In 2014, Jonathan Ortmans, a Senior Fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation testified before the U.S. House Committee on Small Business, Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce. This isn't surprising given that the Kauffman Foundation is one of America's most well regarded resources on entrepreneurship, jobs, and economic growth. Mr. Ortmans' testimony though should be a wake-up call for all of us who care about economic prosperity everywhere. He said, "New business creation is crucial to a healthy, vibrant economy for two reasons: job creation and innovation. Contrary to popular rhetoric, it is not small businesses, but rather new and young businesses that drive new job creation. Nearly all net new jobs are created by new and young companies. Similarly, startups are responsible for a disproportionate share of innovative activity, which creates not just wealth for the entrepreneur, but rising standards of living for all." (My emphasis added)
His observations are not only well documented by a slew of folks in the economic development field, but they sync up with my observations as a former corporate executive turned tech entrepreneur in Northwest Montana.
It's also why a recent Washington Post story set off my alarm bells. According to the story, "Americans in small towns and rural communities are dramatically less likely to start new businesses than they have been in the past, an unprecedented trend that jeopardizes the economic future of vast swaths of the country." As a small town entrepreneur and a passionate supporter of off-the-beaten-path entrepreneurs nationwide, I find this pretty troubling.
Evidently the recession had a pretty dire effect on the willingness of those of us out here in rural and small towns to build a start-up. According to the Post, "In the early 1990s recovery, 125 counties combined to generate half the total new business establishments in the country. In this recovery, just 20 counties have generated half the growth." There are a host of reasons for this; lending regulations that make access to capital tough for rural and small communities and the over-gentrification of a few cities that now control a disproportionate share of U.S. wealth are two that immediately come to mind. But another reason, perhaps even more powerful, is culture.
After raising millions for a tech business in Northwest Montana, I was asked repeatedly by big-city residents as well as folks from rural and small communities, "How did you build a successful tech company in such an out of the way location?" My answer was always the same: "In a coffee shop with Wi-Fi, just like you'd do anywhere else." Notably, I didn't get asked about being a woman tech CEO, or a baby-boomer tech CEO, both pretty rare. Nope, I was asked about location. The implication was clear; there was a strong belief from all corners that successful technology start-ups just didn't happen outside of a few well-known places like Silicon Valley or Boston. Since then I've been on a mission to change that perception.
That's one of the reasons that I'm pleased to be a judge for The Mobileys, a national competition that celebrates entrepreneurs who inspire and make a difference through mobile innovation. Since its inception, The Mobileys has had applicants from across the country, from big cities to remote locations. Winners have included CureSearch's mobile app which helps the families of kids with cancer digitally manage the daunting piles of paper information that cancer treatments entail. Or PageOut, a Heston, KS based company that supports the complicated job of coordinating volunteer emergency responders. The Mobileys finalists not only receive cash prizes (up to $10,000), they also get to travel to Washington, DC to meet with visionary leaders in their industries and hear firsthand about the policies that could affect them. They also get access to the judges and sometimes land some pretty great visibility.
The Mobileys judges include VC's, angel investors, social-good investors, tech and media professionals, entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurship advocates from across the country. It's an inspiring process and an important one. Why? Because you can't be what you can't see.
I'm close friends with entrepreneurs located in some pretty out of the way places. Whether they're making craft beer, in hospitality, combating climate change, curing disease, or building new social media platforms, they're all reliant on their mobile devices and the apps that go with them. And they all deserve a shot at being as successful as they want to be, from wherever they want to be.
If entrepreneurship only blooms in a few places, we'll all suffer. If you know someone who's out there working on a game-changing mobile app, tell them about The Mobileys. We'd love to get to know them, and to help them succeed.