectsandNinety. As we share the stories of entrepreneurs building incredible organizations throughout NEO, Impact Architects helps those leaders — many of whom we’ve heard from as guests on Lay of The Land — realize their visions and build great organizations. I believe in Impact Architects and the people behind it so much, that I have actually joined them personally in their mission to help leaders gain focus, align together, and thrive by doing what they love! As a listener, you can sit down for a free consultation with Impact Architects or leverage a free trial through Ninety, the software platform that helps teams build great companies, by!


Learn more about Rise Together
Connect with Tanya Budler on LinkedIn


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Past guests include Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, Steve Potash (OverDrive), Ed Largest (Westfield), Ray Leach (JumpStart), Lila Mills (Signal Cleveland), Pat Conway (Great Lakes Brewing), Lindsay Watson (Augment Therapy), and many more.

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Jeffrey Stern I feel we have a certain kindred experience, I believe, as we were talking about just before we turned on the mics, as people who have opted to situate ourselves here in Greater Cleveland without necessarily historical ties to it.

Which often from a place of both genuine bewilderment and curiosity has prompted the question, which I think we are both quite familiar with now, both from long time rooted Clevelanders and from all the folks in our lives far outside the Northeast Ohio region, which is why. And so I thought that may be as good a place as any to start as we begin to explore your story and you know what you're passionate about and the work you're doing at Rise Together. We'll start with why but thank you Tanya for joining us today.

Tanya Budler (01:20.328) Yeah, of course. And I used to tell people that if I had a dollar for every time people asked me why Cleveland, I would have paid off grad school by now. Um, both from the coast before I moved here, people asked why. And then when I got here, they also asked why. So I think it's a great place to start. And, you know, by, by means of context, I'm not from here at all. And we have no connection. And in fact, I think it's kind of crazy that I live where Ohio state is. I'm from Nebraska. So that's not really what we would have done as a family….the East Coast for the last 11 years. And so there's not really a logical reason why I'm here. Um, but there are two, one personal and one professional thing that really brought me here. So I share this story with a lot of folks, the personal reason of why I decided to come back to the Midwest. And I think we don't talk about our personal motives that not that often, which is why I like to share this story. Um, so like I said, I'd been gone for quite a while and had kind of put the Midwest out of my mind and didn't really see myself ever really coming back here, at least not for a very long time. And then about five years ago, I guess six years ago at this point, my dad got diagnosed with cancer and I found myself coming back often, like every other week. And through the year of when he was sick, I was realizing how beautiful the culture is in the Midwest and how amazing it is to be in a place where community is most important. And then after my dad passed away, I had this really pivotal moment in my life when I realized we get to decide what our eulogy is. There's a point in which we get what people say about us in our life. And the reason why I had that thought is, sitting at his funeral, people were sharing, like, silly, wild stories of ways he served his community and, like, would help people out. And I realized he didn't have any of the things that I have on my resume, but his funeral is one that I would want. And so the Midwest became my next move, and I committed to coming back to the Midwest, whether it be all the way back to Nebraska or somewhere in between. And then the professional thing came up…where Rise Together might work best. We cold emailed a bunch of people and one person responded and God bless him. He's from Northeast Ohio and really opened up the doors for us to come into Cleveland and Northeast Ohio in general to start the business. And yeah, so I'm still a little bit surprised I live here, but I think that it was a pleasant surprise, I suppose.

Jeffrey Stern (03:43.690) Yes, yes, a pleasant one indeed. We're happy to have you. It's wild that practically maybe all it takes is someone to respond to an email.

Tanya Budler (03:54.748) I know, right? I mean, I bless him. I tell him this all the time. You single-handedly are why I moved here. If he didn't respond, you know, we had 13 other markets we were prospecting. So who knows?

Jeffrey Stern (04:06.352) That's wild. Kudos to this man.

Tanya Budler (04:09.668) Yeah, exactly. Of course, other reasons in addition to him responding to the email, like, I wanted to be on water still, and I wanted a place that had a lot of problems, but a lot of political will to solve them. I love coffee and ice cream, and those two are great here as well.

Jeffrey Stern (04:25.670) Yes, top notch on that front. Well, I would love to make our way towards Rise Together and what you're doing there, but perhaps you can set the stage for what you were working on beforehand. What were the kinds of problems that you found interesting? What were the ideas that you were exploring?

Tanya Budler (04:49.928) Yeah, great question. I actually just recently was asked, when did I know that I wanted to be an entrepreneur? And as somebody who's very reflective and I keep journals, I'm really embarrassed to say that I have no idea. I cannot trace back when I realized I wanted to do my own thing or to found a company. And Brene Brown always says this quote, "'What's meant for you won't miss you.'" And when I think about the last 10 or 15 years of my life,…along the way was to get me to the point of wanting to be an entrepreneur and to go out on my own and do this thing. But at no point prior did I know this is where I was going to end up. I thought I would be traveling the world with that international education company forever at some point or working with teenagers forever. Or when I did my stint in government thinking, oh, maybe I'll stay there. But alas, here I am sort of at the intersection of all of those places…But I do think that it was always hunting me down if I wasn't seeking it, I guess. But to your point about questions and the things that I found interesting that I was trying to solve, I'm really grateful to a dear mentor of mine who said to me, be obsessed with the problem, not your solution. And when we pursue our solution, we're serving our ego and not people. And so the problem that I've been obsessed with for the last, oh gosh, at this point,…is why is it that so many people in our country are barely surviving and not thriving? 50% of folks who are employed in the United States are underemployed. So not making enough money to get by or not working in a skillset that they wanna be in. So that was the problem that sort of navigated me through all the different sectors before getting.

Jeffrey Stern (06:40.730) It's quite a profound problem and one that to solve is ambitious in scope. What was it about this problem that drew your attention of the myriad of problems that exist out there? Why did you fall in love with this one?

