Fascinating profile subjects abound everywhere I turn. Often times though I feel constrained to impart just how compelling a person’s story is by the limited space editors grant me. The subject of this of this profile, Taylor Keen, is a case in point. The 500 to 600 words allotted me to tell his story can only provide a hint of the complexity and nuance that attend his life and career journey. It’s a delightful writing challenge to be sure. All I can hope is that I leave you the reader with an engaging glimpse of the man and a thirst to know more.
Entrepreneur, Strategist and Nation Builder Taylor Keen
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Omaha Magazine
As the son of prominent, college-educated Native American parents who found success in and out of traditional circles, Creighton University‘s Taylor Keen says he grew up with the expectation “you had to walk in both worlds.”
He hails from northeast Oklahoma, where his late attorney father, Ralph F. Keen, was a conservative big wheel in Cherokee nation politics. His liberal Omaha Indian mother, Octa Keen, is a veteran nursing professional. He credits her for his being well-versed in traditional dances, songs and prayer ceremonies.
He successfully navigates “dual worlds” at Creighton as director of the Native American Center and as executive director of the Halo Institute, a business incubator. He’s also managing partner of his own consulting firm. Talon Strategy, which provides clients competitive intelligence and strategic facilitation solutions.
Off-campus, he maintains ceremonial duties as a member of the Omaha Hethuska Warriors. He previously did economic development consulting for the Omaha and Cherokee nations and served a stint on the Cherokee National Council.
He joined Creighton in 2008 in the wake of a tribal political controversy that pitted him against fellow Cherokee nation elected leaders. The issue involved the descendants of slaves held by the Cherokee in earlier times. Keen, who had eyes on becoming chief, says he “committed political suicide” when he took an unpopular stance and advocated these descendants enjoy the same rights as all native Cherokees.
It wasn’t the first time Keen survived personal upset. When his parents divorced he and his siblings bounced back and forth between Oklahoma and Omaha. With deep roots in each place, Keen calls both home.
Even from his earliest dealings with the outside world he says he was always aware “I was very different from other people,” adding, “That was a crucial life lesson. Identity for all of us as human beings is where it begins and ends.” He says his own “strong sense of identity” has helped him thrive.
He graduated from Millard North and ventured east to attend a private boarding school in Massachusetts to improve his chances of getting into an Ivy League institution. His plan worked when Dartmouth accepted him. He also studied at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. A paper he wrote attracted the attention of Metropolitan Fiber Systems, a spin-off of Peter Kiewit and Sons. “I was hired as a graduate intern at a very exciting time, working for all these powerful executives at a fresh young startup. I was hooked,” he says. “I returned the next summer and they sent me overseas.”
Swept up in the dot com-technology-telecom boom, he tried his hand at his own online business and though he says “it failed miserably,” he adds, “I learned a ton. I think all entrepreneurs learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.
My class at Harvard Business School, whether we like it or not, will be forever remembered as the dot com class. I believe 80 percent of us at least had some association with dot coms.”
Encouraged in the belief that his true calling lay in teaching, he’s found the right fit at Creighton. There he combines two of his favorite things by easing the path of Natives in higher education and by helping emerging businesses prepare themselves for angel investors .
“Creighton’s been very good to me,” he says. “It has very much let me play towards my passions and my strengths.”