Building Rural Communities Through Entrepreneurship

On Thursday, April 21, SourceLink hosted Building Rural Communities Through Entrepreneurship, a webinar on strategies for growing rural communities through entrepreneurship-led economic development. The session was moderated by SourceLink’s director of strategic partnerships, Dara Macan, and panelists included:

  • Nathan Ohle – President and CEO, International Economic Development Council
  • Nicole LaChapelle – Mayor, Easthampton, MA
  • Don Macke – Senior Vice President, e2 Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
  • Rob Williams – Director, SourceLink

Nathan Ohle

Nathan Ohle kicked things off by acknowledging that in recent years, the IEDC has broadened its understanding of the importance of small business growth and entrepreneur support and how vital these strategies are to the prosperity of communities of all sizes. Economic development approaches that have been employed in rural and tribal areas in the past have often led to inequitable outcomes, both within and between communities. The growing momentum around entrepreneurship-led economic development presents opportunities to bridge gaps, reinvigorate economies and drive more equitable outcomes, not just here in the United States, but across the world.

Nathan went on to share eye-opening statistics related to job creation and rural entrepreneurship, challenges and opportunities presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, and policy opportunities to target resources in ways that will optimize the best long-term outcomes, especially in distressed rural places.

As we all think about how to further engage in this work, Nathan encouraged economic developers and ecosystem builders to visit to learn more about what others in the field are doing and get information on the Entrepreneurship Development Professional certification course, a first-of-its-kind accreditation offering knowledge and tools for developing and implementing entrepreneurship-led economic development strategies.

Don Macke

Next up, Don Macke shared five best practices he’s curated from his 40+ years of community economic development and policy experience in rural communities across North America:

  1. The best way to connect with entrepreneurs is at the local community level, whether that’s a neighborhood in a city or a rural community.
  2. Take a demand-driven approach. This means building relationships with and listening to entrepreneurs to better understand their needs and fill gaps.
  3. Access to capital via local banks, gap financing, or even high net worth families (LLCs as equity investors i.e. buy the building and lease back to businesses) can be a huge accelerator in rural areas. Youth entrepreneurship and community cohorts can also help drive more entrepreneurship in rural regions.
  4. Storytelling is a powerful tool. Sharing examples of how other rural communities have made progress can help motivate, inspire and inform.
  5. Smart development is rooted in analytics, and data can be used as a way to create richer conversations about opportunities for development.

More rural resources and community success stories from Don can be found at:

Nicole LaChapelle

Then we heard passionate insights from the mayor of Easthampton, MA, Nicole LaChapelle. When looking to advance entrepreneurship in a small region (Easthampton has about 16,000 residents), Nicole recommended using internal strengths and winning where you stand. In 2021, she realized city government needed technical support to figure out how to better support entrepreneurs and innovators. She worked with SourceLink as part of the National League of Cities City Inclusive Entrepreneurship program to develop Blueprint Easthampton, a comprehensive resource map of the entrepreneur support organizations in the area. Through this process, she gained a better understanding of gaps and opportunities in Easthampton’s ecosystem, and she has since expanded the program to include mentorship and executive coaching opportunities and an online business support resource navigator.

Rob Williams

Finally, Rob Williams, director at SourceLink, shared a few key considerations for rural development:

  1. Every community has resources, despite size or perceived isolation. They just need to be uncovered.
  2. Strategic partnerships are crucial. A collaborative approach drives development and can lead to powerful outcomes.
  3. Technology solutions and relationship building must go hand-in-hand to advance entrepreneurship in rural communities and elsewhere. One won’t work successfully without the other.

Rob then closed out the session with some examples of rural communities in the SourceLink affiliate network who have successfully implemented e-led strategies and solutions. Some have adopted a statewide model of support while others take a hyper-local approach. For the full list of examples, check out the presentation slides.

Final Thoughts

We hope to see economic developers, government leaders and community buildings use equitable entrepreneurship-led economic development as a strategy for sustainable rural growth in the coming years. As Nathan Ohle put it, “The talent, innovation and resiliency of America’s rural areas will play a central role in the future of US economy. Rural areas have always served as the backbone of this country and in countries across the world and will continue to be a core measure of the success as countries seek to rebuild after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

If you’re looking for ways to advance entrepreneurship and innovation in your rural community, we encourage you to schedule a conversation.