Ada Jobs Foundation producing entrepreneurs
ADA – Stacey Bolin, assistant professor and director of the Wilburn L. Smith Center for Entrepreneurship at East Central University, is passionate about entrepreneurs.
“We need entrepreneurs,” she said. “They are the driving force of our economy.”
James Eldridge agreed. Eldridge is president and CEO of the Ada Jobs Foundation. He is also dedicated to encouraging entrepreneurs in Ada. Eldridge said Ada has a history of entrepreneurship that has produced businesses that are industry leaders. However, he warned that a community cannot rest on its laurels.
“If you’re not getting that next generation of entrepreneurs ready, it will be harder to compete,” Eldridge said.
So the Ada Jobs Foundation is finding ways to produce entrepreneurs who will make Ada their base. Over the years the foundation has engaged in traditional economic development such as business incubators and networking events. Recently the group began focusing on entrepreneurs.
Eldridge hired ECU graduate Srijita Dia Ghosh as entrepreneurship specialist. They will soon present a plan outlining what they found and providing recommendations to move forward. Ghosh and Eldridge said their first step was to talk with existing entrepreneurs to find out what they need. Eldridge said what they need most is information.
“They were generally very good at their business idea, but they weren’t necessarily businesspeople,” Eldridge said.
Ghosh said questions ranged from writing a business plan to accounting to marketing to office dynamics. Most of the entrepreneurs wanted basically the same thing.
“Just a little more expertise,” she said.
The pair said finding expertise is relatively easy. Eldridge said Ada has many business leaders. From LegalShield to General Aviation Modifications and others, he says there is plenty of knowledge and experience. The key is to connect them with up-and-coming business owners. One idea they tried and are considering for further use is shared office space.
The plan is a kind of modified incubator. New business owners can rent an entire office or just part of one, sharing the space with other businesses. As they work alongside each other they share experiences and knowledge. The interactions serve as a networking event building mutually beneficial relationships.
“It just organically happens,” Ghosh said.
The foundation has also partnered with Bolin’s program at ECU. Ghosh is a product of the entrepreneurship program and said the lessons she learned there are valuable. She said one very instructive program was “Tiger Tank,” which was started by Bolin.
The program is modeled after the Shark Tank television program. Students pitch ideas to Bolin and select business leaders. Bolin said she includes the businesspeople because their real-world experience makes them especially qualified to find both the good and the bad in the students’ plans. Such an experience teaches students how to sell themselves and their ideas.
“That’s a skill set that anybody would do well to master,” she said.
The support continues after school. Eldridge said that through a partnership with the public school and Pontotoc County, entrepreneurs have access to the Fab Lab at the Pontotoc Technology Center. Jim Lawson, industrial coordinator and manufacturing specialist at the center, said his job is to educate future business owners and support current entrepreneurs. The Fab Lab does this by providing access to technology that would be generally difficult to find and cost-prohibitive to use.
The Lab uses laser scanners and 3-D printing technology to encourage students and help entrepreneurs prove their plans in a quick and cost-effective manner. Lawson said it is exciting to see young people come into his shop and see their idea come to life.
Lawson said that when it comes to businesses, he isn’t about education. Instead, he takes their information and provides them just enough feedback to get their ideas on track. This is because the business owners are less interested in the technology than they are in building their business.
“We give you the nuts and bolts,” Lawson said. “It’s short-term, to-the-point, then you take it and go.”
Eldridge said these are just a few elements of the plan. Ultimately the objective is to enable Ada to compete with larger cities when it comes to attracting and keeping entrepreneurs. He said that Ada may not have all the resources of a metropolitan area. However, in a small city entrepreneurs have access that isn’t available in a place where even the most exciting ideas can get lost in a crowd.
“We have to build a community,” Eldridge said.