Withering economies are perhaps one of the most daunting issues facing many communities, particularly in small-town, rural America. The days of Ma-and-Pa shops opening on every corner have gone the way of record players and the elevator operators. Certainly attracting a large manufacturing company can bring much-needed income into a region, but those infusions are few and far between. However, within a two-hour drive of almost any place in United States, lies the potential opportunity to increase entrepreneurship and develop entrepreneurial ecosystems with assets that already exist.
Leveraging community colleges for economic development and entrepreneurship is not merely an academic exercise. As the Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Eastern WV Community and Technical College, a rural community college, I have witnessed firsthand how colleges can partner with local entrepreneurs, state and local economic development agencies, small business development centers and others to drive substantive change. What follows are a few of the ways community colleges can help accelerate local entrepreneurial ecosystems and economic development.
No. 1: Help Entrepreneurs Obtain Funding
One of the biggest challenges many entrepreneurs face is obtaining seed funding or the capital needed to help launch the next big business, particularly in rural communities. By partnering with potential funders, community colleges may be able to identify and uncover grants and funding resources to make it easier for new businesses to find their footing and gain traction. In fact, many grantmakers who may be hesitant to give money to new or untested startups, often are more comfortable with the stewardship that community colleges can provide, ensuring that seed funding will be invested in businesses and not squandered.
No. 2: Use that Name
In addition to stewardship, community colleges can assist entrepreneurs by allowing them to leverage the name of the school. Colleges are often viewed as pillars in their communities; they are recognized, respected, and proven institutions in the areas they serve. Thus, their name alone often carries significant weight. This is often particularly the case in rural communities where the college may be one of the largest and most stable institutions for miles around. By allowing entrepreneurs to closely associate with a community college, new businesses and entrepreneurs may gain faster traction than they may otherwise on their own. From arranging meetings with state and local politicians to even selling products or services to a school, community colleges that collaborate with entrepreneurs allow these new businesses to tout their relationship, potentially increasing business opportunities and new client referrals. In fact, the college name may carry enough weight that merely placing a placard with the school's name on a building in a small town may serve as a catalyst for revitalization of a main street community.
No. 3: Develop Dedicated Entrepreneurial Student Programs
By adding an array of entrepreneurial classes to traditional business classes like marketing, accounting and sales community colleges can help facilitate student entrepreneurial activities. Moreover, extending these entrepreneurial classes beyond business school curricula into other disciplines may have significant benefits. For example, students graduating with certificates in cosmetology or welding should learn what it takes to start, run, and grow their business. In addition, because of significant public interest in entrepreneurship, schools may be able to gain additional funding for developing programs and curriculum to teach entrepreneurial skillsets that can help revitalize stagnant local economies.
No. 4: Extend entrepreneurial activities beyond students and campus
Not every person with dreams of owning a business is a student enrolled in college. Budding entrepreneurs may be juggling family, work, and a dozen other responsibilities. Community colleges can drive entrepreneurial ecosystem development a step further by working closely with local entrepreneurs and business owners to enhance existing entrepreneurial activities. By providing inexpensive entrepreneurship seminars that are open to the entire community, the college can reach people that may never appear on a student roster. These seminars and workshops can also spotlight local successful businesses, reinforcing the importance of shopping locally which in turn can create a network of entrepreneurs who may even be willing to provide programmatic funding or college support.
No. 5: Provide mentoring, coaching and assistance
Finally, while money issues are a common issue among start-ups, having a mentor or coach provide assistance with introductions, referrals and general sound business advice can be worth its weight in gold. Community colleges with experienced adjunct faculty are well positioned to provide this type of assistance. Alternatively partnering and bringing in other experts can help entrepreneurs gain access to skills, resources and equipment that they may not be able to access on their own.
While there is no magic bullet to creating entrepreneurial ecosystems and revitalizing communities, leveraging community colleges can serve as a "Swiss army knife" in terms of driving entrepreneurial and economic development activities. With existing resources, equipment, and assets, community colleges have the opportunity to support significant entrepreneurial ecosystem and economic development throughout the United States.