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‘High tides raise all ships’: Community leaders talk investing in entrepreneurship

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Williamson County is becoming more of a hub for major business relocations by the minute, but community leaders are beginning to increase opportunities for existing county residents to grow in the entrepreneurial sector. 

Franklin Tomorrow reached beyond the scope of the city at this month’s FrankTalks held Monday, discussing the many new opportunities throughout the county for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Franklin Tomorrow welcomed Kari Miller, executive director of the Williamson County Schools Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center, Entrepreneurial Leadership Director at Battle Ground Academy Hallie Heiter and President and CEO of Williamson, Inc. Matt Largen to share their involvement in local projects. 

Largen set the tone of the conversation by explaining the importance of entrepreneurship in the community. 

He cited the Inc. 5,000 list, which names the country’s fastest-growing businesses each year, about 25% of which typically come out of Williamson County — a shocking percentage considering the county makes up only 3% of Tennessee’s population and is just a dot on the U.S. map. He explained this is largely due to small businesses. 

“I know a lot of times the large companies are what make the headlines — Nissan’s move a decade ago, Mitsubishi’s move a few months ago — but I think that’s just indicative of the fact that we’re a great location for business regardless of your size,” Largen said. “We spend a lot of time with our small businesses, … finding ways to break barriers down or really just ways to encourage them to help grow their business here in Williamson County.” 

To help encourage the establishment of small businesses, Williamson, Inc. is partnering with the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County to build a Center for Innovation on the Franklin Grove Estate and Gardens campus, formerly O’More College of Design. 

“We had this great idea … to take this building, which is nine individual rooms, and each one of those rooms will be a dedicated office space for a certain length of time for a company, past their startup phase to making revenue, that needs that space for a limited time,” Largen said. “The idea is that they grow out of that space and create additional jobs and take additional square footage in Williamson County.”  

This center will allow companies to save money on rent and gain access to services to grow into fully operational businesses that can then afford these expenses. 

Heiter and Miller then presented the entrepreneurship programs they lead at BGA and WCS, respectively. 

Heiter has held her role as entrepreneurial leadership director for two years. She said upon moving to Williamson County she expected to take a corporate job but jumped right in at BGA after hearing Head of School Will Kesler’s vision for the ninth- through 12th-grade entrepreneurship program, the only of its kind among America’s private schools. 

“Five years ago, (Kesler) sat down with the team, and he said, ‘What’s going to be the differentiator for us in Williamson County?’ And this was the solution,” she said. “Every high school in America should be looking to create this as part of their curriculum (because) 60% of today’s jobs will not look the same in 10 years. … So, really, the onus is on us to create students who are able to solve problems and adapt very quickly, and entrepreneurship is all about adaptability.” 

Heiter also explained that, according to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, the No. 1 skill employees lack is interpersonal communication. To mend this, BGA requires a speech class as part of this program and also teaches students how to effectively communicate and pitch their ideas to businesses partnering with the school. 

She said this hands-on approach is one factor that largely sets the program apart from entrepreneurship classes found at other schools, which often merely require case studies of different business models. 

“We don’t really believe in simulations,” Heiter said. “We believe in getting the students into the action, having them make decisions on behalf of the entrepreneurs so a team of entrepreneurs will partner with our students for a month; the students give three presentations surrounding a critical question that entrepreneur gives to them.” 

She said BGA plans to have a new building specifically for this program within the next two years. 

Similarly, Miller explained that the EIC, new this semester, is unique among U.S. public schools for its breadth, as it incorporates students from 10 high schools and accepts sophomores to seniors. 

In its pilot year, the EIC is hosting 130 students, working in groups of three to four with a business mentor, who will launch 35 businesses by the end of the school year. The students also follow a business curriculum, learn from visiting speakers and receive advice from on-call industry experts. 

By the end of the semester, students will have the opportunity to ask for up to $500 in seed money for their business initiatives and can ask for additional loans to keep them going into next year. 

Miller explained this program is made possible by partnerships with the private sector and business leaders who make up a group called the EIC Catalyst Network. They provide additional funding and business connections to turn the gears of the EIC. 

“The shell was provided by the county commission and the school board, but really, the inside is unbelievable, and that’s been made possible (through) our Catalyst Network,” Miller said. 

President of the Catalyst Network Jay Chawan shared that though the network has helped the program start, they still need about $2 million to provide the technological equipment, microloans and seed money necessary for the students to gain the full entrepreneurial experience. He encouraged Williamson County businesses to invest in these future leaders with either money or time as mentors. Miller and Heiter added that they are seeking more female mentors for their students. 

Miller explained that preparing these students is an investment into the future of Williamson County, as this young generation has a heart for giving back to the community, and the connections they are making now provide local ties. 

“We are really, really excited about the future of entrepreneurship both at BGA and in Williamson County because, as we’ve all spoken about this, it’s really about creating the job creators of tomorrow,” Heiter said. “High tides raise all ships, so as long as we’re all in this together and we’re creating this platform for all of our students to have a clear path towards entrepreneurship, we’re all the better for it.” 

Visit eiccatalystnetwork.org or wcs.edu to learn more about the EIC. Additionally, more information about BGA and Williamson, Inc. can be found on their websites, battlegroundacademy.org and williamsonchamber.com.

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