We all love a good success story. From one-car garage to technology giant — go-getters who rise to the top are the stuff of modern-day legends. But a great idea and a strong work ethic don’t guarantee success. A supportive community network is one factor that can help tip the balance from budding concept to booming company.
That’s why local leaders are making a concerted effort to grow the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators in the Greater Manhattan region. With a dynamic public sector encompassing education, military and scientific research, the area is also home to a vital and vibrant private sector eager to leverage public-sector expertise and collaborative opportunities.
Historically, the region’s strong entrepreneurial spirit has fueled many local successes. CivicPlus, a technology solution powering government websites around the country, started in Manhattan in 1998. HanesBrand acquired local custom apparel company GTM Sportswear to expand its customer base and capacity. Manko Window Systems and Steel and Pipe Supply are a couple more homegrown companies that have become leaders in their industries.
Today, the region is investing in an entrepreneurial ecosystem that will continue to foster new business and innovation development and pave the way for future growth. This has included launching Spark, a hub to connect founders with resources, programming and support, as well as to make better use of federal and state resources to help new businesses get started.
"To help us recover from the pandemic and economic slowdown challenging many of our businesses, we felt it was important to invest in entrepreneurial initiatives in a more impactful way," said Jason Smith, president and CEO, Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce (MACC). "Spark launched in 2020 and we’re excited to see how quickly they’ve enhanced local support for entrepreneurs. Our commitment to invest in these initiatives will help diversify our economy, further enhancing our potential for long-term growth."
Spark partners with local entities like the Small Business Development Center, the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation and Kansas State University’s Innovation Partners as well as the Center for the Advancement of Entrepreneurship to create a one-stop shop for area entrepreneurs.
“Our mission is to resource, support and successfully launch entrepreneurial ventures and create an inclusive and dynamic culture of entrepreneurism and innovation throughout the Greater Manhattan region,” said Sarah Siders, executive director of Spark.
A major part of this effort has included developing an online portal where new business owners and startup founders can access and connect with essential tools through Spark’s Virtual Hub, which hosts searchable programming, event listings and entrepreneurship success stories, and tracks entrepreneurship ecosystem engagement and economic impact. Even better is connecting in person at an event, pitch competition, peer meet-up, coworking space or simply by sitting down with the Spark team over coffee to discuss an idea.
In addition to connecting entrepreneurs with resources and mentors, Spark has a goal of involving the greater community. Humans are naturally risk-averse, but by creating an environment that embraces homegrown endeavors, fledgling entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed, Siders said.
“Everyone is part of the entrepreneurial network. That’s why we call it an ecosystem. It’s all interdependent,” she said. “Whether you’re leasing commercial space, eating at a restaurant, shopping at a local store or receiving services like accounting, marketing or real estate guidance, you’re supporting entrepreneurs. We’re creating a culture where those entrepreneurs can take a supported risk.”
If Siders sees a need, she’ll find a resource to help fill it. She has partnered with Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills, 1 Million Cups, entrepreneurship education program Kauffman FastTrac and other resources to bring programming and mentorship to the area.
Another key resource for many entrepreneurs is the Kansas SBDC, which is a nationally accredited organization that provides free training, advising and programs at the local level for small businesses in every stage of development.
“The Kansas SBDC is a trusted resource that provides a broad range of advising, education and assistance to help small businesses — at any stage — reach their potential and be the backbone of our communities across the state,” said Laurie Pieper, assistant director of the Kansas SBDC at Washburn University SBDC, which serves 12 counties including those surrounding Greater Manhattan. “We are locally connected to provide local and regional resources to help small businesses, and we also have broader networks and partnerships to make us more effective.”
While services vary from center to center, most support typically includes education on essentials like developing a business plan, market research, conducting financial analyses, understanding legal issues and even training on software like Quickbooks. Pieper’s office is located in the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce building.
In early 2021, Washburn University launched a specialty center to offer programming geared toward helping startups and businesses poised for growth more effectively navigate innovation, technology and exporting opportunities to increase their commercialization potential. The BRITE Center, short for Business Resources for Innovation, Technology and Exporting, helps businesses develop commercialization plans and enhance their ability to scale their operations. These businesses come from a wide range of industries including agriculture, biosecurity, animal health, food systems, health care, financial technology and more.
Pieper also serves as the Director of the BRITE Center, where they are launching new initiatives such as a pilot program for business ideation and an innovation competition.
“We have some exciting innovators in the state, and they are vital in helping Kansas move forward and be an active part of the global economy,” she said.
NetWork Kansas is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Kansas. Both Riley and Pottawatomie counties are classified as NetWork Kansas E-Communities, which means both have made a commitment to cultivating and developing resources to help local entrepreneurs.
Since NetWork Kansas began its E-Community loan program in 2007, the organization has provided more than $21.5 million to Kansas businesses and leveraged more than $100 million in other types of financing. In Pottawatomie County, which is predominantly rural, economic development staff have been heavily using the E-Community partnership to provide loans, training and other types of support.
E-Community loans help to fill gaps between traditional bank financing and what a business needs to get started or expand. Jack Allston, executive director of Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation (PCEDC), has found these programs to be very beneficial.
“A lot of new businesses get the money to get going with an inheritance or their parent’s loan guarantee,” Allston said. “E-Community loan funds help us provide extra collateral and working capital over and above the amount a bank will loan them. Half of the deals we make wouldn’t be possible without NetWork Kansas.”
Since the E-Community program started, PCEDC has facilitated 46 loans to Pottawatomie County businesses totaling nearly $1.8 million (most of these loans were less than $45,000 each). Allston said that by staying in constant communication with each business, they’ve been able to keep all of these loans in good standing, with many of them already being repaid.
PCEDC was recently ranked first for return on investment and second for the volume of loans secured for startups and other endeavors in the Central Region of Kansas.
PCEDC has also facilitated NetWork Kansas training programs such as Ice House, an entrepreneurial mindset program, and Destination Bootcamp, a program designed to help create new attractions. PCEDC keeps tabs on program participants’ success and has found the outcomes to be very positive.
“We’ve directly seen most of the participants go on to start new businesses or buy existing businesses and revitalize them,” Allston said. “In a small market like ours, those metrics are very strong.”
Resources such as Spark, the SBDC, or NetWork Kansas provide funds and information to help get a new project off the ground or to scale a company to the next level. A variety of additional resources in the area are also available, including:
Who will tomorrow’s successes be? Chances are, they’re hustling today, and they just may be doing it with the help of Spark, the SBDC, NetWork Kansas and other local resources.
To launch a venture or contribute to the community network, contact Sarah Siders at Spark or Laurie Pieper at the BRITE Center for more information. For more about E-Community funding through NetWork Kansas, contact Jack Allston in Pottawatomie County, or Daryn Soldan in Riley County.