Why It's Time to Crowd-Source Our Neighborhoods and Build Up America's Local Economies
The worth of a local business cannot be summarized by its balance sheet alone. As the Preservation Trust of Vermont notes, “many businesses, especially in… rural areas, play an irreplaceable part in community life that isn’t captured in the daily sales transactions.” Judy Wicks champions the creation of such “beautiful businesses,” the success of which can benefit the whole neighborhood.
How do we grow these beautiful businesses in our cities and towns—businesses that will feed us, clothe us, house us, and bring us together? Typically, the entrepreneur takes on all the risk of startup—not only the financial risk, but also the time spent in market research, site selection, sourcing raw materials, prototyping products, and preparing a business plan. This is a high bar for one person. How can neighbors, communities, and regions help to shoulder some of that burden?
Ask anyone on your Main Street what products they would imagine made locally, what kind of businesses they would like to patronize, and what kind of services might be missing from their local economy. You will return with a suitcase full of suggestions informed by generations of local knowledge, accompanied by a list of individuals ready to share their experiences. What you might not find is a framework to capture those skills and that knowledge in a way that galvanizes citizens to shape their local economies—unless, that is, you happen to visit Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
This winter, for the second year in a row, Berkshire County, Massachusetts-based non-profits BerkShares, Inc. and the Schumacher Center for a New Economics are partnering with local organizations, community members, and companies to offer Entry to Entrepreneurship (E2E), a 10-week business-planning course for 14 to 25 year-olds focused on fostering community entrepreneurship. How does this business-planning course differ from any other?
Each lesson is taught by a different volunteer member of the community, who brings his or her own unique skills, experience, and voice to our classroom. From lawyers and accountants to retired executives, shop owners, and food producers, the mentors, advisors and reviewers are all locally-based and offer a future support network for E2E graduates. For a cohort of 19 students, we have more than 30 teachers—with more knocking on our door daily to get involved. Barth Anderson, co-owner of Barrington Coffee Roasters and one of our advisors, is a bit envious of the students. “I wish I had had an opportunity like this when I was in high school—I would probably be a better entrepreneur today."
It’s focused on local production
Rather than starting the course by asking students about their personal passions, we instead introduce them to the concept of import replacement. The class then generates a list of what might be produced in the region that is currently being imported from elsewhere. This sets the tone for the course, and encourages students to think first about how they can meet the practical needs of their community. It allows students to start from, as Otto Scharmer would say, an eco-centric rather than an ego-centric perspective.
Jane Jacobs identifies import replacement as a key strategy for regional economic development and this course borrows liberally from her book. E2E is also informed by the thinking of Michael Shuman and Judy Wicks, who argue that every community needs “a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker." In that spirit, we openly share the business plans developed in the course, which will culminate in a public event on Tuesday April 12. Each student who has completed a plan will earn a prize of 200 BerkShares to be spent in implementation or in frivolous exuberance. Plans not implemented will be shared on the BerkShares website, to serve as a starting point for future community entrepreneurs.
Donations in federal dollars and BerkShares, in-kind support, and volunteer time make it all possible. Partners include Berkshire Community College, the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Berkshire Regional Office, community banks and credit unions, Rotary, our State Representative, and The Triplex Cinema. All are proud to help a new generation of entrepreneurs continue a Berkshire tradition of diverse and independent businesses.
Our students range in age from 13 (she squeaked in!) to 24. But if you visit our classroom you will notice that the actual age range is more like 13 to 75. One of our mentors, Vito Vitrano, is a veteran of many business startups, including the longest-operating company in New York City’s Garment District. When he retired to the Berkshires, he realized that all of his hard-won knowledge and wisdom would be lost unless he found a way to pass it on to a new generation. Vito says he would be happy if he gets to help just one young entrepreneur start up a business and be successful. Chances are he will help more than just one.
It invites participation, replication, and adaptation
Vito’s wish to share what he knows is not uncommon. E2E has brought out the best in the community and encourages creativity. Educators, retirees, public servants, young people, business people—all have begun identifying unmet needs, open opportunities, and possible collaborations within our local economy. Conversations about how to rise to the challenge of creating a new economy locally are spreading. We have been invited to package the program so it can be replicated easily. A Berkshire County coalition is starting an import-replacement campaign beginning with research and surveys, growing into new businesses on the ground, providing jobs for youth, and circulating the wealth of the Berkshires in the Berkshires.
Interested? See the possibilities for your city or town? Find out more about Entry to Entrepreneurship by visiting the Community Supported Industry section of the BerkShares website.