by Tyler Hale
This week, Pine Bluff has been the epicenter for rural entrepreneurship and innovation in the United States. Entrepreneurship ecosystem builders from across the nation have swarmed into the south Arkansas city for the second annual Rural RISE Summit.
Leaders from more than 35 states were present for the summit, which according to Nathan Ohle, is meant to be both a strategy-sharing conference and a general celebration of the advances made in rural entrepreneurship advocacy.
“The main focus of the event is to bring people across the country together to talk about the work that they’re doing in rural communities to help drive entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s a celebration of rural innovation and entrepreneurship, but it’s also opportunity to connect people and opportunity to share great stories and best practices around what is happening in small rural communities across the country,” he says.
Ohle is CEO of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), the organization behind Rural RISE. While only in its second year, the summit has already experienced growth.
The first summit, held in West Virginia, brought entrepreneurship and business leaders together to pose the question, “How do we empower the leaders, doers and innovators in rural communities?” According to Ohle, approximately 75 individuals representing 25 states attended the inaugural summit.
The impetus for the summit was to emphasize the importance of entrepreneurs and innovation in rural communities. While economic development is often centered around attracting medium to large-scale companies, Ohle contends that small-scale companies, and even individuals, are the ones responsible for driving growth in local communities.
Traditional economic development focuses on attracting one or two companies that employ 50 or more individuals. However, Ohle argues that it’s the local companies that employ 5 to 10 individuals that drive the local economy.
“We’re hoping to drive 10 companies that…really are focused locally so that it’s not just creating jobs but it’s also creating wealth for the community and leaving that wealth in the community and sustaining that community in the long term,” he says.
Increasing attention is being paid to entrepreneurship in Arkansas now, with resources available from organizations like Startup Junkie, Winrock International and the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center. One of the organizations that focuses significantly on rural entrepreneurship is the Conductor, based in Conway, with Rural Director Tiffany Henry leading the charge. The rural entrepreneurship ecosystem and infrastructure in rural areas is “getting stronger every day,” Henry says, but it will require organizations like the Conductor, as well as community champions to provide access to resources to continue that upwards trend.
“Our goal is to provide the resources to build a pipeline for entrepreneurs from idea phase to business creation to company growth,” Henry says. “We do this through facilitating community programming that fosters a culture of innovation and knowledge sharing.”
Henry says that having Rural RISE in Pine Bluff will help entrepreneurs and organizations in their goal to raise awareness about rural innovation and allow ecosystem builders to trade strategies and stories about their work.
“Rural RISE provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to share their challenges and stories with like-minded people from all around the country. They will learn proven success strategies to start and grow companies that have been successful in other regions, meet national resource providers who can provide capital and technical assistance, and collaborate with other entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders on joint ventures,” Henry says.
When choosing the location for Rural RISE, Ohle and his team held discussions with multiple communities before settling on Pine Bluff. The decision, he says, rested on Pine Bluff’s willingness as a community to showcase the work going on in its region, a commitment to draw people to the event (and be able to accommodate them), and a desire to drive economic development.
“I think they see a real opportunity to drive regional approaches to economic development, and we also have a strong desire to make sure that we’re moving across the country,” Ohle says.
Ohle expects Rural RISE to continue next year, although it is likely taking place in a different region. Moving the summit to different areas in the United States is part of the organization’s mission of highlighting the regional differences in rural entrepreneurship around the United States.
The overall mission, though, remains the same: spotlighting the creativity and innovation of communities that have, in some narratives, been underserved.
“There’s a real need here for us to be able to highlight what’s happening on rural communities, especially given the national narrative of people talking about the decline of rural America and the lack in innovation when we know, based on the work that we do, there’s a lot of innovation happening. And frankly, innovation has to happen in rural unique because there’s less, people were up, less resources, sometimes less expertise,” he says.