Monday, May 28, 2012

Entrepreneurs and the Creative Rural Economy

By Mary Mathews, President & CEO, Entrepreneur Fund

Anna Anderson and Elizabeth Chapman are typical rural entrepreneurs: that is, they are completely unique. Sisters in their early 30s, they joined their father’s business five years ago in Angora, Minnesota (population: 277). Today, Art Unlimited is a dynamic and growing interactive media solutions, web design, marketing solutions, and graphic design company.

Well before joining the family business, Anna and Elizabeth demonstrated their entrepreneurial spirit. When they were 12 and 13, the sisters wanted animals. Their parents told them that they would need to raise the money to pay for animal feed. The girls wrote a business plan for a boarding kennel and a dog-food distribution business and won a national business plan competition. They then convinced a local bank to make them an $8,000 business loan--without their parents co-signing for the note. Elizabeth still runs the boarding kennel.

I met Anna and Elizabeth at one of the Entrepreneur Fund's “Be Strategic: Grow Your Business” series. During the eight-session, six-month “Be Strategic” series, the sisters clarified Art Unlimited’s company vision, developed a strategic plan for growth, and improved their skills in marketing, finance and operations. They are expanding their customer base into regional and national markets. They are clear about who their customer is and the value Art Unlimited provides. Now they are using the planning tools acquired in “Be Strategic” to help their clients clarify their own vision and strategy. They are adding three new high-quality jobs to their six-person company to facilitate their growth.

At the "Be Strategic" series graduation,
with Anna Anderson and Elizabeth Chapman (two at left)
and Mary Mathews (far right).
 After 30 years of working in rural development, I still regularly ask myself how we can accelerate the growth of our rural economies. How do we create more opportunities for our young people to stay in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin or move back to raise their families?

I believe that the answer lies with skilled rural entrepreneurs. Of course, investments in broadband, workforce education, infrastructure, and capital are critical components of rural development. But entrepreneurs are the ones who are capable of growing strong local companies, building regional wealth, and creating jobs. And they are tomorrow’s community leaders.

Helping Rural Entrepreneurs Succeed

Even for individuals with strong entrepreneurial instincts, skill development improves the opportunity for business success. Since 1989, the Entrepreneur Fund has worked in Minnesota and Wisconsin to identify, guide, and support local entrepreneurs that have drive and ideas. We work to accelerate their skills development and overcome barriers to their growth.

After four years of regional planning, in 2008 the Entrepreneur Fund launched the Greenstone Group initiative to build an organized, intentional system of entrepreneur support for northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. This initiative targets entrepreneurs who have been in business at least two years and have a vision and desire to grow their companies.

In 2003, the Entrepreneur Fund helped Don and Leanne Negley start Rural Living Environments (RLE), in Babbitt, Minnesota. The company specializes in creating supportive living environments for adults with developmental disabilities in a rural setting. We helped them with the initial business plan and start-up financing. Later, a Greenstone Group Business Performance Coach helped Don grow the company. RLE employs 40 people and Don has plans for additional growth.

We have developed and tested tools and activities to guide entrepreneurs toward growth and to measure the resulting changes in their entrepreneurial skills. All Greenstone activities, whether one-on-one or group, share common elements. We believe that entrepreneurs learn best from other entrepreneurs, so we:
  • provide networking opportunities,
  • build peer-learning groups among entrepreneurs at similar levels of development, and
  • include skilled, experienced entrepreneurs in every activity, as coaches and guides to accelerate and enhance the learning that occurs.
In addition, we work collaboratively with other public and private service providers to ensure the entrepreneur has the resources and support s/he needs. 
The Entrepreneur Fund also works to support diverse business ownership in the region. For example, our Women’s Business Center hosted its first three-day Women’s Strategy Weekend (WSW) in March. Ten women with existing companies refined their vision and developed strategic plans to grow their companies. 
As a result of her participation in WSW,
Art in the Alley's owner plans to expand to several more locations.
Pictured: Tami LaPole Edmunds (owner at right) and her daughter Gwen LaPole
Our Vision and Track Record
The Entrepreneur Fund’s long-term vision is of a regional culture where being an entrepreneur is an equal choice to getting a job, where young people can chose to stay in rural communities because they see creative opportunities for starting companies or finding jobs, and where the process of entrepreneurial thinking and business cycles are understood. Success is celebrated and a failure is learned from…and the process of creation goes on. 
Formerly the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund, the Entrepreneur Fund's development services have helped entrepreneurs start or grow over 1,300 companies since its formation in 1989. It $8 million loan fund has provided $15 million in loans to 450 companies. The Entrepreneur Fund is the developer of the CORE FOUR Business Planning Course® and Be Strategic: Grow Your Business. 
The Greenstone Group has so far worked with 150 entrepreneurs running companies with annual revenues ranging from $20,000 to $10 million. Their companies have increased profitability, grown revenues, and found new markets.
More about the Entrepreneur Fund
The Entrepreneur Fund's mission is to develop skilled entrepreneurs who build strong locally-owned companies in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. We envision a strong regional economy with an entrepreneurial culture that cultivates thriving companies and vibrant communities.
The Entrepreneur Fund launched the Greenstone Group in 2008 with visionary support and a 10-year grant from the John S & James L Knight Foundation.
About the Author
Mary Mathews is a social entrepreneur and the founding president of the Entrepreneur Fund. She is a past board chair of the Opportunity Finance Network and Association for Enterprise Opportunity and a current board member of the Duluth Art Institute and NorthStar Aerospace. Mary is a northeastern Minnesota native, former business owner, and an Iowa State University graduate.
Photos provided by the author.

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