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What are Direct Drivers of a digital economy?

How does a rural place build a thriving digital economy ecosystem? At the Center on Rural Innovation, answering that question — and helping communities put those answers into practice — is a core part of our mission.

Based on our deep experience in rural economies, on-the-ground work providing technical assistance on digital economy development with rural communities across the country, and intensive data analysis, we have identified five Direct Drivers of rural digital economy ecosystems — the elements that enable communities to successfully compete in the tech economy: Scalable Tech Entrepreneur Support and Incubation; Digital Workforce Development and Support; Access to Capital; Inclusive Tech Culture Building; and Access to Digital Jobs.

As part of our work, we help rural communities — who each come to the table with different assets and strengths — develop strategies for implementing each of these Drivers.

In this five-part blog series, we dive into each Direct Driver — defining it, explaining its purpose, highlighting rural communities in our Rural Innovation Network that exemplify doing it well, and offering tips on how other communities can drive their own success.

Direct Driver No. 1: Scalable Tech Entrepreneur Support and Incubation

At the Center On Rural Innovation, here is how we describe scalable tech entrepreneur support and incubation as a Direct Driver:

To foster local scalable tech startups and ensure that they are attractive to investment opportunities, communities need to provide mentorship, inspirational and educational programs, and training resources to support their success, scalability and commercialization. This means transcending beyond main street businesses and the local market, and involves an ecosystem approach centered around local future and current tech entrepreneurs. Support often takes the form of an Incubator or Accelerator program, in addition to ecosystem events and groups like mentors and investors. 

Scalable tech entrepreneurship in rural areas

Scalable tech entrepreneurship is, in some ways, the apex of a digital economy ecosystem. Startups are a key source of job creation, and the ones that scale can transform a community and create regenerative wealth. In fact, venture-backed companies see employment growth an average of eight times higher than the typical private company.

Yet for too long, entrepreneurship in rural America has been falling: The share of startups in rural areas dropped 7.8 percentage points from 1984 to 2014, and from 1988 to 2016 the rural rate of self-employment fell by over 20%. Meanwhile, tech startups have concentrated in urban areas, with the top 10 metros accounting for over 70% of all first financings.

To reverse these trends, rural communities need to find ways to support and sustain entrepreneurs. Specifically, they should focus on scalable tech startups, since the digital economy is the most rapidly growing sector of the economy and technology is the factor that most enables a company to scale.

Rural entrepreneurs do often face some challenges they have to overcome, like low population densities or distance from major investors. Yet rural entrepreneurship is both possible and needed, and with the right mix of support, capital, and belief, rural entrepreneurs can thrive.

Success stories from the Rural Innovation Network

Throughout our Rural Innovation Network, we’ve seen communities design innovative approaches to succeeding across all levels of Scalable Tech Entrepreneur Support and Incubation. Here are a few noteworthy cases:

  • Durango, Colorado: The Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs (SCAPE) is an accelerator program wherein selected companies undertake an intensive six-month curriculum with a focus on business fundamentals and close mentorship. SCAPE also runs a private investment fund that directly invests in SCAPE startups. SCAPE’s accelerator is explicitly focused on companies that will scale and stay in Durango, and its partnership with the Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado helps keep wealth generated from startups’ success local.
  • Red Wing, Minnesota: Red Wing Ignite and ILT Studios run the Lean Startup School, an interactive series of workshops where students practice concepts, work with an assigned mentor, and have the opportunity to pitch ideas to investors and prize competitions. Red Wing Ignite also created the E1 (Entrepreneurs First) Collective, an ecosystem designed to enhance regional connectivity and expand access to entrepreneurial resources.   
  • Ada, Oklahoma: The Startup Ada Boot Camp is a six-week cohort-based program designed to equip entrepreneurs with the education and resources needed to take their businesses from the idea stage to being ready to pitch. SABC brings together early-stage startups and small businesses in the rural Oklahoma region for six consecutive Tuesday afternoons leading into “Demo Day” at The Big Pitch Ada event. Each class includes expert speakers, topic-based curriculum, active work periods for hands-on learning, and networking.

Strategy tips

Building a strong ecosystem around Scalable Tech Entrepreneur Support and Incubation takes work. Here are a few tips and takeaways to get you started:

  • To start, you need to be strong on the other pieces of an ecosystem, from foundational elements like broadband education to advanced pieces like tech talent and risk capital.
  • Remember that a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem comes in stages: begin with the building blocks of education and training and work up to acceleration, deep mentor networks, and scaling supports.
  • For programming, build on what works, but know there’s no one-size-fits-all model: structured programming is best for some entrepreneurs, while individualized supports are optimal for others
  • Keep the goal in mind: for startup companies to scale and create regenerative wealth for the local community. The more you can do to keep the gains from startups success within your community, the stronger your ecosystem will be.

Conclusion

To be clear, success on this driver comes in stages, not all at once. The foundations of entrepreneurship often start with startup programming for main street businesses and a chamber of commerce focused on entrepreneurship. From there a community might progress to the idea stage, with formal pathways for networking along with educational and training programs for future entrepreneurs.

Building on ideas can lead a community to the launch stage, with incubators, accelerators, connections to professional services, and a mentor network — all key ingredients in a startup ecosystem.

Scalable Tech Entrepreneur Support and Incubation can be a major Driver of a rural community’s digital economy. Entrepreneurs create sustainable wealth and jobs while driving innovations that change the world. That is the future of rural economies.

Keep reading

Interested in learning about our other Direct Drivers? You can read about each of them here:


Stay connected

Thank you for reading about scalable tech entrepreneur support and incubation. To meet the Rural Innovation Network communities doing ecosystem building in small towns across the country, you can find a list here. If you are a community interested in working with us to grow or build your own digital economy ecosystem, please contact us.