Wendy Guillies

Wendy Guillies, president and CEO, The Kauffman Foundation, and Radically Rural's keynote speaker.

The Kauffman Foundation, which works with communities to champion uncommon solutions that empower people to be successful, is among the largest private foundations in the United States with an asset base of $2 billion. In June of 2019, the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship received a $10,000 grant from the Kauffman Foundation to assist in the Radically Rural summit.

Beyond the Foundation’s formal programs, Wendy Guillies, president and CEO since 2015, has continued the legacy of marketing empowerment. Part of Ewing Marion Kauffman’s heritage (see The Kauffman Foundation history, next page) was his trust in the transformative power of believing in the individual. Guillies continues this legacy and extends her reach beyond Kansas City to every city ready to work on issues of entrepreneurship and education. This includes Keene where she will be the keynote speaker of the Radically Rural Summit, Thursday, September 19 at 8:30 a.m. at The Colonial Theatre. We spoke with Guilles before her trip to Keene.

Guillies says her TEDx talk in Fargo spreads the message that “The Middle is the New Edge,” that “there are opportunities waiting in the wings of a small town, as well as in a city.”

She points out this is not dissimilar to rural areas where there is an underutilized advantage.

“They’re small,” says Guillies of towns in rural areas, “but that means when the barriers start falling, people will notice.”

Acknowledging the problems and inadequacies in a community is the first step towards an entrepreneurial mindset. Guillie’s prescription is to see these barriers as “entrepreneurial opportunities.” Beyond a town’s key deficiencies, there is also a town’s central identity and Guillies says, this too is important to opportunity.

“It’s identifying a town’s key assets and finding new ways to leverage them,” she says.

If rural communities believe they are being “left behind,” the Kauffman Foundation believes that the solution lies in entrepreneurship.

Not to say that this is an easy fix. American entrepreneurship has flat-lined in the past decades and all entrepreneurs face barriers of financial and institutional risks. According to Guillies, the barriers for rural communities are even higher.

“Americans in rural communities and small towns face more systematic barriers, and are too often denied access to the tools needed to start their own businesses,” says Guillies.

But every community has resources to support entrepreneurs including Keene’s Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and Brattleboro Development and Credit Corporation.

The Kauffman Foundation’s research shows the solution to underemployment comes not necessarily from attracting outside investment of a big company but from investing in startups. Guillies shares the results that “studies by firm age show that virtually all net new job creation comes from startup companies in their first five years.”

“Not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur,” says Guillies.

In a TED talk by vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation Victor Hwang, he reiterates this sentiment, pointing out that only three out of 1,000 people will become entrepreneurs, but the other 997 can still support an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs bring new products and new experiences that enrich the cultural and economic vitality of the community. Communities can support entrepreneurs by talking about and trying new products, and research shows that this indirect participation has positive effects.

It is also important to support educational initiatives that support an entrepreneurial mindset. The Foundation believes that education must evolve to model work-place challenges and real-world setbacks.

Education must provide students with the “tools to either make or take a job that provides enough money for financial stability,” says Guillies, but in this regard, a four-year college degree is not always the solution.

The models that emerge from our region’s strengths and problems may not be foreseeable, the untapped vision of emerging entrepreneurs.

“It’s also important to realize that the future of a small town or rural area might not look like the present — it’s open and unpredictable. It’s unexpected,” Guillies reminds us. “Be open to the idea there are opportunities everywhere, especially in your own backyard.”