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Two Lynchburg-area business orgs receive grant to build Center for Entrepreneurship

See story at The News & Advance...Two Lynchburg-area business organizations are preparing to set up a new Center for Entrepreneurship that will allow budding and veteran entrepreneurs to get support from seasoned mentors and build community connections.

Entrepreneurs at the future Center for Entrepreneurship will benefit from a connection between the Small Business Development Center – Lynchburg Region, which are housed in the same building at 300 Lucado Pl., for free and confidential advising and coaching programs and resources of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, the regional chamber of commerce and economic development organization.

The need for a program that supports entrepreneurial growth and development in the Lynchburg region has been identified and prioritized in multiple economic development plans from a variety of regional organizations over the past several years.

In 2017, the Alliance completed a comprehensive economic development strategy, which had 11 key initiatives for the region, and one included an initiative to establish the Center for Entrepreneurship.

It has been in the Alliance’s business plan for the past five years, said Megan Lucas, CEO of the Alliance.
On March 14, the Alliance was awarded $240,000 from GO Virginia to help launch the center within the 25,000-square-foot Alliance building. The organization has secured 2,700 square feet for the center.

GO Virginia, a state program, is an initiative by Virginia’s senior business leaders to foster private-sector growth and job creation through state incentives for regional collaboration by business, education, and government.

In addition to GO Virginia Region 2 funds, $187,035 in matching funds have been provided by the counties of Amherst, Bedford and Campbell as well as the city of Lynchburg and the towns of Altavista, Amherst and Appomattox.

“The services available for entrepreneurship is for anybody within the regional footprint, whether they’re starting a business, growing a business, transitioning a business, anybody can utilize the services regardless of membership in the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance,” Lucas said.

The Alliance has a partnership with the Small Business Development Center and the grant will go towards the build-out of the center, staffing, consulting and marketing.

A few years ago, the SBDC did an equity and entrepreneurship analysis and study, which revealed two hurdles that are predominant to businesses: access to capital, and a continuation of networking and peer-to-peer group management and mentorship, Lucas said.

“So those two things are really going to be covered initially, right out of the chute with the Center for Entrepreneurship,” she said.

The Center for Entrepreneurship also will assist entrepreneurs in gaining access to capital needed to get their ideas off the ground and turn them from ideas into financially stable businesses.

The Alliance has taken a step toward filling this funding gap with the recent creation in February of the 140 Fund, named in recognition of the 140th anniversary of the organization that eventually became the Alliance.

That fund is raising money from the community to eventually become a revolving loan fund. Operated by the Center for Entrepreneurship and managed by the Alliance’s foundation, the fund will grant low-interest loans to applicants starting a business or developing a business strategy. The Alliance hopes to raise $140,000 this year before opening the fund to the first applicants.

Stephanie Keener, executive director of the SBDC, said the center is a big part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the community as it supports entrepreneurs across the lifecycle of owning a small business.

“But this really helps to integrate SBDC services into the rest of regional initiatives toward entrepreneurship and small businesses,” she said. “So I think it’s a great move to really help strengthen those services across the region.”

There will be a couple different initiatives, including a mentorship program made up of a broad base of subject matter experts.

The SBDC is federally funded and those federal dollars are matched by the local government. The center then supports, advises and trains small businesses. But Keener said it cannot write business plans, build websites, create accounting documents or give legal advice.

“One of the things that the Center for Entrepreneurship will do is provide some of those services, either pro bono or at an incredibly low cost for the small businesses in the region,” she said.

Now, the Alliance and SBDC are looking for people to volunteer as mentors who are willing to provide services to entrepreneurs or be willing to train or hold small group counseling sessions.

Keener said she really needs mentors who are willing to help people develop contracts in their businesses and to help with intellectual property, patents and trademarks.

“Those are holes that we have right now,” she said.

Lucas said the regional ecosystem is very diversified, from education to manufacturing, but entrepreneurs make up a vast majority of the economy.

“So having a strong entrepreneurial business startup ecosystem is important for growing and sustaining our region,” she said. “So it’s not just about going out and recruiting new manufacturers to come to the region, it’s about putting time and energy into those people who have great ideas and want to start businesses in our community and how do we help them do that?”

She hopes the center can help those who come through its doors with an idea and they can go through that process and figure out whether it has any legs.

“Not every business idea is an idea that can be capitalized,” Lucas said. “But to have a location where individuals can go to fine tune their ideas or concepts so that they can start a business which would employ themselves, our neighbors, our friends, our family ... every business that’s here today started small and grew, and we want to be able to have an environment and ecosystem that supports those businesses, whether they’re from muffins to manufacturing.”