Cooperation, Collaboration, and Building a Better Tomorrow: Bringing Leaders Together at the Quarterly Roundtable

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker 

To help create scalable tech startups throughout rural Southern Oklahoma, it is necessary to build an ecosystem that will support them, and building this ecosystem helps the Ada Jobs Foundation promote a vibrant community and a prosperous local economy. This is one of the main purposes of the Quarterly Roundtables hosted by the Ada Jobs Foundation. When the Ada Jobs Foundation was awarded the EDA Build to Scale Venture Challenge grant in 2021, one of the necessary elements was to reach out to the ten counties services under the grant: Pontotoc, Johnston, Murray, Garvin, Coal, Atoka, Bryan, Carter, Love, and Marshall. This outreach was important to find future tech entrepreneurs, but, just as important was to develop a network of individuals and organizations who could help support these budding entrepreneurs; in other words, we had to build a ten-county tech entrepreneurship ecosystem from scratch. 

As a part of this plan, Jim Eldridge, President and CEO of the Ada Jobs Foundation, and Ashia Todd, Startup Community Manager, devised a plan to host quarterly roundtables throughout the region. They knew it wouldn’t be enough to hold events in Ada and expect people to come; we needed to go to them and discover what their own strengths and challenges were. The inaugural roundtable was held in Ardmore and the main purpose was to decide how to move forward towards success. The second roundtable was held in Durant and the attendees had a chance to meet with Billy Hamilton, director of the Choctaw Nation Small Business Development Program, and tour the upcoming Chahtapreneur Center. The third, and latest, quarterly roundtable was held in Tishomingo at the recently opened, and state of the art, science and agriculture building on the Murray State College campus.  

This roundtable was an open discussion, beginning with the key questions of how to connect with entrepreneurs and best promote events in their regions. It was a stunning success as the conversation moved smoothly between the attendees, each building on the comments of the previous. Joining virtually were Susan Bates from REI, and Daniel Castaneda and Peggy Saunkeah from the Ada Jobs Foundation staff. Jim Eldridge, Ashia Todd, Jake Cantrell, and I were joined by Jordyn Frazier, Director of Development and Alumni Affairs for Murray State College, and Carol Ervin, Director of the Atoka City Industrial Development Authority. Having representatives from Tishomingo and Atoka present led to a broader view of the region-as-a-whole. 

While connections were being forged between Ada, Tishomingo, and Atoka, the attendees were also discussing how to best connect with other communities as well. A contact list to keep track of interested parties is crucial and essential to these efforts. In addition to finding the best contacts in each community, the conversation also included an interest in the group discovering available local resources. Cantrell said, “We are mapping our local resources to help connect people. As big part of what we are doing is connecting people with resources and helping them along the way.”  

It isn’t just the community leaders that are important to this effort. It is also the accountants, the lawyers, the graphic designers, and anyone in the ecosystem that could help fill in the gaps of services needed by an entrepreneur. For instance, an entrepreneur might have an excellent idea for a business, but lack the knowledge of how to market that idea.  By making these connections and mapping the resources, this leadership group would help facilitate the growth of a startup “ecosystem.” It would increase the chance of success for the entrepreneur while also strengthen other local businesses.  

Through the course of discussion, however, Frazier pointed out one major challenge that our effort might face. She said, “People are very territorial. It will be important to explain to them that if you have somebody, say, in Madill, who is interested in starting a new company that we aren’t trying to steal that company.” For these initiatives to succeed, it is necessary to be transparent, but also to trust that what we are doing is in the benefit of all and that we are not trying to poach businesses or budding entrepreneurs. Eldridge understood this concern, saying, “If they are in Tishomingo and happy there, we want them to stay. We want to make the connection and have the local contact, but also be able to supplement. These programs are complimentary to what is already in place. It is a partnership driven approach.” 

One way to help build this trust and make these connections is to work collaboratively and cooperatively, truly complimenting what communities have in place instead of having to start from scratch every time. For instance, Ervin expressed her interest in staging an entrepreneurial pitch competition in Atoka and the roundtable group expressed their enthusiasm and support for this effort. An idea proposed for this pitch competition was to develop a kind of technical assistance approach, where professional staff could come in to facilitate, but also leave it in the hands of Atoka to promote, manage, and operate. Likewise, we could continue along this approach and bring workshops and other educational services to communities in the Southern Oklahoma Region, making sure to support those who are local to the area to find out what is important to them, what they need, and how we can best be of service. 

The next quarterly roundtable is planned for Atoka in August. We are hopeful that each roundtable is even better than the previous, building on the engaging and successful discussions we have already had. Bringing people together who know their own communities only helps the chance of success for this new approach to economic development. As Cantrell said, “Growing the entire region helps everybody.” For more information about the next roundtable, or to have a seat at the table, be sure to sign up for our newsletter or contact the Ada Jobs Foundation at 

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Let’s Grow Ada Together