After many years of deliberation and planning by the community, a new kind of business incubator has launched in Washington County. The Epicenter, a project of Building Bridges to Careers, has begun operations on the first floor of the Armory as of January 1, 2017, and will celebrate with a Ribbon Cutting on March 22 at 3:30 pm.
For the last twenty years there have been many discussions among local economic development entities as well as studies conducted about the viability and need for an incubator to complete the economic development strategies for the county. However, it was the growth of Building Bridges to Careers and their focus of bridging the gap between education and employment for Washington County K-12 students, which finally propelled the incubator concept to fruition.
“Business incubation is a dynamic process of business enterprise development. Incubators nurture young firms, helping them to survive and grow during the start-up period when they are most vulnerable,” explains Pamela Lankford, the Epicenter Director. “Incubators provide hands-on management assistance, access to financing and exposure to critical business or technical support services on real time. Most also offer shared office services, such as secretarial assistance and a conference room, access to equipment, such as phone system, fax, copier and flexible leases and space — all under one roof.”
Unlike a more traditional incubator model, the Epicenter is designed to engage local high school students and expose them to an entrepreneurial environment. The Epicenter gives students the opportunity to gain real world experience from businesses and apply what they learn in class. Tonya Davis, Building Bridges to Careers Coordinator, likens the environment to a “laboratory” for entrepreneurial students, kind of like a chemistry lab. It also gives students a voice because businesses may take their advice into consideration, empowering the students. “Students that are interested in being an entrepreneur have the chance to see how small businesses are formed and the process that they go through to grow and expand,” says Tonya. “They are developing networking skills and building a resume.”
We have developed many programs to create direct connections between students and local businesses, but also wanted to take advantage of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that has been growing in the area over the past couple of years.
While the business incubator concept is not new to our region, the concept of the Epicenter has been in the works since 2015. Building Bridges to Careers (BB2C) has been working to bridge the gap between education and employment for students in the K-12 population for the last five years. “We do this by purposefully connecting the existing networks of businesses and employers to the networks that include students, parents, and teachers,” explains Tasha Werry, Director of Career Resources and Outreach, Marietta City Schools and Building Bridges to Careers Facilitator. “Because of this, the Epicenter we created is a Youth and Entrepreneurial Development Center. We have developed many programs to create direct connections between students and local businesses, but also wanted to take advantage of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that has been growing in the area over the past couple of years. Our student surveys have shown a high interest that students have in starting their own business and along with the Entrepreneurship Pathway offered at Marietta High School, we needed to provide the support for them to explore this more deeply. At the same time, there were small businesses interested in working with students as they take the next step to grow their business.”
After failing to receive the first grant that would have brought the Epicenter to life in February 2016, Allen Brokaw recruited Mark Weihl to create a steering committee. In July, Cristie Thomas connected the group to the City of Marietta to discuss utilizing the Armory. The steering committee then focused efforts on starting the BB2C Epicenter on a smaller scale within two rooms inside the Armory. With the addition of Pamela Lankford as the Epicenter Director, they were able to move forward into their new location rather quickly. Tasha thanks the many people and organizations that supported and donated a variety of furniture, equipment, wifi ports, and other operational funding: Washington State Community College, Marietta College, Marietta City Schools, the City of Marietta, Buckeye Hills Regional Development District, the Washington County Public Library, and the Peoples Bank Foundation.
The Epicenter began on a small scale with three Entrepreneurs-in-Residence: Combined Insurance (John Bowling), Marietta and Beyond (Christiane Marshall), and Troy Devol Creative. However, there are opportunities for additional small businesses to become Affiliate members, receiving services but not located on-site or a la Carte Members, utilizing only specific services of the incubator as needed for their business.
“Small businesses will have access to high-speed internet, multi-function copier, business mentoring and coaching as well as business classes, and conference room facilities with technology equipment. But more uniquely, they will have the opportunity to work with high school students through Building Bridges to Careers as well as college students from WSCC and Marietta College,” added Pamela. “This is such a win-win scenario; students are gaining experiential learning, applying what they have learned in the classroom and being mentored on the critical soft skills needed to succeed in the world, while the business owners gain fresh insight from a different perspective on how to approach the challenges facing them.”
Long term goals for the Epicenter include expanding to increase the capacity for business incubation, serving students from a four county region, and adding a community Makerspace. “Makerspaces are very popular around the nation, and essentially provide a variety of equipment and tools that the community can use to make stuff,” explains Tonya. “We definitely want to include 3D printers and the appropriate software for creating product prototypes; however we want to make sure that we provide equipment that will support our community and develop the local economy in a variety of ways. Smaller businesses could even use the Epicenter for Research and Development. Ultimately we are growing our local economy through small businesses and their job creation and providing our students the opportunity for successful local careers.”
In addition to providing resources, the Epicenter will host ongoing learning opportunities for both existing, start-up and potential businesses. “Each month we will do a Business Start-Up Basics on the 4th Tuesday from 2-4pm and a Business Planning and Financing on the 2nd Thursday from 10:30-12pm,” says Pamela. “We will supplement those with additional workshops each month.” On April 20th, the Epicenter will host “Social Enterprise 101” presented by Brian Vadakin from Rural Action, followed by “How to Pitch Your Company in 20 Minutes” led by Michele Migliuolo from TechGrowth Ohio on April 27th.
The Epicenter will be dedicated to Allen Brokaw who was instrumental in the Teen Career Awareness Initiative and continued to be supportive of the programming of Building Bridges to Careers and opportunities for students to interact with businesses.
Small businesses interested in becoming members at any level or interested in more information, can contact Pamela Lankford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740-525-5800 or Tasha Werry at email@example.com or 740-374-6500. More information about BB2C programming can be found at buildingbridgestocareers.org.