Innovator Profile: Rural Ideas Network

by Jeshua John, on December 14, 2023 at 7:29 AM

The Rural Ideas Network is an Iowa-based nonprofit that focuses on ensuring the same entrepreneurial resources and support that exist in larger cities are available and accessible to rural entrepreneurs.

We first connected with this great organization back in 2020 as part of our Innovation Fund. They were a finalist for that year’s award based on their proposal for leveraging real-time collaboration tools to help advance opportunities for entrepreneurs in rural areas. Rural areas in the United States have not experienced the same entrepreneurial growth that many urban areas have, and in many parts of the country, rural communities are seeing population declines. The Rural Ideas Network knew that if the same kind of support and infrastructure that urban areas offer was available for small business owners and entrepreneurs in rural communities that they might combat those trends. Their "Business Labs" spark growth through coaching, peer learning, and access to industry experts. We recently caught up with the organization’s executive director, Jordan DeGree, to learn more about what they’ve been up to lately. 

How has your organization changed or grown since the investment?         

The Rural Ideas Network really took hold after the pandemic caused shutdowns across the country that forced people to work in new and different ways. We had previously launched a series of coworking spaces in eastern Iowa that included entrepreneur support services, and we learned by talking to entrepreneurs that offering them space wasn’t enough. New and existing business owners were looking for resources to get them where they were headed faster and more efficiently, but those resources just didn’t exist for rural business owners.  

The pandemic made almost everyone comfortable with video conferencing, and what we saw happening was a clear need for entrepreneur support services in rural communities combined with an ability to provide those services to any rural entrepreneur, no matter where they were located. Since first working with The Workers Lab, we’ve built on this approach, and we remain focused on building and delivering tools that support rural entrepreneurs, including:

  1. Unrestricted access to services: Our website allows any rural entrepreneur direct access to business coaching, marketing and web design assistance, business planning, peer learning, as well as curated workshop libraries and podcasts. 
  2. Value-added partnerships: We’re working with partners like Google to expand access to proven tools and resources for the rural entrepreneurs. 
  3. Empowering local stakeholders: We power business support services on behalf of local governments and nonprofit partners, to help them better serve their local businesses. For example, through a partnership with Sherburne County, Minnesota, anyone living in the county can access a full suite of live, one-on-one business support services powered by the Rural Ideas Network, at no cost to the end user. This empowers Sherburne County with a robust set of tools to help their local businesses without requiring any additional staffing, added capacity, or specialized knowledge on their end.

Ultimately, The Workers Lab provided us with a $20,000 grant that we leveraged to continue to recruit new team members and pilot our Business Lab model. We created additional proof of concept that allowed us to secure an Economic Development Administration grant for $400,000 that will let us scale the business lab concept across the state of Iowa and continue to help us build capacity within our team. 

Our team now includes multiple coaches who reach entrepreneurs in 13 different counties in Iowa and two in Minnesota. We’ve added a peer-learning coordinator, a full-time community program specialist, and a Spanish-speaking coach who provides services for Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs. The communities we partner with have to be able to welcome and serve a more diverse group of people based on our growth, and the recent support we’ve seen has helped us diversify our team’s gender, linguistic, racial and ethnic composition, as well as varied entrepreneurial experiences. 

One thing we’ve learned is that there are very few better ways to empower workers than making them the boss and putting them in power. The more we can get tools, resources, and supports in place to help people become ready, we’ll be able to tangibly increase the number of people who transition from being workers to being their own boss, ultimately empowering them to generate revenue and value in new and different ways. 

What are you focused on today? 

We continue to look for new partners. We’re hoping to find more in-roads through local community partners to serve communities of color, Indigenous people, and immigrants. We’re also continuing to grow our Business Lab model as well as our co-working space model. We’ve helped five co-working spaces launch across the Midwest using our model, which includes programs, technical assistance, an operating system, contact management, and financial tools. We’d love to continue to see that model grow. 

Our horizon is really focused on two things:

  1. Continuing to scale the programs and services that we’ve developed, piloted, and proved successful, namely our Business Labs to community partners, direct services, and replicating our rural coworking model across the country; and
  2. Continuing to provide opportunities and space for people who are using our services, partnering with us, or evolving our services to learn from one another and problem-solve together. A key part of the value we create is being a convener and creating connections among people in rural communities to learn and grow together. 

What do you want potential donors to know about your work?    

We spend a lot of time listening, we develop programs based on what we hear; we test them to make sure they have a high likelihood to be effective; then we try to scale them to places where they’ll make a difference. Then we continue to listen, learn, and evolve those programs. When you invest in what we’re doing, you’re investing in solutions that were created in partnership, were tested, and have almost unlimited capacity to scale. 

What advice do you have for new innovators trying to help workers?         

We’ve tried to engage partners who represent a diversity of interests so we can continually identify the challenges they’re facing, test solutions, and really learn what will make the most return on investment for time, energy, and effort. That approach has helped us see beyond our own experiences, which is valuable for any innovator to do, especially as you think about how you empower workers across a variety of industries and from a variety of backgrounds. You have to actively get outside your perspective and engaging diverse stakeholders is one to do that.

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