In May 2004, I left the full-time practice of law and began working for the Kentucky Innovation Network and Morehead State University in what seemed to be an obscure form of economic development. It was so obscure (and seemingly irrelevant) that its chief label was a French word: entrepreneurship. Hard to say, harder to spell — and French to boot! (This latter was no small albatross in an era when even French fries were coming under fire. You know Americans are angry when they start attacking their staple foods.)
For years, our fledgling group wandered in a wilderness of empty industrial parks and dying call centers. We fended off attacks from grant seekers and inventors of oddball items- like a flying saucer, or a better brand of sneakers. We spent countless hours talking about things like angel investing and e-commerce to anyone who’d listen. Of course, most wouldn’t. And why would they? After all, they were too busy chasing smokestacks … recruiting factories. A great strategy, mind you, if you’re the Mayor of a city in Shanghai province or somewhere in lower Mexico; not so much if you’re from East Kentucky and trying to peddle a low-skilled factory-workforce entitled to American wages.
Despite the adversity, our group trudged ahead, confident in the notion that entrepreneurship would eventually come to these mountains. Our only allies were outside groups and big newspapers; neither ever being really popular in the hills.
Over the past couple of years, however, we have finally been nearing the end of our long march. A host of organizations, new entities and powerbrokers have emerged to embrace entrepreneurship. In fact, I do not believe it inaccurate to say that entrepreneurship is THE recognized strategy for progress in the region. Certainly there are still conversations about things like industrial parks. But even these are likely to be hedged with references to local business owners.
On Friday, I attended a meeting of the Pine Ridge Industrial Authority in Wolfe County. After dispensing with a conversation about the group’s web site, board members quickly turned to the most pressing item of the day: a feasibility study for a camp ground in the area. Most of the conversation for the duration of the meeting focused on ways tourism could better be leveraged to support Wolfe, Breathitt and Lee County.
One of the most notable changes has been the focus on business incubators. Currently, four incubators are being marketed in our region: one each in Ashland, Morehead, Pikeville and London.
This changing landscape has created new opportunities for groups like mine. We can now focus our energies on specific industries, for example. Over the past year, our office has worked to promote information technology, space science and craft distillers networks, for example. We’re also better able to engage the public when it comes to strategies like angel investing.
The greatest change necessary for an entrepreneurial economy has already occurred: the changing of regional minds. This shift will create many terrific opportunities in the years to come.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office located at Morehead State University. To engage in entrepreneurship, as a participant or a supporter, please contact Johnathan via www.kyinnovation.com.