Photo by J. Alan Paul
With three daughters, serving North Dakota as the Commissioner of Commerce, and multiple business pursuits in her family, Michelle Kommer doesn’t just deal with chaos on a daily basis, she chooses it!
Michelle Kommer’s path to chaos began in Mayville, the final stop of a number of moves her family made across North Dakota, Minnesota and Illinois prior to her entering high school. After graduating from May-Port High School (now May-Port-C-G), Michelle began her undergraduate degree at Mayville State. Her father was a professor at the school and required each of his three children to attend the college for at least one year.
“It was the best decision we were ever forced to make,” said Michelle with a smile. “It was a wonderful place to be.”
Michelle originally wanted to go to law school after completing her B.S. degree in three years, but she ended up taking on an internship in Washington, D.C. because the description of the position said “students considering law school” should apply, and travel sounded appealing. Simple enough, however, Michelle wasn’t just changing her education plans, she was setting out on a journey where she would get on a plane for the first time in her life, travel to a place where she had never been, and try to find roommates for her stay all without the online tools that we take for granted today.
“Looking back, that was the first of many times I’ve chosen to be terrified – and it’s been worth it,” said Michelle. “There was a point before they closed the cabin door where I stood up and was going to get off the plane, and I’m so glad that I didn’t.”
During the internship, Michelle upped her flight count pretty significantly as she worked with a team at the U.S. Secretary of State, Office of Inspector General, to audit U.S. embassies in Europe and Africa which she describes as, “a really great opportunity to learn a lot and experience the world.” After the internship, Michelle got the opportunity to return to North Dakota.
“Having left, I got to truly appreciate my home,” said Michelle.
Her first job back in the area was at the corporate office of a bank called Community First Bankshares, Inc. which was eventually sold to Bank of the West, but not before she met her husband, Toby. Both Toby and Michelle joined the Community First team in the audit department, each taking on roles with progressively more responsibility over the decade- plus that followed.
“When we started there, a lot of us were in our twenties and had hardly ever been out of the state,” said Toby. “The job allowed us to travel all over and we got to know each other a little bit on the road. It was a really fun job at that time in our life.” Both Kommers earned their master’s degrees while working at Community First during what they call the “pre-K” (pre-kids) time in their lives.
“When we found out Bank of the West was acquiring Community First, it was scary because we had worked on the ‘other side’ of acquisitions as the acquirer for many years. We knew companies didn’t keep two headquarters,” said Michelle. But, as she learned during her internship, it’s okay to be terrified sometimes. The clean slate allowed Michelle the opportunity to attend law school and study corporate law, employment law, and business transactions, and achieve a goal set early on in life.
- Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Mayville State University
- Master’s Degree in Management from University of Mary
- Juris Doctorate Degree from University of North Dakota
- Licensed to practice law in ND, MN
- Founder and President of the North Dakota Heart Gallery
- Board Member, Village Family Foundation
- Past Board Member FMWF Chamber of Commerce
- Past Board Member Churches United for the Homeless
- Prairie Business Top 25 Women in Business, 2014, 2015
- YMCA Women of the Year, Child Advocacy 2016
- Angels in Adoption Award Winner 2019
- TEDx Speaker 2019
The Law School Years
For many, going to law school would be plenty enough to handle on its own. By the time Michelle Kommer decided to go to law school, she and Toby had married, had been foster parents for about seven years, and had three children – two of their own and one foster child.
“There was a billboard that we drove by when we were still dating and Toby said, ‘Should we give it a try?’ Back then you couldn’t become foster parents unless you were married,” said Michelle, so their license was approved after they were married. “Almost immediately upon our license approval, we got our first call – at 2 a.m.! They asked us if we were willing to take a 10-month-old and a two-year-old into our house. We had nothing, so Toby went out to Walmart at 3 a.m.”
Laughing, Toby said, “I was just piling car seats, diapers, bottles, baby food, anything that you could think of into the cart. I didn’t know what I was doing. I pulled up to the register with two carts heaping full and the person working the register gave me a look like, ‘Really? You left this until the last minute?’ She probably thought my wife had just gone into labor and that I was the biggest procrastinator on the planet.”
Editor’s note: As a 24-year-old, I can’t even begin to fathom this scenario playing out in my own life.
During that time, Michelle would leave town very early each morning for three years to attend Law School at the University of North Dakota so Toby managed mornings with the kids on his own. She jokes that from time to time upon returning to Fargo and picking the children up from daycare, she would ask their caretaker, “Ummm….were they wearing this in the morning or was there an… ‘accident’?” But she is quick to follow with seriousness that while his toddler-sense-of- style may have been questionable, Toby places fatherhood at the top of his priorities, while astutely managing his own businesses and entrepreneurial efforts – he sets the bar as a dad and parenting partner.
Between her second and third years of law school, the Kommer’s took another big step. Toby began another of many entrepreneurial journeys by starting his own financial consulting company.