Tanya Budler (07:00.088) Yeah, you're right. It's sort of one of those like existential things that you would talk about just to have fun, right? Like, not some, it's not like one of those, it's like a dinner party question, not a life purpose question. But, um, a couple things led me here. One was this was around the pandemic when I started thinking about this. And, um, I'll tell you, I thought I was going to work with teenagers my whole life. I love teenagers. They're just like these wild creatures that if you give them some direction, they can do powerful things.

Jeffrey Stern (07:31.761) That's a hilarious way to describe them.

Tanya Budler (07:35.608) They are. If you're a teenager listening, I love you. You're great. But it wasn't until grad school when I realized that for every $100 we pour into a teenager and a teenager-oriented program, if they don't come home to food on the table, if they don't come home to parents who feel like they can provide stability or who are fulfilled in their work, then that $100 really doesn't go as far. The ROI is missing. And there was a really pivotal moment…an end of change is workforce. And if we can unlock jobs and people can feel fulfilled and be self-sufficient, then we really can change the game. And so that's where that sort of deep question began was recognizing we can serve everyone if we figure out the workforce problem. And then personally, Rise Together in its first iteration, there were three of us that co-founded it. All three of us are exceptions to the rule, if you will. So I'm a first generation farm kid who…managed to get a couple Ivy League degrees and end up where I am. I shouldn't be here. Um, my other co-founder, he's raised by a single mother in South Carolina. She was a factory worker and as a black man for him to also be sitting in a Harvard classroom. And then our third co-founder, Rodrigo is an immigrant raised by a single mother, like really scrapped to get by. And yet the three of us are sitting, uh, debatably one of the top institutions in the world and people love to celebrate us, but we got really…got to access the American dream of thriving, but that were the exceptions. So that's where, where this existential crisis, if you will, came from was recognizing that more people should have the chance to live out their dream of thriving and not just the lucky few.

Jeffrey Stern (09:21.390) So, working towards the scale of this problem, how do you even begin to think about how to impactfully move the needle in a direction where, you know, hopefully you can unlock more of that for people such that it's not an exception to the rule anymore?

Tanya Budler (09:46.548) Yeah, great question. And cause I knew we were going to talk, I looked back at like all of our old notes and all of our previous thought solutions. And it's just wild things that we thought we're going to move the needle or to drive impact. Maybe they still would, but it's, we went through a lot of different thoughts. Um, and I think ultimately where we landed with the model that we have is because, um, we really used Bill George's, uh, what does he call it? Sweet spot, right? When you think about what's your sweet spot….What are you uniquely gifted at? What is something that solves a problem? And what is something people are willing to pay you to do? And what we found is that it's not making a new workforce development program. There are far too many of those to begin with, right? There are amazing experts in that space. So it's not something that people are gonna be paying us to do when they already exist out there. It's not sort of creating another nonprofit service organization. What we realized it was…somebody who is weaving together the matrix of existing resources, services, and programs because that's what's missing. And it is a little bit more of a vague way of approaching it because it's a consulting model rather than a service organization or what have you. But I think what we realized through conversations is that that's what's missing and no one else is doing it so we should try.

Jeffrey Stern (11:07.630) Well, I think that's also somewhat of the importance of falling in love with the problem rather than your conceived solution because it's very rare that your first go at what the idea is going to be is the one that lands and actually gains traction over time.

Tanya Budler (11:27.009) And if you think it is the one that's going to land, then you probably are going to fail. It takes a lot of effort. And we got a year in before we pivoted. We had a year in, we were here on a site visit, we thought we had it, we met with all these people. Thank you to everyone who met with us and smiled and nodded, knowing well enough that that was not the right idea. And then we realized through sort of a lucky set of circumstances to pilot our second assumption that that was actually the better idea.

Jeffrey Stern (11:56.150) Hmm. So perhaps now is as good a point at any to talk about, you know, what, what rise together is how, how do you describe yourself today, you know, and, and the work that you are doing.

Tanya Budler (12:09.248) Yeah, and I have to apologize. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, so I speak in like parables and quotes far more than a normal person should. But we're an impact consulting firm and we work with city, county, and state level governments to build a welcoming workforce. And what that means is we help create that ecosystem or matrix that helps international newcomers be a part of our future economy. And I like to give the example of teaching Amanda Fish about the difference between us and traditional consulting….a traditional consulting firm, they're going to give you your fishing pole and a manual that says, that's the fish to catch, good luck. And they walk away. Versus Impact Consulting is, we're going to sit on the bank with you and we're going to look into that pond and say, is it this fish that you're actually going for? Is it this one? And then we're going to build the pole with you. So it's created locally and then we're going to help you cast. And if you miss, we're going to cast again. And we only walk away when you have the fish in hand, when impact is visible. And the reason why we think that's the more…effective method to impact consulting is that we believe in asset-based community development. We're not here to add something brand new. We're here to help you succeed or really create this beautiful ecosystem with things that already exist in your backyard.

Jeffrey Stern (13:23.450) Hmm. So there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle there that I think you just introduced. One that I'll pull on and ask about is the international and immigrant component and why focus there and, you know, what's the philosophy and thinking around that area in terms of workforce?

Tanya Budler (13:46.988) Yeah. And especially if you think about the context of who I am as a person, like, if you don't know the story, you're like, why does this farm kid care about international folks? Uh, so personally, it's, it's been a bit of my life story since I was 16. I did a high school exchange year, reset my world. I ended up studying Arabic and, um, had a really, really transformative moment in 2015 when I, I used to speak much better Arabic and I helped translate the stories of some Syrian refugees. And it shook me to the core….we realize it's a flip of a coin that we live where we do and they live where they do. Um, and so we have a human obligation to care about the newcomer community. Uh, but then I'll tell you to the founders front, you know, we were looking at that sweet spot of what are we good at and what would people pay for and what do they need? We're looking at workforce and fulfilling the needs of our local economy. And, um, the most recent estimate that I saw is that by 2030, we're going to be 80 million workers short in the economy….It's not even a question of making sure the existing folks have the right jobs. It's we just don't have enough people. And so we made the pivot into focusing particularly on international newcomers because they are the answer to the largest challenges facing our workforce in the next two decades. And I really believe that when you set up this ecosystem to serve international newcomers, everyone else will benefit, right? Rising tide raises all ships.

