- Creator, I&E Club model for rural economic development
- Speaker, inaugural meeting of the Evansville Area Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club
- Keynote Speaker, 2008 Evansville Economic Development Summit
When I stepped into the role of helping Juneau County’s economy, I took
a birds-eye view of what was happening in the rural community economy as well as
workforce trends. What I saw was the following: The risks and rewards of
entrepreneurialism were being downplayed; in fact, the community culture
supporting entrepreneurialism had diminished to the point where even the
exploration of ideas was considered dangerous. Failure at any step of the
business building process was considered so traumatic that support for budding
innovators and entrepreneurs was scarce.
At the same time, there were noticeable changes within our communities
and our economies, especially in rural areas. Overall, things were speeding up.
New innovations, productivity gains, automation, off-shoring and obsolescence
were quickly transforming America into a country that needed fewer and fewer
employees, especially those in low skilled labor. Many low skilled labor jobs
had disappeared altogether.
To address these changes, Juneau County formed the first Inventors
& Entrepreneurs (I&E) Club in 2003. Our goal was not necessarily to
create new businesses or jobs but to bring forward a culture that supported and
encouraged the exploration of ideas within our communities, thus helping to
build a base of people who knew how to explore these ideas. If we were
successful, we knew new businesses and jobs would follow suit.
The I&E Club concept was a grassroots movement that was open to any
community to copy or adjust as it saw fit. At one point, over 40 I&E clubs
existed in Wisconsin and an unknown number had cropped up in the Midwest.
There was never a central “I&E Club command” or any formal
organizational structure; as a result, many I&E clubs formed and transformed
on their own. Many I&E clubs became successful. However, as their founders
or champions moved on, many I&E programs ceased to exist except in name
only, as a light network of like-minded individuals. Still, about a dozen
Wisconsin I&E clubs have flourished. The Juneau County I&E Club is one
of these clubs and continues to go strong in its 11th year, hosting 25-75
attendees each month.
I became associated with Evansville via Judy Whalen, who was hired by
Evansville to lead the community through its Economic Development Plan. Judy had
been to a number of Juneau County I&E Club meetings and really understood
the need for grassroots level entrepreneurial support. Judy also introduced me
to another person that really got it- that person was Mayor Sandy Decker. Mayor
Decker invited me to speak at the Economic Development Summit and to facilitate
the first Evansville Area I&E Club meeting later on.
The first Evansville I&E Club meeting was a fantastic and energetic
event. Our meeting room was filled with a diverse array of individuals, which is
great because diversity propagates the development of ideas. In fact, it is only
when you have inventors, businesspeople, artists, investors, manufacturers and
entrepreneurial resources that you attain an entrepreneurial culture.
I commend Evansville for not only understanding the forces of economic
change but for moving aggressively to energize its citizens to step out and
innovate, create, take risks and fail, and finally, to succeed.
The future does not belong to those who are the strongest or the smartest
but to those who are best able to adapt.
Finally, being successful as an entrepreneur is a lot like the lottery:
You can’t win if you don’t play. The residents of Evansville are out there
playing- and that’s a great thing!