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Kris Bevill, Forum News Service, Published March 16 2014

Dakota Rising helps rural entrepreneurs

RENNER, S.D. – Entrepreneurship can be a lonely endeavor, particularly in rural areas where businesses are few and networking opportunities even fewer.

For new business owners, who could benefit from a guiding hand or occasional word of advice, connections with established businesses in supportive communities can be invaluable.

Dakota Rising, a program of South Dakota-based nonprofit rural economic development group Dakota Resources, focuses on creating those types of environments to foster small business growth and develop successful entrepreneurs.

The program requires community support, because businesses are more likely to succeed when located in a community that will nurture them, said Dakota Resources President Beth Davis.

“It’s grounded in ‘place,’ so only those entrepreneurs whose businesses reside within a Dakota Rising community can qualify for fellowship,” she said.

The approval process begins with a community applying to become a Dakota Rising community. Applicants must show that the community has financial resources and pipelines to support an entrepreneur development system. Selected communities receive assistance from Dakota Resources to plan a community meeting, identify potential businesses in need of support, form a network of established business owners to serve as mentors and start the groundwork to begin hosting networking and other events.

The program was founded by Jael Kampfe, formerly with the Found Times Foundation, and is geared toward rural communities. In South Dakota, only Sioux Falls and Rapid City do not meet the “rural” criteria to qualify.

The program is unique to South Dakota, but Davis said the group is considering replicating it in other states.

Only after a community has been selected can an entrepreneur apply to become a Dakota Rising fellow, and a community selection does not guarantee that an entrepreneur in that community will be accepted as a fellow. To qualify, entrepreneurs must be the primary decision maker in a second-stage company and must be committed to growing their business. Most important, the entrepreneur also must be coachable, Davis said.

“It is as much about personal growth as it is about professional growth,” she said. “If they think they already know everything about everything, they’re not going to fit in the fellowship. It’s all about the right person as well as the right business.”

‘Spectacular outcomes’

The program selects eight to 12 fellows each year, who commit to a three-year development program. The program has graduated two three-year classes to date, and has seen “spectacular outcomes” from many of its fellows, Davis said.

Alumni include Kory Anderson, president of implement manufacturer Anderson Industries LLC, and Jim Meyer, co-founder of power meter manufacturer Quarq Technology Inc.

Davis said most of the fellowship alumni continue to be involved with the program, either by providing financial support or through engagement with current fellows.

“We had hoped when we initially started the program to create a culture of ‘once a fellow, always a fellow,’ and we seem to have succeeded in doing that,” she said.

In addition to mentorship and networking opportunities, Dakota Rising fellows receive $10,000, supported in part by grant money from the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development, to be used toward professional and business development. Davis said the program requires entrepreneurs to commit $2,000 of their grants toward personal development, knowing that not all fellows will succeed in their current business.

At any rate, the cash prize is really just icing on the cake and is not the real value of the program, Davis said.

“In the long run, the value of the fellowship is the peer support system and the connections that are made,” she said. “We talk about helping them grow their luck, because entrepreneurship is really a lonely endeavor. By virtue of connecting these entrepreneurs to their community, to each other through the fellowship and the network of Dakota Rising, it helps them make connections that truly do increase their luck.”