“They say some of the biggest stressors in life are things like marriage, the death of a family member, starting your own business, changing jobs, having children, and other big things like that,” said Michelle. “We have a bunch of those things covered two to three times over!”
Michelle’s Favorite Advice From Her Dad
“WHEN YOU THINK YOU CANNOT GO ONE MORE STEP, TAKE ANOTHER. BECAUSE, THE STEPS THAT YOU TAKE AFTER YOU THINK YOU CAN’T GO ON – ARE FOR SOMEONE ELSE. SOMEONE THAT CAN’T, OR WHO NEEDS YOUR HELP. AND MOST OFTEN, THOSE STEPS YOU DIDN’T THINK YOU COULD TAKE ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT.”
The Move To The Public Sector
Michelle had never considered her most recent career move prior to a late-night phone call.
“I got a call asking if I’d be interested in considering serving in Governor Burgum’s cabinet, and it needed to be a fast-moving process – 72 hours as I recall,” said Michelle. “My first reaction in my head was ‘I’d love to be a part of that, but I don’t think that’ll work in my life right now’, but I said ‘thanks – let me get back to you.’”
At the time, Michelle was working as Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel at a regional bank. She loved the company, her job and her teammates, and it seemed crazy to leave.
Late that night she talked to Toby. “There was a moment of silence before he said, ‘you should totally do that. You would love it and you’d be great,” said Michelle. “I was completely shocked by his response as he fully understood what it meant to our family.”
Q: What are some of your biggest challenges?
A: One of the things that’s different about the public sector is that you plan in essentially two-year increments, because our legislature meets every two years and appropriates budgets at that time. So balancing long-term planning which is absolutely essential for effective strategies with the short-term cadence for budgeting can be challenging, particularly with some of the revenue shifts in our state in the past three and a half years. Additionally there are 141 legislators, serving every corner of our state that are involved in the process supporting and funding our strategies. While this can be challenging, it is totally worth it – representation is the foundation of our democracy. Initially I was frustrated by the speed of government, but a wise legislator told me very early on, “Michelle, if good things can happen fast, that means bad things can happen fast too.” Since hearing that, I have had a greater appreciation for the process.
And leaving the job didn’t just require her to take a huge leap of faith into the unknown. Taking the role meant that Michelle would be taking a material cut in pay while working harder than she had ever worked before (when she already was working really hard). It also meant having to leave the family that she loved in Fargo to be in Bismarck for the 80-day legislative sessions that happen every two years for a job that would end in four years.
Just like at other points in her life, Michelle took the leap of faith, despite all the obstacles. However, she maintains that she would have never been able to make the professional move without the support of her entire family.
While there were plenty of big concerns, one that might seem less important was actually most important to her – the transition would prevent her from taking her youngest daughter to school in the morning. With the first two Kommer girls being little during law school, she had not had that opportunity with them, but had enjoyed the opportunity to take her youngest to school most days. That fear dissipated when her youngest daughter – 9 years old at the time – told her, “Mom it’s okay. I’ll take the bus to school.” Michelle says, “I didn’t accept this job, ‘we’ did.”
“I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Michelle. “I wasn’t going to get asked again.”
Michelle was appointed by Governor Doug Burgum to serve in his cabinet in December of 2016. “The most important things to me professionally are strong leadership and working towards a worthwhile goal,” said Michelle. “This defines my job today. I get to work with people every day that come to work to make North Dakota a better place.”
Michelle’s first role in the public sector was as Labor Commissioner which was a fit with her experience as an attorney specializing in employment matters. She was appointed as the Commissioner of the Commerce Department in December 2018, a role that leverages her diverse experience in business and passion for helping businesses succeed.
What is the Commerce Department?
The formal mission of the North Dakota Department of Commerce is to attract, retain and expand wealth for the State of North Dakota. However, Michelle sees the department’s main purpose as helping businesses succeed in the state.
Throughout each of the divisions, the Department of Commerce works to deliver a hands-on approach that Michelle believes is special to our area.
“We have more of an opportunity to make an impact due to our hyperconnectivity in the state,” said Michelle. “When companies come in from out of state to meet with us, they’re always shocked that they are able to be in a room with all of the decision-makers at the same time. That’s not common in other places. If you want to come to North Dakota and feel unsupported and anonymous this isn’t the place for you.”
The Commerce Department does that through its four divisions:
Q: Where is the Department of Commerce headed in 2020 and beyond?
A: First of all, we’re working really hard to minimize the effects of the coronavirus on the business community. After that, I think the most important thing we can do is to continue our work to diversify the economy. We have just seen the powerful impact of a sudden decline of oil prices. With the pandemic, all our business sectors have been affected. Diversification efforts are important to prevent these huge economic swings in the state.
We’re also going to continue to work to attract and retain the right businesses in the state and to ensure we have the brightest most capable workforce to continue to serve the needs of those businesses.
