Article originally published by Omaha Magazine author Kara Schweiss.
View original story here(opens in a new tab). Photos by Bill Sitzmann.
A Omaha’s much-anticipated next-generation science center, Kiewit Luminarium, is slated to open this spring under the leadership of inaugural CEO Silva Raker, who most recently served as senior business director of global collaborations for the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Although both the Kiewit Luminarium and Exploratorium focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and Raker has her feet planted firmly on the ground, she can’t help but ponder a few points of cosmic significance.
“My first official day [at the Kiewit Luminarium] was August 16, 2021. And I remember that day because, strangely enough, it’s exactly the same day I started at the Exploratorium in 2010,” she said.
Nebraska also happened to be the first place Raker, a native of rural northern California, ever traveled to by plane; as a teen, she attended a National Science Foundation summer residency program at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.
“It does feel like there’s kind of a full-circle aspect of it,” she said.
Successful new beginnings may be in the stars, but Raker also comes to the Kiewit Luminarium CEO role with an extraordinary background. She earned a zoology degree from the University of California at Berkeley and worked as a field biologist for several projects. She went on to developing proprietary products, innovative programs, and partnerships for The Nature Company. She later served as chief operating officer and leading strategist for Backroads, Inc., an active-adventure travel company, before joining the Exploratorium. It was Raker’s role there that connected her to the Kiewit Luminarium in 2018 as part of a consulting team when the Omaha project was still in the study phase. In November 2020, Omaha Discovery Trust announced that construction was officially underway for the $101 million privately funded science center at Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Landing.
“When we set out to develop the Kiewit Luminarium, we focused heavily on being responsive to community needs and interests, reinterpreting what STEM is and how it touches our lives, and bringing out the pure joy that comes with discovering something new or unexpected,” said Exploratorium’s Project Director of Global Collaborations, Allyson Feeney. “Silva is an expansive and creative thinker with a passion for life-long learning. She is comfortable taking risks, trying new things, and adapting as needed, which is not the status quo in this industry. These attributes make her a perfect fit for the Kiewit Luminarium, which is setting out to try some very new and exciting things.”
Raker said she had to consider many factors as she contemplated joining the Kiewit Luminarium as CEO and its first official employee—including relocating to the Midwest and the responsibility of leading a new venture.
“It is not a solitary effort. I’ve been part of a very collaborative and wonderful team that for several years was about designing, developing, populating with exhibits, thinking deeply about it,” she said.
As concept becomes reality with the opening of the 82,000-square-foot facility now imminent, Raker sees her responsibilities shifting.
“My job, as I see it, is to is to really put together a team and set up relationships in the community that make this a really vibrant and sustainable—not only organization, but kind of an idea of what this place can be,” she said. “I’m obviously going to spend a tremendous amount of time just learning and meeting people.”
During her time at the Exploratorium, Raker transformed programs and founded a global consultancy to support worldwide impact, cross-cultural learning, and financial sustainability. The Exploratorium team also developed new museum models to address equity and economic disparity while still providing exceptional learning experiences. That experience gave Raker a solid foundation for what the Kiewit Luminarium could be, but she said that during her past year and a half in Omaha, she’s had an opportunity to consider the community’s unique opportunities, as well as challenges, and how the Kiewit Luminarium should be shaped to meet them.
“[The Kiewit Luminarium] is going to be different in some really important ways from what’s come before. And then there’s nothing quite like it in Omaha, either,” she said. “I found that there’s an appetite for actually doing things; people are less afraid to try something different here…I’m definitely thinking on a multi-year basis and the things that you want to be doing in five years and things you want to see happening in 10 years—you know, those seeds. All of that is in the DNA that we create now, right?”
Raker said being able to come on board early helped her and the project’s team bring the Kiewit Luminarium together successfully.
“I had the luxury of having already been engaged with the project for quite a bit of a head start, but I also have a very visionary board and incredible funding support,” she said, also crediting the leadership of Heritage Omaha, who developed the project. “Before I even came on board, we had a group of community advisors who have been deeply involved in the design, development of the project, advising on everything from program strategy to exhibit content. When I arrived here, I’m like, ‘Okay, now we need to build out from there.’ So, we started engaging people in the community, really listening, and having them be part of some of the exhibit content, but also building a staff that’s representative of the incredible diversity that’s here.”
Raker said respecting and embracing diversity, both in workforce development and patronage, was an important consideration from the beginning.
“You have to think about what community means, what whole community engagement looks like,” she said. “You have to get at issues of identity; of who senses how, when, and where to feel; people feeling a sense of belonging… If we truly want to do diverse workforce development, what would it look like to create a place where everyone feels welcome?”
Visit kiewitluminarium.org for more information.