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To learn how to better support thriving local businesses in rural communities, the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) launched a two-week listening tour in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. It’s the opening phase of ‘Heartland Together,’ a partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (EMKF) to generate leadership for rural entrepreneurship in these four Midwestern states. Friend of KLC and Associate Professor at K-State’s Staley School of Leadership Studies Brandon W. Kliewer sat down to reflect on what he heard in Cowley County, Kansas.

Spring had not quite cut the winter chill as we pulled into Winfield, KS for the most recent Heartland Together Listening Tour. Championship glory and spring flowers set the stage for the listening tour session. The perennial blue bloods felt destined for success with a full slate of men’s and women’s basketball games ahead.

The conversation started as one would expect. Challenges securing start-up capital, retaining a talented workforce, and increasing awareness of new businesses were quickly identified as barriers to starting and growing local businesses in rural communities. Their concerns all seemed about right.

However, what did feel surprising was the number of participants that expressed concern about the nature of competition in rural communities. Folks shared concerns about competition with big corporations with wages and benefits, competition with bigger cities to provide quality of place amenities, and even competition between entrepreneurs of the same community for knowledge, resources, and mentorship. Prevailing wisdom would seem to suggest competition is an essential guiding logic of free-market systems. So, honestly, I was curious why so many in the listening session talked about competition being a barrier to starting and growing local businesses in rural communities. Thinking about competition as a barrier to starting and growing local business makes me wonder:

What makes pre-competitive cooperation to attract and retain talent in rural communities difficult?

How can entrepreneurial support structures help entrepreneurs navigate competition regardless of one’s race, gender, and geographical location?

When can intentional injections of knowledge and resources help entrepreneurs overcome competitive barriers that make it more difficult to start and grow local businesses?

Not one person suggested starting and growing local business should be easier. Instead, what I heard is that in rural communities in particular, competition looks different and has implications for what is required to support entrepreneurs’ ability to start and grow successful businesses. Resources, knowledge, and support structures can support entrepreneurs start and grow business that can compete and be successful. Healthy entrepreneurial ecosystems connect entrepreneurs with well-timed information, professional networks, and support systems capable of navigating competitive pressures. Participant comments indicated that pre-competitive cooperation has the potential to help remove barriers to starting and growing businesses. For example, some participants highlight ways in which quality of place improvements could help attract and retain talent to the region, health insurance pools could make it easier for entrepreneurs to take the first step towards starting a new business, and creating an overall appreciation for the work of local businesses in rural communities could change the spending habits and behaviors of community members.

We stopped for dinner at a restaurant on the edge of the business district before heading back to Wichita. The menu included fine local fares and a train engine motif. Railroad tracks were only a few yards away from a beautiful outdoor patio and intentionally renovated building. Beers were rumored to be half off when a train went by the restaurant. The KLC team was fortunate enough to enjoy a meal with a local couple (and the parents of a KLC team member). We talked about workforce housing in rural communities, local music festivals, how we each came to find our passion for community health, vitality, and prosperity, and what we, ultimately, hoped for Kansas. Our conversation was set to the sounds typical of a successful establishment in a community interested in college basketball. Patrons kept an eye on the TVs spread throughout the large main dining room. The men’s tournament was in full swing and there was an energy in the air that focused attention on a potential upset as game time ticked closer to a conclusion. The competition was intense. Cheers broke collectively out in the room as the clocked showed no time was left – an unexpected win by a lower seed.

We recently shared Julia Fabris McBride’s reflection after touring Nebraska as part of the Heartland Together listening tour. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing listening tour blogs from our teams in Iowa and Missouri. To learn more about the listening tour and the Heartland Together partnership with the Kauffman Foundation, visit our announcement.

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