For cash-strapped small towns trying to revive their economic and cultural vitality, determining where to invest first can be a challenge. From business recruitment and retention to workforce and downtown revitalization, community leaders have plenty of worthy issues to tackle and often must prioritize based on what will offer the best return.
What’s the best way to turn a dying town into a booming one? According to industrial developer Jack Schultz, who runs Effingham, Ill.-based site selection firm Agracel, Inc., the answer lies within reach of all communities: It’s simply a matter of turning local youth into entrepreneurs.
“Kids today view themselves as free agents,” Schultz said during a session at the 2013 Tennessee ECD Governor’s Conference. “And many of them also view opportunity as existing somewhere else.”
Investing in entrepreneurship is a way to keep these young people from leaving in the first place, Schultz said. Studies show that Millennials are apt to change jobs up to seven times in their lifetime, but they are also one of the most entrepreneurial generations since the Industrial Revolution, an era that produced innovators like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers and more. In fact, 77 percent of teens today say they want to be entrepreneurs, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Banking on Entrepreneurship
Schultz urged the audience to look at economic development as a “three-legged stool,” with entrepreneurship in the center next to business recruitment and retention.
“If you’re lucky, you may be able to recruit an industry that will bring 200 jobs into your community, but you’re competing with thousands of groups for those 200 jobs,” he said. “If you focus on developing entrepreneurs within your community, those are the people who have the best chance of transforming the local economy in the future.”
Millennials share a shrewd sense of responsibility and a desire to make a difference — and cities have an opportunity to tap into that, Shultz said.
Raising Up CEOs
That’s exactly what the CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) program, an initiative that started in Effingham County, seeks to do. Created by local educator Craig Lindvahl, the class gives high-school juniors and seniors with entrepreneurial aspirations the foundation to put their dreams into action. Students visit more than 70 area companies and hear from hundreds of guest speakers who show them what it takes to build a business and make it succeed.
They write business plans to present to local investors and bankers, learn how to network, dress professionally and speak publicly. “They learn to utilize resources in their own towns and meet people who can help them connect to the future they want,” Lindvahl said.
The program, which has expanded to counties in Minnesota and Indiana, has been wildly successful, with many students going on to start businesses or pursue MBAs, according to Lindvahl. More communities need programs like these that get students engaged in the business community and excited about contributing to it, Shultz said.
“If they know they have something to come back to, they will be more likely to return and start businesses,” he said. And when that happens, it’s a win for the community, which benefits from the new jobs and investment they create as a result, both Schultz and Lindvahl pointed out.
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