On May 25th, the CoLab co-hosted a Conversation on Inclusive Entrepreneurship with the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development. We had good turnout and a vibrant conversation on some of the challenges faced by people, especially those who are not traditional entrepreneurs, looking to start a business in Roanoke.
Now, let’s be clear. There are a number of great resources available to small businesses in the area already. CoLab, RAMP, RBTC, the SBDC, the Advancement Foundation and a number of other folks are engaged in promoting entrepreneurship and small business across the region. Additionally, the City of Roanoke, and other municipalities, have been important players in this conversation as well. So, while there is no doubt that we are vastly better than even a few years ago, we still need to be looking forward. We should to be asking how we can be the best place for entrepreneurs and small businesses in Virginia and beyond!
So, as a starting point for our conversation the other day, two representatives from the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development shared some of their data from a Kauffman Foundation study they have done on entrepreneurship in the region. As a starting point, they shared that the data suggests we have lower levels of entrepreneurship than comparably composed areas and that we have fewer young businesses than many of these areas.
This is crucial data for us to have. We know that a large percentage of the population is employed by small and new businesses. In many ways, it is these small companies that are the foundation of our community and are required for this to remain a thriving place. A community that is not creating new businesses is a community in trouble.
We also dug into how not everyone in our region has the same access to resources when it comes starting a small business. For example, minorities and women often face unseen barriers that complicate the process. Likewise, members of the surrounding rural communities can face a number of different challenges. Further, there are many types of businesses that struggle to find the resources they need to thrive just because of the market or niche they want to fill.
So, the question then becomes, what can we do to create community that supports all kinds of business owners and businesses?
During our discussion, we were asked to “imagine that the Roanoke region is among the most diverse, inclusive, and equitable communities for people to start and grow a business.” Then we were asked what would that look like and how can we construct such an outcome. This led to some really interesting conversations.
In the end, we feel like we have a slightly better understanding of some of the roadblocks that exist and some of the ways forward. One of the most common refrain was the geographic divisions that we already know are at play in our region. But, there are parts of the region that just are not particularly close to any of the existing resources and, thus, struggle to utilize them.
Further, it was just clear that while some populations are very aware of the resources available, others do not know what is available to them. Ensuring that there is better awareness seems to be a crucial component of moving forward.
These are, of course, just two of the hurdles that we touched on the other evening. There are so many other roadblocks that need to be identified.
That’s why it is so important that this conversation is just the beginning in our region. We plan to continue to engage with these questions and seek out other groups to hear from. It is important that we, as a community, start trying to answer these important questions.
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