story by Michael Tilley; photos by Tilley and Steve Jones
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the recent issue of TBQ, a quarterly magazine about Arkansas business and politics produced by Roby Brock. Link here for more details.
A few months ago, Michelle Stockman was relatively comfortable.
Her reputation grew each month in her role — which began April 2007 — as the first director of the newly formed Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center in Fort Smith. Officials with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the lead partner in the IEC, were interested in using Stockman’s skills to enlarge the university’s small business support in the region. She was in a position to become a prominent and respected economic development leader for the university, if not the entire Fort Smith region.
Entrepreneurship for Stockman, however, is not just something she promotes. Like a true entrepreneur, she was intrigued by the opportunity to expand her reach.
Stockman resigned her catbird post in early November to attempt to transfer her regional success to a statewide stage. She began her work for Little Rock-based Arkansas Capital Corp. on Dec. 1. Her roles at ACC include marketing, community relations and implementing entrepreneurial programs statewide. She works from her home in Fort Smith and from the ACC office at the Genesis Incubator/Technology Park in Fayetteville.
“This is important to me, so I decided to work statewide, to help other communities and try to do for them what we were able to get started in Fort Smith,” Stockman said.
Founded in 1957, the ACC provides innovative financing and other startup and expansion tools for new and existing businesses.
Sam Walls, CEO of Arkansas Capital Corp., said the organization has always had a focus on fostering small business growth. In the past nine years, he said, the ACC has become more aggressive in that effort. Stockman was a natural progression.
“Michelle gives us a significant boost in the inventory of capabilities that we have to promote entrepreneurship,” Walls said. “We couldn’t have found anyone else in the state who had the kind of background, the kind of knowledge she has in that area.”
Prior to her IEC position in Fort Smith, Stockman worked for the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center in Raleigh, where she managed the state’s Entrepreneurship Development System Project. Stockman earned a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University-Chicago in communications and fine arts, and earned a master’s in entrepreneurship from Western Carolina University.
Stockman is no longer comfortable. With a national economy wallowing in recession and a state economy hit with a large number of layoffs in the last half of 2008, she readily admits to facing big obstacles.
Her biggest obstacle, she noted, also is her biggest opportunity.
“There is the opportunity to bring all agencies, state and local, that help entrepreneurs, to bring them to the table and work with them so that we coordinate services for the people, for that entrepreneur who needs help,” Stockman said.
The entrepreneur, for example, who goes to a state agency needing help with patent information might not be in the right place. But that agency worker should be able to quickly direct the entrepreneur to the right place with little to no run-around and hassle.
“(Entrepreneurs) often have issues or problems or whatever that need to be resolved quickly. We, as a state, can’t have them calling this person only to be redirected to another person and then sent somewhere else and so on. … They need quick resolution, and as a state, we should be able to do that,” she explained.
But collaboration between state agencies, as her experience in North Carolina proved, is not an easy thing.
“We had a saying there that collaboration is an unnatural act between two consenting adults,” Stockman said with a laugh.
It took about five years to gain meaningful collaboration between public and private groups in North Carolina, Stockman said. She doesn’t believe it will take as long in Arkansas.
“The lessons learned in North Carolina might help shorten that time. … Plus, I think Arkansas is ready to get to that level (of coordination),” Stockman said.
To improve state and regional support for entrepreneurs, Stockman’s goal — with backing from the ACC — is to create regional entrepreneurship centers similar to the IEC in Fort Smith. She is working with the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce on a “pilot effort” toward the regional structure. Pine Bluff is interested, and Stockman hopes to field a center in the Jonesboro area.
“The challenge with this is to create a one-stop spot for entrepreneurs,” Stockman explained.
For rural areas, Stockman and the ACC envision a network of Internet accessible computers in rural chambers of commerce, libraries and other public spaces that would provide access to the ACC’s virtual entrepreneurship center.
Stockman also will help with other aspects of ACC’s efforts, including financing for small businesses. ACC often is considered a lender of last resort for businesses whose loan requests are rejected by banks and other conventional lenders.
Stockman is excited about her role in educating people about the many functions of ACC, especially with respect to finding capital for upstart businesses.
A frustrating part of her past experiences was in seeing a business with a “great niche product or niche service” have a hard time obtaining a loan. The current economy and associated credit crisis will make it more difficult for new businesses to obtain loans or venture capital financing, she said.
“Venture capitalists are scared of this economy right now,” Stockman said.
While the economy doesn’t scare Stockman, she predicts she’ll be operating in a rough economy through 2009.
“I think by early 2010 we should see some happy faces again,” Stockman predicted.
As so whether the recession will help or hurt Stockman’s efforts, Walls believes tough economic times can push people into being successful entrepreneurs. What’s more, Walls doesn’t see the economy as dire as the media portrays it, but he does fear a “gross overreaction” that causes businesses to cut jobs and slash spending based on media-driven hype rather than true business need.
For now, however, Stockman is keenly interested in what comes out of central Arkansas in the next few months.
“2009 will be a critical year for entrepreneurship development, because it will be important what the Arkansas Legislature does to support (entrepreneurship) … and the work of Accelerate Arkansas and other groups who have looked at this issue,” Stockman said. “Sometimes a state will get these great entrepreneurial programs started in one year and then won’t support them in the next (funding) cycle. We can’t abandon our ongoing efforts.”