Jeffrey Stern (15:10.890) Hmm. And that perhaps is where the name comes from.

Tanya Budler (15:15.468) Close, very close. Yes, that's part of it. The name actually comes from a Lila Watson quote, which is one of my favorite quotes of all time. And it says, if you've come here to help me, then you're wasting your time. But if you've come here because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let's work together. And I believe that all of the challenges that people face in our community, whether you're a single mother or formerly incarcerated or an international newcomer, figure out the holes in the matrix, it's going to benefit everyone. And as much as an economic development agency wants to increase the income of our cities and our workforce wants really skilled workers, all of the answer is right in the middle, right? So that's, that's where we got the name.

Jeffrey Stern (16:02.650) So we'll layer on another piece of the puzzle that I think you had introduced, which is the actual structure of Rise Together itself, that you are a for-profit service organization. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about your journey from the company building side and what this is and how it matters in the context of Rise Together.

Tanya Budler (16:29.148) Yeah, and thanks for asking that because I think quite often when people hear what we do, they assume we're a nonprofit. And there's nothing against nonprofits whatsoever. That's a tax code. That's not a business model by any means. But I really believe that we can be for profit for good and that we can run a really efficient private organization that serves people. And this was maybe three or four years ago, I had another existential crisis of if we serve our communities, then we're just serving our pockets, right? So that's why we decided to make it a for-profit structure and really bring it into the private space. And I'll tell you, we function very much like a Bain or McKinsey by no means is efficient yet we're getting there. But doing it with the heart of the community at the center of what we do. And that pivot we decided on about a year and a half ago, because we originally thought we might be a nonprofit, but we're not.

Jeffrey Stern (17:27.950) Did you find that there were certain limitations that that model did not afford you that a for-profit could?

Tanya Budler (17:37.128) Yeah, a little. Yeah. Um, I think that we really believed in what we were building and we wanted to be true to what we were building and to the communities we were trying to serve without the oversight of another organization. And I. Really think that our.

Jeffrey Stern (17:40.998) Not a leading question, I'm curious.

Tanya Budler (18:07.008) …community does amazing things. But I also think that it sometimes can be limiting to our nonprofits where they feel like their hands are tied and they can only do certain things or where they have to collect certain types of data that's not actually serving their mission or serving the goals that they have. And so I think we felt like we could move faster and more freely by being a for-profit. And then with the money that we make as a for-profit, we can feed it back into the organizations that we believe are doing the on the ground work that's serving the larger ecosystem. Cause you know, we do partner with quite a few nonprofits so we can feed it back into the system if you will. But that being said, we also really, really, really knew that our client had to be, or our customer had to be public entities. And that allowed us to be a for-profit rather than just like a grant-based program.

Jeffrey Stern (19:03.550) What does accountability and success look like in practice? Like how do you think about when you are working through a project and maybe just take us through kind of, soup to nuts, what it looks like in practice….

Tanya Budler (19:18.568) Yeah, of course. So there's a couple different things like the meat and potatoes of what we do is building a welcoming workforce. We have other things that we do on the side, which is more directly connected to nonprofits rather than civic entities. But the welcoming workforce is the bulk of what we do. So we get a contract from a city or a county and much to the chagrin of my mentor, we always make them short contracts because if you have to hire us for 10 years, we're not doing our job. We're coming in here to supercharge your impact….is we set up a coalition and the coalition represents all different sectors of live, work and play, as well as the local international newcomer communities. So in many ways, they provide the oversight, right? They are the folks that we work with to find the solution and also to keep us on track. Keeping in sort of line with, as I said, the asset-based community development, they also help us understand what is it that we have to play with to really create a….the genuine truth is we don't set metrics until we sit at the table with them. Because as a relative outsider to a community, we have no right to determine what success looks like without consulting the community first, right? So we sit with them and we understand what their goals are. We understand what they're capable of achieving. And then we set realistic expectations. Um, but usually the three goals that aren't attached to direct numbers and metrics that we start with is, is first changing hearts and minds. That's the short version….realize the importance and power of having a welcoming workforce. Second is retaining. So how do you make sure that your existing international newcomer population is thriving in the community? And then the third is attracting. So how are you further enabling or rather expanding the reputation as a great place to live, work, and play for folks around the United States, around the world to come live in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, for example?

Jeffrey Stern (21:13.094) Can we unpack the term welcoming workforce?

Tanya Budler (21:16.628) Yeah, of course. I sort of came up with it one day, so we should unpack it. You probably don't know what it is. I also worked in brand for a little bit and I realized that people do a lot better with catchphrases, myself included. And I think our definition of a welcoming workforce is when you have employers, community members, and sort of elected officials who make it very easy for international newcomers to be a part of your workforce. And so that can mean everything….language access to being culturally responsive and understanding, or just to give people a shot. You know, right now I'm working with a bunch of engineers from Afghanistan who have 12 years of experience in engineering, but haven't been given a shot to even apply as an engineer. And you've heard these stories, like some of them are door dash drivers, like that's ridiculous, right? And so welcoming workforce is making sure that everybody who has a play in our workforce is allowing people to have an opportunity at accessing the jobs want to. It's not a handout, it's like almost a hands-off, just like let them be a part of the ecosystem.

Jeffrey Stern (22:22.190) Hmm. Changing hearts and minds is a difficult undertaking. how do you do this?

