Our research on incentives for entrepreneurial firms found that we need a new approach to working with entrepreneurs in underserved locations and demographic groups. Our belief is that expanding access to flagship entrepreneurship programs so that they reach a broader and more diverse set of people should be a policy priority.

The Ben Franklin Technology Partnership (BFTP) of Central Pennsylvania provides a great example of how to expand the pipeline for entrepreneur support programs. They have been reaching beyond their region’s established tech centers and major universities to connect with people who have good business ideas but who may not identify themselves as technology entrepreneurs and are therefore unlikely to engage with support programs like BFTP. 

BFTP CP leaders are enthusiastically pursuing several initiatives to identify and encourage these potential entrepreneurs in a purposeful, encouraging, and non-intimidating way. They are generating results in both rural and urban communities across their region. Stephen Brawley, President & CEO, and Joseph Hackett, South Central Regional Director and portfolio manager, talked with us recently about their approach. 

Everyone has a dream, right?

The Big Idea Contest is a core component of BFTP’s work to grow the pipeline. BFTP intentionally uses the contest format to cast a wide net to bring in individuals from all backgrounds. They do so by offering a substantial cash prize ($50,000) that is large enough to spark interest and motivate people to participate. The prize amount also helps generate media attention so that local reporting further raises awareness across a wide audience. 

BFTP works with its local partners (Small Business Development Centers, SCORE chapters, local colleges and universities, economic and workforce development groups) to help promote the events widely. In their experience, they are “seeing folks that had not previously identified as entrepreneurs come out for the money and support for their ideas.” A public finale event celebrating the winners also creates a final round of buzz around the contest, which creates even more visibility and sets the stage to attract future participants. 

Helping people articulate their dream

The contest is designed to be welcoming and supportive. Contestants do not need to have a business plan ready before they even participate. The media and finale events demonstrate that the process is doable and open to anyone who has a good idea, while the contest programming teaches people how to present their ideas and interact with funders. Behind the scenes training, practicing, and mentoring prepare the participants for their presentations. The goal is to have everyone walk away being better at and more comfortable presenting their business idea than when they started.  

Catching all those ideas

Once the contest is over, the winners and participants are guided to appropriate follow-on programs to support their business ideas and serve as a resource to them. It is critical to have the right partners so nobody is left behind. If they are not a good fit with BFTP, they are connected to the appropriate local organization, often the SCORE chapter or SBDC. BFTP itself guides many participants into its TechCelerator and Transformation programs. The ultimate objective is to put the entrepreneur on a track to be able to raise early stage money for their business, whatever it may be. Founders may receive support services and mentoring for a year or even two until seeking funding through BFTP’s capital programs or other sources becomes a viable option for them. 

New ecosystem recipes

BFTP has a deep network of local partners, but they know that the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem hasn’t reached all potential business creators. In York, PA, BFTP has begun working with multiple community-based organizations to reach Black, Hispanic and immigrant groups in the city. New ecosystem partners now include churches, Latino community centers, and the YMCA, which is very active in providing a variety of programs and services to a broad population. The YMCA location also offers childcare and is accessible on transportation lines, thereby addressing two major barriers to participation. This initiative shows strong promise in bringing underrepresented community members, especially women, into the entrepreneurial pipeline. 

Success is not just a 10x exit

BFTP is striving to nurture potential start-ups and provide access to capital throughout their 32-county region. Required metrics across the BFTP system include traditional measures like jobs created and retained, dollars leveraged, and new products or processes developed, which often lead organizations to focus on the biggest opportunities or sure bets. 

But they also track the number of startups that result from their efforts, and the Central Pennsylvania region has been able to demonstrate that it can move the needle on this metric. The BFTP structure also allows the Central Pennsylvania region to define innovation or success in a different way than in the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh regions. Smaller company successes and modest innovations in traditional products and industries are good outcomes for BFTP and the region. They “don’t need a 10x exit on investment to declare success.” There is room to recognize that opportunities that embrace the region’s competitive advantages and are protectable, scalable, profitable, and sustainable are appropriate ways to assess their work. 

For more information, please see Ben Franklin Technology Partners for Central & Northern Pennsylvania and check out the latest winners of the Big Idea contest

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