Midwest Homecoming: Jess Brown

Jess Brown and wife, Stephanie.

Jess Brown and wife, Stephanie.

MORTON – Jess Brown was on the fast track in California’s digital workplace but instead of staying in California and relocating to Silicon Valley, he and his family moved back to Greater Peoria.

As Vice President of Design for Aspiration, a financial tech (fintech) company based in Los Angeles that helps users improve their bottom line (while making a positive impact on the world), Brown can be found working out of his home or coffee shop in Morton or at The Nest in Peoria; heading up a 10-person team that works remotely from different parts of the country.

While involved in all aspects of fast-growing Aspiration where he’s worked at for the past six years, Brown just took on another responsibility, as co-executive director on the recently formed Peoria Innovation Alliance.

“I’ve known Jake (Hamann) since we grew up together in Pekin. We knew each other from church and we both were in bands at the same time,” said Brown, referring to the alliance founder and executive director.

“I saw so many great things Jake was doing, it was hard for me to just sit by and watch,” he said.

Brown, 34, believes in the potential for central Illinois to serve as a 21st century business center.

“There’s an insane amount of talent that we have here. Just look at all the former Caterpillar people here,” he said.

“Peoria is in a great location in the middle of the country. Bump Boxes (the e-commerce firm that provides packages for mothers and mothers-to-be) has proved that. Nobody on either coast can compete with them unless they locate here,” said Brown.

“You’ve got a school like Bradley University with one of the top (video) game development departments in the country but you don’t have a video game company here for students to work at,” he said.

“Students have to move out of the area and face a higher cost of living elsewhere. With all the school debt, how does that set you up for success?” asked Brown.

“We need to relocate people back to small-town America where those communities can be hubs for technology and work in general. You hear about the farm-to-table movement. Well, the farm’s right here and the table’s right there,” he said, referring to the close proximity of farms to towns in central Illinois.

“The happiness factor is pretty high here,” said Brown, pointing to the availability of good schools, short commutes and lower costs in this area.

The lower cost of living has another benefit for up-and coming entrepreneurs, he said. “In this area, there’s room for people to fail and not hit rock bottom. We need to show people that it’s okay to fail. In L.A., it’s called pivoting,” Brown said with a laugh. 

The son of Steve Brown, the former economic development head for the city of Pekin, Jess Brown is quick to credit the value of family teamwork.

“I’ve known my wife Stephanie since we were nine. We got married right out of high school. She made my first resume,” he said.

We need to relocate people back to small-town America where those communities can be hubs for technology and work in general. You hear about the farm-to-table movement. Well, the farm’s right here and the table’s right there.
— Jess Brown

Brown’s computer acumen was developed at an early age. Home schooled, he had two years of web design under his belt by the time he was 16. Brown was managing the website for the city of Havana at the age of 17.

At 20, having attended Illinois State University, he went to work for a Peoria marketing firm where he spent six years on campaigns involving a number of the company’s national clients. “I learned a lot on how to produce mass-scale campaigns at low cost,” he said.

While on a family vacation in Orange County, Calif., Brown’s career path turned again. He was offered a job at an up-and-coming digital firm called Style Hatch in 2011.

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“I met a lot of cool people at that time. There were a lot of (digital) companies just getting started in the L.A. area. Lunch meet-ups that initially involved three or four people were attended by 30 or more. It got so big that companies discouraged employees from going because of competitive jobs being offered,” said Brown. 

After Google Nest, the smart thermostat company, purchased the energy start-up that Brown was part of, he spent seven months at Science Studio, an L.A. incubator, before deciding his next career move.

In contact with companies like DropBox and Google, Brown received an offer from the Aspiration startup. “Even the interviewer from Google who I talked with from time to time advised me to take the Aspiration job,” he said.

After a family emergency brought Brown back to central Illinois, the family decided to return permanently. “We always said if there was any way to come back, we would. My boss (at Aspiration) was totally supportive,” he said.

So the Browns left the avocado farm where they lived near San Diego to return to corn country. It’s a move that Brown says others should make.

“I’d like to bring people out of the (San Francisco) Bay area here,” he said. 

Working remotely in the Midwest with a California company gives Brown another advantage. “I’m halfway through my day before they’re awake,” he said with a smile, referring to being an early riser and the time difference between the Midwest and the West Coast.

There are so many advantages to working—and living--in Greater Peoria. Just ask Jess Brown.