Do you want better economic prospects for your rural community? Support your entrepreneurs, two experts say.
Some small towns have their sights set on attracting “the magic manufacturer”—the one entity that will provide lots of jobs and tax revenue. That’s possible for rural communities, but it won’t happen without creating the right kind of environment far in advance, according to Beth Davis, president of Dakota Resources.
“It’s going to happen in a small, rural community that is already intentional about supporting its existing business communities,” she said.
Here are some ideas on how communities can help their entrepreneurs—who can, in turn, create the kind of energy that can revitalize rural places.
Know whose job it is to support entrepreneurs. (Hint: You’re included.)
Economic development is everyone’s responsibility in rural America, said Davis, who helped to engineer a program called Dakota Rising, which helps communities support their entrepreneurs.
“This isn’t just the work of the development corporation or the chamber, but it’s really everybody’s business to make sure local businesses are not just surviving, but thriving,” she said. “That means shopping local—maybe you spend a few extra dollars, but do you want that product or service available close to home or not?”
The Dakota Rising program has two parts: bringing what Davis describes as “high-growth entrepreneurs” together, and helping the community support its entrepreneurs. The program works with a core team of community residents who believe a community’s development efforts could improve. Initial discussions center on the importance of supporting local businesses. Next, a community gathering is held to help others in the community understand the importance of supporting local businesses and the various roles people can play in bringing about necessary changes.
Davis said one reason the entrepreneurship fellowship program works is that it empowers the people already within Dakota communities to make the changes they see fit to their own economies.
“It relies on the talent and the passion of people in the local communities. We aren’t coming in as experts and doing it for (them),” she said. “We’re creating the force that allows the … people and the systems that are closest to the businesses to support those businesses.”
Do your research: What do businesses need?
If you want to know how to build your business community, ask your business owners.
“Local entrepreneurs (are) your primary economic development engine,” said Craig Schroeder, who provides business coaching services through the Hometown Competitiveness program of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. “These are the folks who are creating the wealth in your community, creating jobs in your community, creating the goods and services in your community, and they’re extremely valuable to the communities and to the people they serve.”
Discovering the needs of entrepreneurs is one of the four major focus areas of the Hometown Competitiveness program. The others are engaging youths and young adults, developing future leaders and building philanthropy.
“It’s not essential that all four of those things move simultaneously. Actually, in most communities, they don’t,” Schroeder said, adding that each “pillar” often affects all of the others. “They’re all kind of interconnected.”
Schroeder said the key to long-term economic planning comes in asking entrepreneurs their five-year business goals, and presenting projected needs to school guidance counselors and area colleges.
“Give them real-time, concrete information, in terms of what kinds of jobs are going to be needed in the short term,” Schroeder said, so when a high school student says he or she wants to stay in the region, the advice the community can give this young person is based on solid research.
In this way, economic developers work with entrepreneurs as sort of business partners, according to Schroeder. He added that it’s important to recognize entrepreneurs in all stages of business formation.
“As we look at communities, there are literally dozens—if not hundreds” of entrepreneurs at different stages, he said, ranging from aspiring, startup, growth, retiring and expansion entrepreneurs. “Identify that talent, and then focus in on whether you believe your community has talent that you want to (foster) and … identify how the community can best support those entrepreneurs … and match their efforts up with the community’s economic development goals.”
One of the strategies of Dakota Rising is encouraging conversations among entrepreneurs, as well as between entrepreneurs and the community. Entrepreneurs need this conversation space more than they need training, Davis said.
“People engaged in entrepreneurial activities are really isolated and focused, because they’re working (all) day on their enterprises, and it’s hard to look up and look out,” Davis said. “(We need to) bring the business community together for conversation (and) networking opportunities … just putting business people in the same room and maybe posing a simple question like, ‘What’s going well, and what could be better?’”
So, what happens when what a business needs to succeed is a little extra capital?
Schroeder said time is of the essence, and waiting for things like certifications and program approvals can means a business—and the community—could lose out on a major development.
“If they need to put $250,000 into expanding their facility to expand their contract into a new market, they need to have an answer fairly quickly. They don’t have a lot of time to go through a lot of steps”—which means program-based economic development, which can take months, doesn’t address their needs.
“Entrepreneurs (are) part of a globally competitive, fast-paced environment,” Schroeder said. “Each of them has unique abilities and resources, and (communities need) to create a framework around them, to support that entrepreneurial talent.”
