[Modern] Dirt Farmer Wisdom
by Robert Zulkoski, Social Entrepreneur Come spring, the farmer listens to the land, but come fall, the farmer looks to the community for the harvest. The community comes together to gather the bounty and pack it into the barn for the winter. A barn, which was raised through community collaboration. The community had come together under one vision and one goal to combine their efforts to create a resource for the community.
One does not raise a barn or bring in a harvest on their own, and the same goes for an economy. Vermont is home to just over 600,000 people which makes our whole state smaller than the Albany, NY metro area, despite being a much larger geographic area. With a population that size, we all need each other. Chittenden County needs Washington County, Washington County needs Windsor County, The Northeast Kingdom needs the Shires of Bennington County and so on and so on. While we all are one economy that depends on one another, each community has its unique needs, characteristics, and strengths.
Our relatively small scale - size, population, and community - is actually an asset and provides opportunity. As I have noted before, Vermont is well positioned to be an incubator for solutions to economic distress in rural communities. We are the perfect place to find right-sized solutions for rural America. Across the state, each community has its own unique needs and challenges.
This, in turn, means we can co-create a wide range of solutions for rural America. We are nimble with an engaged legislature so if we spin up programs that work, we can implement them relatively quickly. We have communities across the state that care deeply about the future of their communities who are creative, entrepreneurial, and ready to roll up their sleeves.
To really capitalize on these strengths, we must treat Vermont as one entrepreneurial ecosystem and economy. In a recent op-ed in VTDigger, Bill Schubart calls out the same idea. He opines that our limited economic development funds are too fragmented to be effective and therefore lack a strategic statewide vision.
As a statewide community we need to breakdown silos, increase collaboration, and increase resource sharing. We are too small a population to duplicate efforts within and across multiple municipalities; it is an inefficient allocation of resources and ultimately hurts our entrepreneurs and economy.
Instead, let's find solutions to problems like workforce development and entrepreneurial support that do not reinvent the wheel but rather right size the wheel for each community. I want to be clear; I am not suggesting that there is a one-size-fits-all-model that will work across the state. Each region of the state is unique and needs its own solution. What I am suggesting is that the solutions will have more in common than they have in difference. And they will be more effective if they are aligned with a strategic plan for Vermont - a bold initiative supporting a “Vermont thesis.”
When I think about how we could accomplish this, I think of a hub-and-spoke model. This network connects communities and allows them to share their resources where appropriate. For entrepreneurs, this increases their ability to access the right resources at the right time. For service providers, it increases their streams of clients and opportunities.
For funders and taxpayers, it increases their return on investment. For Vermont, it paves the way to increased entrepreneurship and therefore an increase in living wage jobs. For the country, it provides a blueprint for a rural renaissance.
In my last article, I said we need to invest in Vermont and I meant Vermont as a whole. We have planted the seeds of entrepreneurship here in the state and it is time that we come together to harvest the fruits of our labor. As a state, let's find ways to create synergies, use resources efficiently and amplify the entrepreneurial ecosystem we have.
This requires an all hands on deck approach from all four corners of the state. It will not only be a viable path forward for our state but also a blueprint for the rest of the country.
Robert Zulkoski is one of the founders of Vermont Works Management Company (www.vermontworks.co), whose objective is to deliver capital, mentorship, and connectivity to Vermont’s innovation ecosystem. 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. The Vermont Innovation Commons is an affiliate project, creating a dedicated place and space for the state’s social entrepreneurs. Mr. Zulkoski is also a founding shareholder and Director of Impact Investment of The Conduit (www.theconduit.com), which connects thinkers, leaders, and innovators in social change, business, and the arts to create impact for the greater good.