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Growing entrepreneurship. That was the focus of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s annual conference in Charleston.
Members from the 13 Appalachian states shared their experiences and ideas on how to create an environment that will encourage entrepreneurs to start or grow their businesses into the future, but many agreed it starts with education.
By the federal definition, 97 percent of the businesses located in West Virginia are classified as small businesses with less than 200 employees. Seventy percent have less than 20 employees, which Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said very telling of West Virginia’s business climate.
“Small business is big business in West Virginia,” Burdette said.
Burdette and his staff joined business owners, non-profits and educators from the ARC member states at the annual conference, which was hosted this year by the only state to fully lie in the region.
This year’s theme addressed building small businesses: “Entrepreneurship: Transforming Appalachia’s Economy.”
“We had practitioners, people who in their own communities work very hard to provide technical assistance, education, capital and incubation services to have a discussion about what it is they do, what works for them and to share those ideas with other parts of Appalachia,” said Earl Gohl, the ARC’s Federal Co-Chair.
The purpose, Gohl said, is to discuss and share ideas centered on how to make Appalachia a viable environment for entrepreneurs.
“In my work, it seems like everyone has a small business they run out of the back of their truck or out of their garage or out of their shed. The challenge we have is to provide the environment for those folks to succeed and for those folks to grow,” he explained.
The conference hosted a number of strategy sessions discussing how to create value chains with local business, how to gain access to capital and start up money, and this session called “Real-World Ready,” focused on embedding entrepreneurial lessons in public and higher education.
“Eight out of every ten students indicates that they want to own a business. Eight out of ten,” said Ron Thomas, Vice President of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, who moderated the session.
“Now, here’s the correlating problem, they want to own their business, they want to be an entrepreneur, but they’ve not taken courses or had support systems at the school in order to help them become an entrepreneur. There’s something wrong with that equation,” he added.
“West Virginia has always been a state of small business people and entrepreneurs and so we know they’ve got the motivation. The issue is how to we give them the skills to be successful,” said Burdette.
Burdette said education is the key, but as others point out, it’s not always that easy.
“We have all these now requirements for students now to be able to graduate, science, math, etc., so you’ve got to get a little creative,” said Thomas.
Thomas said the way to do that is to embed entrepreneurial lessons into courses student already have to take, and start doing it at an early age to grow creative, business minded thinkers from Kindergarten up.
Burdette said that’s something the state is trying to do.
“It’s an essential step. We’re doing more in both public schools and higher education, but we’ve still got a ways to go,” he said.
Statewide programs like Lemonade Day have elementary school students learning how to start their own businesses with lemons, sugar and water, while more focused programs like those on West Virginia University’s Parkersburg campus have classroom teachers calling staff meetings with their students in conference rooms and hosting trade shows where students can show off their products.
Gohl said it’s never too early and it’s never too late to start thinking like an entrepreneur and these types of programs, where students are taking an active part in not just their education, but in their communities, are the key to creating that essential environment to support an entrepreneurial spirit into the future.
“The challenge in developing entrepreneurs in local communities is really about collaboration. Being willing to reach out and partner with folks and organizations that you don’t usually partner with. It’s those collaborations that end up producing real results. What people find out is they can do much more together than when they work by themselves.”