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Entrepreneurial communities turn local dreamers into doers

Communities need entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurs need communities.

— Rani Bhattacharyya

When the town of Waseca, Minnesota lost more than 1,000 jobs during a 10-year period, local leaders started thinking about the future. They engaged the entire community to assess Waseca’s opportunities and create a vision. One thing became clear — in order to build businesses for the future, the community needed to think more about entrepreneurs today.

“Communities need entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurs need communities,” says Rani Bhattacharyya, Extension community economics educator. Bhattacharyya and her team brought the Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities program to the State of Minnesota. The inaugural Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference was held in Waseca in September 2019.

“An entrepreneurial community is simply a place that creates easy access to the resources that people need when they start a business,” says Bhattacharyya. “They create social hubs where entrepreneurs can solve problems. They create easier paths to financing for start-up and long-term growth. Most of all, entrepreneurial communities have a welcoming attitude toward business, and work to support the dreams of residents who are willing to take a risk.”

Building bridges

At the September Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference, Extension took the concept of “entrepreneurial communities” one step further — creating connections among communities that are actively supporting entrepreneurs. “Research shows that links across communities and links to resources make a real difference when communities are ready to create their future,” says Bhattacharyya. “Across Minnesota, communities are showing entrepreneurs that they don’t have to do it alone. Our goal is to show Minnesota’s communities that they aren’t alone.”

The City of Waseca hosted the event, and they encouraged all Minnesota communities to join them. “If we create more connections across Minnesota — and even beyond our border — we can take advantage of more resources,” says Gary Sandholm, Waseca’s economic development coordinator. “Certainly, this isn’t just a one-town story.”

Waseca’s story

Entrepreneurs fill buildings and create new opportunities.

— Gary Sandholm

Waseca’s path to becoming an entrepreneurial community started with a committee called the Business and Entrepreneurial Support Team (B.E.S.T). About two and a half years ago, B.E.S.T. created a co-working space in downtown Waseca. The town of 9,000 had lost more than 1,000 jobs when local printing businesses declined and then closed. In 2016, B.E.S.T. began work on a Vision 2030 plan in collaboration with the City of Waseca, Waseca Chamber of Commerce, Waseca County, Mayo Clinic Health System-Waseca and Waseca Public Schools. Their planning process established four pillars that guide the community to:

  • Create high quality community assets.
  • Expand and leverage economic development initiatives.
  • Strengthen regional connectivity.
  • Create a vibrant, dynamic community.

“With Vision 2030, entrepreneurism became an important part of achieving our goals,” says Sandholm. “Entrepreneurs fill buildings and create new opportunities.” Over time, Waseca has organized a host of resources that support business owners and would-be entrepreneurs — from Small Business Development Center consultation to “1 Million Cups” regional gatherings where entrepreneurs bounce concerns and opportunities off of experienced business people. Classes about starting a business are happening in local high schools and community settings.

Waseca hopes that this “buzz” about entrepreneurism will create a pipeline that eventually employs as many people as the printing industry once did. But they are also eager to support businesses that improve the local quality of life. “Entrepreneurism can help us retain people who grew up here or attract new residents,” Sandholm says.

Waseca has seen success. Two new breweries have started. A family bought an existing coffee shop, expanded its evening hours and added wine, beer and more food to the menu. A local “pizza farm” is an agritourism offering that will start its third season this summer. “It’s extremely popular,” says Sandholm.“And we’ve also had a number of retail stores fill our downtown spaces.”

At the conference

Participants saw these and other Waseca businesses, and talked with owners, at the September conference. “Workshops were held across the entire community,” Bhattacharyya says. “We took this experience well outside the walls of a conference room.” Conference leaders recommended that communities bring an entire team to the conference to get local conversations started.

At the conference, participants had the opportunity to:

  • Re-think agritourism through a discussion with Waseca’s Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm, Half Pint Brewery, and other agritourism-focused entrepreneurs;
  • Learn about entrepreneurial ecosystems, and how to create them;
  • Explore creative strategies for filling downtown spaces;
  • Hear about the “1 Million Cups” program, which is helping entrepreneurs solve problems in Waseca, Mankato and beyond;
  • Consider how to inspire young people to think about entrepreneurism;
  • Hear from a panel on co-working space models;
  • Think analytically with speakers from Extension and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, who’ll talk about using data to understand your potential market; and
  • Get inspired, with keynotes from Amanda Brinkman, chief brand and communications officer at Deluxe Corporation, and Tom Smude, co-owner of Smude Enterprises, LLC.

Ready to get started? Five questions that help communities focus on entrepreneurs

National scholars have studied community entrepreneurism initiatives during the past decade. They offer five areas of inquiry that can help towns get started as they think about supporting entrepreneurs.


Note: Those five questions were drawn from Don Macke's work with Deborah Markley and Thomas Lyons: Creating entrepreneurial communities: building community capacity for ecosystem development. Macke has experience working with community development leaders to create entrepreneurial communities. Listen to our interview with him and Pam Bishop from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation in our podcast REVing up entrepreneuship.

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