Minnesota model could enhance entrepreneurship in East Ky.

Johnathan Gay

January 8, 2014

If I could choose just one strategy to help grow the economy in Eastern Kentucky it would be entrepreneurship. Folks say that a lot, but what does it mean? Wikipedia defines entrepreneurship as: “a process of identifying and starting a business venture, sourcing and organizing the required resources and taking both the risks and rewards associated with the venture.”

Identifying and starting a business requires a certain set of skills and a mindset of innovation. Skills like these can be helped by having the right intuition, but they also much be taught. Preparing a pitch to an investor, understanding patents, realizing the scope and importance of the global market requires an education process.

Next, before any would-be-entrepreneur can focus on “sourcing and organizing the required resources” those resources have to be present. This means capital and access to professional assistance from folks in specialty fields.

Finally, in most instances entrepreneurship doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It requires an eco-system of like-minded people and similar ventures. East Kentucky entrepreneurs like Jim Booth and Joe Craft, the titans of today’s economy, were raised in an arena full of mentors, coaches, boosters and backers.

Educating would-be entrepreneurs, providing them with the resources they need to grow, and growing that eco-system of support is slowly being done in Eastern Kentucky. Organizations like the Kentucky Innovation Network, Morehead State University, and the Young Professionals of East Kentucky are providing these things to the extent our resources allow, but our efforts could be aided by an organization such as the one unveiled at the recent SOAR conference.

SOAR was an excellent opportunity to talk about a wide variety of entrepreneurial themes, but it also highlighted a model of support that might be adopted here in Appalachia; namely, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. We learned at SOAR that for decades this organization has been supporting economic diversification in the mining towns of northern Minnesota. A quick google search of the IRRRB (“I-Triple R- B”, as they call it in MN) highlights some of the things the organization has done in terms of supporting entrepreneurship.

First, the organization helps fund higher education in rural MN. Millions annually, on top of other state support, goes to support higher ed in the region. Examples include a special engineering program designed to mint new mine engineers.

IRRRB also has a history of supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Examples include small business assistance and support for a Women’s Business Center designed to elevate women in business.

Most importantly, it provides loan support, in tandem with the private sector, for Minnesota based businesses trying to grow and expand. Companies supported include ones in the manufacturing, health care, timber and engineering industries. There are numerous examples of locally grown companies that are keeping their payroll and their profits close to home.

Programs such as these already exist in Eastern Kentucky, but they lack the resources needed to achieve their maximum potential. The creation of a new organization such as SOAR may remedy this.

Johnathan Gay heads the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. The opinions here are his own.