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Rural Colleges Use Virtual Incubators to Help Local Entrepreneurs

By Reyna Gobel

How one college used local and virtual resources to aid small businesses across 3,000 square miles.

White Mountains Community College (WMCC), in Berlin, N.H., faces a challenge common to many rural community colleges: It has a large service area — in this case, more than 3,000 square miles — and is located hours from the nearest metropolitan city.

Given its remote location, the college has had to think creatively about how to support local businesses and employers in its service area. That need became even greater a few years ago, when jobs at local paper mills began gradually disappearing.

Members of the local community were in desperate need of new employment opportunities, but the closest city center was miles away. A physical building wasn’t enough to attract promising new businesses or potential employers to campus.

To create those relationships and help small businesses in the local area grow, the college had to try something different. So in 2010, John Dyer, director of community and corporate affairs at WMCC, began to work with other members of the college and its local community to draft the framework for a virtual business incubator.

The program would essentially provide resources, including hybrid and in-person training, to nurture upstart businesses in far-flung areas.

In 2011, the idea started to take hold, and WMCC joined a team of 10 rural community colleges, with support from the American Association of Community Colleges and nearly $1 million from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, to develop an online toolkit that would help rural colleges support the creation of virtual business incubators. (For more on this program, don’t miss our story on Community College Daily.)

Unique challenges

The idea sounds like a no-brainer, but getting these incubators up and running is no small feat, especially considering some of the challenges these rural colleges face.

Many of the nation’s most remote communities still lack widespread high-speed internet access, which is why it was important for planners to remember that “virtual” doesn’t have to mean solely online services. In some cases, the college ships materials out to its partner employers. In others, it hosts in person training sessions at designated meeting places throughout its service area.

The businesses WMCC services range from coffee shops to bookstores to a cattle farm, even a beef jerky maker.

Looking for ideas to get a virtual incubator running on your campus? Here are three resources WMCC offers to small-business partners:

Launch Box Party. Participants are presented with a box that contains folders for each month for basic bookkeeping. Other resources include information on marketing and business formation. Guest speakers often appear in different towns to talk with business owners. Sometimes, speakers are made available online (in places where high-speed Internet access exists) through tools such as Skype. Occasionally, the speakers agree to play a dual role. For example, a group of lawyers spoke about limited liability corporations and offered to help entrepreneurs register their businesses with the state of New Hampshire.

Shoe Box Party. This all-day session is designed for small businesses that still store receipts in shoe boxes. Business owners can learn how to use software programs such as Excel, OpenOffice and QuickBooks. The sessions, often taught by experienced bookkeepers, rotate from town to town.

Virtual Box Seminar Series. This session teaches business owners how to use the latest social media, including Pinterest and Yelp, to market and grow their businesses. It, like the Shoe Box Party, is held in different locations throughout the community.

In addition to these resources, Dyer offers the following tips for rural community colleges:

1. Discover your local resources. Find local business groups, such as small business associations, and build partnerships and share information.

2. Understand your rural infrastructure. Find out how local residents want to be contacted, and develop a sense for the reliability of local Internet access before you start creating your programs.

3. Use and develop new tools. AACC’s Virtual Incubation Network (VIN) Toolkit is a good starting point, but you’ll also want your own suite of paper and online resources. Remember, every community has its own set of needs.

4. Get to know your students. How old are they? What do they already know about technology? What is their education level? What is their local culture like? Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

5. The focus on community is huge. Visit the local communities in your service area. Learn the different cultures, and get to know the people. Do the research. Then, do the work.

Want to learn more about launching a virtual incubator on campus? Download AACC’s Virtual Incubation Network Toolkit

Reyna Gobel

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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