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Mississippi Entrepreneurial Alliance moving forward

The Mississippi Entrepreneurial Alliance (MEA), unveiled last April at the third-annual Rural Development Conference in Vicksburg to streamline the resources available to entrepreneurs in the Magnolia State, was in its embryonic stage of development when Hurricane Katrina halted its progress.

Now thanks to WIRED grant funding by the U.S. Department of Labor, and an awareness boost from a conference in May highlighting the MEA, formation of the entrepreneur-friendly network is moving forward.

“Certainly the timing of Hurricane Katrina wasn’t good, especially because one-third, maybe one-half, of our state was affected by it,” said Nick Walters, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, who conceived the alliance and serves as its lead federal representative. “So many of our 47 partners were focused on their own individual Katrina efforts, and we’re not going forward until we have all the partners and all 82 counties on board. We knew the timing wasn’t right, so we took a break. But we’re now back on track. Our total team is put together. And it’s just a matter of implementing what we’ve started.”

The MEA is a partnership between Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s 15 community colleges, The Montgomery Institute (TMI) and Walters’ office to successfully meld research, education, workforce and economic development entities into a national model of primarily enterprise-centric rural development. Its primary efforts involve workforce development and life-long learning strategies, entrepreneurial and investment strategies, regional economic and community development and the support of civic leadership capacity expansion. The basic goal: to connect entrepreneurs to resources.

“At its core, the MEA is about changing the rural culture of dependency from entitlement to one of enterprise,” said Chris Reed, associate director of the West Alabama-East Mississippi WIRED Alliance, which is working on MEA-type activities. “It’s about moving from a near exclusive reliance on ‘take a job’ workforce development to ‘make a job’ enterprise development, thus widening the opportunities of prosperity for all stakeholders.”

Mississippi needs to emulate other states, such as Georgia, that are leading the pack in entrepreneurship connectivity, said Reed.

“They recognize that in order to develop entrepreneurship, one must have a plan and not simply leave it to some tax incentives or worse, to chance,” he said. “One of the key ideas that must be accepted throughout the state is that entrepreneurship is an economic development strategy unlike any other. It is more of a strategy of talent, innovation and human resource development. It therefore requires a whole new approach and different tool sets than what most of our communities and economic developers currently have. We must be purposeful in this approach or we will simply continue to thrash around in a mire of uncoordinated, silo-focused policies, regulations and initiatives.”

Five main areas critical to entrepreneurial development include community entrepreneurship education, entrepreneur training and technical assistance, expansion of capital access, developing entrepreneur networks, and growing an entrepreneurial culture, Reed pointed out.

“Initial strategies for the MEA center on building linkages and expanding intermediary capacities, facilitating community entrepreneurial asset mapping and development, and fostering a supportive culture for entrepreneurship within the state,” said Reed. “MEA leadership realizes that successful entrepreneurial development practices center around place and asset-based approaches, not the least of which are the human resources of a community.”

The key player

The MEA concept engages the statewide community college-led workforce delivery system as a partner to facilitate asset-based systems development.

“This partnership leverages the long established trust of the community colleges within local and regional communities, greatly enhancing the probability of success for the delivery of deep and sustainable system development,” said Reed. “The Mississippi community college system is flexibly structured, geographically positioned, and legislatively commissioned to effectively perform this role unlike any other entity, public or private, and it has a very successful track record in economic and workforce development.”

Even though MEA is a statewide initiative, a component of the WIRED grant will fund MEA-type activities at four community colleges in Alabama and four in Mississippi covering 36 counties. One goal: to create a prototype for use in other states.

“The biggest difference is using community colleges as the primary mechanism,” explained Reed. “Thirteen regions throughout the U.S. have been awarded $15 million (in WIRED grant money) over three years. Even though the WIRED grant is broader in perspective than just entrepreneurship, it’s a key element.”

Also different: utilizing a systems approach rather than a programs approach.

“Basically, programs are focused, with deadlines, compared to systems development, which is more comprehensive and builds sustainability and impact over time versus a program that will cease someday,” said Reed. “A system of support, or SOS, is preferable.”

Walters conceived the idea of MEA after noticing that entrepreneurs were having an increasingly difficult time dealing with red tape and other administrative minutia required for small businesses. Most of them knew about the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), 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.”

Then Walters had an epiphany: to create a major new statewide initiative designed to streamline the resources available to entrepreneurs in Mississippi.

“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,” explained 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?’”

Walters pointed out that Small Business Development Centers across Mississippi play a crucial role providing services to entrepreneurs.

“The model that we’ve had up to date has been focused on people coming to various agencies on their own and then trying to navigate all those pieces and parts that add up to a successful business or entrepreneurial activity,” said Walters. “Now, we’re simply all trying to sing from the same sheet of music.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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