Entrepreneurs, small business play critical role in economic success

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By Dean Hybl, executive director, Ten at the Top

When we think about the economy in the Upstate or across the country, we often focus most of our attention on the larger companies such as BMW, Michelin, Bosch, Milliken, and others with lots of employees and established brands and histories.

Yet, did you know that 89 percent of the businesses in the United States employ 20 or fewer employees?

According to Andy Stoll from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, the places that will thrive economically in today’s “connected age” are those that can best-enable entrepreneurs and small businesses to grow and achieve success.

While that certainly includes creating and identifying the various resources needed by entrepreneurs, Stoll said it also means purposefully creating a culture where all potential entrepreneurs and small-business owners are aware of and have access to what they need to be successful.

“Many communities have the ingredients that entrepreneurs need,” Stoll said, “they just may not be organized in a way that is supportive.”

Stoll, a senior program officer for the Kauffman Foundation who has started six entrepreneurial-focused organizations, made those comments during a recent two-day visit to the Upstate. During his trip, Stoll met with local entrepreneurs and toured some of the great incubators and entrepreneurial support locations in the region including NEXT in Greenville, Business Generation for Community Transformation in Gaffney, and the Tri-County Entrepreneurial Development Center in Walhalla.

He also spoke at a luncheon in Spartanburg hosted by the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Johnson Group, VentureSouth, and VentureCarolina and conducted a workshop for about 30 entrepreneurs and entrepreneur-support providers as part of Ten at the Top’s Entrepreneur Support Providers Network.

“The Upstate is ahead of many other places in looking at ecosystem building,” Stoll said. “That you already have people coming together to see how they can work collaboratively and enhance opportunities for entrepreneurs is vital.”

After graduating from the University of Iowa and before embarking on his current career, Stoll spent four years visiting 40 countries across the globe. During that time he enjoyed many unique experiences and also observed great similarities as well as differences in various parts of the world.

He was about two years into his travels when he saw a very stark economic shift as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis. Stoll believes that crisis marked the formal end of the industrial age and hastened the world into what he and others call the connected age.

Stoll provided four observations from his travels that have helped shape his current work promoting entrepreneurism across the country:

  • Entrepreneurship and innovation has been democratized — Greater connectivity and access mean that it has generally never been easier to be an entrepreneur.
  • The individual has been globalized — Because of the technology available today, individuals are more connected than ever before and can find anything they want or need easier, regardless of where it might be located.
  • Networks are replacing hierarchies — In many cases, industries that are struggling were built around specific management, organizational, or product-delivery structures that are not always successful or needed in today’s connected world. It is now often easier to build networks of involvement and support as well as to receive products and information without utilizing some of the traditional hierarchies that previously often played an essential or gatekeeper role.
  • Geography doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas — Because we are so connected and information and materials are typically much easier to access from anywhere, not all individuals or companies engaged around a specific idea or type of product have to be located in one place. While Silicon Valley is still greatly associated with technology innovation, Stoll said that you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to have a successful tech start-up company.

If you study Stoll’s observations, what you would think he is saying is that entrepreneurship across the country is flourishing because many of the historic barriers for individuals have been eliminated.

However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of companies defined as startups being created in the United States each year has declined by more than half over the last 30 years.

In particular, Stoll mentioned that ethnic minorities and women are still under-represented as entrepreneurs and small business owners, though they are making up a growing percentage of the population and workforce.

That is why Stoll says it is critical for communities that are looking to create a thriving culture of entrepreneurs and locally created small businesses develop and deploy strategies that not only provide resources and support for entrepreneurs, but ensure that all potential entrepreneurs have access to the resources and are positioned for success.

An innovation culture has long been a trademark within the Upstate and there have been many individuals and organizations that have helped create and support entrepreneurs.

Our key as a region moving forward is to keep growing those resources while also fostering a collaborative culture that is inclusive and geared toward ensuring the opportunity for all potential entrepreneurs and small-business owners to enjoy success, regardless of background or where they live in the Upstate.

If you are interested in learning more or becoming engaged with the Upstate Entrepreneur Support Providers Network coordinated through Ten at the Top, please check out the link on the Ten at the Top web site (www.tenatthetop.org)

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