In the course of this project, common themes emerged from the successes and challenges we faced. Below, we've captured and summarized these themes below. Underneath each theme, we provide links to stories that contextualize and frame the work.
Learning Theme 1. Community Readiness
Communities must be “ready” to take on the work of building an entrepreneurial community. What does readiness look like? It is primarily about having the leadership and organizational capacity to not only launch but sustain the work over time. And, most importantly, it is about finding, cultivating and sustaining champions.
Learning Theme 2. Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture
In so many rural places, the roots of entrepreneurship are hidden, covered over by more recent economic developments focused on attracting business, extracting resources, and looking to outsiders to create jobs and wealth. Building a “grow your own” entrepreneurial culture and transitioning away from the community’s past requires leadership, positive examples, data to drive decision making, and a framework for taking action.
Learning Theme 3. Community Coaching
Community coaches are an important ingredient for success. Coaches serve as guides for community leaders, bringing resources, accountability and discipline for community teams. But coaching is most successful when there are stable coaching relationships and a commitment by the community to being coached.
Learning Theme 4. Importance of a Framework
A framework provides structure for an exploration, including suggested steps and guideposts along the way. The Entrepreneurial Communities framework is important as a guide for communities. But experience in Appalachia suggests that the community coach plays an important role in translating the framework into language that resonates with their community.
Learning Theme 5. Momentum, Momentum, Momentum
Early “wins” help communities see what is possible and give them the energy needed to continue the work. When the work is hard – and culture change work is hard – it is important to recognize and celebrate the early wins. When an entrepreneur gets connected to resources or decides to open that Main Street business because of the community’s support, those small wins needed to be trumpeted by local media, the Chamber and other organizations. Providing incentives via mini grants to build momentum is a useful strategy.
Learning Theme 6. One Size Does Not Fit All
Community size, place (geography, economic history) and the robustness of the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem matter. Because this work builds on the system already in place, its strengths – and weaknesses – matter. Places with a history of investment in community capacity building, such as Minnesota, seem to have an advantage in adopting and adapting a framework like entrepreneurial communities that other regions do not have.
Learning Theme 7. Marathon not a Sprint
Entrepreneurial communities’ work is a long journey. Experience in other places suggests that to really begin to shift trend lines – population, income, wealth – takes 10+ years. In Appalachia, start-up times varied by state but evidence of progress built over time.
Learning Theme 8. Finding the Right Intermediaries
The long-term success and sustainability of this work may depend upon embedding it in the “right” intermediaries – ones with a commitment to community economic development and to community engagement. It is important that a rooted-in-region organization takes ownership for this capacity building work so that communities have a ready, willing and able partner throughout the ups and downs of this journey.
Learning Theme 9. Progress Linked to “Energy Areas”
We are seeing promising progress related to entrepreneurial development as an economic transition strategy, especially as it connects to sector-focused strategies like recreational tourism. Over time, communities applied their time and the learning from this work to “energy areas” – emerging opportunities connected to trail development, downtown revitalization, other POWER-funded activities – that helped them make progress and see the rewards from their work.
Learning Theme 10. Community Capacity Building as a Prerequisite for POWER
The effectiveness of initiatives like ARC’s POWER program is dependent on community capacity being in place first. POWER brought money and new organizations engaged in community and economic development to Central Appalachia but, in some cases, the capacity in communities to effectively absorb this new funding was limited and proved challenging.