Collaboration Forms Mahoning Valley is for Entrepreneurs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — A collaboration of organizations ranging from some of the Mahoning Valley’s major players in economic development to agencies not normally associated with economic development is coordinating on creating a resource pipeline for entrepreneurs.

The newly formed organization, Mahoning Valley is for Entrepreneurs, steers entrepreneurs to resources they may need depending on the stage of their companies, said Sara Wenger, economic development program manager at Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

A guide that the initiative assembled defines the support participating entities can provide entrepreneurs at the idea, startup, emerging or mature stages of their ventures, including capital, financial analysis, growth and business planning and research and development. DOWNLOAD GUIDE

The organization will host a business startup workshop from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 5 at the Raymond John Wean Foundation in Warren.

Mahoning Valley businesses accounted for $35.8 billion in sales in 2015, according to the organization’s charter. However, the need to encourage more startups and help early-stage companies is highlighted by statistics that reflect the decline over 10 years in the number of businesses operating in the Valley.

In 2015, the number of businesses in Mahoning and Trumbull counties was 9,532, down from 10,067 in 2010.

The need for such an initiative, an outgrowth of Eastgate’s most recent comprehensive economic development strategy, became apparent about 18 months ago, Wenger said.

Staff at Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., which had offered its first round of business classes, noticed that students in the courses – many of whom had plans in the idea stage or not much further along — were having difficulty finding where to go next.

The Mahoning Valley has “a great entrepreneurship ecosystem” but its resources aren’t always as well connected as they should be, said Liberty Avila, YNDC land reuse director.

Entrepreneurs in the very early stages often were “bounced around” to various organizations and didn’t know what each did, Avila said. Most are geared toward existing businesses or entrepreneurs with plans closer to the startup stage.

“Some organizations are not set up to help with business plans at all,” she said.

The problem extended beyond clients not knowing the resources available or the role of each agency, said Crystal Volinchak, administrative assistant at the Ohio Small Business Development Center at Youngstown State University. In some cases, the agencies themselves were unaware of what the others did or what their specialties are.

Recognizing that local resources were limited, Wenger said her interest was to see how to better use those existing resources.

“All of these organizations had certain issues that they were developing, and we decided to bring them together” with a goal of coordinating resources and reducing duplication of effort, said Stuart Gibbs, business and investment librarian at the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

Gibbs credits Wenger with bringing the 20-plus organizations together in the initiative.

The organizations – entities that include the Youngstown Business Incubator, Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber, Oak Hill Collaborative and Legal Creative – have been meeting the past 18 months. Eastgate’s role as coordinator is a good one because it isn’t seeking the same resources or benefits, such as jobs or tax dollars generated by development projects, that many development entities are, Wenger said.

When the work started, there wasn’t even agreement on what a startup is versus an emerging business. “We created a common language of the types of resources each organization has and the state of business,” Wenger said.

Most resources are directed to companies in the mature or emerging business phase, Wenger said. For entrepreneurs in the idea phase there’s still no “clearinghouse” or one-stop center.

“If you really care about business development in our community, our portal is the library,” Wenger said.

The library offers an array of statistical resources unavailable through search engines, according to Gibbs.

“When you come to me, you get my knowledge base” and the library’s resources, including the journals it subscribes to, many of which aren’t readily accessible online, he said. For example, if someone selling pickles wants to make jams and jellies, he can help them learn the market saturation and profit ratios, identify industry experts, and find marketing information.

“You’re getting more authoritative, timely and accurate information by using a library resource and booking a librarian,” Gibbs said.

Information from the system’s business databases also is available to its cardholders digitally through its website, Stuart said.

The Ohio SBDC at YSU provides services to entrepreneurs at the more advanced stage and has moved out of the “idea phase client,” Volinchak said.

“Most of our clients come to us because they need in-depth financial projections,” she said. The center has access to computer modeling tools that adjust business plan variables such as pricing and costs.

“It gives them all the pieces in a way they can understand to make the decision that can benefit their company,” Volinchak said.

Idea-stage entrepreneurs are directed to YNDC, where they are counseled to consider whether the venture is feasible.

Among the objectives is to determine what issues are causing entrepreneurs to abandon their plans, chief of which is money, Gibbs said.

To augment the guide provided by Mahoning Valley is for Entrepreneurs, entities such as SBDC, the library, YNDC and Youngstown Score that offer business classes are collaborating to develop a curriculum.

“It definitely is a work in progress,” Wenger said. “Our grand vision is to have a strong curriculum and then some stamp of approval that if you go through this process, you can receive more assistance, such as getting ready for a loan application.”

An online portal now being developed will offer a digital version of the guide, which will be interactive. It is slated to go live at the end of September, Wenger said.

Gibbs also is working on a financial resource guide to define the differences between a grant and a loan, for example, and differentiate between traditional and nontraditional financing.

“We are having conversations about the need for a seed capital fund for more the mom-and-pop shops,” Wenger added.

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