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Zoe Buonaiuto, PhD, Associate Director of Business Incubation, Office of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at University of Arkansas

Zoe Buonaiuto serves as Associate Director of Business Incubation within the Office of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the University of Arkansas. Previously, she served as the Director of Investor Relations at AcreTrader and held strategy and operations roles for two fintech startups in NYC and SF. She started her career at the Princeton University Investment Company, the office responsible for managing Princeton’s endowment fund. She earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA and her MA / PhD from Princeton University.

📷: Presenting to AcreTrader investors at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art
Where do you call home in Northwest Arkansas? 

I live in Fayetteville off the east side of Mount Sequoyah, not too far from the trailhead.

Where are you from originally? Where did you relocate from? Tell us about the journey. 

I was born in Sacramento but spent most of my childhood moving frequently. I finally stayed put in the Bay Area for my last few years of high school, spent my college years in Los Angeles, and then went east for graduate school, where I lived in Princeton, New York City, and France for my dissertation research.

After I defended my PhD, I worked for Princeton’s endowment investing office and then took a job in San Francisco a few months before the pandemic. Frankly, I was very unhappy there–it was a difficult transition from New York, so when everything was shutting down I took the opportunity to quit my job and pack up everything I owned (not much). I joined some friends on a project that took us across the United States. That risk was absolutely worth it–I came to Arkansas for the first time as part of that project in June 2020 and bought my first home within six weeks. I’ve never felt more immediately at home than I have here.

What are a few of your favorite spots in the region?

There are well-organized running events in the area that I’ve loved participating in each year: the Back 40 Trail Race in Bella Vista, the Hogeye in Springdale, and Frozen Toes in Fayetteville. The Ragnar Trail series is coming to Fayetteville in April 2024–I’m thrilled about that. Ozark Iron Gym has become another favorite community of mine–I’m there four or five mornings a week, and love seeing familiar faces with the same schedule working to get stronger.

The Listening Forest at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville is magic. I’m so disappointed this will be the installation’s final season–is there anything we can do to keep it going? It’s a treasure and a place I return to several times during the season. I also make an annual pilgrimage to the Pig Trail Scenic Byway each fall.

Finally, restaurants! If I’m celebrating something special, I love Bar Cleeta in Bentonville, Heirloom in Rogers, and Atlas in Fayetteville–wonderful menus, wonderful people all around. My everyday favorites are Los Bobos, Taste of Thai, and Little Bread Company in Fayetteville and then Punjabi Kitchen, Charly’s Taqueria, and Susan’s in Springdale.

Someone that has never been to the region is coming for 24 hours, what should they do, where should they go?

Let’s assume the conditions are just right for this adventure, our mystery guest is full of energy and willing to wake up at dawn, and I have the truck pre-loaded with the essential toys and provisions. We’d float the Buffalo River from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing, and then book it back to Bentonville for a full-squish ride at Slaughter Pen and a beer at Pedaler’s Pub. We’d clean up for dinner at Heirloom in Rogers and end the night in Fayetteville for a nightcap and mischief at Maxine’s.

📷: Floating the Buffalo
📷: Moses the Sphynx
What do you do in your free time?

I try to spend time each day either running or walking the Razorback Greenway, or trail-running or rucking on Mount Sequoyah or Mount Kessler. I also really love to travel. I’ll be spending most of October 2023 trekking in Nepal. That said, I feel a tremendous sense of relief when my flights land at XNA–this is home.

Tell us something about yourself folks might not know.

My Sphynx cat, Moses, is named after the former Razorback shooting guard Moses Moody. Woo pig! He (the cat) likes textiles and freeze-dried minnows.

What causes are you passionate about? What inspires you?

I’m a big champion of financial literacy education. Personal finance is so much more than numeracy; it is thinking critically about what you want your life to look like and how you can actively plan and build the financial security necessary to achieve those goals and live in alignment with what you value most. Three people whose work I appreciate in this space include Annamaria Lusardi, John Bogle, and JL Collins.

Describe Northwest Arkansas in a few words.

