Heartland Forward

Heartland Forward, an institute for economic renewal, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit “think and do tank” focused on improving economic performance in the center of the United States. Heartland Forward is based in Bentonville, Arkansas, but our work focuses on the entire Heartland region.


Our mission is to improve the economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating for fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusive growth, and improved health outcomes.

We are achieving our mission through independent, data-driven research; action-oriented discussion; and impactful policy recommendations.

The Institute conducts applied economic research to analyze and explain the factors that influence regional economic development nationwide while focusing on how these factors impact the American Heartland—especially micropolitan areas.

Heartland Forward focuses on both transformative and traditional research:

Transformative research concentrates on factors that impact the American Heartland’s economy through innovation, such as research development and commercialization, human capital formation and labor force skills training, entrepreneurship awareness and capacity, access to early-stage risk capital, and issues around immigration, demographics, health status, and quality of place.

Traditional research focuses on traditional factors of economic activity, such as tax rates, wage levels, energy costs, regulatory structure, and other costs of doing business. In addition, it will explore how international trade, foreign direct investment, and business climate are influencing economic activity in the American Heartland.

Importantly, we are both a “think tank” and a “do tank,” meaning we want to see our research in action. That’s why Heartland Forward has five key goals for our research:

  1. Identify emerging issues: Through our research efforts and the insights we gain, we identify new, timely issues that are affecting the Heartland's economy and communities.

  2. Serve as a resource: We produce indices and rankings that regularly report on various economic and development factors in locales across the Heartland, presenting the data in accessible formats for media, government officials, researchers, and other interested parties.

  3. Develop solutions and inform policy: We build on our senior staff’s experience, strong partnerships, robust data, and expertise in economic theory to develop innovative, implementable economic and policy solutions that provide stakeholders with the tools to create high-quality jobs and foster industry expansion in the Heartland.

  4. Build community: We provide our peers and supporters with research content relative to their organizations or communities, facilitate convenings (including Heartland Summit), and implement potential fundraising opportunities to allow us to continue working toward our mission.

  5. Partner for greater impact: We evaluate potential collaborations with partners and devote our resources and attention to critical questions where we can have the biggest impact.

While half of our mission is a “think tank;” the other half of the equation is a “do tank.” That’s why Heartland Forward has five key research goals:

  • Develop solutions and inform policy
  • Identify emerging issues
  • Build profile
  • Facilitate stakeholder engagement
  • Focus on impact and partnership

The Heartland should not feel its economic future is hopeless.
If America is to succeed, the Heartland must succeed. After all, the Heartland is the core of America.


Ross DeVol

Ross DeVol is President and CEO of Heartland Forward. Heartland Forward’s goal is to promote regional innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems that foster job creation, wage gains and economic growth for the American Heartland.

Heartland Forward will pursue its mission through independent, data-driven research, action-oriented convenings, such as the Heartland Summit, and impactful policy recommendations. Heartland Forward works with universities, colleges, the business community, public policy leaders and philanthropy to analyze resources supporting the startup community and identify workforce and talent gaps.

DeVol is former chief research officer for the Milken Institute where he spent nearly 20 years, an economic think tank headquartered in California. He oversaw research on international, national and comparative regional growth performance; access to capital and its role in economic growth and job creation; and health-related topics.

He has been ranked among the “Superstars of Think Tank Scholars” by International Economy magazine.

Shelly Wisecarver

Shelly Wisecarver is the Communications and Program Manager supporting Ross DeVol of Heartland Forward. Heartland Forward is a nonprofit think and do tank that promotes regional innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems in the American Heartland. Shelly has co-authored Micropolitan Success Stories from the Heartland, The American Heartland’s Position in the Innovation Economy and others.

Before joining the foundation, Shelly, a multifaceted entrepreneur, begun more than a dozen ground-floor startups across the Heartland, she was the CEO of the Heartlands largest dental manufacturing laboratory and dental supply companies and owner of numerous customer-facing retail establishments. She attended the University of Arkansas where she received the prestigious Chancellors Scholarship and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in nonprofit business communication.

