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Vision Shared launches entrepreneurship effort

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To officials of Vision Shared, a nonprofit economic and community development organization, creating economic growth in West Virginia is simple: spur an entrepreneurial revolution.

During a May 15 event, Jeff James, co-chairman of the Vision Shared entrepreneurship committee, said his organization has an ambitious goal.

"We want West Virginia to have the highest per capita entrepreneurship participation rate than any other state by 2015," James said.

Cal Kent, a Marshall University business professor, presented a white paper on entrepreneurship in West Virginia during the event. According to his paper, 99.1 percent of all firms in the nation are started by entrepreneurs, 45 percent of all private payroll comes from small growing firms and entrepreneurs generate 60 percent to 80 percent of all jobs.

"West Virginia has ranked near the bottom in new business formation, high-tech manufacturing and patents per capita," Kent said at the May 15 event. "There is no way to go but up. But some have pointed out that West Virginia has been digging a basement."

Kent said there are a few reasons as to why West Virginia lacks entrepreneurs. The first, he said, is West Virginia has an inadequately prepared work force.

"Most don't realize the work force we have out there is not a work force that is well-equipped to work for entrepreneurs or to be entrepreneurs themselves," Kent said.

The second reason, Kent said, is because the state has a deficient infrastructure in terms of transportation, broadband Internet access and water and sewage systems demanded by new firms.

The last two reasons Kent outlined were "misguided" government policies and state residents' poor health.

"Many policies were established in West Virginia back in the Great Depression and haven't changed since," Kent said. "And the new policies do one thing — to bring the next behemoth into West Virginia rather than recognizing that growth takes place in one small firm at a time. As soon as we begin to realize that, we will be a lot better off."

A few factors limiting the state's entrepreneurship climate include the lack of networking opportunities, the need to improve infrastructure, the need to establish educational links and the state's system for taxation and regulation, he said.

"Most networking is designed for large businesses," Kent said. "They need to get together and share ideas and let each other know what works and what doesn't. … We also need to ask ourselves what barriers have we created to make it difficult for entrepreneurs to get started in this state."

James said the easiest thing state government officials can do is streamline the paperwork and regulations for entrepreneurs to start businesses.

As for education, Kent said entrepreneurship lessons can begin as early as kindergarten.

"We need to make sure in the fourth grade and eighth grade that there is a major emphasis on entrepreneurship.  There is a vo-tech four-year entrepreneurship concentration … and the nice thing in that concentration is not only can it be for vo-tech but any high school student."

Kent said this concentration would not affect students' abilities to take full vocational, technical or full academic classes. But that education will help further success in future entrepreneurial efforts.

"Most start ups fail because of poor business planning, not because they have a bad idea, not because there is a lack of enthusiasm or for some reason didn't see a market. They simply did not know enough business fundamentals," Kent said.

Vision Shared has the goal to create programs to "turn the heat up" to create a rumbling boil on entrepreneurship efforts, said Thomas McChesney, director of marketing for Huddleston Bolen and a co-chairman of the entrepreneurship committee. McChesney said two programs in Huntington, Café Huntington and Entrepreneur Café, have seen success in helping entrepreneurs.

In these programs, the community gathers and throws money into a hat and hears presentations from three to five aspiring entrepreneurs, McChesney explained.

Based on entrepreneurs' pitches, people then vote on who has the best idea, and that person walks away with the money.

James said programs like these provide not only monetary help but provides community support.

James stressed that Vision Shared did not want to ask West Virginia taxpayers to fund a venture capital fund for small businesses.

"This is about self-empowerment … We want to let people bubble up with ideas," he said.

Microfinancing, or donations of small amounts, James said, is equally important.

"It's a bottom up rather than top down approach that makes it easy to start a business in West Virginia. The culture of this state has been a top down approach for decades," he said.

McChesney said Vision Shared will bring pilot projects, such as variations of the two Huntington programs, into various communities this summer.

The organization also wants to work with communities to create flex space where entrepreneurs and micro-businesses can come together in an office, manufacturing or agrarian setting to work on business, develop products and work to launch their efforts.  

"Later in 2012, we want to work with other organizations with a research institution to really do some research," he said. "We want to see where the competitive advantage can enable businesses to be created."


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