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Iraqi Veteran Ph.D. Candidate Pursues Passion for Rural Businesses Research

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

By Kerry Hoffschneider

Jamie Gustafson said her six-year enlistment in the U.S. Air Force and deployment for Iraqi Freedom taught her the value of community. Gustafson believes the crux of rural communities are small businesses and that is why she is earning her Ph.D. in Philosophy in Business. Back in the states, she is dedicating her service to rural development, focusing on promoting Nebraska communities and existing and new small business ventures.

Gustafson’s passion for all things rural development is why she needs the survey input of non-urban employees and founders of small businesses outside of Lincoln and Omaha. The survey is part of Gustafson's research seeking to find leadership and management qualities that support and develop strong teams and thriving businesses. Input is also needed from business owners and employees managing and working for farms and ranches. Gustafson stressed that a diverse and comprehensive data set is needed to reach the impact goals she has set forth in her studies.

“When I was younger, I wanted to save the world,” Gustafson recalled. “I was unsure of what that would entail or look like; however, it was one of the driving forces behind me going into the military.”

“When I was deployed in Balad Iraq, I was hit hard with the idea of community, culture, beliefs, and family,” she went on. “Inside the zone, (or the fence), a whole mission was occurring. Yet outside the fence, with towers pointing towards them, families still existed – kids played, and goats grazed. How two worlds could exist only feet apart, was something I struggled to wrap my mind around.”

Gustafson admitted it has taken her many years to identify the deep scars those experiences left upon her, “Yet, it made me re-examine what service is and how to create change effectively.”

She relayed a quote by Mother Teresa to help explain, “‘If you want to change the world, go home, and love your family.’ This is a quote that has also changed the way I think. My belief before was that being a parent or community member was insignificant. Yet, it is the most significant part of life.”

“I now want to be the best version of myself to create confidence and lift others around me up so they can also serve the people closest to them,” she said with enthusiasm. “These ripples can be felt, but also come with a price at times. The price was hard at first and made me feel naked. However, being vulnerable to my weaknesses and identifying where I have failed has been the best way to connect with others and brainstorm the best solutions to overcome any issue. Sometimes it is cold and dark, but when others are also willing to be open and, ‘dance in the rain,’ beauty is born.”

Gustafson said what really makes her tick is embracing herself and others, (flaws and all), and seeing the beauty in people while injecting growth and value into the relationship. This is a vital part of building and growing successful businesses too, she noted.

There is nothing that makes her more excited than positively impacting others in her network, “One week ago, I had one of the best days of my life. Three of the closest women to me told me stories about how I was part of their strength in difficult situations. My friend was going to her boss to ask for a raise. She stated that she carried me with her and when asking her boss, she thought to herself, ‘What would Jamie say?’”

Aiding in peoples’ self-confidence is a true inspiration for Gustafson, “In business, I love doing this as well. Every business has a personality. Discovering that personality and embracing the value and then promoting this to customers, all while creating a win-win, is one of my favorite things to do.”

“When I moved to Nebraska, the sense of community and history is something I had never felt or seen before,” she added passionately. “Businesses are the center of the community. The ones that sell coffee to grumpy old men. The ones that serve women in the salons and the ones who provide the necessities of life. These businesses were born for the community and their roots were built differently than those in larger urban areas.”

“Relationships cannot be ignored in these non-urban businesses, and I noticed the concept of a rural entrepreneur went against many elements taught within business degrees. That is what sparked my desire to thoroughly study these businesses and to build research on the uniqueness of their founders,” Gustafson explained.

That is why she is reaching out to Nebraskans and asking them to please take part in an anonymous, thorough survey that can be found easily at and takes approximately 20 minutes to complete, “The anonymous results will be shared with established, local programs. The ultimate hope is to build seminars and lessons that directly connect with how Nebraska businesses can thrive. The survey is also part of my graduation requirement as a research portion of my dissertation.”

Gustafson said a healthy, loving, community is, “Open to ideas, embraces its members, and values its history. The vibrancy comes from the connection a community has to its background while it also builds for the future. The heart of the community is driven by excitement that involves the local schools and businesses at its core.”

She also made sure to relay the survey is offered in two, separate formats. One is a founder (owner survey) and the other is an employee survey. This covers a large share of Nebraskans, including the vital farms and ranches that are the backbone of the rural economy. She simply cannot wait to compile the information to serve others at home after serving so many in Iraq.

Gustafson said it’s all about discovering and uncovering what employees need to feel valued and what components it takes to increase profitability and innovation, “When a group of people come together with a common goal, the heights they can achieve are beyond any one person. Inserting specific elements into a business can create a wonderful business model, while also serving the community it resides in.”

Contact Jamie at:, 308-940-1282. The survey deadline is September 30, 2022.

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