By Ashley Jones and Brandon Campbell
Arkansas is no stranger to entrepreneurship. With several Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs) cropping up around the state in the last decade, the trail to entrepreneurship has become much easier to navigate. Whether an aspiring founder with an idea, or a small business ready to scale, ESOs have tools, guidance and resources to help start and grow thriving businesses.
Despite the current challenges entrepreneurs face due to COVID-19, Arkansas’ ESO community remains strong, and the Venture Center is committed to helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses in person or virtually.
The Venture Center has programming to support entrepreneurs at every level, but we also fill the support gap for a specific set of entrepreneurs — enter, Spark! For entrepreneurs who have already validated their idea and are making money but want to take their business to the next level of growth, Spark! is a powerful program.
Spark! is a local small-business acceleration program developed by the Venture Center and the Little Rock Regional Chamber to spur opportunities, exposure and company growth for those entrepreneurs making between $25,000 and $100,000. The first cohort of six stellar companies completed the inaugural Spark! program in the fall of 2019 and included Arkansas companies Cyclone Technology, Idestini, Readthelabl, Listing Village, SYI Construction and Apex Dental Education.
All six company founders and their team members participated in weekly “mind sharing sessions,” subject-matter expert workshops and pitch critiques. By the end of the 14-week program, all company founders could effectively pitch their business and make strategic business decisions positively affecting their companies.
The previous year’s program benefits have included an opportunity to pitch at Pitch ‘N Pint, access to other startups, free office space on the Venture Center’s floor of the Little Rock Tech Park, high-speed internet and access to conference rooms for meetings. With the sudden onset of COVID-19, many of the on-site benefits were reconsidered to continue providing value to the 2020 Spark! cohort in a virtual setting. But with the help of technology and our mentors and subject matter experts’ dedication, we know the entrepreneurs selected for 2020 Spark! will gain incredible value through the introductions and instruction within a new virtual experience. Over the past four months, we’ve learned that the Venture Center programs are just as effective, whether virtual or in-person, and Spark! will be no different.
The Venture Center’s Executive Director Wayne Miller said, “Virtual or otherwise, the Venture Center’s Spark! program provides another collaborative resource for those Arkansas-based companies who want to scale their business to the next level. Starting a business is one thing, but growing it is another. Spark! gives insight and learning on how to work ‘on’ the business not just ‘in’ the business and accomplish true growth.”
As co-creator of Spark!, the Little Rock Regional Chamber is actively making preparations for the upcoming cohort. Thanks to the Chamber, Spark! entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to work with industry-leading mentors and establish relationships with business leaders in the Little Rock region. As in 2019, this innovative program will select up to 10 small businesses who want to elevate their business operations and grow to new heights.
The Chamber and Venture Center will match these businesses with mentors and industry peers for specific counsel. The Chamber will also lead a workshop on economic development resources its role in helping small businesses, as well as introduce them to other support organizations. On a weekly basis, the Little Rock Regional Chamber team and Venture Center leadership will host virtual visits with the cohort to offer guidance and resources. As an additional benefit, the Chamber will invite the 2020 Spark! cohort to participate in networking opportunities.
Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber, said, “Despite times of uncertainty for many small businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Little Rock remains a business community eager to assist with real-world education and mentorship for entrepreneurs. Last year, Spark! companies were well immersed into our small-business ecosystem to help them grow their businesses. We’re excited about providing even more opportunities for 2020.”
The coming weeks will be a flurry of activity as we visit with potential Spark! participants, and we can’t wait to get started. Up to 10 local businesses will be selected to participate in the 2020 Spark! program this fall with applications opening on Aug. 12th and closing on Sept. 2, with a Sept. 15 start date. Companies with full-time founders who have been in business between one to five years, based in Central Arkansas, and have a verifiable revenue between $25,000 and $100,000, are encouraged to apply. Know an entrepreneur who you think would be an excellent fit for this program? Encourage them to apply at www.VentureCenter.co/Spark before Sept. 2, and be sure to follow their progress on the Venture Center’s blog.
Ashley Jones is managing director of community programs for the Venture Center, and Brandon Campbell is director of small business and inclusion for the Little Rock Regional Chamber.