Active, intentional, spirited.

Can you tell us about some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve been a part of since relocating?

My first role after relocating to NWA was working with the awesome team at AcreTrader as an orchard investment analyst. While I later went on to lead the firm’s Investor Relations unit, it was my time working on our vineyard, olive, citrus, and avocado investments that I reflect on most fondly because I was learning about an entirely new asset class and having a blast doing it. Carter Malloy, Garrott McClintock, Drew Lipke, and Elise Alexander really mentored me along the way and gave me countless opportunities to grow; I’m so grateful for them.

Any projects or initiatives you’re currently working on or planning to work on that you would like to tell us about?

I’m now based at the University of Arkansas working closely with Sarah Goforth and Phil Shellhammer within the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. I support many of our community-facing business incubation programs. One of these programs is the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program (GORP) which helps founders building products and services in the outdoor recreation industry to grow and scale their businesses. We are currently working on some projects that would allow us to expand GORP programming across the state and help develop new companies within range of four Arkansas state parks. I’m also working with the terrific Cartwheel Studio team on the upcoming Bounds Accelerator. This accelerator, launching in January 2024, is for startups building new technologies within the retail value chain. More details to come!

📷: Running the Back 40 with coworkers
📷: Lecturing at West Point
What are you most proud of in your professional career? What have been the coolest experiences?

I studied military history in graduate school and focused specifically on the Normandy campaign in France. During that time, I developed an expertise in military records research. Shortly after I finished my PhD I was unexpectedly approached by the lead singer of one of my favorite rock bands to research the history of his grandfather’s service during D-Day and the ensuing invasion of Europe, which led to the kind invitation to go backstage at several of his tour dates that summer. It was an unbelievably fun and surreal experience–I don’t think I’ve ever felt cooler as a historian. [Yes, I’ve told him to come play in NWA!] While I’m no longer formally working in academia, I’ve gone on to contract on some personal history projects and build custom D-Day itineraries and tours, leveraging my experience leading military history staff rides in Normandy during my graduate career.

How would you describe living in Northwest Arkansas? What advice would you have for someone relocating here?

When I describe Northwest Arkansas to friends of mine, I speak frequently about the quality of life and the authenticity of those I meet. After so much time in large cities, I appreciate that life has so much less friction here: you don’t have to constantly fight– for space, for parking, for peace and quiet, for fun and adventure. It’s all within easy reach and you have a welcoming and engaging community alongside you.

My advice to those considering relocating to NWA from major cities is to embrace what will be your loss of anonymity and enjoy the experience of being seen and being known in this community. You can get lost in adventure on the trails, sure, but you can’t disappear in the mass of human density here like you might be able to elsewhere. Go to a show at the AMP? You will see people you know. Go to a Razorback game? You will see people you know. Go to the grocery store? You will see people you know. Drive down I-49? You will see a custom license plate you recognize from many drives before (cheers to you, Tesla driver with the epic “EWWWGAS” plate! Makes my day everytime). See the interconnectedness of this state and this region for what it is: community-driven and close-knit.

Additionally, don’t feel the need to defend or qualify your choice to move here. You know what I’m talking about: “I live in Arkansas–it’s not what you think!” Enough of that. “I live in Arkansas.” Bam. Full stop.

What is your hope for the future of the region?

An immediate thought: the addition of light-rail infrastructure and more mass transit options. A simpler hope is that our region continues to be as welcoming to transplants as it has been to me, and that transplants fully embrace Northwest Arkansas as it is along its unique trajectory. I’m so proud to live here, and I want that sense of pride and delight to be widespread amongst newcomers too. That said, we still have work to do. Northwest Arkansas has made great strides in distinguishing itself as a place where you can live, work, play, and thrive, but placemaking and quality of life improvements are processes that cannot and should not stop. There’s no “summit” in these efforts—let’s keep pushing.

📷: Razorback Football Game
Lastly, if you were to give the region a tagline, what would it be?

Northwest Arkansas: shift your gears, enjoy the upgrade.