Where should one search for innovative models for building sustainable economies in small communities? As it turns out, Wichita, Kansas may be a good place to start.
Over four days in January 2014, fellows and members from SEE’s Community Development Working Group came from across the US and Russia to Kansas and Nebraska for trainings, meetings, and site visits to learn how to strengthen support for entrepreneurism in their communities, in areas including Novosibirsk, Perm, and Virginia.
For the past several years, SEE has worked with community development experts from the US and Russia on a variety of topics that impact small rural towns, including citizen engagement, resources for community development and “Buy local” campaigns. Last year alone, the Community Development Working Group has led two symposia, compiled numerous community development resources, and implemented projects in nine communities from Nizhny Novgorod to Morgan County, OH.
This year’s trip kicked off with a two-day training titled “Energizing Communities. Energizing Entrepreneurs. Growing Economies,” led by Don Macke, co-director of the Lincoln, NE-based Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. Fellows and working group members learned how to incorporate entrepreneurship into larger development strategies and how to grow entrepreneurial cultures.
“We shared our experiences with prioritizing disputable issues related to economic development and community mobilization in the US and Russia,” said Roman Egorov, an Emerging Professional fellow for the working group from Pyatigorsk, Russia. “The training reinforced the value of entrepreneurship coaching as a resource beneficial both for emerging entrepreneurs in the community and consultants involved in local development.”
A highlight of the trip was a dinner with two local entrepreneurs, Mark Remmert, CEO of Green Dot Holdings, and Brian Williamson, CEO of JCB Labs, during which the participants had an intimate opportunity to hear their stories and to learn about the different kinds of NGO and government assistance that were especially helpful to them in building a business.
After the training, the group moved onto Sterling, a town located an hour’s drive outside of Wichita with a population of less than 2,500. The town has been designated an Entrepreneurship Community (E-Community) and has established a locally-administered loan fund to provide seed money for the town’s would-be entrepreneurs. The group talked with Jill Nichols, Rice County’s local economic development professional, and learned how local businesses provide funding and business coaching.
“It is always incredibly valuable to see ideas and theories being put into practice, since this is where the rubber meets the road so to speak,” Deb Martin, co-chair of the Community Development Working Group commented on their experiences in Sterling. “The visit showed us what was possible in a small community, which I think has significant applicability on both the US and Russian sides.”
The group’s last stop was a visit to the Kansas Leadership Center. There they met with the center’s director Ed O’Malley, as well as Steve Radley and Erik Pedersen, CEO and Director of E-Communities, respectively, for NetWork Kansas, the first program to build a statewide entrepreneurial ecosystem. This program, created by state legislature a decade ago, has developed programs to assist entrepreneurs and built a network so that they can help each other. Already a significant number of jobs have been created in Kansas as a result of this program.
Having successfully coalesced during these very productive four days, the group’s members returned home and its fellows travelled on to Colorado, New Mexico, California and Ohio to continue their study of how small US communities promote entrepreneurship and local development. The group will reconvene in mid-March for the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Moscow.