Shelly developed a strong sense of devotion for the nonprofit sector as she served as VP for the Wautoma, WI Area Chamber of Commerce, and as an instructor for the Christian Women’s Job Corps. Shelly passionately loves animals and owned a rehabilitation sanctuary for llamas, alpacas, rabbits, peacocks, and critters of all kinds. She resides in beautiful Bentonville, Arkansas with her husband and dogs Bella, Delilah, and BennyButtons.

Jonas Crews

Jonas Crews is a Research Associate in economics. In his role, Jonas conducts data analytics for and co-authors Heartland Forward’s research projects.

Prior to joining Heartland Forward, Jonas was a senior research associate for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, where he conducted spatial analysis, created surveys and co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles, reports and blog posts on housing, trade, agricultural finance, and the macroeconomy.

Jonas holds a Bachelor of Science in economics with a focus on quantitative analysis from Auburn University. He is on the advisory board for the Center on Rural Innovation’s Rural Opportunity Map. In his free time, Jonas is a volunteer mountain biking coach for a Bentonville-area junior high school.


Joel Kotkin

Senior Fellow

Described by the New York Times as “America’s uber-geographer,” Joel Kotkin is an internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends. His work over the past decade has focused on inequality and class mobility as well as how regions can address these pressing issues. Mr. Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California and Executive Director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He is Senior Fellow for Heartland Forward and Executive Editor of the widely read website NewGeography.com. A regular contributor to the City Journal, Daily Beast, Quillette and Real Clear Politics, he also writes a weekly column for Digital First Media, which owns numerous daily newspapers in the greater Los Angeles region.

Kotkin recently completed several studies including on Texas urbanism, the future of localism, the changing role of transit in America, and, most recently, California’s lurch towards feudalism. He is co-author of a report published in 2018 on the revival of the American Heartland for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. As director of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman, he was the lead author of a major study on housing, and recently, with Marshall Toplansky, published a strategic analysis for Orange County, CA. Author of THE HUMAN CITY: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate Press) in 2016 and co-editor of the 2018 collection INFINITE SUBURBIA (Princeton University Press), Kotkin is the author of seven previously published books, including the widely praised THE NEW CLASS CONFLICT (Telos Press), which describes the changing dynamics of class in America.

Other past books include THE NEXT HUNDRED MILLION: America in 2050 (Penguin), which explores how the nation will evolve in the next four decades. THE CITY: A GLOBAL HISTORY and TRIBES: How Race, Religion and Identity Are Reshaping the Global Economy, were also published in numerous languages including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German and Arabic. Mr. Kotkin has published reports on topics ranging from the future of class in global cities to the places with the best opportunities for minorities. His 2013 report, “Post-familialism: Humanity’s Future,” an examination of the world’s future demography, was published by the Civil Service College of Singapore and Chapman University.

Over the past decade, Mr. Kotkin has completed studies focusing on several major cities, including a worldwide study for the UK-based Legatum Institute on the future of London, Mumbai and Mexico City, and in 2010 completed an international study on “the new world order,” also for Legatum, that traced transnational ethnic networks, particularly in East Asia. He has also done studies of New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Houston, San Bernardino, and St. Louis, among others, in addition to working in smaller communities, including a report with Praxis Strategy Group on the rise of the Great Plains for Texas Tech University.

Richard Florida

Senior Fellow, Heartland Forward, and University Professor, University of Toronto

Richard Florida is one of the world’s leading urbanists.

He is a researcher and professor, serving as University Professor at University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management and a Distinguished Fellow at NYU and Florida International University.

He is a writer and journalist, having penned several global bestsellers, including the award-winning The Rise of the Creative Class and his most recent book, The New Urban Crisis published in April 2017. He serves as senior editor for The Atlantic, where he co-founded and serves as Editor-at-Large for CityLab.
He is an entrepreneur, as founder of the Creative Class Group which works closely with companies and governments worldwide.