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  • The Learning Lab: Community Counts

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    Building a successful business from scratch takes a lot more than a great concept. By connecting and leveraging multiple local resources, The Lab on Dexter is giving River Region entrepreneurs the tools they need to thrive.

    It’s often a single individual starting a new business, but the process doesn’t have to be solitary. In fact, connecting like-minded people with each other, local experts and resources is the better way to begin. According to Dr. Nichole Thompson, Executive Director of The Lab on Dexter, that’s the idea behind Co.Starters, a national platform that focuses on creating a community to inspire, support and educate entrepreneurs. “Part of the Lab’s existence is to assist entrepreneurs, and that assistance varies, but our pillars are ‘educate, collaborate, accelerate, innovate, create’” she said. “On the education piece, we’ve realized that there often needs to be more than a one-day class or event, so we wanted to put the people already taking advantage of the lab in a more immersive program.”

    After a careful search of the countless training programs out there, Co.Starters stood out as the best fit. “It’s built with community in mind, and that’s what we were after,” Thompson said. “We were very intentional in choosing it for that reason.”

    The 10-week course is designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with everything they need to jump-start their business, and that includes not just insights and information (bundled into an accessible curriculum), but also the benefits that come from brainstorming with others in the same boat. The first cohort’s small size—only nine were in the group—encouraged open discussion and experience sharing.

    While the Lab got the ball rolling, Co.Starters’ emphasis on community meant partnering with other local organizations was a priority. “In bringing this program to Montgomery, that’s the Lab making good on the education piece of our mission, but the collaboration piece is just as important,” Thompson said. The Montgomery TechLab and local subject-matter experts are playing key roles, but Trenholm State Community College is the Lab’s primary partner, offering Co.Starters as a course under its entrepreneurship program and providing the instructors, as well as cross-promotion to spread the word.

    Damita Hill, Trenholm’s Executive Director of Community and Workforce Development, explained why the college got involved. “Trenholm maintains a key focus on community outreach and workforce development,” she said. “The college’s partnership with The Lab on Dexter and the Co.Starters program serves as a unique opportunity to support entrepreneurship, which ultimately stimulates economic growth in the River Region.”

    Hill went on to stress why programs like Co.Starters can make such an impact when it comes to growing the area’s small business footprint. “Successful partnerships are those in which partners share in both investment of resources (time or money) and rewards or benefits of partnering, and where partners have mutual trust and respect,” she said. “Co.Starters lets would be entrepreneurs know that they have higher education and economic development partners who are invested in their success and stand ready to offer assistance in taking their next steps.”

    Thompson elaborated on why this is needed in Montgomery. “Entrepreneurs accelerate economic growth as they are creating new products and services, and many stimulate the economy with job creation,” she said. “This type of growth is critical for a city the size of Montgomery. While we always want and need new industry, we need start-ups too. We need it all.”

    Kenny Ward, the Co.Starters facilitator and Trenholm faculty member, echoed Thompson on the importance of adding more small businesses to the city’s roster. “The Bureau of Economic Development reports that small businesses created over 10.5 million new jobs between 2000 and 2019, and small businesses were essential to the economy during the pandemic,” he said. “As a city, we must continue supporting and promoting emerging business owners. Co.Starters provides the tools to help foster an environment for continued economic growth.”

    Thompson stressed the perfect timing, pointing to the large uptick in new small businesses and entrepreneurial efforts launched during the pandemic, as many left other jobs and careers. “We know that a lot of these businesses that just got off the ground are scalable, and so now is the time to help them do that,” she said. This is a pivotal point for many. Will they keep going and growing or shut down? “We know that by providing this education we can assist them.”

    If the progress of Co.Starters’ first group is any indication, it and the Lab’s other efforts are working: the capital city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is taking shape. “Even a few weeks before the graduation of the first cohort, I saw participants blossom into strong business leaders; they came each week to seek additional knowledge and with new questions,” he said. “It is exciting to see participants passionate about growing their business practice.”

    The first cohort of Montgomery’s Co.Starters program has just wrapped up. The nine entrepreneurs met on Thursday nights for 10 weeks at the Lab on Dexter, where they learned how to move from idea to action. From the first weekly session, participants were urged to identify who they are as potential business owners and CEOs and to confidently answer the question, “Do I really want to do this?”. “Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, and that is okay; our goal is to help participants discover this before investing their resources, time and energy,” said Co.Starters’ facilitator and instructor Kenny Ward.

    Moving ahead, they were given a space to express and explore their thoughts during peer-to-peer discussions overseen by Ward. “I guide the talks, but I like to see the cohort decide on the best solutions to various questions,” he said. “It has been my delight to see the group discuss possible threats and potential areas for growth with each business participating.” Topics examined included knowing your customer, relationship building, distribution, business structures, financial health and forecasting for future growth.

    Ward also noted that the program can be of value for businesses that have already begun, too. “We also assist newly started businesses looking for additional guidance and support to ensure they have a strong foundation,” he said.

    Two members of Co.Starters’ inaugural cohort—Zachary Lewis and Emily Long—explained what they got out of the program and what they plan to do with what they’ve gained.
    A few takeaways from the cohort experience.

    MBJ: Tell us about your business.
    Lewis: My business is a startup that provides families, schools and nonprofits tools that make STEaM learning fun. Potential names include MGM Learning Smiles and MGM Brain Fun, but the goal is to empower parents and guardians by providing educational events and board games that can help their kids excel in school.

    MBJ: What motivated you to participate in the Co.Starters program?
    Lewis: I wanted a structured process to help with a new business startup.

    MBJ: What have you gotten out of it?
    Lewis: The discussions with other students in the class have helped me finetune my business.

    MBJ: Would you recommend the program to other entrepreneurs or start-ups?
    Yes. This is an entry level course and gives the information needed to analyze and plan a business. The challenges and failures of others in our class will help me avoid and/or overcome those situations.

    MBJ: Tell us about your business.
    Southern Charm Consulting is a digital assistant company that helps small businesses and nonprofits juggle their many tasks and processes so they focus on making their business dreams a reality.

    MBJ: What motivated you to participate in the Co.Starters program?
    I worked as an independent contractor and wanted to pivot my business into a new entity (like an LLC) but didn’t know what to do. I found Co. Starters as a way that would teach me some business foundations through hands-on learning and resources from the community.

    MBJ: What have you gotten out of it?
    I have learned many things about myself and my drive to start a successful business. In the first six weeks of this course, I have learned topics like marketing, pricing and even the importance of self-care. So far, the most significant asset has been setting up my business idea for success.

    MBJ: Would you recommend the program to other entrepreneurs or start-ups?
    I would recommend this to local start-ups that have no business foundation and would like to expand their knowledge to get their idea/concept off the ground.
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