[Modern] Dirt Farmer Wisdom
by Robert Zulkoski, Social Entrepreneur. This column was written in collaboration with The Vermont Innovation Commons team. Any farmer will tell you the importance of “listening to the land.” You don’t grow corn where you should be yielding cotton; you don’t force wheat where chard grows freely. Farmers rely on ingenuity and capitalize on the strengths of their equipment and land, farmhands and neighbors, and knowledge of the market to respond to the ever-changing conditions. Sticking to the same practices during a drought or flood won't yield crop or a profit. When looking to the opportunities confronting us and Vermont’s future, we must also stay true to our farmers’ wisdom while acknowledging and respecting that our land is dramatically changing, which requires bold listening and innovative responses.
When I look to the future of Vermont, I envision a buzzing epicenter of social entrepreneurship and sustainability with globally relevant companies; innovative rural communities using technology to ensure all Vermonters have access to resources necessary to succeed; a thriving business ecosystem where our talent feels supported, optimistic and full of personal and professional opportunity; a Vermont where all residents, regardless of gender, class, race or region have access to economic opportunity. Building on our strengths – values-based businesses, talented individuals, incredible food and beverages, magnificent lakes and mountains - I believe we can make Vermont a genuinely viable place to learn, live, play, work and teach.
Arriving at this idyllic future will take hard work and calls for a radical coalition of diverse stakeholders. No easy task, this vision requires a commitment to collaboration and a comprehensive dedication to our small but mighty state. Our efforts must coalesce around the pillars of capital, connectivity, and mentorship with each nonprofit, small business owner, entrepreneur and community member playing a determined role. The Vermont of today is in trouble - colleges are closing, taxes continue to increase, housing and childcare grow more expensive, climate change impact is real - so it’s up to each of us to understand this current reality and take action.
We must invest in our entrepreneurs and small businesses. Vermont has a strong spirit of entrepreneurship and high number of startups; as a community, we must help them scale. Businesses with aspirations of growth need local champions, access to all forms of capital and connectivity to broader markets. As Vermonters, it’s our job to invest locally, share success stories and invite others from outside the state to venture with us. We’re proud of our homegrown businesses, most of which embed sustainability right from the start - why wouldn’t we want the world to know about them? These innovative businesses, like Packetized Energy, Beta Technologies, Bee’s Wrap, and Darn Tough, are essential for the future of Vermont.
We must invest in ALL Vermonters. It’s no secret that Vermont is a small state with an aging and shrinking population, which means we need all our people in the workforce. We need creative solutions to ensure even the most rural resident has access to resources including training for new positions, support for career changes, opportunities for professional development and access to mentors. In a tight-knit community like ours, relationships make all the difference - we must continue to encourage mentorship from peers in Vermont and those outside our borders to share best practices, offer advice, and provide unwavering encouragement. Students, young professionals, and families are choosing to come to Vermont, so let’s make it as effortless as possible for them to put down roots here. By doing so, we develop a positive story that markets itself and draws others to it. From the 8th generation Vermonter to the recent college grad, we need everybody and the cultural benefits that come with diversity.
We must invest in our networks. As I’ve traveled around the state, I’ve witnessed amazing people doing amazing work to support entrepreneurs and small business owners - let’s amplify this. Expanding our networks outside the state means increased visibility and opportunity for our businesses. By bringing in outside resources, we invite others to see that Vermont has all the right components to thrive like Chattanooga or Austin or Boulder, we just need a little tending. If those communities could shape a brighter and more prosperous future, so can we if we all take a risk on a “Vermont thesis” in which sustainable businesses and a commitment to community investment are the foundation for a rural renaissance.
We must invest in Vermont. Remembering our farmer’s wisdom, we must listen to the changing landscape, play to our strengths, and commit to collaboration in order to create a viable Vermont. I believe we can create a Vermont that maintains its cultural roots while building a thriving future for ourselves and for generations to come. I’m in for this compelling journey, will you join me?
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.