Time to Rewrite Story, Reinvest in Rural Entrepreneurs

Patty Cantrell
June 12, 2023

It’s true. Entrepeneurship is highest in rural Missouri

This editorial was published in the July 10, 2023, edition of the Springfield Business Journal. Time-to-rewrite-story-SBJ Guest-Column.pdf

Rural Missouri. Query the Internet, and you’ll pull up pictures of farmland and old buildings. Nowhere do you see the people and businesses that make up everyday rural life along with farmers — those small business owners, for example, like Stacey Poe in rural Vernon County. She now employs 10 people cleaning office buildings after starting up just two years ago during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rural entrepreneurs’ invisibility is a problem for the state of Missouri and its quest to break out of longtime sluggish economic growth with a new emphasis on growing its own new businesses. The problem is an unfortunate lack of small business development support from the state of Missouri in those out-of-the-way rural places that make up most of the state, where so many entrepreneurs and innovators are underappreciated and overlooked. As Missouri gears up to build new businesses for economic innovation, it must increase on-the-ground small business support in rural Missouri.

Stacey Poe was lucky. Before the pandemic hit, our rural community development corporation New Growth had begun working with partners to connect, coordinate, and fill gaps among the few business building resources available in the rural west central Missouri region between Springfield and Kansas City. Poe was able to seize the opportunity of an initial state office building contract after her then-employer, a commercial cleaning company, had shut down, leaving Poe unemployed and the company’s office clients high and dry. She needed $5,000 for startup equipment along with help as a brand-new business owner.

Patty Cantrell New Growth Community Development Corporation Director Outreach and Development

Patty Cantrell is Director of Outreach and Development at rural community development corporation New Growth, an affiliate of West Central Missouri Community Action Agency.

Startup financing and technical assistance were more available to her in our region because our team of START HERE Business Acceleration Network partners had collaborated to pull federal resources into west central Missouri. We had just established the 15-county SBA-designated New Growth Women’s Business Center and launched New Growth’s credit building and micro-enterprise financing program for entrepreneurs too new or too small for traditional lenders. These programs are small, striving, and in high demand in our rural region as in rural central Missouri, served by our partner the Missouri Women’s Business Center. Yet, the state’s budget does not include support for such small business assistance.

Missouri’s new focus on building the “ecosystem” of support that entrepreneurs need to get going and growing is good news. In fact, the state has received $95 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to implement a plan developed by the Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC), which reports to the Governor. The Catalyzing Innovation plan outlines strategies for driving entrepreneurship in Missouri, particularly development of high-growth and high-tech businesses.

Catalyzing Innovation recognizes the need to be more inclusive – supporting historically disadvantaged women, minority, and rural entrepreneurs among others — to tap into the full depth and breadth of entrepreneurial talent, skills, and initiative across the state. Similarly, ARPA funding the state has received requires that 40 percent go to these neglected, yet creative and productive, groups of entrepreneurs.

That’s important because looks can be deceiving. You could never guess from your farmland-filled Internet search of rural Missouri, for example, that nonfarm business owners like Poe are more common in rural Missouri than in metro Missouri. It’s true: Entrepreneurship is higher in rural areas. Data compiled by University of Missouri researchers for the Missouri Policy Journal (No. 9) show the ratio of nonfarm business owners to total employment in a county is historically and significantly higher in rural Missouri than in metro Missouri.

A statewide entrepreneurship strategy inclusive of the great diversity of entrepreneurs we have in Missouri will pay great dividends. Try searching for rural Missouri images again in a few years. If we are successful stimulating and supporting entrepreneurship as a state, you will find a new story being written – and new photos depicting – small business initiative and innovation in every corner of this Show-Me State.