Vermont – an incubator of solutions for the problems inherent to rural communities

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Vermont – an incubator of solutions for the problems inherent to rural communities

Sat, 02/02/2019 - 3:37pm -- tim
[Modern] Dirt Farmer Wisdom

You can make more friends in two months becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.” Dale Carnegie

by Robert Zulkoski, Social Entrepreneur Spending $10,000 to entice a small handful of people to move to Vermont is eye-catching press…but not an effective solution to the State’s challenges in creating living wage jobs and bending our demographic curve in a more promising direction. Let me say it – It’s a short-term gimmick lacking long term value from our tax dollars.  I respect that some will argue a different view.  For me, where is the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom? This is another example of piecemeal policy rather than comprehensive vision or strategy.  As an investor, I think in terms of “return on investment”.  This is a low ROI.

My observation of the lack of visionary thinking is not limited to our government – we’re all too used to punching downward rather than upward. We’re too comfortable measuring the number of programs we create rather than their real progress. Real progress will be made once we stop confusing efforts with results.

I ended my last column promising to be more positive.

I say let’s start by creating a compelling vision and then go on the offense, not the defense, to realize that vision. Let’s attract new Vermonters who care about our values and vision, not just a quick payoff. Let’s build a vision around people development, rather than people acquisition. Carnegie was right, we’ll attract more Vermonters by showing them we are interested in their development rather than relying on selling them on our bucolic lifestyle.

Here’s a vision: Vermont as an incubator of solutions for the problems inherent in ALL rural communities. This is not far-fetched, or even that difficult to achieve. Vermont is already recognized nationally and globally as an epicenter of sustainability and social entrepreneurship. We have the #1 Green MBA program in the U.S. (#5 globally) and have spawned socially responsible companies such as Ben & Jerry’s,  1% For the Planet, and Seventh Generation to name a few. We can build off of these traits and become the blueprint for rural economic renaissance. We can be a leader, not a follower, by professionalizing mentorship for social entrepreneurship.

The same monies we throw at the latest in one-off solutions can be spent in support of building long-lived beacons to retain and attract youth and innovation to the State by pursuing a blend of Purposeful Programming, Place, and Investment. This may seem to many as too bold, but what I am suggesting is just emulating the successful actions taken in places that stimulated their own economic resurgences like Boulder, Austin, Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and others that are investing in their unique community’s strengths through entrepreneurship and innovation hubs or

Building the Vermont Innovation Commons at Cambrian Rise (the Commons; and the Black River Innovation Campus (BRIC; is a great start. If there's one thing I've learned over the last several years, it's that there is an abundance of amazing things happening throughout the state, but efforts are fragmented, uncoordinated and underfunded. In a word – inefficient. Creating one or more efficient education, co-working and co-living hubs is the first step in changing the demographic story of Vermont — students, entrepreneurs, business owners and community members need to believe that the resources to succeed are here, and they don’t need to go elsewhere. Funded with social impact capital, and emulating similar projects around the world, the Commons and BRIC will provide efficiency in the delivery of services and strengthen the ability of our entrepreneurs to access mentorship and investment capital from near and far.

Vermont badly trails almost every other state in the areas of business incubation and acceleration. To be clear, I’m not saying we don’t do these things, this is not about “checking the box.” I’m also not diminishing the existing efforts, I’m saying we clearly haven’t achieved enough results despite these efforts. Don’t be convinced otherwise until you’ve looked elsewhere yourself and made the comparison. Too many of our “thinkers” are unaware of best practices and lessons learned from away and are too parochial to bother to do the work themselves to discover success.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Mark Twain

Anticipation prepares us to create our visions with a plan. Participation applies that plan every day.

Anticipation and Participation are next month’s topics of discussion.

Mr. Zulkoski is one of the founders of Vermont Works Management Company (, whose objective is to deliver capital, mentorship, and connectivity to Vermont’s innovation ecosystem. Vermont Works’ goal is to ensure that Vermont is a full participant in the emerging, technology-enabled “new economy”. Vermont Works sees the dynamic changes sweeping the country and the globe as an achievable opportunity for Vermont to create large numbers of livable wage and sustainable jobs that help retain and attract talent and innovation, while staying true to the “Vermont Brand” and what it represents to the citizens of Vermont. Mr. Zulkoski is also a founding shareholder and Director of Impact Investment of The Conduit (, which connects thinkers, leaders, and innovators in social change, business, and the arts to create impact for the greater good.