Inspired to Explore
The Amazing (and Exceptionally Curious) Traci Downs

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Curiosity is a desire to know or learn. It is inquisitiveness often seen as the tendency to seek and learn about things by asking questions, investigating or exploring. Often curiosity can lead to diving in without having all the information available. 

Traci Downs is curious. She is so curious and bold that she left a home in Hawaii and moved 4,000 miles to Minnesota where she has successfully carved out a life aligned with her passions. She has become a respected presence in many different facets of the Rochester community. Downs is a serial entrepreneur, active community member and trained neuroscientist. Among other varied titles, Downs is co-owner of Cafe Steam and executive director of Collider Foundation, both in Rochester. Downs and her husband bought and renovated the historic Conley-Maass Building, the first building of Destination Medical Center’s (DMC) Discovery Square sub-district. It now houses Collider, which seeks to activate, connect and empower entrepreneurs in Rochester. Downs holds a patent, numerous honors and awards, and still, she keeps asking questions, continues exploring and keeps following her curiosity.

Upbeat, energetic and positive, Downs portrays an air of friendliness, approachability and energy. She is outgoing and immediately asks questions. “Curiosity is maintaining a sense of wonder. It’s asking lots of questions before reaching a conclusion. Most of all, curiosity is catching yourself and fighting against that first default thought you have,” says Downs. It’s this sense of curiosity that Downs credits for much of her success. “Being curious about all things is what’s made me . . . me. In every single thing I’ve ever done, curiosity has been the foundation,” she adds. She speaks of following her passion and being open to where curiosity may take you. “Who would have thought I’d own a coffee shop?” she exclaims while holding her big cup of decaf at Cafe Steam. “Always be open.”

From Honolulu to Rochester

Downs hails from Kansas originally and has lived and traveled all over the country and the world—Germany, Texas, California, Hawaii and now Rochester. “We fell in love with Rochester,” Downs says when speaking of the winding path that led her to make her mark on the city. 

Downs was diagnosed in 2003 with a rare liver disease. Her search for a specialist led her to the Rochester campus of Mayo Clinic. Many trips from Honolulu to Rochester over the ensuing decade followed until Downs, her husband and her three (now grown) boys decided to make Rochester their permanent home. Downs and her family immediately immersed themselves into the small-city culture and settled in. She received a lifesaving liver transplant at Mayo Clinic three years ago. “I now live among the doctors who saved my life,” she says. “It’s truly amazing.”

Having lived in Rochester for nearly 10 years, Downs continues to feel her kinship with the city and its people grow. “I love Rochester. I love the people. I love the four seasons,” she says. “I find myself talking about the weather now! No one talks about the weather in Hawaii,” she laughs. She misses the ocean and the multicultural aspects of Honolulu but happily recognizes Rochester has its unique multicultural features as well. She is quite fond of that aspect of the city. 

Downs notes that much has changed in Rochester over the last decade. The DMC initiative was in the planning phases when Downs arrived in the city and still wasn’t funded. It was unclear if the DMC plan was going to happen. Now it’s a question of how it happens. “Rochester is in a place to create the next generation of the city with thoughtfulness. People are doing good things and being good stewards,” she says. She’s optimistic about the future. “It’s going to be a really exciting next couple of years. The infrastructure is being set now. As the infrastructure goes into place, we will see more and more. We’ll see real change—more things for community members to do, more art, more people enjoying themselves. We’ll see lots of things that will bring wonder to people, and that’s so exciting!” she adds.

On life and passion

Kids and curiosity go hand in hand. Since she was a young girl, Downs has always been curious. Her curiosity led her to read, make things, build things and travel whenever she was able. She loved seeing the world and learning about other cultures. She embraced what interested her. “I wanted to be an archeologist like Indiana Jones,” she remembers with a smile. “He inspired me.” 

Downs studied psychology and later fell in love with the world of research, where her curiosity led her to learn about neuroscience and brain mapping. She then returned to school where she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Her curiosity next steered her to the business world, entrepreneurship and starting her own company. Downs suggests people can sometimes have too much angst over what they want to be. “You will be many things,” she says. “Just pick a north star and start learning. Learn about things and do them. If it’s not right, adjust. There is no need to map it all out. 

Get started and follow your curiosity.” 

It’s not just ideas and the future that play to Downs’ curiosity. She is curious about people too. “I love hearing people’s life stories,” she says, “learning what makes people how they are; what people’s challenges are and how they change. I love learning about people.” 

On people and teams

Downs believes people who are paired with their passions will do great things. She believes true innovation starts with curiosity which leads to passion and to innovation. “Being curious drives passion which drives innovation,” she says. One of Downs’ passions is to help people actualize their dreams—to find their own passions. “Not in a fairy godmother way,” she laughs. 

Downs shares that to be successful, first truly learn about people, what they love, where their passion lies. “Build solid foundations, then reach for the stars—that way things don’t feel so risky. You need the team first, then you need faith that things will work out.” For success, “Surround yourself with amazing people.” She adds, “Creating a team with the right people is the most important part of anything you do. That’s the magic. Support them and everyone becomes part of the team’s success. And stick with it because sometimes things have to not work before they work.” 

Optimistic about the future

Downs is optimistic about the future because of people and our ability to innovate and solve problems. “I believe in the goodness of people,” says Downs. “The world has always been hard, but we know the human spirit has the ability to get ahead of the problems that we have. We’ll find a way to innovate our way into solving the big problems in time.” Remember, curiosity leads to passion, and passion leads to innovation. “Follow your passions. Women look at the world differently, often more win-win oriented. Follow your interests. Follow your curiosity. There are many opportunities,” says Downs.

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About Author

Erin is a freelance writer living in Rochester. She serves on the Board of Directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southeast Minnesota (NAMI SEMN) and encourages everyone to help eliminate the stigma of mental illness.

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