Buried in post-election chatter, Fort Smith Mayor Ray Baker’s obsession with cable channel changes, Greenwood’s mayor’s obsession with the pre-election removal of political yard signs and the obsession by local media outlets to report on as much crime as possible, is the transition of an important entrepreneurial development program in the Fort Smith area.
Why does entrepreneurial development matter? Many reasons. They include:
• A 2007 Small Business Administration study compared the country’s most and least entrepreneurial regions. The study found that the most entrepreneurial regions had 125 percent more employment growth, 58 percent more wage growth, 109 percent higher productivity rates and a 63 percent higher percentage of high-tech businesses.
• The Fort Smith region is not at this moment one of the most entrepreneurial regions.
• More reasons why it’s important to create fertile spring soil for entrepreneurs include: Sam Walton. Bill Gates. J.B. Hunt. Jeff Bezos. Jackson T. Stephens. Henry Ford. Robert A. Young Jr. Fred Williams. Those guys who founded K-MAC Enterprises. Jim Hanna.
Michelle Stockman, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center-Fort Smith, can cite several successes in the first year of the center’s operation. About four businesses seeking the center’s help were able to avoid bankruptcy. Those businesses employed about 50 people, she estimated.
One of the biggest success is the upstart business centered around providing teacher lesson plans via the Internet. The business model allows teachers to create lesson plans in minutes instead of hours, Stockman said. The business could boom, possibly employing hundreds at wages likely above the regional average.
However, Stockman recently resigned as director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center-Fort Smith to accept a statewide entrepreneurial job with Little Rock-based Arkansas Capital Corp. (The City Wire posted the initial news of Stockman’s decision with this post.)
She was recruited by ACC primarily because of her entrepreneurial background, skills and ability to make things happen sans the flip charts and consultants.
Stockman has agreed to help in the transition and is assisting Paul Beran, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, in the effort to find a new IEC director.
And although the city of Fort Smith and the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce are partners in the IEC, (contributing $50,000 and about $35,000, respectively) the UAFS is the lead partner with an annual contribution of about $100,000.
With his leadership in mind, The City Wire asked a few questions of Beran.
What are your hopes for the short-term and long-term future of the IEC?
Beran said hopes the IEC “would be able to have greater synergy” with other business organizations and efforts affiliated with UAFS, such as the Family Enterprise Center. Also, Beran noted as an example, the IEC could be in a position to create opportunities for UAFS students to serve as interns in the business world. The IEC should also connect with young leaders in the area.
“Those are the people who are more likely to contemplate new business starts,” Beran said.
The university is also seeking people to fill the positions of Ross Pendergraft Professor of Leadership and Neal Pendergraft Professor of Entrepreneurship. Will the two positions have some relationship with the IEC?
“Ideally they will,” Beran said. “I see a healthy collaboration between the two” with the professors providing the theory and the IEC providing practical application of the theory.
The one criticism of the IEC was that Michelle Stockman did not have staff support. Is that a criticism with which you agree, and, if so, what plans are considered for providing support?
Beran agreed that the IEC director needs staff support. Initial discussions among IEC partners suggest moving the IEC to an office annex near the Baldor Technology Center on the UAFS campus. Secretarial support is available in the annex, Beran said.
Why should the average person in the Fort Smith region care about IEC and/or entrepreneurship development?
“This matters because if you look at the business realities of the U.S., 80 percent of businesses are small businesses started by those who had a unique idea that fit with a unique situation, or need, in their area,” Beran said. “This might sound corny, but really it’s helping people reach their own individual American dream.”