Published On: 04/07/2022Categories: Agbiosciences, Economic Development, Entrepreneurs

WHIN Announces Rural Entrepreneurship Program

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Thanks to $798K in funding from the Wabash Heartland Innovation Network (WHIN) Regional Cultivation Fund (RCF), the ten-county WHIN region is getting a big assist in its efforts to boost entrepreneurship and support local businesses in rural communities.

“From the pandemic to a rapidly changing technological and economic environment, small and medium sized businesses in our rural areas have felt a lot of stress over the past few years,” says Johnny Park, CEO of WHIN. “But the forces that are challenging local businesses also present new opportunities to refresh business plans, find new markets, and better serve existing customers with online platforms.  As well, the time is right for new business startups. WHIN’s Rural Entrepreneurship (RE) initiative will help.”

According to Vice President for Engagement Pat Corey, WHIN has several goals for the RE initiative. 

“The purpose of WHIN’s RE program is to help start-ups in rural communities through those difficult early stages as well as to give small and “Main Street” businesses a disciplined process for exploring new possibilities,” says Corey. “Consistent with WHIN’s overall focus on technology, the program will also help small and rural manufacturers create business plans around retooling, and assist businesses as they make the pivot to conducting more business online.”

There are specific skills that entrepreneurs and business owners need, according to Corey.

“Entrepreneurial thinking at any stage of a business, online and digital proficiency, and networking connections can all provide traction for ideas to take off,” she says.

But consistent with WHIN’s own core value of leveraging existing resources and assets, the RE program had to be delivered in a way that would help rural communities find and develop their own capacity to nurture startups and existing businesses.

WHIN sought a community partner who could implement RE as it was envisioned, and found in Lafayette’s MatchBOX the right mix of well-tested programming, a platform for delivering that programming across the region, and, most importantly, a commitment to developing an infrastructure of expertise throughout the region.

“We already have relationships with other coworking studios and entrepreneurship partners in the region, including Iron Block, Fusion 54, RuralUrban Center, Benton 4 Business, OCRA, and WEGA,” says Amanda Findlay, Managing Director and Acceleration Lead for MatchBOX. “What we will be able to provide is a mentor-supported curriculum that addresses topics that we know from experience to be game-changing for both startups and existing businesses.”

According to Juliana Casavan, Director of Operations for MatchBOX, the program will invest in local communities by funding local mentors when possible and paying for memberships to local coworking studios. 

“Our goal is to distribute our expertise in a way that embeds it throughout the region and to increase participation in local programs,” says Casavan.

Corey says that what impressed the WHIN team besides MatchBOX’s commitment to regionalism was its record of success for both startups and existing businesses, in all types of businesses.

“That diversity was crucial to WHIN,” says Corey. “A coffee shop or general market might mean the difference between viability and decline in a small town.  Yes, we’d love to see that town produce the next Steve Jobs, but in the meantime, keeping the economic fabric of the community strong is just as important.”

Another plus for MatchBOX is that it has been awarded funding from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) that it will also use for the program.

“Our region is very fortunate to have homegrown and highly successful programs like MatchBOX,” says Corey. “We are grateful that they were willing to step up and share what they have learned and accomplished with the entire region.”