New entrepreneurship grant program helps fill a need

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Ken Pearson, business development director of the Indianhead Community Action Agency, leads a training session in Sawyer County as part of the group’s Business Development Program, which will be able to expand its services thanks to a new WEDC grant.

Take a drive through some of the rural communities in northwestern Wisconsin and you can’t help but notice the multitude of small businesses you see as you travel down Main Street.

From the local hardware store to the corner tavern to the family-owned diner, these businesses are the lifeblood of small towns in the region. Not only do they create jobs and pump dollars into the local economy, but these establishments also play a crucial role in giving the community a sense of place, and are part of what makes each town special.

Advancing entrepreneurship in Northwest Wisconsin

Officials at Indianhead Community Action Agency Inc. (ICAA), a nonprofit organization focused on creating sustainable communities in the 17 northwestern Wisconsin counties it serves, recognize the importance of supporting existing small businesses in those rural communities as well as providing assistance to aspiring entrepreneurs in the region. Through its Business Development Program, ICAA has helped small business owners tackle issues like marketing, bookkeeping, financial analysis and developing a business plan. The program also includes a microloan fund that can help provide the funding needed to help a new business get off the ground.

ICAA will soon be able to expand the services it provides to small businesses thanks to a new initiative launched by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) aimed at advancing the climate for entrepreneurship throughout the state, with an emphasis on rural and midsize communities. ICAA is one of 11 recipients of WEDC’s Entrepreneurship Support grants, which will fund activities and projects that promote entrepreneurship and deliver key services and resources to Wisconsin entrepreneurs.

Ken Pearson, business development director for ICAA, says the $43,646 grant will enable the group to provide free technical assistance and small loans to clients in two additional counties. Additionally, ICAA will expand its Small Business Academy for entrepreneurs.

“By expanding our program, we will be able to give many more small businesses and entrepreneurs access to our small business lending program, which gives individuals who may not have the greatest credit or a project that may not be as attractive to a traditional lender the ability to grow their company through a microloan,” Pearson explains. “The technical assistance and the loan program are much-needed services, especially in the northwest region of Wisconsin, as access to capital is oftentimes the biggest inhibitor for a small business to start up and grow.”

Serving the underserved

Providing that level of support to underserved areas of the state – such as northwestern Wisconsin — is one of the main objectives of the new program, says Aaron Hagar, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation for WEDC.

“When we launched this program, one of our key goals was to identify and close gaps in the local or regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. We also looked to increase the impact of available services,” Hagar says. “Each of the grant recipients has developed a proposal that meets the specific and nuanced needs of their service area or client base to help us achieve those goals.”

Another grant recipient is Janesville Innovation Inc., which will receive $66,062 to develop a collaborative and coordinated coalition to serve entrepreneurs and accelerate business growth in Rock County.

“While we have a good pulse on the growing entrepreneurial and small business activity in Rock County, it’s difficult to provide the level of required services with limited financial resources,” says Barry Brandt, board president of Janesville Innovation Inc. “With a solid foundation already in place, we look forward to leveraging this WEDC grant with local public/private funding to increase our collaborative efforts, sharpen our focus and expand services to a much larger constituency.”

Support across the state

WEDC has awarded a total of $497,384 to organizations in every region of the state for activities such as the promotion of entrepreneurship; entrepreneurial education, mentorship and training; and business development and financial services. The following organizations and projects also received grants:

  • The Center for Enterprise Development Inc. ($40,000) will create a milestone-based certification and grant program for Fond du Lac County entrepreneurs.
  • Couleecap Inc. ($53,676) will provide a nine-week entrepreneurial development course for startups in La Crosse and Viroqua.
  • Milwaukee 7 ($60,000) will establish a new strategic and entrepreneurial development initiative for the Milwaukee region.
  • Nicolet Area Technical College ($27,000) will expand entrepreneurial training, mentorship and support throughout the Nicolet College District.
  • Oconto County Economic Development Corporation ($25,000) will implement elements of an entrepreneurship support strategy that includes a mentor network and ongoing coaching.
  • UW-Madison Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic ($75,000) will increase the level and breadth of its services provided free of charge to entrepreneurs statewide.
  • UW-Stout Center for Innovation and Development ($60,000) will fund a statewide program that provides inventors with an opportunity to have their ideas evaluated for feasibility and market potential.
  • The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation ($15,000) will expand its “UpStart” program for minority and women’s entrepreneurship.
  • UWM Research Foundation ($33,000) will pilot an “I-Corps for Health” program to develop and support innovative health care ventures in Wisconsin.

Pearson says he believes the program has the potential to make a real difference – not just in northwestern Wisconsin but throughout the state.

“This will certainly help move the needle of entrepreneurship in the right direction,” he says. “This funding from WEDC will help ICAA and other organizations statewide expand their efforts to encourage small business growth and help entrepreneurs take that leap into small business ownership.”