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March 2007
Turning Ideas Into Reality
By Susanne Deitzel

     Small business is where it’s at. 
     At least there are a lot of people saying so, and it makes sense. For example, consider two scenarios. One: Charlotte loses one of its large corporations—perhaps a major bank—to another city. As if counting the net loss of banking jobs wouldn’t be depressing enough, after factoring in the economic tsunami to the industries whose products and services supported the bank (e.g. couriers, printers, supply companies, lawyers), the impact would be devastating.
    
On the other hand, consider a second scenario—trying to attract a major company to relocate to Charlotte and its incumbent costs. Calculate the obvious costs of marketing and recruiting to court the interest of major corporations who have cast a passing glance at our city. Add to that tax breaks and/or other incentives necessary to clinch the deal. Gaining a major corporation can be impressively costly.
     That is why more and more economic development experts are looking to the small entrepreneur with a renewed gleam in their eyes. The numbers are stacking up in a way where bets are favoring David rather than Goliath.
     This is good news for Lori Day, the executive director of CPCC’s Institute for Entrepreneurship. The Institute keeps its radar tuned to what is needed to foster the growth of the entrepreneurial community and provide resources in terms of materials, training and counseling.

 Seeing the Light
     Lori Day’s office is on the second floor of a new building on the corner of Elizabeth and East Independence Boulevard, right in the heart of the CPCC Central Campus. With the Institute’s current activities and co-located partnerships, the eventual plan is to transform it into a vital nerve center for people seeking small business assistance.
     Day is typically awash in statistics and support materials, shuffling through carefully piled stacks of papers. In our conversation, she recaps a study she recently read that explains the interest in small business.
      “They call it ‘economic gardening,’” she explains. “Our charge is to encourage new businesses and groom existing entrepreneurs to create a solid base of economic activity, as opposed to chasing down larger companies from other areas.” (The latter tack is fittingly called ‘economic hunting.’)
     According to another report Day shares, nationwide small firms account for one half of the nation’s gross domestic product, employ half the American work force and generate most of our country’s net new jobs. The same publisher suggests in a separate report “…that a state’s ability to increase the number of small firm establishments is the most important thing it can do to influence economic growth.”
     CPCC is certainly doing its part to make that happen. It is one of the 58 community colleges across North Carolina that comprise the Small Business Center Network (SBCN), a state-wide initiative dedicated to fostering support for small business. As members of the North Carolina Community College Network, SBCN members receive funding for many of their core activities including a full-time director, center for small business, free small business seminars, free counseling and resource libraries.
     The Institute for Entrepreneurship takes it a step further, explains Day. “Because CPCC serves a large metropolitan area, we want to be sure that we have the ability to meet all the needs of the community, so we work in partnership with resources from many organizations to extend our reach. We also provide self-supporting classes, and in doing so have been able to offer a more breadth and depth in our course content.”
     The Institute for Entrepreneurship became the working name of CPCC’s Small Business Center two years ago when it became clear that the center could work in conjunction with other business programs. Explains Day, “At the Institute we work with curriculum programs, and offer non-credit certificate programs, counseling, seminars and other resources. 
     We coined the name to make clear that we are more than just a course-content area. We want to be sure that people realize that starting their own business is an option and that this is the place that can help them get there.”

 Bright Offerings
     According to a U.S. Small Business Administration report, North Carolina has a pretty solid platform to fuel small business growth. For example, in North Carolina in 2005, for every 1,000 workers in the state economy, roughly six new small businesses were formed, ranking it 23rd in the nation. North Carolina ranked eighth in percentage increase in small business startups, rising roughly 11 percent between 2004 and 2005.
     Entrepreneur Magazine also gave North Carolina a small business ‘atta-boy,’ ranking it sixth in the nation in its “Hot Cities for Entrepreneurs” survey. In a press release from the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Commerce Secretary Jim Fain was glad to concur with the results. “We are well-positioned for entrepreneurship, innovation and small business success…these growing businesses provide well paying, sustainable jobs that benefit the economic well being of everyone in North Carolina.”
    
