Snapshot of the Conduit Initiative: A Multi-Pronged Approach to Entrepreneurship

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

There is no single way to build a tech entrepreneurship ecosystem. There is not a simple set of instructions or a single map or pathway to follow. To make these goals a reality, many pieces must work together in service of the larger goal of helping entrepreneurs achieve their dreams of starting their own businesses. This approach must work in the present, but also reach into the future. A peek into a single week at the Ada Jobs Foundation illustrates the different ways that the Conduit Initiative staff aims to complete their objectives for both the present and the future.

Matt Stephens, the Accelerator Manager, led a Customer Discovery Workshop on Wednesday, March 6th. This workshop followed the February Business Idea Workshop and precedes the April workshop that focuses on Marketing and Branding. These topics are both relevant and pertinent to current and future entrepreneurs. Before starting a business, you must have a clear understanding of what you want to do and what your needs are going to be. However, this is only the first step. To run a successful business, you must fully understand your customer base; without a customer, you have no business. Through the process of customer discovery, entrepreneurs must think through exactly who will buy their product or use their service. Thinking in vagaries isn’t helpful; specificity is the key to this exercise.

Understanding the details of a customer base is integral to shaping all aspects of a business. Unless you know your customer, you don’t know how to tweak your product or service to make it more desirable. You don’t know how much to charge. And you certainly don’t know how to market to your customer in a relevant way. This is the reason why Stephens has organized these workshops in this order. By helping entrepreneurs develop a clear and specific view of their customer base, they can revisit their original business idea and make necessary adjustments. Then, they can use this knowledge to take the next step and market their business with a high degree of intentionality. Stephens says, “These workshops serve to expose the community to entrepreneurship in a way that is easy to understand and highly valuable. Our goal is to help get people started and encourage them to continue working on their business ideas, knowing that they can come to us whenever they have questions.”

While current and aspiring entrepreneurs benefit from the workshops, another piece of the tech entrepreneurship puzzle is the Conduit Initiative Tech Meetups. Jake Cantrell, Investment Associate for the Conduit Initiative, and a tech entrepreneur himself, states the importance of these events, saying, “Tech meetups play a vital role in our local tech community by fostering an environment where people can meet, share ideas, and work on problems together. They’re not just about networking; they’re about building a support system where everyone, from beginners to experts, can learn and grow. It’s a way to ensure our tech community is strong, connected, and forward moving.”

On Thursday, March 7th, Startup Community Manager, Ashia Todd, organized an event at Pontotoc Technology Center with the help of Brent Balch and Jim Lawson. This tech meetup focused on drone technology and all the various ways drones can be used for business. While Balch and Lawson shared their expertise, several participants, including representatives from PEC, also shared their own experience with drone technology. These events bring tech professionals together to share their knowledge and challenges, but they can also inspire others to either embark upon their own journey into tech entrepreneurship or expand what they are currently engaged in. Todd says, “The tech meetups, along with entrepreneur stories, are so important in our efforts to build a sustainable tech ecosystem in our region. They are the first effort to connecting with the tech entrepreneurs in these communities.” These meetups provide helpful information, but they also encourage participants to expand their ideas of what is possible with regards to business and technology.

While the Conduit programming engages with the present, there are still other ways that the team pursues their goals while looking to the future. True, sustainable economic growth necessitates thinking about it in both the short term and the long term. This is one of the reasons why Jake Cantrell and Sunnie Dawn Baker both spoke at the Ada High School Career Exploration Day on Thursday, March 7th. Cantrell led sessions on entrepreneurship and software development; Baker also focused on entrepreneurship while educating high schoolers about the basics of economic development and ecosystem building. Cantrell says, “By participating in Career Day, we’re able to directly engage with students, showcasing the exciting possibilities in technology and entrepreneurship. This involvement helps lay the groundwork for future innovators and supports our broader mission of stimulating local economic growth through tech education and startup development.”

These efforts are similar in nature to the work that Baker does as coach of the Ada Jobs Foundation’s Youth Coding League team—the Conduit Coders. While these coders are only in fifth and sixth grade, they are the future. By teaching them about coding, computer science, and problem solving at such a young age, Baker is setting the stage for what might be possible ten years down the road. The projects that the students engage with encourage them to think about possible technological innovations that they could create in the future and how they can help the world through tech entrepreneurship.

Encouraging and supporting tech entrepreneurship must not only help people now but also be forward-thinking. Through all the events and engagement efforts of the Conduit Initiative staff, this team finds the various threads that could be helpful for this effort and weaves them together into one cohesive tapestry. There is no one way to achieve their goals, but by working together and bringing their different strengths to bear, they build something bigger than their individual efforts.

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