Heidi Mestad: Building Her Career and our Community

Adaheid “Heidi” Mestad is a natural fit in her position as director of Minnesota Children’s Museum of Rochester, where she draws up on valuable lessons and experiences to lay a strong foundation and build for success.

At Minnesota Children’s Museum of Rochester, which opened in 2012, Heidi Mestad is creating an environment where 21st-century workforce skills are fostered, healthy bodies and minds are nurtured and immersive experiences are delivered. More simply, she is encouraging and enabling exploration and discovery through play.


Since taking the director position in December 2015, Mestad has been working toward several goals. She aims to offer opportunities that are crucial to the development and growth of youth, such as tools to draw out skills in creative and critical thinking, self-control, confidence, collaboration, communication and coordination. In addition to focusing on youth, Mestad plans to increase the depth and breadth of programming with partners and to prototype new ways of experiential learning.

In addition, she collaborates with various stakeholders and teams, including the museum’s board of directors, members, staff and community partners. Together they work to craft an impactful vision and exceed current and future needs of the community.

“In an effort to identify future purpose, key partnerships and impactful programming, the museum will need time to strategically build and implement the vision that aligns with the region’s projected growth and impact needs of community and visitors,” Mestad says. 


Mestad, a Rochester native, reflects on the lessons of her childhood. “I was definitely more of a tomboy, with a curious and adventurous spirit,” she says. From serving as the “guinea pig“ for two older sisters to finding creative ways of problem solving, her entrepreneurial nature serves her well and motivates her to seek innovative opportunities.

Her parents, with a very successful business of their own, nurtured Mestad’s inquisitiveness and instilled a strong work ethic. She recalls how they strived to balance career and family time, which was difficult to do, and exemplified the model that hard work pays off. “If you invest your skills, attributes, energy and talents, the reward is a positive experience for yourself and for others,” she learned.

Unfortunately, not all lessons were easy. “The loss of my eldest sister when I was 14 showed me that people have a choice on how to approach life,” Mestad says. “Although the loss was a huge void and disruptor in my family, eventually the saying that ‘life does go on’ is true. Each day is truly worth feeling and living, if you choose to.”


Mestad credits her matrilineal heritage—strong females in her family, such as grandmothers, her mother, an aunt, sisters, cousins and her daughter—with inspiration that guided her through the years. “My sister, mother and daughter continue to be grounding forces in my life,” she says.

“My daughter, Dasia (age 19), and I have grown up together, and she is a key driving force in my life,” says Mestad. “I wanted to be a role model to show her that you can really do whatever you are passionate about and achieve it.” This led Mestad to make the decision to leave Rochester to pursue her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

“My son, August (age 5), is a constant bolt of energy and joy. He is a great reminder to have patience and to play.”


Mestad’s academic path proved to be formative and essential to her current role. Her undergraduate studies at North Carolina Wilmington focused on physical anthropology and how the environment influences humans over time at a molecular level. She found fulfillment in the value and interpretation of her research and how it was useful.

“That morphed my grad studies into another area within anthropology (cultural anthropology), with the focus of applying experience design (museum studies),” she describes of her education at George Washington University. “It’s the practice of designing processes, services, places and environments with a focus to enhance the quality of the experience—to create gathering places where a user can be exposed to new things.” 

When living in Washington, D.C., Mestad became an advocate for citizenry participation and devoted efforts at a cultural institution heavily focused on policy development. “It opened my eyes to the democratic process and truly how grassroots and organizational movement can influence change,” she says. “Our community is shaped by those who are involved.”


Mestad gained experience working at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the International Cultural Center. However, she says that at times it was difficult to see value of her work or refine experiences in relation to the massive environment. All considered, Mestad determined Rochester was the optimal size to see the impact of collective hard work, and she wanted to live close to family. 

“My inspiration to invest my skills, attributes and energy back into Rochester has come from an accumulation of retrospect and exposure to other communities,” reflects Mestad. “Retrospect such as: ‘Well, if only I could’ve had that opportunity or exposure when I was growing up in Rochester.’”


Investing time and effort to better understand community needs is a familiar undertaking for Mestad. She worked with the Rochester Downtown Alliance from 2007 to 2012 and Mayo Clinic and Destination Medical Center from 2012 to 2015. In each role she facilitated shared vision for the organization and community, which was supported by social infrastructure systems and user experience design solutions. She created scalable places, systems and products that build capacity and integration. 

She interacted with and learned from diverse community groups: patients; neighborhoods; start-ups, small and large businesses; individual artists; downtown employees; and visitors. Mestad also gained useful knowledge in city development and civic infrastructure. In these experiences, she served both the community and large visitor population and bridged the efforts for the benefit of all.

Her past experiences impact and blend with her current position. “The museum plays a valuable role in our region’s time of growth as the impact areas are congruent with our community’s key initiatives and focus: Journey to Growth, Destination Medical Center and innovative opportunities to build capacity and quality of life for our community,” she says. 


Undoubtedly, Mestad is passionate about her work to develop and expand the Minnesota Children’s Museum of Rochester for the benefit of the greater Rochester community. She recognizes many options for growth, including opportunities for the museum to age-up and incorporate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) into exhibits and curriculum. “This is the time to be innovative, maximize our services and become sustainable through the support of our community and partners,” she says.

“Success will be looking back over my time in Rochester and seeing the impact and long-lasting value of the start-up organizations, places and social systems I have had the great opportunity to be a part of,” she says. 

Strategic and creative thinking skills, Rochester-based passion, innovative learning experiences, strong family encouragement, the power of collaboration and a growing community presence—these are the fundamental building blocks that provide Heidi Mestad with a strong foundation for success.

Trish Amundson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.