This positive climate helps Day take her charge even more seriously. “We are in a constant state of assessing our offerings in terms of services and course content and gauging that against the demands of the population. We take rigorous measures to assure we are delivering the best product available.”
     In terms of ‘product,’ the Institute for Entrepreneurship in 2005-2006 offered 43 courses with 562 participants, 34 seminars with 522 participants, and 92 in-depth counseling sessions.
     The courses are what Day calls ‘self-supported.’ In other words, courses are offered for a nominal charge that covers the instructor fees and any materials to support the class. Like CPCC’s other continuing education courses, the class does not count for credit toward a degree, but confers the necessary knowledge, resources and accompanying confidence to take the next steps toward the big leap.
     For example, in Spring 2007, the hot ticket is the “New Ventures for Entrepreneurship Program,” developed by the internationally renowned Kauffman Foundation. For $259 the course provides an assessment of the student’s entrepreneurial capabilities, a concept evaluation, start-up plan, one-on-one counseling sessions, and business and marketing plan development. 
     Other courses cover how to start a small business, business plan writing, business finances, accounting, growth and development and marketing, Internet business, and funding a new business. Says Day, “While we expect to eventually offer more content about growing a business—for example, how to hire people and grow to the next level—I believe we will always primarily cater to early stage business development.”
    
She adds, “This way we are continuing to empower people with the capacity to create their own jobs.”
     The Institute also provides state-funded seminars that are offered free of charge that cover special topics, like ‘Doing Business with the City of Charlotte,’ which helps local business owners to become vendors to the city and locate contract opportunities. ‘Defining Your Customer Niche’ and ‘Market Research Tools’ are other popular samplings from the course calendar.
      In addition to the educational courses and seminars, the Institute offers an onsite business resource library of books, tapes, videos and research materials, counselors, computer ‘touchdown stations,’ and even conference rooms in which participants can hold meetings if they do not yet have an office of their own.
      Says Day, “I will do anything I can to help people be successful with their small business design. That is my vision personally, and the purpose of the Institute as a whole.”

 Light Bulbs Going On
     
The Institute for Entrepreneurship shares a hallway with BizHub Network, a nascent organization dedicated to helping small business owners find needed regional resources across a wider 16-county area. As part of her CPCC duties, Day also works on a contract basis as director for BizHub Network, which for now is logical considering the compatibility of the positions.
      BizHub Network is a non-profit organization created with funding by partners including CPCC, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Its design is to provide entry-level or referral counseling, a Web site to answer small business questions and take online inquiries, as well as provide and maintain a regional online calendar of small business seminars, workshops and events, a telephone ‘answer hotline,’ and a business provider database. 
      Beginning mid-February, BizHub’s Web site will also offer an online search function called the ‘Resource Navigator.’ The tool will match entrepreneurs and small business owners with questions to the most appropriate resources in the Charlotte region, including area community colleges. The annual budget for BizHub is about $175,000 as provided by program sponsors, and all information to users is provided free of charge.
     
CPCC President and local champion of small business development, Tony Zeiss, sees BizHub Network as “bringing greater synergy” to providers of services as well as giving CPCC “the opportunity to leverage our programs by reaching more clients and partnering with other high quality service providers in the region.”
      Day says that CPCC’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and BizHub Network, as well as her work with other community college small business center directors on a regional biotech business assistance project, aim toward a common goal. “We have an overarching mission to serve the small business community, and we are marshalling all the resources we have in a package that will be the most comprehensive and efficient for everyone involved. While the process requires some special organizational considerations from time to time, the bottom line is that we have a wealth of information and an abundance of determination to serve the small business community.”
      Interestingly, these pursuits also generate their own special brand of competition. Explains Day, “Many of the people who have attended our courses and seminars set out in professional services that cater to small business as well. Many of the speakers and consultants set out with their special vision and offer their own brand of client education.”
      But Day says the more the merrier. “At the end of the day we are all partners; we post their events on the BizHub Web site for the community to see. When we have clusters of successful businesses, we have a successful economy. So our clients’ success is a testament to the success of our model.” 
      There are several other intersections that bring considerable promise to the mission of creating and sustaining small business development: North Carolina’s increasing visibility on the forefront of biotechnology will generate the need for innovation and support services, the wealth of universities with increasing research and development dollars will initiate new projects, and a healthy real estate and development climate will continue to support finding spaces for these new businesses to thrive.
       So it would appear that light bulbs are going on everywhere. As technology quickens the heartbeat of innovation, more and more people seek to implement what they see as the next great idea. Baby boomers are looking for ways to live fulfilling, productive and lucrative lives post-retirement, and thanks to endeavors like CPCC’s Institute for Entrepreneurship, initiatives like BizHub Network, and its vast network of government and non-profit agencies, working for oneself is no longer just ‘pie in the sky’ daydreaming.
       In fact, the evolution of ‘becoming your own boss’ could be the reality upon which our regional economic stability will ultimately hinge.

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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