Connection, Collaboration, and the Conduit Initiative: Bringing 21st Century Tech Entrepreneurship to Rural Southern Oklahoma

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

When the Ada Jobs Foundation received the Economic Development Administration’s Build to Scale Venture Challenge Grant in 2021 (Award number ED21HDQ0240067), new possibilities were created in Southern Oklahoma, specifically Ada, but these possibilities brought new challenges as well. The overall goal of the Build to Scale grant is to create scalable technology startup companies as an economic development strategy. These tech startups would provide good jobs and opportunities in the region while also developing products and services that could be exported out of the area, thus bringing an infusion of wealth into the community. However, because of the small population of Ada and Pontotoc County, it was necessary to cast a wider net when finding these future tech entrepreneurs. So, when James Eldridge, CEO of the Ada Jobs Foundation, wrote the grant proposal for Build to Scale, he expanded the service area to include the geography of the Southern Oklahoma Development Association. This geographic area is designated by the Economic Development Administration as an Economic Development District and includes the counties of Pontotoc, Johnston, Murray, Carter, Garvin, Marshall, Atoka, Coal, Bryan, and Love.

While the expanded service area was necessary to increase the number of potential entrepreneurs needed to build a successful network of programs and services, this regional approach also presented unique challenges. The first challenge was found in the confusion created when Ada’s staff working on the Build to Scale program would contact people outside of Pontotoc County; they would wonder why someone from the Ada Jobs Foundation wanted to talk to them and work with them. It was at this point that it became clear that a rebranding of the Build to Scale effort was necessary in order to take on the challenges of a regional approach; thus, the Southern Oklahoma Startup Conduit Initiative was created.

While many people think of “conduit” in terms of water or electricity—pipes or passages for these forces to move through—“conduit” also has the more general meaning of making connections and that is what the Conduit Initiative aims to do. The Conduit Initiative builds on the region’s strength in water research, referencing water pipes and infrastructure, as well as a reference to electricity wires contained in a conduit, a notion towards our digital economy. Most significant, the Conduit Initiative is inspired by the definition of a conduit as a way to connect people, money, and ideas. We aim to be a conduit for our startups in the region to help them access resources, capital, and other founders.

This is echoed in the visual language of the Conduit logo. We looked to periods of rapid technology implementation, eras where America, in particular, was optimistic about the role of technology improving our lives into the future. We recognized two eras for visual inspiration. First was the 1960’s as the time period where Kerr Lab was established to the backdrop of the race to reach the moon and outer space. The second was the late 1990’s as the period in which the internet, personal computers, and new forms of communication came to prominence. There has been a recently renewed interest in “Y2K” fashion and visual design which references the “futurist” and modern designs of the period around year 2000.

The logo for “Conduit” takes these eras in to account through in bold, black, capital letters, leans slightly forward, mirroring the ideas of the initiative that it is necessary to lean forward into the future and future technologies. “Conduit” is outlined in bright blues and reds that merge into one another, suggestive of electrical wires or circuitry; this represents the connections necessary for this initiative to succeed. The logo embodies both progress and connection. The Conduit Initiative has the potential to make a lasting impact in rural Southern Oklahoma, emphasizing an optimism about the future for our communities. The Ada Jobs Foundation’s mission of promoting a vibrant community and prosperous local economy can now be extended throughout the region, thanks to the Conduit Initiative.

While this regional approach will impact a large swath of Oklahoma, it also has the added benefit of making Ada stronger and more prosperous as well. Because the Conduit Initiative’s main headquarters is located in Ada, this sets Ada up to be a regional hub for technology and entrepreneurship. All of the locations serviced by the grant are located within an hour’s drive from Ada, making it a great location for people to gather for workshops and events. Also, the ventures that are developed throughout this area will benefit Ada as everyone works together as a cohesive region. Why go to Oklahoma City, Tulsa, or Dallas when one can find what they need right here in their backyard?

The Conduit team is comprised of four individuals who are ready to help tech entrepreneurs with their own particular skills and expertise. Ashia Todd, the Startup Community Manager, focuses on networking and events. Jake Cantrell, the Investment Associate, is tasked with finding funding for scalable ventures. Matt Stephens, the Accelerator Manager, has the job of creating programming to help these entrepreneurs. Sunnie Dawn Baker, the Ecosystem Digital Content Manager, tells the story of entrepreneurship and innovation in the region, highlighting what is going on but also what is possible. The team works collaboratively to find the entrepreneurs, help them, and build a supportive and flourishing ecosystem.

While the Conduit Initiative is based out of Ada, it is also necessary to take their programming throughout the region because of their expanded service area. While they host Quarterly Startup Leadership Roundtable discussions and other networking events, bringing the key players to the table to discuss what would be most helpful to entrepreneurs in various communities, they are also planning on facilitating programming in these other areas as well. They don’t want to take over, but rather want to help other communities succeed in their own ways. They know that every community is unique and has their own strengths and struggles. They want to learn about these, acknowledge them, and then help local leaders to find their own path to success.

The concept of a conduit is about connection and movement, and the team is ready to serve as a conduit for our region’s startups and entrepreneurs. Our initiative has a vision to transform the landscape of rural Southern Oklahoma into a vibrant and prosperous region that provides opportunities for those who are ready to take advantage of them. The Conduit Initiative is ready to connect.

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