Panel of Wichita Heavy Hitters urge Emerging Leaders to 'push the boundaries for what is possible'
Kelly Bielefeld and Keith Lawing on Panel

On Thursday, more than 30 in the Wichita Business Journal's Emerging Leaders program met at the Kansas Leadership Center to learn about how key community leaders envision Wichita's future.

The leaders, ranging from a bank president to a nonprofit executive director, all agreed — Wichita has a bright future ahead, but the city needs the next generation to come to the table and make their voices heard, whether in speaking with local city commissioners or joining boards.

"We need to push the boundaries for what is possible in Wichita and not hold ourselves back," said Ben Hutton, president of Hutton, a Wichita-based general contractor.


Although each organization on the panel had a different short-term future goal, many overlapped.

"(I want) every kid that comes out of Wichita Public Schools to see a place for themselves in the community," said Kelly Bielefeld, superintendent of Wichita Public Schools. "We want to retain our talent, capture them, and keep them here and invest in our community."

This is true for all residents of the community, including those with disabilities.

"(We want to eliminate the barriers) of hiring a blind and visually impaired person," Noreen Carrocci, Envision's senior vice president for Foundation and Mission Services, said to the Emerging Leaders.

Carrocci also said that public transportation is an issue that needs to be addressed in the future.

Keith Lawing, President and CEO of Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas agreed.

Lawing explained that public transportation in Wichita is twofold. One step is getting business people and tourists into the city through the airport. The other step is having transportation available to bring workers to their employers, especially second-shift workers.

"There's no direct service to Spirit or Textron," he said. "People are not able to maintain or accept those jobs."

Public transportation, Lawing said, needs to go beyond Wichita, as Integra Technologies will need 2,500 workers in Bel Aire soon.

"Transportation is a real challenge," Carrocci said. "We're such a car-driven city."

Lawing noted that many businesses might have looked away from opening in Wichita because of the transportation issue. Whether it is helping people buy a bicycle, figuring out how to fix a car or resolving daycare issues, Lawing said, "We need to eliminate barriers to employment."

In addition to transportation, Danielle Johnson, executive director of Wichita Habitat for Humanity, said the community needs to focus on affordable housing.

"We are working with folks who can't get into the housing market," she said. "(We need) to provide affordable housing solutions."

But to get businesses into Wichita, Aaron Bastian, president and CEO of Fidelity Bank, said along with affordable housing and good-paying jobs, the city needs to offer fun things to do.

"We need to use boldness. Try new things," he said. "Sometimes we make mistakes."

But out of those failures can come vibrant solutions that can bring more people and businesses to Wichita, the panelists said.

One of those solutions mentioned is the new biomedical center that will open downtown in 2026. This joint venture links the Kansas University School of Medicine-Wichita, Wichita State University, and WSU Tech.

All the organizations agreed money is tight and they hope before anyone thinks of starting a new nonprofit, they look at the nonprofits that already exist in the greater Wichita area and contribute in time or talent to those.

Asked how to prevent the "doom and gloom" attitude that leads to Wichita's outmigration of talent, Shirley LeFever, executive vice president and provost of Wichita State University, told the Emerging Leaders, "There's a snowball effect when everybody is talking about the good things, the good things grow.

"Before you overlook Wichita, make sure you look at Wichita," LeFever said.