Alabama Community College System building support network for entrepreneurs

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama – The Alabama Community College System, a key workforce development component in the state, is stepping up efforts to prepare the next generation of Alabama business owners with initiatives to help budding entrepreneurs increase their chances of success.

“The Alabama Community College System holds the key to the state’s workforce development needs, and training entrepreneurs is an important way to help meet those needs,” Chancellor Mark Heinrich said. “These are people who will be creating jobs and opportunities across the state in the future.”

This past semester, ACCS member Gadsden State Community College launched an entrepreneurship program, offering instruction on financial and marketing issues that confront every new business owner. ACCS is now making plans to expand classes in entrepreneurship, beginning with a pilot program on eight to 10 campuses. The system hopes to eventually extend the program to all of its two-year colleges and regional training sites.

Courses will teach would-be business owners how to develop business plans, obtain Small Business Administration loans and get the licenses they need.

“We have equipped people with technical skills, and now we will equip them with the ability to run a business,” said Amy Brabham, the ACCS’ vice chancellor for career and technical education and workforce development. “This will be a resource course on how to start and operate a business.”

Gadsden State’s program, which ACCS and school officials say is one of the most in-depth programs of its kind in the state, includes the opportunity to earn an entrepreneurship certificate. The certificate program is designed to prepare start-up owners for the often-bumpy ride after a business launch by providing useful planning, marketing and networking guidance, said Brandon White, the course instructor. The program includes five classes tailored to reflect a business owner’s perspective, including “Small Business Management” and “Entrepreneurial Finance.”

“We took the different components of a business plan and broke them into courses,” White said.

Meanwhile, ACCS aims to build on the successful debut of a small business incubator at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville that last year received a $200,000 grant from the Alabama Innovation Fund, which supports research and economic development initiatives at the state’s public colleges and universities. A total of $4 million in grants from the innovation fund were handed out last year. The program is managed by the Alabama Department of Commerce.

The primary focus of the Appalachian Regional Commission Center for Entrepreneurship and Energy Innovation business incubator at Wallace State Hanceville is, naturally enough, energy-related firms, but it’s open to other types of start-ups. It is already home to two firms, including Zero RPM, which makes idle mitigation systems for vehicles.

Wallace State Hanceville’s long-term plans call for the development of a stand-alone incubator facility that will become home to around 17 start-up businesses with 120 jobs, said President Vicki Hawsey. “I think community colleges have a special talent for entrepreneurship,” Hawsey said. “That should lend itself well to helping promising entrepreneurs create jobs.”

Bevill State Community College has operated a small business incubator in Jasper for several years, and Brabham said it’s a concept that the ACCS could expand to other communities.

“We are trying to be the place where people in Alabama come to get entrepreneurship training,” Brabham said. “If someone wants to start a business, we want to help them get it off the ground. This is one way we can really connect economic development to our institutions.”

Entrepreneurship is a powerful force in the U.S. economy. According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit that studies entrepreneurship, the nation’s 394,000 startups created 2.3 million jobs in 2010, a substantial figure given overall sluggish economic growth.

Alabama is among the best states for small businesses, according to a national survey by Thumbtack.com and the Kauffman Foundation. Alabama ranked No. 2 for overall small business friendliness in the 2013 survey, trailing only Utah. In another survey, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, ranked Alabama the seventh best state for entrepreneurs in results released in late 2012.

Alabama Launchpad, a business plan competition, has awarded more than $1 million to promising start-ups, thanks to the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama Foundation and its partners.

Support for entrepreneurs and small business owners is part of ACCS’ broad-based efforts to better prepare Alabama’s workforce for the challenges of tomorrow. The system also provides adult education and academic studies that help expand and prepare the state’s workforce.