A recent Forbes.com article stated: “With nearly 50 percent of millennials looking to start their own business in the next three years, it is not a surprise that the new generation of entrepreneurs aren’t based – or even particularly interested – in Silicon Valley.”
College towns such as Lubbock, Gainesville, Fla., and West Lafayette, Ind., are perfectly positioned to not only teach millennial entrepreneurs, but also support startups and the industries that want to acquire them. College towns need talent to stay in rural areas of the country and startups to succeed to create opportunity.
While large metropolitan cities are America’s melting pots, smaller more rural areas are significant and contribute to the economy in different and sometimes more important ways. Smart Asset lists Lubbock in its Top 20 Places Millennials are Moving as not only affordable in a community with great values, but also a place for innovation and entrepreneurial support. As global competition rises for talent and economic prosperity, it is important for us to recognize the contribution rural areas make to the United States, the lifeblood of our great nation. In Texas alone, in 2017 the agriculture market was valued at $24.9 billion (www.texasagriculture.gov). Approximately 70% of the market was made up of three commodities – milk, cattle and cotton. Texas is the 10th largest economy in the world and West Texas makes up 96 of the 254 counties in the state.
Many have argued that private companies will not build the scientific foundation needed for cutting-edge industries and the great jobs of tomorrow. Then who? Rural communities have a recipe for success: physical assets, such as access to infrastructure (research labs, broadband); economic assets, such as access to money and a pro-business climate; and social assets, such as a thriving diverse community. Social assets, many times overlooked, are a key part of building innovation and entrepreneurship. This includes things like the engagement of the city and economic development leaders in collaborating to create an innovation district, world-class research expertise solving the rural region’s problems, encouraging civic and family values, and supporting entrepreneurship from idea to launch.
Social assets allow us to engage in collaboration where we might not otherwise. Institutions such as Purdue University, University of Florida, and Texas Tech University understand the growing demand for millennials who want to start businesses and are investing in their communities. Texas Tech and partners are evolving with the changing times. Consideration of an innovation district vision for Lubbock is underway to create collaboration spaces enabling innovation, to increase the support of entrepreneur startups opportunities, and to recruit industry to retain talent for decades to come.
Texas Tech has focused on innovation and entrepreneurship support utilizing best practices that include comprehensive entrepreneurship education, startup funding, prototype and research labs, and state-of-the-art incubation facilities that rival urban universities. In the last couple of years, Texas Tech supported 89 deep technology teams that developed research or an idea to solve a problem.
Some would argue rural America is where hard work, grit and resilience became the driving force to the American Dream. Student entrepreneurs in rural college towns are highly motivated and want to learn, and local and regional university innovation and entrepreneur programs strive to provide them access to resources and experiences equal to or better than urban universities. An example of providing access is the National Science Foundation I-Corps program where students learn customer discovery. The outcome of the program depends on whether they have a product-market fit. If so, the student is encouraged to move forward with the idea. If not, they go back to the drawing board.
Rural communities need to evaluate their community “gems” to consider which ingredients can be leveraged. In West Texas, for example, we have trained 43 mentors who provide over 13,000 volunteer hours annually to assist entrepreneurs with ideas. Some mentors are virtual, many are local, and all provide specific expertise to our entrepreneurs. The mentors contribute to the overall quality and add tremendous value to a rural community’s ability to retain talent and develop fundable startups. Students receive an entrepreneurial education and a practical education, both critical investments of time and effort. In Lubbock, a Red Raider education is honored, appreciated, and sought after, because Texas Tech focused on investing in a social asset like the Innovation Hub.
With a population of over 280,000, Lubbock is a beacon for education, health care and rural opportunity. Recently, USA Today ranked Lubbock as one of the Best Cities for Jobs, Social Life and Affordable Living After College Graduation. A town and gown environment where its citizens are resilient, persevere and embrace innovation leading to economic prosperity.