There is a secret in America. Specifically, in rural America. The secret is there is entrepreneurial life outside of Silicon Valley and Tech Alley. Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business is teaming up with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) to give a few of those back roads startups an opportunity through its newly announced Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative. A phase of that initiative is the inaugural Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge.
AFBF President Bob Stallman announced 10 semi-finalists in the Challenge this week at the National Summit on Rural Entrepreneurship at McDonough. More than 200 applications were submitted and a panel of judges selected by McDonough comprised of about 25 representatives from all around the country selected the 10 companies to compete through video interviews for the four finalists positions. If selected as a finalist, the startups will receive $15,000 and a chance to compete in a “Shark Tank” style for an additional $25,000 at the AFBF Annual Convention in January.
The companies selected as semi-finalists spanned from Allendale, South Carolina to Temecula, California and seemingly everywhere between. The ideas ranged from a process to convert plant and wood biomass into bio-products to a mobile veterinary satellite clinic serving rural communities to software created to assist with crop maintenance.
“For the first time in our nation’s history, we are starting to see a decline in rural population,” says RJ Karney, director of congressional relations at Farm Bureau. “It used to be the rural community was only as strong as its agriculture. But we are seeing a change in that thought process. Farm families want to have a good educational system, good health care, and farming spouses want to have job opportunities. New businesses and ideas are coming out of these rural communities as a result.”
‘COUNTRIES ARE ONLY AS STRONG AS THEIR RURAL AREAS’
The semi-finalists were judged on the three main components of innovation, feasibility and rural impact. The purpose of the initiative as a whole is two-fold. It is to first acknowledge the importance of ideas coming out of rural America and then to empower and offer support to those ideas and startups.
“Rural America is the source of so many great things in our country, including the food that we eat,” says Jeff Reid, the founding director of Startup Hoyas, one of two initiatives from McDonough to partner with AFBF. “The fact that we have a strong farming industry allows the rest of us to not worry about where our food comes from. Countries are only as strong as their rural areas. This is just one of many things that can help improve quality of life and create strong communities.”
Rural entrepreneurs are faced with many challenges the techies of the country take for granted. Outside of funding, unreliable broadband is a challenge. Attracting the best talent is another. It might be a surprise but the most skilled computer programmers are not banging down the doors to move to Palmyra, Missouri. Moreover, the idea might be there but tech skills could be lacking to execute. There is also a lack of other entrepreneurs that can serve as mentors or coaches. The cornfields don’t offer legal and operations council. Alas.
According to Ladan Manteghi, executive director of McDonough’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative, rural communities face every challenge other American’s often face—from economic stagnation to access to health care to connectivity. Except in the rural communities all of those issues are magnified.
“Farm Bureau came to us because they are looking for strategies to overcome these challenges for the next generation of Farm Bureau members,” Manteghi says. “The first need to start on is economic needs. We are working to strengthen the economy and we are focusing on entrepreneurship. We are helping rural entrepreneurs increase access and execution.”
What the rural communities do have going for them and their startups, according to Manteghi, is a strong community.
“If someone has a business idea, they are more likely to have a support system already in place because the community already knows them and will gather around that idea,” Manteghi says. “It isn’t quite the same in cities. You have to work harder to build the community and market.”
Karney expects to see the initiative and challenge continue to grow. They did receive over 200 applicants in year one. And there is a need for continued growth of the economy, especially in rural America.
“The fact is, the economic success goes beyond the gates to the farms,” says Karney. “It goes outside of agriculture. It goes into renewable energy, conservation and clean water. It also goes into opening coffee shops and other small businesses.”
For Manteghi and the McDonough team, ramping up an already entrepreneurial spirit is the key.
“Many agree and believe the first entrepreneurs of this country were also farmers,” Manteghi says. “We want to turn that spirit up. The heartland has ideas outside of agribusiness and we want to help them execute and act on those ideas.”