How Do You Attract Entrepreneurs to a Small Town?

NetWork Kansas Erik Pedersen on how to grow entrepreneurship in a small town

Erik Pedersen is the vice president of entrepreneurship for SourceLink’s Kansas community, NetWork Kansas. Along with Steve Radley, Erik built NetWork Kansas from the ground up, with special attention to really listening to the needs of both entrepreneurs and community partners.

Erik’s initial task was the development and growth of the NetWork Kansas referral center. His responsibilities have grown to oversee the Entrepreneurship (E-) Community partnership. This partnership, which has grown to 59 E-Communities, includes an injection of capital raised locally through the NetWork Kansas Entrepreneurship Tax Credit Program to help start and grow businesses in rural Kansas communities. Below, he talks about how to grow entrepreneurship and “recruit” entrepreneurs in a small town. 

How do you attract entrepreneurs to a small town?  For reasons inexplicable to me, when I read that question, my first thought went to Jessie, Hady and Jose…more on that later. 

Having worked at NetWork Kansas since ’05, and having oversight of our 59 Entrepreneurship (E-) Communities, of which most are rural, I spend a lot of time considering the “entrepreneurship as an economic development tool in rural communities” issue.  When I think about attracting entrepreneurs to a rural community, I think of personal decision points an entrepreneur might have like infrastructure, housing, high-speed internet, schools, office space, and maybe even whether a place exists that can make a quality caramel macchiato. All of those make my head hurt and seem really big. 

I am convinced that a “grow your own” mentality is the most viable alternative for rural communities to thrive and in some cases, survive. Whether it’s hard data that shows 80-90% of net new jobs come from businesses starting or expanding, or it’s anecdotal data about an entrepreneur in northwest Kansas revitalizing a town by starting a high-end furniture company, grow your own is the key and more importantly, it’s possible and it’s happening over and over. 

I view a grow your own mentality as being holistic; it’s a culture, it’s a process.  It starts by exposing youth to the simple fun of thinking big. One of my first tasks at NetWork Kansas was being a part of Fran Jabara’s VentureKids Day. I spent a full Saturday leading a team of 5th graders through fun projects. I still have our team banner hanging proudly in my office, signed by Jessie, Hady and Jose.  I believe this mentality is also about encouraging middle and high school students that there is limitless possibility behind owning your own business. We are at the tail end of our favorite time of the year; a time in which over 450 students have created over 300 businesses for 20+ local entrepreneurship fairs…you wouldn’t believe the talent of young entrepreneurs in Kansas. 

Growing Rural Entrepreneurship through Youth EntrepreneurshipGrow your own is also about taking the seed that was planted in the local entrepreneurship fair and watering it with programs like Ice House, mentoring and job shadowing.  This mentality is about developing a trusting relationship with the existing businesses in the community so you can ask the tough questions and get them the help they need.  Finally, it’s about proactively working to identify those potential business transitions and trying to foster a match or next generation of owner. 

If an intentional, thoughtful process is put in place in a rural community, from elementary school through business transition, it becomes a culture and gives the innovative and creative citizens the feeling they can start a successful business in their own backyard.  And you know what…as I think about it, that may also give a community the confidence to attract entrepreneurs, so perhaps both objectives can be achieved. 

At the end of the VentureKids Day, Mr. Jabara gave each student a $2 bill and asked them to do something important with it.  I wonder what Jessie, Hady and Jose did with theirs……