“Entrepreneurs are among the most overlooked assets for community change in rural areas nationwide.”
So says Michael W-P Fortunato, director of the Center for Rural Studies at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, In his 2014 article, Rural Entrepreneurship Matters, but Why?
Fortunato rightly points out that rural entrepreneurs contribute jobs and economic stimulation, but their contributions go well beyond these traditional metrics of economic development.
Rural entrepreneurs profoundly enrich the communities in which they live and launch their ideas because of their direct connection to the needs of their communities, their knowledge of regional talent and, especially, their commitment to their neighbors.
Rural entrepreneurship does matter. What can we do to better surround our rural entrepreneurs with the resources they need to grow?
In this new world of zero barriers, let’s take on three myths of rural entrepreneurship to see how we can remove barriers to growth.
Myth 1: “No one wants to start a business in my community because entrepreneurship is too risky.”
There are actually two points here that deserve a little illumination: “rural entrepreneurs don’t exist” and “entrepreneurship is risky.” Let’s take on the second one first.
Entrepreneurship is risky. That fact is built into the very definition of what entrepreneurs do—launch untested ideas to tackle unsolved problems.
But rural entrepreneurship comes in distinctly different flavors than the traditional urban growth industries—and as noted above, is intrinsically local and integrated into its community’s needs and talent.
Rural entrepreneurship is more likely to spring out of agriculture, services, wholesale, mining and manufacturing over its urban counterparts of transportation, communication, and utilities and information. And these industries of rural entrepreneurship often have failure rates that are lower than that posterchild of entrepreneurial industries, the high-tech venture. (Fortunato takes us through a walk of those stats and sources in his article.)
And now the first statement: “rural entrepreneurs don’t exist.” The idea that there aren’t any entrepreneurs in your community is a myth that needs to be quashed. Entrepreneurs are in your community: data actually shows about 6 percent of the adult population is working on starting or interested in starting a business. The key is to find them, support them and help them mitigate risk on their path to entrepreneurship.
How do you find entrepreneurs? Make your interest in helping them start and succeed visible.
Open the door to entrepreneurs.
Offer events that bring entrepreneurs out into the community where you can meet them, perhaps a monthly coffee showcase and networking event. Ask two of your local business owners to speak and invite people from across the entire county.
This approach is more fully explained by the folks at 1 Million Cups. This program is offered by the Kauffman Foundation, a foundation in Kansas City that helps communities across America build entrepreneurship.
Recruit entrepreneurs and ideas.
Hold a startup competition where people can win money to start or grow a business. You can use the lure of cash or services (legal or business planning services) to recruit people from across the region to identify themselves and their ideas. Some communities have even stipulated that winners must operate the business in your community.
An excellent example can be found in the Minnesota Cup. The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) partners with the Minnesota Cup, the nation’s largest statewide business startup competition, to catalyze entrepreneurs. Seeding entrepreneurship with encouragement is undoubtedly what stokes Minnesota’s ranking among the 25 largest states in the Kauffman Index for Main Street Entrepreneurship. Read more about that and other ecosystem-building strategies in Tim Penny’s editorial “Entrepreneurship Starts with Encouragement.”
Connect your resources and make them visible.
Often entrepreneurs aren’t aware of the resources already available in their local communities. By identifying, connecting and promoting your resources through networking, town hall, entrepreneur panels, mini-resource expos or even through a tool like The Resource Navigator® interactive database, you help make the experts who are ready to help businesses accessible and reachable.
The states of Minnesota and Kansas provide two examples of how to use a centralized, interactive database of resources to create a hub for their communities’ entrepreneurs—and get them to the right resource for their business challenge.
Grow your own.
Consider looking the businesses that are already established in your community and see if you can help them grow. The Edward Lowe Foundation offers a program called economic gardening. This organization provides market research support to help existing businesses expand their markets. This type of effort has been very effective in Kansas, as just one example, helping to expand existing companies, which not only adds jobs to the community, but encourages others to think about starting companies.
Growing your own can also mean investing in youth entrepreneurs. While most successful entrepreneurs are in their 40s and older, engaging youth with youth entrepreneurship programs can help engage and energize your older entrepreneurs and create a continuum of mentorship and entrepreneurial excitement.
Myth 2: Only bustling metropolises can host accelerators, incubators and coworking spaces.
There is no minimal population requirement for accelerators, incubators and coworking spaces to gain success in smaller, rural communities.
Take the coworking space in Coggon, Iowa (population 656), as an example. Inspired by incubators built in Sioux City and West Des Moines, the space allows small business owners to pay a small fee to set up shop in a vacated school building. Current tenants include a bakery, massage therapist and community recreation center. An integrated coworking space allows area entrepreneurs to take advantage of public databases, technology, experienced mentors and free or low-cost business classes.
So size doesn’t matter—it’s all about knowing your entrepreneurs and what they need—and then working with the champions in your community to fill the gaps in entrepreneurial services. That’s what a true entrepreneurial infrastructure does—provide the platform on which an ecosystem to grow roots and thrive.
Myth 3: Rural communities don’t have the necessary resources to build an entrepreneurial infrastructure.
Bring them in.
All cities — small and large — have access to national resources. Understanding what exists and reaching out to them to access support can help rural areas.
One example: the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) is required by law to serve every county in the United States. Find the nearest SBDC to your community. Get to know the team and invite them into your community. Other examples of resources that are likely already in your region: Procurement Technical Assistance Centers that help with government contracting, Manufacturing Extension Programs, SCORE small business mentors and Minority Business Development Agency centers, among others.
Grow your own.
Start face to face: Host activities and events that will bring resources to your community. Ask a network of bankers to come in and meet with your entrepreneurs (everyone needs capital). Offer a training class for startups a couple of times a year through training from the SBDC.
To truly build an entrepreneurial infrastructure, you have to understand what is missing in your community to fill the gaps — capital, resources to start and grow businesses. The first step to understanding what those gaps are? Talk to your entrepreneurs.
Keep the conversations going, ear to ear. Start a hotline—either by phone, website chat, email or social media or identify a local “coach” that acts as a single point of contact. The point is to select someone who people know will listen to their questions and help them move forward to find answers. Start asking entrepreneurs what they need and then record that data, so you can present it and your strategic plan for building an entrepreneurial infrastructure to your community stakeholders.
Entrepreneurs help entrepreneurs. Your local business owners in your community are your resources. Many potential and beginning business owners need mentors. Utilize the existing businesses in your community and surrounding communities to create a mentorship program. Connect entrepreneurs to others to help them grow.
Many rural communities have place-focused community foundations. Activating these resources to impact the community can be game-changing. LOCUS, a program through the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship explores this dynamic, and offers suggestions to engage.
Rural entrepreneurs can transform their communities and their economics. We can’t overlook their importance, or their needs. And that’s why it’s important to dispel the excuses that impede support of our rural entrepreneurs and trade them in for strategies and actions.
These examples just scratch the surface. There are countless others. At SourceLink, we’re lucky and honored to work with communities across the country who want to reach entrepreneurs and help make their entrepreneurial journey easier. Entrepreneurship will always be risky, but what we can do is remove obstacles and get entrepreneurs to the help they need (and the right help) faster.
We’d love to help.
Maria Meyers is the founder of SourceLink and executive director of the University Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center. Maria’s approach has always been to first identify gaps, then inspire networks to create new programs, improve existing offerings and recruit outside support to meet the changing needs of the ecosystem.