Tanya Budler (22:33.248) Well, that's something that I think has been, I've been preparing my whole life for. The youngest of four and definitely the black sheep of the family and have been like, kind of slowly convincing people to see things differently my whole life. There's a couple of things that come to mind of how we can change hearts and minds. This is also a unique opportunity, right? Because it's not only the right thing to do as humans right now, but it's also the right thing to do economically. As you know, I said, jobs by 2030. We don't really have another choice. And so we can give the business case for why creating a welcoming workforce matters. And we can also give the heart case. And so what we try to do is mix those two, right? We try to give you the data of why this matters, but also the stories of why it matters and really get people's head in their hearts, right? Like, so that they can get on board. And the other way we do it is using voices that they can connect with. Because some people will listen to me. Some people listen to me. Some people will listen to you more. Or some people might listen to a dear friend of mine who's from the Congolese community, right? So we just try to make sure that we create as many opportunities as possible for people to hear the message and then relate to it, either through the data and the business case or through the personal stories.

Jeffrey Stern (23:50.950) So I would love to layer onto this now, the Northeast Ohio layer. You mentioned that, you know, ultimately you're working to play to a community's assets, to their strengths. Where are we today in terms of the context of the problems that you're focused on solving? I know historically Cleveland, the greater Northeast Ohio region is like it's there's a much higher percentage of immigration here than in other places. What what is the the landscape look?

Tanya Budler (24:28.888) Yeah. And this goes to your original question of why Ohio? I moved here because of the history of immigration and international newcomers, right? This is the Rust Belt. This is the industrial space. And much of our country, especially here, was built on the back of immigrants, whether it be Polish or Italian or Irish or what have you. But the modern scene is quite interesting, right? It is something that people don't necessarily see. But if you look at the Cleveland metropolitan area, it disproportionately think of like New York, California or Texas maybe, but Northeast Ohio per capita is resettling far more refugees than people think. They're also the only thing that's causing growth right now in our region. Everybody knows this fact, right? We have a rapid decline in birth rates, a high retirement aging population, so we're just not replacing folks the way we used to. And the census data showed that we dropped in population by 0.4% in Northeast Ohio, but the international newcomer population increased by 7.5%. And so if you look at sort of their role, they are keeping us above water so that we're not really just declining rapidly. And I think the other thing that's particularly interesting about the landscape in Northeast Ohio is that it's all newcomers. So when we talk about building a welcoming workforce, we see it in three different lanes. So the first lane of international newcomers in our minds, or the way we describe…And so these are folks who did not necessarily plan to be here, but are brought here for protection and safety. And they're in that category because they have sometimes similar barriers, whether it be language or transitioning from traumatic environments. But they are here and they have work permission. And that's one category. The second lane of a welcoming workforce is international students. And this makes Ohio particularly interesting because we have an insanely large population of international students….in the top 10 states in the country for attracting international students to our universities. Northeast Ohio has over 7,000 alone, but we don't keep them, which is why it's important for us to talk about how to keep them. And then the third category is those paid visas. So the more traditional immigrant and the Cleveland Clinic's a great example of how you can bring over folks from different parts of the world and pay for their visas and get them on green card paths and things like that. So those three all exist in Northeast Ohio,…all three. That's sort of this opportunity, right? Like it was perfect, why would we be here? But we can be better in all three lanes.

Jeffrey Stern (27:33.472) ….Well, it's different. And I mean, this stuff is so interesting. And I think it's particularly interesting in Cleveland because, I mean, a lot of the work that you're doing is trying to actually bridge all the groups in the area who are trying to be collaborative, and I would hope are receptive to the work you're doing….Like, how has the reception been to what you were doing?

Tanya Budler (28:05.108) Yeah, and you know, I'll tell you the super layman's way of how I say, why I tell people like my mom, what I do for work, I say that I'm almost like a translator between the sectors because I have sat in a room before where a nonprofit is trying to describe to a for profit what they're trying to accomplish, and they just don't understand it. Or the elected official is trying to describe it to whomever. There's just a disconnect and they speak such different languages between the sectors that though they want to collaborate, something gets lost in translation.

Tanya Budler (28:35.388) And so that is really what we do. We step into the very center of all these sectors and get them to realize that their goal is the same. They just have slightly different ways of describing it. And I'll tell you, I've been really pleasantly surprised at how open most folks are to this work. And I've been surprised because I'm myself a form of a newcomer. I'm an outsider in many ways, right? And yet I've walked straight into a lot of inside rooms, trying to make things change.

Tanya Budler (29:05.068) to the fact that we found a really sweet spot where there's a problem people really need to solve and that's how do we help people thrive in our communities and how do we fill in this like incredible need for workers not only today but for the future. So whether willingly or unwillingly, I don't know, but people have been quite open.

Jeffrey Stern (29:22.050) Yeah, it is the, is the, is the cell different to each of the respective, you know, organizations and how does it differ?

Tanya Budler (29:32.108) Now you're asking all the tough questions that live in my head and I don't say out loud.

Jeffrey Stern (29:37.650) Yeah, well, because I, you know, I, they, I do, because I feel like what you are saying is correct, but I know that they all have their own incentives and their own motivations. And so, you know, in translating and bringing these groups together, you know, you're parsing through how to speak their languages in a way that each other can understand. And so I'm curious what that looks like.

Tanya Budler (30:03.035) Yeah, it's a very good question. And like I said, this stuff lives in my head and not many people ask me, so I appreciate you bringing it to life. What might be helpful is I can describe to you what our MVP of sorts was that helped us realize this could work.

Jeffrey Stern (30:17.314) Yeah.

