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Rural Rise Rewind – Lessons learned and connections made during the summit.

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | October 25, 2022
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Last week we had national leaders in the realm of “entrepreneurial ecosystem” building that attended the third Rural Rise Summit. The first summit took place in a very small community (700 people) in West Virginia, followed by a convening in Arkansas, with plans for a 2020 summit in Emporia. We know how 2020 went…. So, after several planning starts and stops we were able to work with the RCAP team to host the summit September 28-30.

Representatives from National Main Street, the Kauffman Foundation, Rural LISC, USDA, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), the Federal Reserve Bank, and more were in attendance to talk through rural economic development issues. I have had the opportunity to speak with several of the major participants (often virtually) in the past, but we have never had such a high concentration of national rural economic development professionals together physically in Emporia. Before we get into what was learned, let me quickly untangle the buzzword bingo of “entrepreneurial ecosystems”.

Basically, constructing an entrepreneurial ecosystem means making entrepreneurial development and sustainability a major priority by enhancing places, tools, culture, and support necessary for entrepreneurs to start, grow, and expand their concepts. While communities often fall in love with brand names and big footprints, healthy economies emphasize a large number of locally owned and diverse entrepreneurial businesses.

Now, to lessons learned:

  1. Ecosystem building requires metrics, expertise, and experimentation.- Metrics” is just a fancy way of saying “outcomes you can measure”, and they are important. If you changed out the tires on your bike because the tire company promised a 5% increase in speed, but your times never improved, what would you think? Metrics require goal setting and then assessments to make sure you are meeting your goals in specific areas that may differ depending on the project you are working on. It’s important to set goals in ADVANCE of what you are doing so you resist the urge to claim victory on something that didn’t work by moving your goal posts. Expertise can be difficult because it’s generally gained through experience, but when there is a lack of expertise in the area of ecosystem building real damage can occur. Surrounding yourself with experienced mentors that tell you what you need to hear (not what you want to hear) is critical. Outcomes (those pesky metrics again) and honesty can typically help you determine if you are receiving good mentorship. Experimentation isn’t throwing something against a wall and hoping it sticks; experimentation in ecosystem building is leveraging your experience and related metrics to create programs that produce targeted outcomes. Sometimes you learn completely new things through experimentation, but without utilizing a scientific method to experiment, the process often resembles “here are things I like to do, so lets do those things regardless of the outcome.”
  2. Money is always an issue, but there is assistance for businesses committed to profit production and growth.-  Emporia Main Street has worked and continues to work with funding agencies to ensure capitalization of business startups and expansions. Funding pathways almost always require bank involvement and personal equity injection, and the need a sustainable business model with realistic cash flow projections. There aren’t a lot of conduits where people simply hand you money with no strings attached. However, we continue to see new and innovative conduits that can support for-profit concepts in rural communities.
  3. Emporia isn’t perfect, but we are considered highly innovative among our peers.-  It was interesting hearing from colleagues from throughout the extended region. People wanted deep dive opportunities to discuss our upper story housing initiatives, several people requested private tours of the fabrication lab, the incubator space was a topic of discussion, and communities asked about our SYOB (Start You Own Business) class and Show of Hands. There were communities with larger populations and more diverse funding options that were very complimentary of our approach and innovative assets designed to generate sustainable growth. Even with the kudos, we learned about some new assets and strategies that we need to include to improve our region.
  4. Inclusion, and the definition of inclusion, continues to be a challenge.-  Our challenges in building inclusive ecosystems are numerous, but it is critical for rural communities to take inclusion far beyond representative check boxes. Without a focus on inclusion, rural communities can become broken up into small silos of individual ethnic or socioeconomic enclaves. Working with the limited resources of a rural community like Emporia is difficult enough, but if we start splitting our population into separate groups of 16,000 people in one group and 8,000 people in another where each group is separated without common shared ecosystem elements then difficult becomes nearly impossible. By listening to individuals across different spectrums and providing opportunities for leadership among those investing time, talent, and treasure we can build a stronger community foundation where everyone who wants to participate in building a sustainable framework for the benefit of others can do so.
  5. Quantitative and Qualitative fields are splitting.- It was telling when representatives of both the Kauffman Foundation and the Federal Reserve stressed metrics in their presentations. Qualitative analysis of entrepreneurial ecosystems mainly involves interviews or media creation that appeals to emotion. Quantitative analysis measures different types of categorical factors associated with an effort. As an example, if we had two different housing initiatives, and one measured success by videoing interviews with locals about how they feel about housing while the other initiative measured housing units created, which would have more credibility? There was an entrepreneurial push through several federal, state, and local programs, but results were rarely measured, so best practices couldn’t be replicated. Ecosystem builders are often funded by tax dollars, memberships, and donations; if you cannot show measurable progress you can’t expect perpetual investment. It is important to appeal to emotion because a lot of emotional decision makers exist, but charting change through metrics allows for sustainable growth and replication.
  6. We can learn from mistakes of the past, or repeat them.- As a southern most “free state”, many Kansas communities once had significant African American populations. A lack of inclusion deteriorated the diversity of many rural communities. Most Kansas communities were once fairly dense and dominated by unique locally owned entrepreneurial businesses, and then certain chain-centric development patterns decimated many types of entrepreneurship. We can either work to build entrepreneurship or we can watch cyclical declines take hold as we support other development and/or business types. We have made mistakes as rural communities in the past, but we don’t have to continue making those same mistakes.
  7. External pressures will require rural communities to adapt in ways that require effective entrepreneurial leadership.- Entrepreneurs find opportunities in changing environments. We know that rural communities are experiencing changes in workforce, housing, and demographic shifts. We know larger external pressures caused by automation, climate change, and institutional adaptations will stress rural communities’ ability to stay vibrant. Our leadership must embrace entrepreneurial skillsets to pivot into better development strategies.

The summit had some growing pains, and there were some disagreements between the more academic and the practitioner participants, but that’s okay. Entrepreneurship is rarely a neat and tidy process. The one thing everyone agreed upon is that if we want rural regions, communities, and institutions to thrive, an enhanced focus on entrepreneurship as a driver is absolutely imperative. 

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.

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