On April 21, 2022, the garage doors of the Staunton Innovation Hub opened up on a balmy spring evening. In wandered about 20 entrepreneurial minds – from small business owners to non-profit volunteers, startups to maybe one-day entrepreneurs. As part of our monthly Open Coffee series we, a team of entrepreneurship cheerleaders at the Shenandoah Community Capital Fund, were curious to connect in-person with entrepreneurs across the Valley to talk shop. As a soon-to-be transplant from North Carolina, I was excited to hear from local founders about the good and the bad of starting, pivoting and/or growing a business in the Shenandoah Valley. Here’s what I heard from the 20 wonderful individuals who showed up that night:
What I’m learning over and over again is how the rural character of the Valley has a direct impact on the culture of mutual support. Entrepreneurs described a sense of camaraderie and a genuine desire to support each other. Customers, too, are loyal and – thanks to small-town traditions – are more interested in keeping their downtowns alive. Word of mouth is still a powerful marketing approach in places like Staunton, Waynesboro and Harrisonburg.
“People in the Valley still appreciate handcrafted products.”
I was relieved to hear that people referenced the existing entrepreneurial support organizations and available financial capital as a great reason to start and grow a business in the Valley; while I’m discovering more and more support, entrepreneurs don’t always know what’s available to them and how to access support programs, funding and other resources. We are working to highlight more support opportunities and enhance our combined outreach and storytelling efforts across the region.
Room for improvement
While we love hearing what’s going great for entrepreneurs, we’re even more interested in hearing what could be better. After all, if we want to build a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, we need to know what barriers and gaps are preventing entrepreneurial talent from starting and succeeding in business.
The other side of the rural coin tells us what we need to do to better support entrepreneurs in the region. That night, entrepreneurs listed rural-related issues such as
- Cumbersome and slow permitting processes
- Unreliable and spotty internet
- Staffing shortages
- Limited customer base/market
- Challenges of expanding a business into multiple towns or even scale outside of the Valley
The night’s networkers shared that their communities are hesitant to adopt something new and are still at times ruled by the old boys club.
“If you know and are friendly with the right people, you can get things done. But if you’re not part of that circle, you run into a lot more barriers. The playing field is not always even.”
On the personal level, founders shared that they struggle to find their peers to stay motivated and don’t have a strong community to fall back on. “There’s not a lot of self-help if you don’t like to read or google everything you need to know about starting a business.” Isolation, imposter syndrome, and a sense of loneliness are not uncommon among entrepreneurs (no matter where they operate), but the effects are exacerbated in rural communities where serendipitous meetings are less common and a sense of community can be harder to find and maintain.
We at the Shenandoah Community Capital Fund enjoy these conversations and – like many of our ecosystem partners – want to hear what obstacles and carriers we can help reduce for entrepreneurs in the Shenandoah Valley!
Sign up for our virtual Open Coffee series to meet other entrepreneurs and join us at our next in-person Open Coffee After Dark event on July 21 venue TBD (register here for in-person and online events) and our Women’s Entrepreneurs Night on June 28 at Winchester Brew Works, Winchester, VA (RSVP here)!
Lastly, save the date for the inaugural Shenandoah Valley Entrepreneurship Summit on September 12 and 13! We are working with entrepreneurs and partners across the Valley to curate two days of inspiration, networking, peer learning and actionable strategies for early-stage entrepreneurs and those who want to turn that idea in the garage into reality!
By Anika Horn