Coming on the heels of its annual Rural Innovation Network Summit, the Center on Rural Innovation hosted its first annual conference, “From Ideas to Impact,” last month in Red Wing, Minnesota

The sold-out convening brought together leaders and change-makers from across the country representing a variety of fields for two days of connection and discussion about the biggest challenges and opportunities facing rural America today. 

Here are four takeaways from the week in Red Wing:

1. The importance of creating local wealth

Between the findings of the Rural Aperture Project shared by Dr. Amanda Weinstein, CORI’s director of research, and the closing keynote presentation from Aspen Institute’s Chris Estes, it was clear that creating wealth locally should be a priority for rural communities. 

Traditional models of economic development, using incentives to court large employers, fail to center the interests of the broader community and often come with unintended negative effects — crowding out other economic activity, lowering the rate of new startups, and promoting export activity at the expense of residential services. In the last decade, the states with the largest tax-incentive programs have also experienced some of the lowest growth in rural areas.

However, when those same resources are directed toward supporting entrepreneurs and existing businesses, and increasing participation of underutilized assets, communities and regions can lay the foundation for inclusive, sustainable growth. 

2. Tech talent development matters

Multiple sessions touched on the challenges of developing a key piece for any thriving rural tech economy — tech talent. Panelists from around the country spoke to the unique issues they’ve faced in their communities, from awareness and visibility to understanding the needs of workers and employers, as well as building grassroots excitement through programs like Youth Coding League. But the different voices all touched on a common foundation for these efforts: Establishing and maintaining cross-sector relationships to move this work forward.

3. Real-life success stories are out there

Members of CORI’s Rural Innovation Network also had the chance to share ways they’ve found success in building their tech economies:

  • Susan Ruhlin and Emalee Hall, community leaders from Waterville, Maine, reflected on what’s gone into creating and refining their startup accelerator program, Dirigo Labs, after securing a Build to Scale grant in 2020. 
  • Entrepreneurs from Red Wing, Ramsey Shaffer and Susan Langer,  provided their perspective on creating tech startups in a rural community — and how they benefited from local mentorship, as well as resources within the ecosystem. 
  • And Chris Carnell, co-founder of the Codefi tech hub, highlighted how his organization systematically worked through challenges they encountered — from access to capital, to attracting and developing tech talent — in order to grow and thrive in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

4. Regional models can maximize impact in rural

Leadership from conference co-host Red Wing Ignite offered insights from their 10 years (and counting) building a tech economy ecosystem in southeast Minnesota. Their approach, building a hub-and-spoke network across a multi-county region centered on Red Wing, led to the creation of the Entrepreneurs First (E1) collaborative — a blueprint that the state later adopted for its Launch Minnesota initiative. It was only possible because of the work done to ensure regional partners understood how working together allowed all contributors to maximize their strengths.

“From Ideas to Impact” was made possible by the support of its sponsors, Compeer Financial and the Agricultural Utilization Research institute, as well as co-hosts at Red Wing Ignite.

And it doesn’t stop here.

The Rural Innovation Network continues to grow, with its 38 member communities home to nearly 3 million people across 24 states.

To learn more about each of its communities and what makes them unique, explore the Network page. Or you can head to our YouTube channel to see their work in action in our Rural Edge video series.

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At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century tech economy. To learn more about our work be sure to sign up for our newsletter