Why a Nebraska-born Harvard grad chose Cleveland for her next big move

by Michael Collier

CLEVELAND,Ohio — Born in Nebraska, raised in Missouri and educated in the Ivy League, Tanya Budler has always been determined to find her calling, whatever and wherever it may be. That journey through life has taken her from the farmlands of the Midwest to the hallowed halls of Harvard and studies abroad.

“I got the chance to travel the world and build youth programs, and become a brand director for a global company,” says Budler, founder of Rise Together, reflecting on her multi-sector experiences. “I got to work in a governor’s office during one of the most lucrative times to be in state government, managing the American Rescue Plan money.”

Budler’s current focus, Rise Together, is an impact consulting firm focused on workforce and immigration advocacy. She will be sharing her journey and experiences during GCP’s Middle Market Forum on Sept. 27, where she will moderate a discussion on building next-gen allure.

While each of her experiences have shaped her path, it was Budler’s time abroad that sowed the seeds of her passion and more clearly defined her purpose.

In 2015, Budler found herself in Berlin, translating stories of Syrian refugees who’d made their way to Germany. “It was one of the first times in my life where I’ve looked at someone and realized it is a flip of a coin that you are who you are, and I am who I am.”

“We’re the same age, and you’re running for your life while I’m staying in a swanky hotel in the center of Berlin paid for by work.” That eye-opening realization lit a fire under Budler, which has only intensified over tine.

Following grad school, and armed with varied professional experiences and an ever-broadening worldview, Budler decided upon the focus of her work: immigration and refugee resettlement. She began to think about where that work would have the most impact.

“I wanted a place that had a lot of problems, and a lot of will to solve them.”

After a decade of journeying across the globe, Budler eventually came to the realization that it’s in the roots, not the branches, that a tree’s greatest strength lies.

“I decided in the fall of 2020 that I would come back to the Midwest.”

After eleven years living on the coasts, time spent abroad and a degree from Harvard, why, Budler is often asked, was she planting herself back where she started?

“I realized I was a part of the ‘brain drain,’” she says. “I sort of believed the notion that I couldn’t do meaningful work back in the Midwest.”

“I am a little bit embarrassed,” she adds with a laugh, “that it took me 10 years to realize you could do good things not on the coasts.”

Choosing where in the heartland to call home was the next challenge for Budler, so she developed a set of criteria on what she was seeking in a city.

“Personally, it had to be on water, because I got very used to the ocean and wanted that access to nature. Professionally, I wanted a place that had a strong refugee resettlement community, which I think is symbolic of a strong civic culture and willingness to serve.”

“Third,” she says, “and the one that makes people laugh the most, is I wanted a place that had a lot of problems, and a lot of will to solve them.”

Enter Cleveland.

“I think there’s something special here, and I think it’s worth the risk.”

Lake Erie may have checked the first box, but it was a unique and powerful sense of community and civic pride that sold her on the North Coast.

“No one shies away from the challenges we have as a city,” she says of her adoptive hometown. “What really drew me in was the number of people who said ‘let’s figure this out’ and were willing to open up their arms and lunch tables and living rooms and boardrooms and let me be a part of that change.”

Budler, 30, sought not just a job, but a defined purpose and the opportunity to enact meaningful, measurable change.

“Millennials and Gen-Z, we’re not willing to just wait around and maybe be a a part of the change.”

She quickly realized that in Cleveland, as in most major cities, institutions and their levers of power can often remain in the same hands for a generation or more. While such continuity can provide stability over time, without a willingness to give the next generation a chance to pull those those levers, that stability can turn to stagnation, both for organizations and those they employ.

“Give them a seat at the table, and trust them to be a part of the process.”

On a whim, in February of 2020, Budler sent a LinkedIn message to the board chair of one of Ohio’s largest economic development organizations, introducing herself and briefly explaining her goals and vision.

He responded.

“If he didn’t, there’s a 100% chance I wouldn’t be in Cleveland.”

“The most simple thing people can do,” Budler contends, “is respond to emails.”

Through their correspondence, which continues today, Budler was able to connect with others and begin to envision herself living and making a difference in a place where she knew no one.

“I think there’s something special here, and I think it’s worth the risk.”

“How are you saving a seat?”

Once she arrived in Cleveland and began to network and establish her company, Budler soon identified another obstacle for young professionals.

“The inner circle events,” she says, referring to the exclusive gatherings typically appearing only on the calendars of corporate executives, elected officials and other power brokers in the city. For those select few, Budler offers a polite challenge with a simple question: “How are you saving a seat?”

“Not just meetings,” she continues, “but the golf tournaments and lunches at the Union Club; those things are even more important for us to be empowering next-gen leaders than just bringing them to a table to do more work. It’s giving them access to the circles of influence.”

“The end and beginning of change is workforce.”

The experiences that led Budler around the globe and eventually to Cleveland, culminated in the formation of her company, Rise Together. Initially conceived as a workforce development program, Budler quickly determined that the regional market was already saturated with organizations engaged in such work, and that what was needed was an impact consulting firm to analyze, align, and enhance those efforts.

“The end and beginning of change is workforce, and the ways we empower people through the jobs that they have,” Budler says. But even with many organizations working in the space, addressing this critical component of equity and social mobility can be difficult — particularly for Cleveland’s fast-growing newcomer community — if the entities aren’t aligned with one another or those most in need of their services.

“All the tools are there, and we have so many incredible resources, but no connection where it matters most.”

Addressing this need, Budler feels, is essential not only to building a welcoming community, but ensuring that Greater Cleveland can continue to attract and retain both international and homegrown talent.

“”The talent pool here is shrinking, but the refugee and immigrant community continues to grow.”

To that end, Rise Together, with the help of a recent three-year grant from Cuyahoga County, is working to build out a community navigator program to better connect the newcomer community with resources, and train the community to be more culturally responsive and trauma-informed.

Through this work, Rise Together and a growing number of local partners, including GCP, hope to position the region as a welcoming beacon where anyone, as Budler says, “is able to thrive, not just survive,” and see it as the land of opportunity that called to her.

“Cleveland has so much to offer, and everything I was looking for in a city,” she says. But it’s not just Lake Erie and the vibrant, eclectic community.

“We also have Mason’s Creamery. What could be better?”

Budler will moderate a panel discussion, Build Next-Gen Allure into Your Business and Culture, at GCP’s Middle Market Forum on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Lunch and Panel Discussion: Build Next-Gen Allure into Your Business and Culture

How do you ensure your business is evolving to meet the needs, passions, interests and workstyles of the next generation? Our diverse panel of young professionals will share their insights on how they make decisions about the kind of organization they (and other future talent) want to work for and growth with

Panelists include:

  • Mick Jendrisak, President/CEO at Pilot Plastics
  • Juan Pena, Investor Relations Coordinator at Team NEO
  • Kwame Botchway, Director of Community Impact and Innovation at Village Capital Corporation
  • Moderated byTanya Budler, Founder at Rise Together

Click here to register and learn more about the event.