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Kansas Leadership Center staff participated in a Heartland Together listening tour this spring, funded by the Kauffman Foundation. The tour took them to more than 20 communities to elevate the conversation of healthy entrepreneurial ecosystems and build local civic engagement capacity. Several of the listening sessions were facilitated in Spanish.

Tight knit: Connection is critical for progress in rural entrepreneurial ecosystems

Kansas Leadership Center’s Lucy Petroucheva says in vibrant rural entrepreneurial communities, leadership is “an activity, not a position.”

As the civic engagement manager at the nonprofit Kansas Leadership Center (KLC), Lucy Petroucheva is a strong believer in the power of people to shape the future of their own communities. This month, she co-moderates a panel on policy, rural entrepreneurial ecosystems, and how people can make progress toward a rich culture of entrepreneurship in their own communities during the 2022 Radically Rural Summit, Sept. 21-22.

Here, Petroucheva shares her vision for a vibrant rural entrepreneurial community, what barriers impede progress, and how a shift in perspective can impact communities and policy and better support entrepreneurs.

Community members take ownership over their collective success – instead of relying on authority figures to create top-down change, they practice leadership at every level.

What does a vibrant rural entrepreneurial community look like?

In a vibrant entrepreneurial community, experimentation is widespread – different people are trying different things, solving problems in different ways, expressing themselves through their work, and creating useful and interesting things for their community.

To cultivate this, communities need to be able to meet experimenters and problem solvers where they are, ready to wrap around them with the support they need. That can’t happen without a tightly knit, coordinated network of people and resources – that’s critical.

In this ecosystem, people are connected to each other. They welcome new people and new ways of thinking. They work well together. They empathize, include others, and work across differences. People know what resources exist in the community and how to access them. They are comfortable asking for help. They jump in to support one another and fill in resource gaps. Community members take ownership over their collective success – instead of relying on authority figures to create top-down change, they practice leadership at every level. They don’t wait for formal authority figures before acting because they treat leadership as an activity, not a position. There is a bustling energy of possibility, optimism, and self-sufficiency.

What barriers to entrepreneurship are unique or especially relevant to rural entrepreneurs?

During our listening tour in rural communities across the Heartland, we heard about some of the more frequently discussed challenges: geographical distance from resources, attraction and retention of talent, smaller markets with limited opportunity, and competition with larger cities in terms of entertainment and quality of life for residents, potential entrepreneurs, and their families.

But throughout the tour, I was most intrigued by the themes connected to perception, culture, and receptivity to change. Community members explained that it can be hard to manage fear of change, diversity, and loss. We heard about “anti-change naysayers” who are reluctant to welcome new ideas and entrepreneurs, and we heard concerns about the perception from outside of the community that rural communities are not attractive places to work or build a company. We heard deliberation about how to treat newcomers – should newcomers have to adapt to the status quo culture, or should that culture adapt to them? Understandably, entrepreneurs struggle to innovate and build businesses in this ambivalent environment. I think people in these communities are hungry to embrace new ideas and ways of operating, but they need support through this change.

KLC teaches that some challenges can be solved by the knowledge of experts through a known process (“technical” challenges), while other challenges are more complex and ambiguous in nature and cannot be solved by expertise or authority alone (“adaptive” challenges). How do we shift the perspective of ecosystem building as an adaptive challenge?

Leadership, as we see it, is mobilizing people to make progress on these persistent, adaptive challenges.

There is a gap between the technical work being done to support entrepreneurship and our aspirations for the future of our rural communities. We begin to bridge it by working together – listening to the hopes and concerns of community members and collaborating to find paths to achieve goals.

Making progress on adaptive challenges usually requires people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values, and norms and adopt an experimental mindset. Leadership, as we see it, is mobilizing people to make progress on these persistent, adaptive challenges. 

What more should policy be doing to support rural entrepreneurs in America today?

I know it can be easy to focus policy on technical challenges, but sometimes that isn’t enough for deep human change. I wonder how policies support investment in interventions to make progress on less technical, more adaptive parts of entrepreneurial ecosystem-building.

If we know that entrepreneurs need strong ecosystems, what supports exist to build networks and trust among community members? What about broadening the accessibility and inclusivity of resources, providing leadership development to people in all areas, or strengthening mentoring and succession planning? Is there funding available to design and scale interventions to make progress on this type of systems and culture change work?

We also know that policy at the local, state, and national level impacts different individuals and communities differently, and we should explore the work that local authorities can do to make the impact of policy more equitable and effective.

If you could share one thing with our readers about the importance of rural entrepreneurship to the broader community, what would it be?

Rural entrepreneurs will have more success and impact when they live in places where residents see and treat local businesses as part of the community, as ventures that both belong to them and for which they are also responsible. When more and more local residents behave as though they and their local businesses are in relationship with each other, we think we’ll see more progress.

The Heartland Together Listening Tour

In 2021, the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and the Kauffman Foundation launched Heartland Together, a partnership to encourage local business growth in towns and cities across the American heartland (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska). In an effort to understand more about what drives and hinders inclusive and thriving business growth, KLC conducted a two-week listening tour across 22 communities in the Heartland from March 21 to April 5, with five sessions facilitated in Spanish. In the listening sessions, participants identified concerns, aspirations, and issues that make it difficult to support entrepreneurial activities.

Listening session participants were community members from all backgrounds and vocations – entrepreneurs, economic development experts, city council members, chamber directors, school principals, pastors, community organizers, artists and creatives, and so on – individuals who care about the health and vibrancy of the community and represent diverse groups, stakeholders, factions, and interests.