When the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois developed its strategic plan two years ago, promoting entrepreneurship ranked high on the list, according to Executive Director Ellen Krohne.
“The first thing that we wanted to do was find out what was available in Southwestern Illinois to help our entrepreneurs,” Krohne said. “We found out that there really wasn’t a whole lot. The SIUE Small Business Development Center has really good resources available, but we didn’t have some of the things that we saw elsewhere. Across the river in St. Louis, for example, they have angel investor funding and mentoring programs and incubators.”
The Leadership Council then set out to determine what it could do that would have the most impact, said Krohne. They met with people from St. Louis and St. Charles County, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and others to understand what they were doing to promote entrepreneurship. Based on those findings, they set priorities and top of the list was to stage a business plan competition. That led to last year’s Metro East Startup Challenge that was sponsored by the SIUE SBDC and University Park.
“Thanks to the many supporters of the Leadership Council’s investment campaign we were able to build into our budget funds to support entrepreneurship,” Krohne said. “We supported the City of Highland’s Gigabit Challenge last year; we are funding the SBDC’s this year; and, we’re encouraging other communities, entities and chambers of commerce to support the competition because we know one way to generate interest in entrepreneurship is to provide that kind of a competition.”
The second step for the Leadership Council will be to develop a mentoring program.
“We’re working now to develop a group of mentors who will work with the applicants in the SBDC’s upcoming business plan competition scheduled for later this spring,” Krohne said. “I’m very pleased because we’ve got a really good group of Leadership Council board members who have volunteered to help with that. I think we’ll have a great experience with this new mentoring program.”
The third leg of entrepreneurship support being pursued by the Leadership Council is providing incubator space where fledging companies can access space, services and support and where they can help each other through the tough, early months of starting a business. Krohne said that there are currently several in the region, including Belleville’s Turner Hall and the Alton Food Hub.
“Our entrepreneurship group is actively working with the managers of the business incubators to make the links between entrepreneurs in need and available space,” Krohne said. “We’re not trying to replicate what anyone else is doing. We’re trying to determine what else is needed; what we can have an impact on; and help people make the right connections.”