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  • Writer's pictureAnika Horn

Creating community for entrepreneurs: Field notes from the ecosystem

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

During the month of April, the Ecosystem Team toured the Valley to find out what’s happening for entrepreneurs in some of the Valley’s smaller communities. Here are the highlights:

  • We went on 2 Listening Tours (Monterey & Elkton)

  • Mingled with entrepreneurs and the local ecosystem at 5 different events

  • Shared our insights at the national Investing in Rural America conference

What we’re hearing from entrepreneurs: Entrepreneurs need community

A common theme in April was that entrepreneurs in the Valley are figuring out a lot on their own. While support is available, it’s not always visible or easily accessible. Nick connected with two entrepreneurs in Harrisonburg whose businesses are up and running without tapping into their local support programs. Nick says, “I’m really impressed with what these entrepreneurs have pulled off without any in-person support. They figure a lot of stuff out on their own, mostly through online resources. Just imagine what they could do if they were plugged into their local ecosystem and all the support that is available to them!”

The entrepreneurs we spoke to last month shared plenty of ideas of how to grow and expand their businesses but they’re lacking a safe space to brainstorm and get feedback on these ideas.

We're working to build more community for local entrepreneurs by hosting events and we try to get the word out through more intentional storytelling and marketing of available resources. If you’re an entrepreneur looking for more community, here is a snapshot of events over the coming weeks:

Northern Valley

Central Valley

  • May 25: Caffeinate/Innovate at the Perch, Harrisonburg

  • June 1: Startup Coffee Hour at Farmhaus Coffee, Waynesboro

  • June 20: Small Business Breakfast, Staunton Innovation Hub

Southern Valley

For more events, visit Valley Business Compass.

Telling the stories of Valley entrepreneurs

After almost a full year of convening a regional coalition of entrepreneurial supporters, our ecosystem just launched a storytelling platform to share more stories about entrepreneurship in the Shenandoah Valley!

Where in the Valley do entrepreneurs gather to ideate and co-create? Our first quarterly campaign Caffeine, Connections & Coworking introduces the many spaces and pop-up events that create space for the doers and creators in the Shenandoah Valley.

What we’re hearing from ecosystem partners

We were fortunate to spend two days in rural communities to hear more about what our most remote entrepreneurs are up against when starting and growing their businesses. Through these listening tours, we also have a chance to hear from the local champions who work tirelessly to support entrepreneurs in their communities.

When visiting Elkton we were impressed with the level of involvement and dedication of the local town council. They’re currently raising funds to build out their farmers market pavilion as a central space for the community to gather and enjoy events. Like other towns, absentee ownership of downtown real estate is an issue - what could be storefronts for local businesses often remains empty prime real estate. Joshua Gooden and Deloris Hammer echoed a sentiment we heard in the previous month: Entrepreneurs have great ideas but need help executing them.

Earlier in April, we crossed Augusta County to make our way to Monterey in Highland County. Robin Sullenberger, the former CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, introduced us to entrepreneurs, economic developers, the Chamber of Commerce, and several champions of the community who are active in the arts, history, culture, and civic engagement in Highland County. The commitment to seeing the town of Monterey, and its county, thrive was palpable. We toured an artist collective, an emerging shared office space, and the Highland Inn dating back to 1904. With the help of the community, federal grants, and investors, the Highland Inn is currently undergoing construction to return to its former glory. Entrepreneurs in Highland County benefit from a local grant program by the Economic Development Authority as well as from a marketing assistance program through the tourism council. One such entrepreneur is Kirk Billingsley, founder and owner of Big Fish Cidery. Thanks to the $5,000 grant Kirk was able to purchase a walk-in refrigerator unit that has since allowed him to increase production of his cider, fill kegs and expand to other markets such as Harrisonburg, Blacksburg, Lexington, and Richmond. “I want to stay in Highland County. This is where the apples grow that I use to make cider, this is where I live. I want to create jobs in our community and keep as much money locally as I can.”, Kirk explains.

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