by Dwain Hebda
Rural entrepreneurs hold vast potential in Arkansas, provided they leverage collaboration to fuel their ingenuity. That’s the blueprint for success that Tiffany Henry, rural director for The Conductor in Conway, executes every day.
“I think one of the biggest opportunities the rural communities have is the collaborative nature that supports organizations,” she says. “There are strong assets in every community. Arkansas is such a small state that when thinking of Central Arkansas those assets are not always isolated into one specific area. They’re able to be utilized regionally.”
“People who live in rural communities are hard working. They are innovative. They have had to be innovative. They don’t back down from challenges. They push through. Certainly, that innovation has, I think, helped to change the landscape looking forward.”
Henry, who joined The Conductor last summer, says timing is also on rural Arkansas’ side, as both entrepreneurs and consumers’ desire to do business locally are back in vogue.
“Main Street is changing,” she says. “There was a period of time when you could see the grocery store, you could see the hardware store and maybe a café. But after that we went through a period of time where that wasn’t viewed as modern. What was modern was a strip mall, chain stores, drive-thrus. Now, we’re in the next wave of human development, of workforce development, economic development.”
“There is a cry and a hunger for community and community is found on Main Street. Yes, it is those small businesses and those entrepreneurs on Main Street that move the community forward. It’s also the people that live there who are attracted to being in a place where their conversations are more organic. They know where their coffee is coming from, they know the people behind the counter as people they go to school with or people that they go to church with. It’s a lot more personable.”
Henry backs up this view with her own personal backstory. A native of California, she and her husband found themselves caught in the economic downturn and a general burnout over the cost of living and general rat race where they were.
“In 2006 I married my husband, Clay, and in 2008 I graduated from California State University-Stanislaus in Turlock,” she says. “He was in construction at the time and the economic downturn had really started to hit California. So, with me graduating and his job inconsistent, we thought what a great opportunity for a new adventure. We headed out east to Arkansas.”
“We got on a plane over spring break, came out here, bought a house, went back and put all of our belongings in a horse trailer and drove out in July of ‘08. That was really where our roots started to be formed. All of our family is still in California, so we really forged this new life on our own.”
Henry says many of today’s young entrepreneurs are similarly motivated to build lives on quality of place first and create businesses from there. She says enough have taken root in Arkansas’ rural areas that her role becomes one of connecting the dots across the 11 counties she serves. In so doing, she’s promoting an ecosystem as opposed to individual ventures such as helping a company in one country connect to vendors or expertise in another.
“Ecosystem-building is never one or the other,” she says. “It’s never, ‘I’m going to support the entrepreneurs and think about economic development,’ or ‘I’m going to support the community and think about how we can get people to live there.’ It’s both of them. It’s at the intersection of economic and community development.”
“The idea of building an ecosystem is utilizing both of those approaches in unison. How can we, at the same time, empower and inspire the people that are already there to bring their ideas to life and to do their jobs in a way that fulfills their dream and their vision, while at the same time provide that pathway for them and remove those barriers and challenges that come with creating something new.”
One of Henry’s first big ventures in her role is Disrupted!, a tour of radically innovative companies currently shaking things up in rural Arkansas. The first of these, Titan Ranch, gave attendees a look at a conference space created by entrepreneur GT Hill out of a Titan II missile silo just outside of Lonoke. And there are more such programs on the horizon.
“We are partnering with the Air Force to do a pitch event in June that will be in Jacksonville,” she says. “I’m really excited about that, to be able to serve our military community in a way that’s brand new. The purpose of the pitch event is to provide a more transparent and efficient way of local companies doing business with government and with the military.
“To be part of an initiative that provides a service to a group of business owners that we may not have otherwise worked with before is really exciting.”
Photo credit: Dwain Hebda