This year’s Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities Conference took place in East Tawas, Michigan, Oct. 8-9, and welcomed more than 120 individuals into the community to learn about the best way to encourage entrepreneurship in Michigan. Michigan State University Extension has been involved in helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses for many years. We created the Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities program in Michigan approximately eight years ago in an effort to educate communities on the various tools and resources available to help them help entrepreneurs grow in their communities.
The interesting thing about the Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities Conference when compared to other conferences is that each of the breakout sessions took place in various businesses throughout the community. This gave the attendees a chance to experience the entrepreneurial spirit in that community as well as the valuable lessons taught by the session leaders.
According to Frank Gublo, Michigan State University Extension educator, “East Tawas really wanted to make this something, and the local people promoted it and helped work to get people out to it, and the local enthusiasm from the people in the town was beyond anything we’ve seen before.”
To add to the excitement, colleagues from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension attended with the purpose of launching a multi-state collaboration between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension and Michigan State University Extension. We hope that both programs can learn a lot from each other as we move forward in this partnership!
I heard an update recently from Dr. Chris Peterson, professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, and director of the MSU Product Center Food–Ag–Bio, about the impacts the center has had since it was created in 2004. The center was established to serve the needs of entrepreneurs who are developing and commercializing “high-value, consumer-responsive products and businesses in the agriculture, natural resources, and bioeconomy sectors.” It was created with funding from Michigan State University Extension and MSU AgBioResearch, along with some key grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Product Center combines in-depth analysis of business trends in these three sectors with on-the ground, community-based and individually tailored delivery of educational services to entrepreneurs. Campus-based analysts team with community-based Extension educators who are trained as innovation counselors to provide the business-centered services. Clients are facing complex and dynamic situations in which they have to make potentially business-ending decisions. Sometimes the best decision they make is to proceed no further with their investments of time, talent and money. In other cases, they walk a tightrope of risk, carefully gauging each decision step as they seek to maintain a balance between profit and loss.
Over the first seven years of the center’s existence, it has provided more than 21,000 counseling sessions and its clients, numbering nearly 1,800, have created 229 new enterprises, creating more than 900 new jobs and helping to retain more than 400 existing jobs. The total amount of capital that has been invested in these enterprises exceeds $310 million. The center’s productivity has accelerated in the past 18 months as the MSUE restructuring allowed greater concentration of effort by innovation counselors on the enterprise development program.
The center has initiated a new line of programming that is directed towards existing Stage 2 businesses that have sustainable revenue and are looking to make major expansions in sales and production. This takes more detailed analysis of business trends and enterprise operations, but the investment of MSU’s effort is justified by the increased likelihood of success for established enterprises as opposed to startups. This new initiative is named the High Impact Venture Action Team, or HI-VAT, and is supported with investments of funding from MSUE. It will be interesting to track the continued success of the innovation counselor network and the HI-VAT team as they continue to build on the very successful first seven years of the Product Center. We are deeply indebted to Dr. Peterson and the Product Center and innovation counselor teams for their leadership in creating a new model for how Extension can have an impact in communities across the state.
It’s easy to find opportunities for youth to contribute to their own communities. One of the great things about Michigan 4-H is that it helps youth spread their wings and learn about the world beyond their county, state and national borders.
In Ionia county, volunteer 4-H leader Judy Huynh, developed a model service learning project for her World Wide Kids 4-H club. Recently, the club hosted an international dinner that raised more than $800 for Heifer International. The funds were used to purchase rabbits, chickens, a water buffalo, a goat, a sheep and a pig for families around the world in hopes of alleviating hunger and poverty through sustainable and ecologically sound agricultural practices.
If that isn’t enough, the club branched out to learn about global microfinance and entrepreneurship through Kiva, a micro-lending organization that connects potential lenders with entrepreneurs from around the world. World Wide Kids 4-H Club loaned $50 to a woman in Liberia who plans to open a rice store.
Wow! These kind of entrepreneurial projects, combined with the spirit of cooperation and education are a perfect example of successful 4-H programming.
When I find a program that really captures what makes MSUE unique, I tend to tell the story of the program, perhaps a few too many times. One of those showcase items I’ve used many times is the story of Cuppa Jo Java, a coffee shop started and operated by 4-Hers in Rapid River, Mich., for more than five years. It’s a great example of youth learning about entrepreneurship, cooperation and many other life skills by doing something that enriches their formal education through 4-H.
Last week as we drove to Escanaba for our town hall meeting on Redesigning MSUE, we made a point of stopping for coffee at Cuppa Jo in Rapid River. I had heard that the shop had moved to US Highway 2, the main street through Rapid River, and did two passes through town before I saw the sign informing us that it was back in its original building, a few blocks off the highway. We found our way back to the original building, went in to order, and found not a 4-H youth, but rather a grown man serving behind the counter (is a male coffee server a baristo or a barista? Who’s an expert on Italian grammar?). It turns out the 4-H club sold Cuppa Jo to a private business.
After getting over the shock and disappointment, I realized that this is still a great story about 4-H. Anyone who goes through the trials and tribulations of a business startup, can operate for six years (with a complete turnover in staff and board of directors) and then turn around and sell the business at no loss is definitely a success. I’m STILL going to use this story in helping people to understand the power of MSU Extension and 4-H.