We are a mostly rural state with only nine cities of over 15,000 people. Presently, we are working to determine the best approach to economic development statewide. Generally, our smaller towns are getting smaller and our bigger towns are getting bigger. We are working with communities of all sizes to reevaluate and clarify the definitions of community development and economic development. This will assist us to make the most impactful use of resources to help all North Dakota communities grow and prosper.
Now is a time to double-down on tourism. There will be a lot more people looking for local and regional travel due to the pandemic so we need to work together with state agencies like Parks and Recreation, and the Game and Fish Department, along with local and regional tourist attractions to accommodate the changing appetite of visitors.
We are working to assist communities with effective community development efforts such as the Main Street Initiative. This is more of an ongoing philosophy than a “once then done” effort. It’s about creating sustainable, healthy communities, with smart infrastructure to create places to live and raise a family as many people are choosing where they want to live before choosing where to work. We need our communities thriving, taxes to be low and amenities that make people comfortable. So, that’s something that we’re really focused on as an agency.
Q: Is foster parenting something you’d recommend to others?
Toby: As foster parents, you get more than you give – it’s rewarding in ways you can’t imagine, and this extended to our kids. They got to see that some kids do not have a safe, loving home like they do, and that they were fortunate from a socioeconomic standpoint, as this isn’t the case for everyone.
As important as her professional work has been to her, her role as a mother has been paramount to Michelle. Michelle and Toby have three daughters, one of whom was adopted, and have had 16 foster children.
“I’ve always just enjoyed spending time with kids and being around kids,” said Toby. Back when we first got married, there was a pretty dire need for foster parents, there still is a big need today. I was the youngest of five and had a lot of nephews and nieces, and always really enjoyed being around children growing up.”
That passion for helping children in need inspired Michelle to start the North Dakota Heart Gallery, an organization that helps North Dakota children in need of an adoptive family to find their forever homes. “When I was going to go to law school, we were prepared to stop foster parenting given the demands we knew we’d be facing. While we didn’t end up giving up our foster care license and continued to foster children during law school (with our youngest daughter born my third year!), we were moved to start an organization called the North Dakota Heart Gallery in 2007 because we knew first-hand of the need for families for children waiting to be adopted,” said Michelle. “Our mission is to raise awareness for the need for adoptive families in the state.
We recruit volunteer photographers in the area to take pictures of the children that are waiting to be adopted. We share those portraits at an annual event, on our website, and the gallery also travels throughout the state to conferences, events and businesses. The idea is, through photography, to introduce the children to the families that didn’t even know they were incomplete, to connect children to their forever families through adoption. We have seen wonderful outcomes, in particular for older children who statistically have a more difficult time finding forever families.”
To learn more or request the gallery at your business, church, or event, visitndheartgallery.org
How Does She Do It All?
It can’t be argued that Michelle is anything but an extremely busy and hardworking person. She and Toby also have some interesting advice on how to get it all done and make it all work.
Michelle: First off, have a partner who shares your values and goals.
Second, accept yourself for you are. Over more than 25 years, I have come to accept that I just love work. I love challenges. I love finding solutions and I love working with teams and developing leaders. I’m inherently challenged to step back from work because I love it! I used to feel guilty about that, but I’ve come to realize that it’s okay for me to love work as much as I do. But I have to be very intentional about putting work down sometimes and I’m not always good at that.
Also, being organized is key, and being forgiving of yourself is also important. It took me some time and some really great friends to realize that it’s also important to be vulnerable and admit that it’s sometimes hard for a family to have two jobs, kids, pets, and aging parents and to feel like you are doing a great job! When you’re willing to be vulnerable about these feelings and have that conversation with others, it helps. I have come to realize that our lives are often messy, literally and figuratively, but I also believe that everyone’s lives are messy, and that’s OK! What makes the difference is being the architect of your own mess, and finding joy in that. If you are living someone else’s version of what your life should look like, it’s harder to find that joy. You have to do things you love. Don’t sign your kids up for things if they don’t want to do it. Don’t sign yourself up for something if you aren’t going to have time for it. It’s not about having a life that lacks chaos, but it’s about choosing and accepting your unique chaos. I had to learn that along the way. You have to choose the things that make you feel happy and fulfilled and you also have to let some things go. You don’t want work/life balance. You want to be investing in the right things at the right time. And above all, you have to remember that every day is a new day.
Toby: When it comes to the family side of things, it’s about the quantity of time not quality of time. You heard that right. For us, quantity of time is key – it’s more about spending a lot of time together and less about doing “big things” like the annual trip to Disney World although we enjoy those too. Even though we have busy lives, we very rarely miss sports outings, we spend a lot of time at the lake together and doing little things together. That’s always been big to me, to spend time together as a family no matter what it is.
I remember when one of my daughters was 10 years old, they were talking about how I snored and one of them said, ‘Dad should go get one of those snoring machines.’ And another one of my daughters got really upset and said, ‘I like it when Dad snores. It reminds me that he’s here and it makes me feel safe.’ Kids just need you to be there sometimes.