If I could choose just one strategy to help grow the economy in Eastern Kentucky it would be entrepreneurship. This strategy can harness our enterprising nature and leverage our incredible talent and natural beauty. To maximize this, we should create an ecosystem of entrepreneurship.
Our challenge is that entrepreneurship is still a somewhat foreign concept. In a region that’s been largely dependent on outside actors, the idea of creating jobs ourselves is often lacking. Many still view the industrial park as our last, best hope, and support for startups can be lacking in cynical rural communities.
Slowly, groups like the Young Professionals of East Kentucky and the Kentucky Innovation Network are laying out a vision of entrepreneurship. Yet it’s still not a vision that’s been completely embraced and lacks the kind of resources and support necessary for it to work. Entrepreneurs need several things to be successful.
Any new venture starts with a dream. Typically, that dream needs to be refined, challenged, and vetted. Often, such as with inventions, it must be patented. Having a new product or service is not a business model and entrepreneurs must identify the exact business model they will use to get their product/service to a customer. (Will they make it themselves or partner with others, for example?) Entrepreneurs need capital, legal help, marketing assistance, etc.
This is where an eco-system comes in: the best way to get these things is via a network. I’ve worked with some of the most intriguing entrepreneurs in Eastern Kentucky. From drug rehabilitation centers to construction, from product design to inventions, from apps to software development, we are watching area entrepreneurs begin to change the economy.
A partial list:
• Morgan County’s Acer Tech designs drives for oil rigs;
• a Wolfe County construction entrepreneur tired of being a steel worker and entered the steel-erection industry by purchasing a boom truck on e-Bay;
• three local engineers built an app for the construction industry that’s already selling worldwide;
• a crack software developer who tired of the rat race in Atlanta and came home to Breathitt County to raise a family and create an outsourcing firm;
• a passionately Christian man recently opened multiple drug rehab centers across the region and hired 50 people in the past year alone.
This is just a sampling of some of the incredible entrepreneurs in East Kentucky. More are out there, waiting to be discovered. The challenge is to find them, to encourage them, and to support them.
Instead of empty industrial parks we should think smaller and support local entrepreneurs. For example, YPEK, Alice Lloyd College, and MSU are partnering with the Kentucky Innovation Network to create an entrepreneur academy aimed at younger business owners. UPike is exploring a business incubator for startups. Ashland already has an incubator. EKCEP has a teleworks hub.
These aren’t expensive projects. They just surround local talent with the networking they need. They are a great start.
Now, we just need many, many more.
Johnathan Gay is a University of Kentucky trained lawyer who works for the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. He supports entrepreneurs in a 21-county area running from Maysville to Pikeville and is the son of a Leslie County coal miner.