Not long ago, Nick Walters began noticing that entrepreneurs were having an increasingly difficult time dealing with all of the red tape and other administrative minutia required for small businesses. Most of them knew about the U.S. Small Business Administration, but were unaware of other available services, especially from not-so-publicized resources.
“I met with a lady who’d started her own business in Wiggins, and she needed additional capital to make building improvements to expand,” said Walters, state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development. “She was having a difficult time putting all of the pieces together. Off the top of my head, I gave her three or four names, and she had no idea those folks were available to help.”
Streamlining the process
Then Walters had an epiphany: to create a major new statewide initiative designed to streamline the resources available to entrepreneurs in Mississippi. It would be the first of its kind in the nation.
“I realized after being involved in economic and community development for several years that so many entities wanted to help entrepreneurs with their programs, but nobody was networking,” said Walters. “People fell through the cracks too easily. The central question to me was, why should we burden an entrepreneur who is trying to create a new business with all these hoops to jump through to make their business a success? What if we showed them a path and became yoked with them, but the sweat equity would be theirs? What better way to connect everyone than through an alliance that was ‘an inch deep and a mile wide’ and offered a streamlined way of mentoring and networking?’”
When the Mississippi Entrepreneurial Alliance was unveiled April 21 at the third-annual Rural Development Conference in Vicksburg, Gov. Haley Barbour had blessed it, and leaders of the state’s universities, junior and community colleges and trade and professional associations were on board.
The alliance already has 47 partners, and The Montgomery Institute has agreed to implement the plan. Walters quickly pointed out that the network “will not create any new government programs or add a host of people to the payroll.”
“We had already been working with community colleges, looking at their future role in entrepreneurial development,” said Mike McGrevey, president of The Montgomery Institute. “Based on Nick’s vision of going bigger than community colleges, it seemed like a natural fit to bring everything together.”
What’s the difference?
The alliance differs from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) system “because the SBDC essentially gives you information and sends you to someone else,” said Walters. “We take it a step further. Instead of saying ‘you need a feasibility study,’ we’re making an appointment for the entrepreneur to meet with a firm that can provide them with a feasibility study.”
By the end of November, Mississippi entrepreneurs should be able to access the network, which will include a mentor system and a step-by-step guide to move an idea from concept to working business. Eventually, Small Business Development and Entrepreneurial Centers will be developed at all 15 state community and junior colleges for hands-on statewide access.
“Much of this will complement Gov. Barbour’s Momentum Mississippi package and the Workforce Training initiative passed by the Mississippi Legislature,” said Walters.
A national model
Brian Dabson, a research professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the Alliance is already serving as a model for other states.
“Mike has done a great job of pulling together all these entities to collaborate rather than compete,” said Dabson. “It’s a terrific thing Mississippi is setting out to do.”
Walters said the Alliance is a concept “that just made sense.”
“Entrepreneurs are a different breed, quite frankly,” he said. “They are determined, have a strong work ethic, and aren’t deterred by roadblocks. They’re the people — the Gail Pittmans, Fred Carls and Billy Howards — who make things happen. We’d like to see them spend their talents and resources developing products and moving into new markets rather than figuring out how to file unemployment taxes.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.