The better equipped a community is to help its local businesses, the more its businesses will be helped — and the more sustainable its economy will be. It’s a simple concept, really, and one that the state of Georgia has put into practice with remarkable results.
Georgia is home to nearly 655,600 incorporated businesses, the vast majority of which (87 percent) employ five people or fewer. To support these small enterprises, in 2004 then-governor Sonny Perdue decided that the state needed to do a better job of “pushing resource awareness and small-business support” out to its communities, says Mary Ellen McClanahan, director of entrepreneur and small-business development for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. In response, the department launched the “Entrepreneur Friendly” initiative.
The initiative’s goal was to better equip local leadership to support entrepreneurship and to create “entrepreneurial environments” in Georgia’s 159 counties by building sustainable small-business strategies into their larger economic-development efforts. “‘Entrepreneur Friendly’ brought together all of the resource providers to the table, where we learned more about each other, dropped the silos, and worked together to make a ‘no wrong door’ policy,” McClanahan says. “Wherever anyone enters to find the answers to their questions, that resource will know where to send them quickly, correctly, and efficiently.”
The Department of Economic Development sent regional representatives out into the communities where, collaborating with local leaders, they assessed and analyzed the entrepreneurial environment and rethought traditional approaches to development and relationship-building efforts with small businesses. Using data gathered during this process, they created new strategies to help stimulate growth and development. Some rural counties that participated were eligible for state grants (matched 50 percent in dollars or in kind by the local community) to implement specific, long-term programs that support their entrepreneurs and small businesses. All programs targeted business education and mentoring, resource centers and materials, comprehensive “buy local” campaigns, and other areas in need of development.
Jeanie Boland, executive director of the Brantley County Development Authority, says the “Entrepreneur Friendly” designation allowed her county “to not only boost business for our local entrepreneurs, but also to focus on the development of youth entrepreneurs through our ‘E-Camps,’ giving them exposure to businesses, business planning, resources, and nurturing the entrepreneurial dream.”
To date, the Department of Economic Development has designated 129 counties as “Entrepreneur Friendly,” sparking never-before-seen business activity, awareness efforts, and best practices, McClanahan says. Although the initiative didn’t measure jobs or revenue, its overall success in helping communities bolster small business is supported by other data: Georgia continues to rank among the top 10 states in entrepreneurship and leads the nation in positive change in entrepreneurial activity.