Visionary Arkansans 

Twenty-five of the state's creative thinkers.

In the spirit of our Big Ideas issue, an annual showcase of proposals that would make Arkansas a better place to live, and last year's celebration of the influential Arkansans shaping Arkansas in myriad ways, this week we present a group we've dubbed Visionary Arkansans. Why are they visionary? Because they have ideas of transformative power. From Carol Reeves, the University of Arkansas's "entrepreneurship ambassador" on our cover who is working to develop a new school for innovation, to Epiphany, a Little Rock rapper who's using hip-hop as an international relations tool, to Geania Dickey, an early childhood education advocate who helped secure $100 million in funding for the state's pre-K program, many of those featured in this issue have taken — or are taking — a big idea and making it happen. OK, fair enough, others featured have a vision that is largely unto themselves, but without art and culture and food, what good is life?

On Sept. 21, many of the visionaries featured in this week's issue will participate in the second annual Arkansas Times Festival of Ideas at the Clinton School for Public Service, the Historic Arkansas Museum, Heifer International and the Old State House. Sessions will run concurrently at each venue from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. There'll be demonstrations, presentations and panel discussions, like our own version of Ted Talks. See the schedule on page 37. Sessions are free and open to the public, but reservations are requested.

Matt Price
Retail wizard

Little Rock native Matt Price started the online retailer Bourbon and Boots with partners Scott Copeland and Mike Mueller with one idea — Other e-commerce startups were doing it wrong. "When you're selling something that Amazon.com sells, you're going to lose," Price said. "They're going to beat you every day of the week. So we wanted to sell things differently, and we wanted to create a deeper relationship with out consumers."

Proudly Southern, featuring hip, handmade, artisan-quality items, the site has been a big hit with consumers who surf Pinterest for the next cute thing to add to their home, cupboard or wardrobe. The bottom line proves Price and Co. are onto something. With just six full-time employees, the company recently crossed the $1 million mark in sales, with a large percentage of that money going back to artisans.

Price sees the company's success as a kind of pocketbook response to the impersonal, mass-produced items you might find at Target or the mall. "I think people want to have a more unique experience," he said. "They want to know where their product came from. They want to know that someone locally made it, and a lot of people also want to keep the money in their local community." DK.

Theo Witsell

Theo Witsell stood still in a thicket at Lorance Creek Natural Area just south of Little Rock and started naming off the plants encircling him. Southern high bush blueberry. Muscadine. Sweet gum. Willow oak. Yellow passion flower. Cinnamon fern, bracken fern, Southern lady fern, netted chain fern, Virginia chain fern, royal fern. Edible ground nut. Hardhack spirea. Wood-oats, plume grass, rough-leaved goldenrod. Sessile bell wort. White flat-topped aster; that's a rare one, he said. Over there, elephant's foot, partridge berry, lots of crane-fly orchid. St. John's wort. Grape fern. Sphagnum moss, spongy in the sandy soil beneath our feet.

He was just getting going naming the 471 species of native plants that grow in Lorance Creek; the greatest diversity lies in a boggy area where, thanks to the power line mowing, sunlight has made its way in and allowed dormant seeds to sprout to life. He was there on this particular day collecting a sedge — Carex bullata — to send to a colleague in North Carolina who believes it's a little different from its eastern family. It looked like any old grass to the uneducated eye, but Witsell could distinguish it —even without its fruit. The 38-year-old botanist for the Natural Heritage Commission and Little Rock native can identify about 5,000 plants, a skill he says he works on constantly to maintain. (He started out in wildlife biology, he said, but found plants easier to catch.) In 2001 he identified a new species endemic to Arkansas, Pelton's rose gentian, which he named for the amateur botanist who found it in Saline County and showed it to him.


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