Tanya Budler (30:21.728) Because I think that when you describe it without a proof of concept, it seems like it could work, but it seems totally insane. Like you're telling me you're going to get three different groups of people with totally different agendas and lots of egos and history to agree on one thing. Yeah, good luck. Um, but we got it to work. So, uh, this is when we were still assessing how we wanted to launch Rise together and had decided that I would move to Cleveland.

Tanya Budler (30:52.508) after grad school. And at the time I was working for the governor of Connecticut. And governor Lamont is really progressive and open in that he lets people try things out when they work in his office, usually quite freely. And that was in the summer of 2021. So if you remember, that's when Afghanistan fell. And I had already mentioned to them my interest in newcomers. And so I wrote up a memo, had a call with his senior policy director, and I said, they're gonna be coming

know if the state is ready, because this will be the largest inflow of an international newcomer group that the state or the country has ever received. And I don't think it's that you don't have the right resources. I just don't think that they're alive. And sent him the memo and like all things in politics, hurry up and wait. And a few weeks went by and then he just calls me and he's like, Gov said it's a go, go build it. And so I was given a chance at a state level to pilot the idea of if you brought together private, public and nonprofit entities, and you really brought them

Tanya Budler (31:51.468) that you could create a welcoming workforce or really enhance the presence of newcomers. So just context, as most people have seen on the news, 72,000, 73,000 Afghans were evacuated and brought to the United States. The federal government determined how many would go to each state in the beginning, and Connecticut was set to get 214. So that was our spearhead number in September. And we brought together all of these agencies.

Tanya Budler (32:21.528) that they have to offer. We talked about their capacity, what they had to give, what they didn't have to give. And once a week for 15 minutes, we would bring up the problems or the fires we were trying to put out. I would also have lots of phone calls on the side to make sure everyone was feeling good and speaking their own language. I was actually just in Connecticut last week and I heard that there are well over a thousand Afghans in the state when the original number was 214. And that just showed the power of, it's not often you get a government department that

Tanya Budler (32:51.508) with a nonprofit that agrees with a large organization like Bigelow T, right? But they did. And now they've five times their capacity.

Jeffrey Stern (33:03.150) Hmm. Yeah, no, I love that. Cause I think the alignment of incentives is quite powerful. And if you're able to do that productively in a way that is going to positively impact people, that's quite exciting.

Tanya Budler (33:20.488) Yeah, and that is our sweet spot, right? We're particularly good at getting people to agree on a destination. The paths are different. It's like a weaving road, right? We're getting to the same end goal, but we all know we have a different journey to get there. And I think that is what's different about our approach is we're not trying to tell people you have to walk this straight line with us. We're like, whatever you gotta do to get there, this is where we're going.

Jeffrey Stern (33:44.930) What are the challenges that you face from a business perspective when you think about Rise Together as a business and growing it and scaling it? What keeps you up at night?

Tanya Budler (34:01.929) Those are like the same question, but also totally different questions. I'll get to the what keeps me up at night later. The challenges as a business are, I think every entrepreneur faces these challenges. The founders panic where sometimes you feel like you were totally in stride and you're getting it and people get what you're doing. In other days, you feel like you're floundering and that did you make the right choice?

Tanya Budler (34:29.828) briefly talking about the conversation Simon Sinek had in an interview recently, where he was saying that, you know, we over glamorize being an entrepreneur, but in reality, all founders have an unreasonable level of expectation and, and idealism and drive. And that's what makes us successful, but it's also what makes us a little crazy. So I think my challenges are the same as any other business where sometimes you're really striking gold and sometimes you're not.

Tanya Budler (35:00.188) is capacity because the need is greater than we can meet. You know Rise Together is not even a full year old. I only officially incorporated it last end of April and we already are building a welcoming workforce in Summit County, Cuyahoga Falls, the city. We're doing a big project with Cuyahoga County and then also doing some coalition building and thought leadership with United Way of Greater Cleveland and that's a lot of work for one year when you're still

Tanya Budler (35:29.908) build up your own workforce. So I think our challenge is the need is greater than we can meet right now and how do we balance building the business while doing the business.

Jeffrey Stern (35:39.850) Do you feel in the context of the problem you're trying to solve, which again is very large, it's a large problem, and the work you're doing is focused and local, do you think about how do you attempt to scale this to be much larger than what you are doing right now?

Tanya Budler (36:02.028) Yeah, a lot. And some of that is our business model, right? Like, again, much to the chagrin of my mentor, he's like, that's stupid to tell your clients that you don't want to work with them for more than five years. But the idea is that we work ourselves out of a job, like we can go in and create an ecosystem that's sustainable without us, right? Like we should not be a line on your budget. We should be something that you can bring in and create an ecosystem that serves your

Tanya Budler (36:32.548) we do have to think beyond Northeast Ohio. We have to think beyond even the Rust Belt and how do we become sort of a leader in building systems level change for newcomers. And that's like my dream goal, right? Is that we continue to be kind of a leading model of how you can bring all people to the table and make welcoming workforces here in Northeast Ohio, or I'm sure my family would love it if it was also Nebraska someday or whatever it might be.

Jeffrey Stern (37:02.150) How, I'm gonna go through kind of like the business questions…..Is there, what does competition look like? Like what, I, yeah. How do you think about competition?

Tanya Budler (37:16.528) Great question. We have a competition, like ish competition in that people can perceive us as competition. And if that's the case, then I'm not doing my job at describing to them how we partner together. There are a lot of nonprofits that do similar work, but they're not doing systems level convening. And so I try to have conversations with them of we are in this together. You have expertise, we have expertise. We're sitting at the same table.

Tanya Budler (37:46.828) for resources. I guess we do compete with traditional like strategy management or consulting and things like that, but there's no one focused hyper on international newcomers as an answer to the economic development needs, which again is why we focused on it. Because if we just did workforce at large, everybody under the sun is focused at workforce on large right now, right? Versus for us being really dialed in, there's not as much competition.

