Growing Rural Economies
Washington’s Department of Commerce’s Growing Rural Economies program focuses on building local economies organically by serving the needs of community-based startups and entrepreneurs. The goal is for rural areas to place an emphasis on “create, not relocate” and increase the number of services available to those wanting to start or grow their business.
The programs encompasses five services that entrepreneurs and small businesses consider essential to their success: 1) access to capital, 2) networking, 3) mentorship, 4) technical assistance and 5) education and training. Here’s how the program approaches each of these services:
Access to capital
The Department of Commerce, in partnership with the Seattle-based Community Sourced Capital, created Fund Local to help businesses get up to $50,000 in loans, interest free. It’s an innovative public-private partnership that allows companies to crowdsource needed funds from local investors, who are known as “squareholders.” Since Fund Local started in April, 17 companies have received $500,000 in loans from supporters in their communities.
Each November, Commerce coordinates events statewide during the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, which brings students, individuals, business leaders, educators, investors and entrepreneurs together to hear new ideas, conduct business-plan competitions and, most importantly, network with one another. Over 10,000 people attended or participated more than 300 events statewide last year. More importantly, numerous startups began as a result of this event. Commerce has also developed an online mapping tool of accelerators, incubators, “maker spaces” and co-working places as well as lists of local “angel investors” and venture capitalists” to connect entrepreneurs with their peers and funding/investment resources.
Learning from others is essential to rapid growth and prototyping. Growing Rural Economies uses a two-pronged approach to mentoring. The first is to expose entrepreneurs and small businesses to best practices via urban business experts who have “been there, done that” in their careers. The second strategy is to utilize mentors at the community level, tapping into the wealth of knowledge in rural communities. These business professionals can help entrepreneurs and startups move more quickly to the next stage while avoiding some of the common pitfalls associated with growth and expansion.
Education and training
Occurring at the local level, the goal is to develop an ecosystem whose efforts are driven by partnerships with community colleges, nonprofit organizations, local economic-development leaders and private industry. It is based on the successful business model of an entrepreneurship program developed by Avista Utilities in concert with the community college which enrolled 75 students and led to 20 businesses being launched.
This includes how-to articles, grant opportunities, book reviews, connections to workspaces and investors, and links to online resources, as well as two new publications targeted to startups and small businesses, the Washington Small Business Playbook and a Crisis Planner for Small Businesses.
All of these services are crucial to encouraging entrepreneurship. Currently there are 24 million Americans engaged in startup business activity. These numbers signify the tremendous role small business formation plays as a path to economic security. Entrepreneurship fosters more opportunities to retain youth, create jobs, and promote innovation. Creating organic growth at the local level with a state supported entrepreneurship program by providing startups with the resources they want and need, is the goal of Commerce’s Startup 365 Growing Rural Economies program.