In December, I was contacted by the United States chair of the Eurasia Foundation's Social Expertise Exchange (SEE) program. The project's goal is to share experiences and best practices between U.S. and Russian non-profit leaders. This year’s focus is on entrepreneurship. They asked to spend a day with NetWork Kansas seeing how entrepreneur-focused economic development concepts could be put into practice. The non-profit leaders from Russia would be joined by representatives from six other states. We were honored and thrilled to share Kansas’ success with this diverse group from across the nation and world.
This visit occurred on January 29, 2014. The first half of our day was dedicated to a trip to Sterling, Kansas, one of our first Entrepreneurship (E-) Communities. When we arrived, it was obvious that Sterling exemplified businesses invested in their community. We walked with pride through this beautiful town and met entrepreneur Dave Wilson, founder of Sterling Services. Dave grew up in Sterling and moved back to operate a business. His company is housed in a beautiful building in downtown Sterling and employs more than 100 people. Dave had utilized the NetWork Kansas E-Community Partnership loan program and talked about the importance of community support for local entrepreneurs. Jill Nichols, Economic Development Director, shared stories about other entrepreneurship developments in Sterling: other entrepreneurs who received E-Community funding, and the local launch of the Kauffman Icehouse Program to build an entrepreneurial mindset. Russian and US community leaders had lots of questions and it was obvious that this would be the most memorable part of the day.
We returned to Wichita for an afternoon session at the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) that included an hour each with Ed O'Malley, Erik Pedersen, Director of E-Communities, and me. Ed talked about the KLC philosophy that "leadership is an activity" and emphasized that anybody can exercise leadership at any time. I talked about the connection between strategy and entrepreneurial culture. Erik talked about the 440+ community leaders who are actively engaged in building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in 44 E-Communities across the state.
There were 5 important points that we hoped to make during the day.
1. An entrepreneur-focused economic development strategy must begin with partnerships that evolve into relationships: The clear distinction in the success of NetWork Kansas rests in relationships with two groups: 1. organizations that provide business building services to entrepreneurs that we call "resource partners." and 2. Communities. This cannot be overstated. The 500+ resource partner network and 44 E-Communities are almost entirely responsible for the execution of providing education, expertise, and economic resources to entrepreneurs across Kansas. They bring the best ideas and the passion and expertise to administer, implement, and execute strategy.
2. Empowered means empowered: Perhaps the most difficult thing for non-profits or governmental organizations is to truly empower because it means letting others make the decision. As an example, NetWork Kansas has provided more than $16.3 million in matching loans and investments through 4 programs. The “yes” or “no” decision on three of the four programs rests with partners and communities.
3. Leadership is critical at the state, partner, and community level: A critical component of an entrepreneur-focused strategy is that leadership capacity building and economic development must be more closely integrated.
4. Every community and entrepreneur's story is different: The mission of NetWork Kansas and each E-Community is to connect entrepreneurs to education, expertise, and economic resources when they are needed most. How that is executed by each community and for each entrepreneur may be different. That's why Ford County is using WSU's Growing Rural Business Program while Sterling is using Kauffman's Icehouse program and Clay County is using economic gardening engagements. An entrepreneur-focused strategy must have built-in flexibility.
5. Be intentional about engaging youth in entrepreneurship: In today's challenging economic environment, every young person should be exposed to the idea of opening their own business.
We finished the day but our time with this wonderful group will continue. Thanks to the Eurasia Foundation, Corey Mohn, Director of Statewide Programs, will travel to Moscow for the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in March where he will attend meetings with the same group and provide additional insight into our work in Kansas. We look forward to an ongoing dialogue that will help Russia and the United States build an entrepreneurial environment one community at a time.
Content contributed by Anne Dewvall, Network Kansas. Network Kansas is a proud affiliate of U.S. SourceLink, America’s largest resource network for entrepreneurs.