Jeffrey Stern (38:10.850) Are there good parallels or historical examples that you draw from for this kind of work specifically locally, in America, elsewhere? In terms of over the long term, which obviously you don't have too much to look back on yet,

Tanya Budler (38:31.215) Eh.

Jeffrey Stern (38:40.631) I'm not doing a good job asking this question at all. But what I'm trying to get at is the impact of this kind of focus specifically and how it's played out elsewhere.

Tanya Budler (38:50.129) Yeah.

Tanya Budler (38:53.248) Yeah, I mean, I think that's the other thing that gets me so jazzed up about this work is like, we didn't create it, right? Like there's data that shows that collective impact works and that asset-based community development works. That's okay. Because we don't always use data in entrepreneurial journeys, but we do. We do base this off of stuff that we know works and we really embrace the collective impact model, sort of the five ingredients to effective collective impact.

Jeffrey Stern (38:59.295) Yeah.

Jeffrey Stern (39:02.411) Data, that's the word. How is that the word I couldn't think of? Ha ha ha.

Tanya Budler (39:23.208) this has worked and not necessarily in including international newcomers in the workforce, but in general, when you bring everyone to a table and you use the strongest assets of a community to solve a collective problem, magical things happen and we see it at small scale, like in tiny towns of maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand people. You can also see it at large scale. Like I mentioned the Connecticut example, right? That was a statewide initiative. So, um, yeah, I, I, if there weren't for data, I want to be so unabashed that this works.

Jeffrey Stern (39:53.391) So you laid out the set of specific work that you have over the last year. When you think about what comes next, what has you most excited over the next year, over the next five years, how is Rise Together changing going?

Tanya Budler (40:14.368) Yeah, I'm really excited to have it work here. Right? We know that it works in Connecticut. There's sort of the proof of concept. But I really believe in walking the talk. And the first year was building the business building a reputation of the business and myself here and a lot of talking and now we're walking while we're more like sprinting. But I'm really excited for the results to speak for themselves. And you know, the Cuyahoga Falls Welcoming is getting kicked off in a couple of weeks publicly. And so with the Summit County, and I'll share, I think I can share this number, but the program we're doing in Cuyahoga County, when we first set out to do it, we had a goal, we had a number that we would be able to serve 120 international newcomer communities, or rather refugee families in the first year, 120, right? We thought that that was a doable number. In the first quarter alone, we served 150. And so we were like five times faster than we thought….reaching the refugee community in Cuyahoga County. And so what I'm excited for is to continue to show that this works because I think it will help more people why they'd rather let go of their white knuckling of things that are hard to change or open their hearts to the importance of this work. And yeah, we've got a lot of work I'm hiring if anyone's looking for a fun entrepreneurial adventure, reach out to me, but I'm really excited to show instead of just talk about it.

Jeffrey Stern (41:42.130) ,,,that's very exciting. When you say to serve, you know, one of these families, I think it would, it would be really cool to understand what that looks like in practice too, like take, taking us through the actual journey that, that someone would go through…what does that entail?

Tanya Budler (42:01.508) Thank you.

Tanya Budler (42:05.788) Yeah, great question. And I also think it's really important to note that the reason why we do asset-based community development is because not every community is properly oriented to serve every international community, right? We look at where are you best aligned to make sure someone can live, work, and play? Because I will never enter a contract with somebody if they're using international newcomers to solve their low wage jobs that nobody wants. There's a very big difference

Tanya Budler (42:36.268) And we will work with you if you believe in belonging. And so I'll use the Cuyahoga County example, right? We've got a ton of refugees and asylum seekers here and incredible web of social services and nonprofits, perhaps too many nonprofits sometimes in this region, but we have tons here, right? There's a significant number of them. And refugees are resettled here. So they set up their home base here and we can build the ecosystem around them. I'll share a story of beginning to end

Tanya Budler (43:05.908) But again, remember, it's not the same for Summit. This is not what we'll be doing in Summit, just based off of their resources. So it's pretty wild to me that we live in such a vibrant community with services and opportunities, both publicly funded and privately funded, that people have zero clue about. Go ahead, now I can see your face. You're like, yeah.

Jeffrey Stern (43:27.415) Yes, nodding in violent agreement.

Tanya Budler (43:30.388) Yeah, wild, truly wild. So, you know, people don't realize Cleveland has a pretty significant Congolese population. And they've been here a long time and they came here, you know, they've been in war. That country has been unstable for decades and decades. So people don't realize that they're here. And we started this program with this collaboration of nonprofits. There are six nonprofits that work with Rise together to be serving the international newcomer community here, the refugee community.

Tanya Budler (43:59.908) Trust Network. So like I text them and they WhatsApp the community and the whole Congolese community knows about something, right? That's the beauty of sort of the trust factor here. But I'll give you an example of some of the families that we've been working with. They have, they have to access public benefits because a lot of them have many children and don't necessarily have the skill set or the language ability to have a high paying job. And so they'll apply for benefits through the county and get a letter in English talking

Tanya Budler (44:30.508) They don't speak English, they don't read, let alone in their native language, they miss their interview and they don't get their benefits. Where we step in is there's somebody who actually gets the letter and helps them get their interview. We have a lot of growth in the public service space and so even when they miss the interviews, we can then call on behalf on their behalf to the county and figure out what is going on. But what's more exciting about sort of their path is we find out what they're interested in employment and we can track and get them attached to an employer because rise together is building the relationship with the employers.