Include young people in the plan, and in creating the plan.
Convincing youths that small towns are a big deal isn’t nearly as difficult as many adults may think.
“Young people appreciate their community because it’s small,” Schroeder said. “They know each other, they care about each other, they live in a safe community with small class sizes and teachers who care about them. At the same time, they’re frustrated by a lack of jobs and a lack of investment in things for the young people to do beyond school and sports. Those are consistent themes.”
But some themes in small towns are inconsistent.
“Our growth entrepreneurs are struggling to find folks to run their businesses, (while) our young people say, ‘I love this community, but there are no jobs here,’” Schroeder said. “Isn’t it amazing that in one small community, I’ll get those two stories? It’s because we aren’t talking to each other. … We just need a way to have this dialogue.”
Schroeder said adults may be surprised by the ideas the youths would bring to the table, if they were given the chance.
“Young people talk about their communities every day … but in many cases, they’ve never thought of having a role in community planning,” he said. “These young people have really insightful thoughts on how to create a successful community.”
Those thoughts, he said, essentially include logical locations for schools and residential areas, entertainment ideas, and ideas for preserving the safety and support of a small community.
“The No. 1 reason that young adults say they want to move to a rural community—whether it’s their hometown or another community—is that they want to make a difference,” Schroeder said. “They want to be in a community where they can contribute something and make it a better community. … We want to help make them be part of the solution. … Especially in this younger generation, that call to something greater than themselves and helping others is so important.”
Make personal connections to show entrepreneurs the community’s opportunities.
Schroeder said communities and youths can work hand-in-hand to create the jobs that help the youths fulfill their dreams of growing old in their hometowns, while protecting hometown businesses and communities alike.
“The ‘job’ that a person wants may not exist in our communities, but we can help create that job through entrepreneurship and having discussions with our young people. … We need to connect young people’s aspirations and excitement with the older generation’s experience and wisdom,” he said. “If we invest in those young people, we can come up with some creative, new ventures for our communities.”
Schroeder added that some adults are living elsewhere and yearning to return home, but don’t know how to do so and still meet their professional or financial goals.
“There are people living in urban environments who would love to live in a small town. … Maybe they want to come back and start a business, or maybe they need to come back, to take care of Mom and Dad, but (they) have to figure out a way to come back and make a living,” he said.
Like youths looking to stay, adults looking to return can work remotely.
“Maybe they’re going to telecommute. There are a variety of ways to do that, and we need to be more intentional about making these connections,” he said. “Some of this is very simple.”
A great way to make those connections, Schroeder said, is at communities’ annual summer festivals and celebrations, when alumni and others visit.
“In our small towns, everybody is so busy on the day of the festival, getting things ready … that there’s nobody to talk to, so you have this (nostalgic) experience, and you get in the car and you go back home … and the opportunity is missed,” he said.
He suggested that at least one person sit at a booth at these events, visiting with potential returners about what they would desire in a move home.
“It’s an entirely new day, in terms of what’s possible,” Schroeder said, due to a shift from factory work to entrepreneurial ventures. “People are choosing where they want to live first and figuring out how to make a living there. Where better to have a great quality of life than in our little communities in the heartland of the country? We’re offering outstanding opportunities to people, and that’s how we need to see this. We’re offering the privilege to live in a small community with this outstanding quality of life that we love and not thinking about this being a second choice, but being the best choice.”
Think beyond city limits.
One of the ideas suggested in the March Prairie Idea Exchange was “what we need isn’t that far away.” What’s needed, in fact, may be in the next town over.
For example, “communities” in the Dakota Rising program actually are groups of towns determined by their “geographic footprint,” Davis said.
“Some of the most important learning that happens is between communities, sharing … their successes and failures, what they’ve tried, what works and what hasn’t worked,” she said. “It’s … creating a network with Dakota Resources at the center of that network, connecting communities to communities. Then, within the communities, it’s a network of support, connecting businesses and people in the community who have passion for supporting local communities to each other.”
Regional groupings for Dakota Rising “community sites” offer more opportunities, Davis said.
“The more (entities) you have involved, the more wisdom is present and available … to share experiences, share knowledge and wisdom, and strengthen the question,” she said. “South Dakota is one community. What’s good for Lake Andes is good for Wagner. What’s good for Faulkton is good for Ipswich. We have got to move beyond these parochial attitudes of scarcity and recognize that our abundance is grounded in our capacity to share.”
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