We all want our local economies to thrive. We want a place where our youth can choose to live where they were raised because they can secure an acceptable standard of living worthy of their talents. We want fulfilling job opportunities for our citizens… we want the American dream to continue in our rural communities.
Unfortunately, the recent economic trends remain unacceptable, which begs the question, “What do we do about it?” In large part we tend to place the responsibility for the economy on government and other non-government organizations, but in fact we have had remarkable consensus for some time now that entrepreneurs and small businesses actually drive our economy—not government. Hence, this allows us to further narrow the question to, “How do we best support our existing businesses and promote entrepreneurship in our rural communities?”
A Google search of related topics will offer tens of millions of hits indicating that we actually have the answers we need and therefore we need only to get on to implementation. Simply, choose the methodology that seems to make sense and get started! Unfortunately, many of the proposed solutions tend to resemble fad diets that sound good, offer great hope, offer inspiring anecdotes, make the promoters money, but in the end they rarely live up to expectations.
In truth we do have a lot of clear empirical evidence on how to best support entrepreneurs. In fact, a Kellogg survey taken of successful businesses reveals that consultants get surprisingly low marks by the very recipients of their services.
So enough about what remains uncertain, what do we know? And what can we do now? The same Kellogg survey indicates that successful businesses valued “access to capital” the most but also placed significant weight on peer-to-peer networking. Other empirical studies reveal that an entrepreneur’s propensity to network correlates as one of the highest indicators of success. Finally, one can make the case that effective networking also leads to greater access to capital.
We all understand and participate in networking in a variety of ways. Typically, each individual or business employs a variety of networking techniques, often through various entities such as chambers of commerce and civic organizations that provide critical venues.
In addition to networking, the research also indicates successful rural economies require a “Systems” approach to properly align the “plethora of training, technical assistance, and financing programs to meet the variety of needs of entrepreneurs….” (See Energizing Entrepreneurs, Buttress and Macke).
Hence, a systems approach coupled with strategic networking provides us with a starting point to more effectively support local entrepreneurs and thereby improve our local economy—in short, an effort to improve distribution in a manner that helps the entrepreneur more efficaciously get to the right resource at the right time.
Here is the good news: this is not a theoretical program in search of funding and eventual proof of concept. We have in fact been developing this program and accumulating best practices in northern New Mexico for going on 10 years. For now we call it Network Facilitation, and the Greater Española Chamber of Commerce has seen fit to implement this program in support of local businesses with funding from LANL (through the Regional Development Corporation) and the Greater Española Valley CDC.
In short, it begins with the outreach component, where volunteers are trained to seize opportunities to engage local small business owners or prospective entrepreneurs and assess their needs. It’s actually a bit more involved, but ultimately we are simply asking them, “What do you need?” Importantly, the program respects that they are the entrepreneurs and as such they are ultimately responsible for their own destiny. Hence, the program’s facilitator or volunteer representatives do not ever tell them “what to do” or “how to do it.” The program simply employs best practices to leverage the combined social capital of its volunteers (our networks) to connect them to the optimal resource(s) at the right time.
There are many resources available to our local businesses and entrepreneurs, but if they don’t know about them then they essentially do not exist. The Network Facilitation Program acts as the hub that can direct the entrepreneur to such resources, including access to capital. Thus, the program also promotes an overall systems approach with the facilitator acting in the capacity of an “honest resource broker,” also offering strategic the peer to peer networking services highly valued by the most successful businesses surveyed.
So if you are in business and could use additional support or thinking about starting a business you can call the Española Valley Chamber of Commerce and receive the service offered by this program free of charge. Also, be looking for a monthly networking event to take place on the first Thursday of each month in Española. The communities of Taos, Mora, Las Vegas and Alamosa, Colo. also have sister programs established in service to their local entrepreneurs.
Christopher Madrid is the director of Río Arriba County Economic Development. 575.753.2992, email@example.com