And so we talk to the employers, we make sure they're prepared to serve a newcomer, and then we connect the newcomer in. The Congolese community has a ton of single mothers who were just struggling to get by, living off of food stamps because they can't afford child care, not really leaving their houses. Just last week, we piloted an event with Family Space, which is based out of the Cleveland Public Libraries. And it's like a playdate with local children. And they sing songs and they play games and they do sort of growth oring into

activities and bubbles. And it was really special moment where we took a public resource, something that is a public library, this project's funded by United Way and it's available to all their American neighbors. They never knew about it. And now this Congolese mother with her young children can sit there and play and get to be a kid again. Bright Beginnings is another family oriented organization that's publicly funded that they never knew existed. So I'm just like….there's so many, there's no straight line, right? They need everything from live, work and play. And we're just connecting them to those resources while simultaneously those resources, we're teaching them how to better serve.

Jeffrey Stern (46:13.651) Libraries are really underrated. So underrated. Man, what a public institution that way more people should utilize.

Tanya Budler (46:16.248) Amen. Amen. They are. They are. Yep.

Tanya Budler (46:25.348) I mean, it's magical and I'll share another anecdote. There were many moments in 2015 when I met the men from Syria that wrecked me. And hearing your stories is one of them, but I'll never forget sitting with this guy and he pulls open Facebook. Because there's also this misconception where people think refugees are from a third world country and don't have access to modern things. That's not the case, right? He pulled out his iPhone, he gets on Facebook, and he shows me pictures of his kids.

Tanya Budler (46:55.328) And he's telling me about his children and that they were still at home because he had to do the journey that most of them did, which was literally swim across the sea to get to Europe and walk to Germany. Right. And he's showing me pictures of his kids, but something was just different about those pictures than what we're used to. They weren't smiling. They were very sad. These were children who were quite clearly robbed of their childhood. But he was so proud still. Right….that so many kids in the world don't get to be kids. And when we were at the library the other day, these kids were pretty stoic and quiet and kept to themselves. And at the end of the day, the little girl who's like maybe 12 months, maybe 11 months old is giggling, playing with bubbles. And like, that's the power of connecting people to existing resources is you get to watch a little kid be a kid again. And you know, they've been here for a year and they didn't even know this resource was down the road from them.

Jeffrey Stern (47:54.170) Hmm. That's pretty powerful. So as you reflect on the journey so far, I would love to get your thoughts on some of the lessons that you have learned as you've gone through building Rise Together, that you are taking with you, some of which we've already talked about along the way here….aspects to the journey that have surprised you or that you think about that are important.

Tanya Budler (48:35.589) Hmm. Yeah, so many, so many. And I think I've mentioned a few, so I'll just re-mention them. Like what's meant for you won't miss you. And I think if you set your North Star, and you are true to yourself and your values, that you're not going to end up in a horrible place. Right? It's not easy, and it's full of lots of bumps and sometimes dumpster fires. But like, as long as your North

Tanya Budler (49:03.228) okay, and a huge part of that as a founder is having a community and having sort of your kitchen cabinet, the people who support you or like call you out when you need to be called out. And I think what I'm really learning and continue to grow on is that it is a very isolating journey to be a founder and to be a founder in a new place and to be a founder in a space that there aren't as many people who do this type of stuff, right? Like I think

Tanya Budler (49:33.208) with a different type of entity rather than being a business. And so that's a lesson I'm continuing to learn, is to find my community in this space. And then I think the last thing that I think about a lot when I was trying to decide if I was going to move here. A couple of summers ago, I was on the phone with... I have a lot of mentors in my life, as you're hearing, they help me a ton. I was on the phone with one of them when I was trying to decide, like, do I just move here? Do I give up

Tanya Budler (50:03.648) my community do I just move here and try this and he said to me that if you have the ability to take the risk to serve people then you should always take the risk and Minus my dog that you can hear in the background right now. I have no dependence so this is like the one time in my life that I know I can take the risk and I Will forever be grateful that I got to do that And I think that's something I will always hold with me is if you have the ability to take the risk to serve people You always should

Jeffrey Stern (50:33.990) What is the power of mentorship to you? The importance of mentors.

Tanya Budler (50:43.549) And I think that you only stand as tall as the people who hold you up. And I have a whole like army of people that hold me up. Uh, and some of that is. I just like a natural community person too, you know, I'm the youngest of a big family and I'm an extreme extrovert. And so that all plays in my favor. But I think that I've always sought out people who will just open their hearts and their minds to me and guide me….what it meant to be a business woman growing up. My generation, my cousins and I are the first generations of non-farmers in family history. And that's wild, right? There's not a single farmer in our generation. And so mentors are the only way I am where I am is because they have given me a chance to see who I could be. And another thing that a friend said to me recently is, isn't it wild to live a life that's bigger than your dreams were? And I think that's because I had really good mentors….down the path and it doesn't have to be formal. I think people always ask me like, how do you find a mentor? Get to know somebody and see if you click and keep in touch with them. And you know, I've got mentors from when I was 16 to making new ones today. Like people are always willing to share what got them to where they are. And so just be willing to listen.

Jeffrey Stern (52:02.350) Yeah, that resonates a lot. That and there's the abundance of mentorship and people who are kind enough to write words down and books.

Tanya Budler (52:14.872) Yes. Yes. And we all love talking about ourselves. So just ask people and they will tell you.

Jeffrey Stern (52:21.950) …I want to kind of round it out here. I don't even know if this is a fair question, but I'm curious how you think about it because you mentioned hearing your father's eulogy was kind of like a powerful moment for you in the trajectory of what you're doing….eulogy values are and trying to avoid that later in life regret of not having done the things that you thought were important to do. So, you know, in retrospect, from a future state, you know, what is the impact that you are hoping to have?

Tanya Budler (53:14.842) I really liked that question. No one's asked me that. I think personally, I want nothing more than people to say that I was somebody who was committed to serving others. And whatever that might look like right now, it looks like my business, but whatever it might look like in the future. And professionally through Rise Together, I would love nothing more than Northeast Ohio and Ohio as a state to be the leader in the country for what it means to have an inclusive economy….up the, the manufacturing industry again, I would love nothing more than people to look to Ohio as a model of how you meet the needs of the workforce by including international newcomers, especially because that's not what they would originally think, but I love a good underdog. I love catching people off guard. Uh, and I think when you combine Midwestern kindness with sort of that, like hustle and grit of newcomers, something quite magical can happen. So I would love that. That's my vision and my dream….is that people look to us as a model for meeting the needs of that 80 million workers short by 2030. That's what we're aiming for.

Jeffrey Stern (54:33.750) Hmm. I have to ask about this only because of how topical it is. And normally I like to ask more, you know, evergreen questions, but it's impossible to not think about AI and its implications for workforce and development, particularly in the context of, you know, these numbers and shortages and meaning and a lot of these things that you're talking about actually. What are your thoughts?

Tanya Budler (55:03.308) Yeah, great, great question. I think AI is going to accelerate the ability to create a welcoming economy because the major barriers are language for the bulk of newcomers that are in that first lane of refugees and asylum seekers, but AI around language is wild. It is truly wild. The way that translation interpretation has changed in our lifetime. Like when I did a high school exchange year, not that long ago, but not super of this book that I would carry around with me to look upwards versus now you can just like talk to somebody using an app or Google Translate in real time. I think that it's going to minimize the barriers so that people who are highly skilled and trained professionals can do that same work here. You know, I'll give you a couple quick examples of some barriers that we're facing that I think AI will help with. put 10 million towards that, right? This is a national movement and a local movement. But right now, they're really not good at meeting different language folks. And we're trying and we're working very closely with them, but we're still seeing some barriers. And I've got 30 men that speak Arabic, some of whom are master electricians, so 20 years as an electrician or 15 years as a civil engineer, and yet they are unable to access these open jobs that we're desperately trying to fill.

Tanya Budler (56:33.268) There you go. It can fill in a way that we haven't before. I'll also say, because I've gotten this question is, well, will we still have 80 million workers short with AI? Even if it have that number, we should be terrified by 40 million. We should be terrified by 20 million.

Jeffrey Stern (56:51.130) Yeah, yeah, that's fair. That, yeah, I like that framing also. I, the language barrier in this particular context. That's really cool.

Tanya Budler (57:02.508) Yeah, I mean, speaking of language, there's a new AI technology that will take this exact podcast with both of our voices, both of our intonations and do it in a different language.

Jeffrey Stern (57:14.250) Crazy. Ha ha ha.

Tanya Budler (57:15.208) Why? Right? Just banana world. So, um, it doesn't keep me up because it scares me of the validity of this work. It keeps me up because it's going to unlock potential in the workforce in ways that I don't think any of us can even imagine.

Jeffrey Stern (57:29.210) Wow, I also love that. What keeps you up at night is positive and excitement. That's the best answer to what keeps you up at night that I've ever heard.

Tanya Budler (57:39.250) And anyone who knows me who's gonna listen to this is gonna be like, that's the most Tanya thing I've ever heard.

Jeffrey Stern (57:45.271) Because I was going to circle back to what keeps you up at night. We already know that's incredible. Well I'll ask you a far less profound closing question, which is the question that we ask everyone who comes on the show, which is about Cleveland and the surrounding Northeast Ohio area….that other people should know about that maybe they don't. A hidden gem.

Tanya Budler (58:18.808) Great. I have a couple because I can't discriminate. So CASA is downtown. It's right on Euclid. It's like a Middle Eastern version of Chipotle. And it's a hidden gem that people should check out. You maybe wouldn't look at it because it's on CSU's campus, but very near and dear to all of us because when we were here prospecting rice together, we were starving and we ran in there for food and they were so welcoming.

Jeffrey Stern (58:22.150) Perfect. The more the merrier.

Tanya Budler (58:49.248) They were so excited for us. They offered their office space if we ever needed to take a call and they were just really really amazing That was in the summer of 21 Fast forward I moved here. I went in maybe the fall of 22 and the guy remembers me and he was like, oh welcome back How's the business and I was like, oh I moved here and he's like, oh That's a hidden gem. That's community. That's the power of sort of the hustle of an international newcomer as well and I also think that

Tanya Budler (59:18.848) ….They should go to ready set coffee. It's also in my neighborhood, but it's woman owned and really cozy and homey. And I think you and I have had these conversations offline of the importance of building up women, women business owners and women founders. And anytime I….and is trying to do the right thing. I want to support them, and especially if they're a woman. And Reddy said, I've never seen a place where she comes out from behind making coffees every day and sits with the community members who come in there. And they're not the typical people you would see going to like a bougie coffee shop, but she wants to chat with them about their day. So those are the two places I think people should check out.

Jeffrey Stern (01:00:05.993) And it's where we met for the first time as well.

Tanya Budler (01:00:10.228) That's right, see? I'm true to my word, ready, set, coffee, that's right.

Jeffrey Stern (01:00:15.493) Yes, authentic, a real recommendation. That's awesome. Well, Tanya, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story and more about Rise Together and the work you are doing.

Tanya Budler (01:00:28.668) Yeah, thank you so much for having me and I hope more people get inspired to move to Ohio because it's really one of the best places to take on the wild and exciting and horribly hard journey of being an entrepreneur.

Jeffrey Stern (01:00:43.472) Well, if people had anything they wanted to follow up with you about questions, comments, thoughts, concerns, I don't know what concerns they would have. What would be the best way for them to do so?

Tanya Budler (01:01:01.028) Yeah, folks can reach out to me via email. It's tanya at Also, if you want to work for me or work with us, please reach out or on LinkedIn as well. Would love to even just hear if people are hearing things or have feedback. I think the most powerful and respectful thing you can do is offer feedback to someone. So would love to hear those thoughts as well.

Jeffrey Stern (01:01:26.051) Awesome. Well, thank you again.

Tanya Budler (01:01:28.048) Yeah, thanks so much.