The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has selected Portland’s Venture Hall to receive a $475,000 grant to be used to help bring the voices of entrepreneurs to policy discussions at the local and state level.
The Kauffman Foundation, which is based in Kansas City and supports entrepreneurship nationwide, selected six entrepreneurial-support organizations throughout the country, including Venture Hall, to receive the grant, which will be provided over a three-year period. Between 50 and 60 were invited to apply for the grant, according to Jess Knox, Venture Hall’s co-founder and president. The chosen organizations represent the first iteration of the Entrepreneurs’ Policy Network, which the foundation created to drive more state-level policy debates that impact entrepreneurs and innovators.
“Entrepreneurs create most net new jobs, a key driver of the economy, but too few policymakers understand entrepreneurship or how to best support it,” Jason Wiens, policy director at the Kauffman Foundation, said in a statement. “Entrepreneurs are their own best advocates, but their voices are not loudly heard by policymakers.”
Venture Hall, which was founded in 2016 to support entrepreneurship in Maine, will use the grant for three primary purposes: To organize events that create “catalytic” conversations between startup entrepreneurs and lawmakers; to fund storytelling efforts to make sure the stories of Maine’s innovation-driven entrepreneurs are being shared; and to educate entrepreneurs and lawmakers alike on how policies inhibit entrepreneurship, according to Knox.
Venture Hall has already put its first event on the calendar: The first-ever Maine Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day at the State House will convene entrepreneurs and lawmakers in Augusta on Feb. 13. The plan is to make this an annual event that provides entrepreneurs and lawmakers the opportunity for one-on-one conversations about state policies that could be acting as a barrier to new business creation.
“The whole idea is to reduce the barriers to entrepreneurship and innovation in Maine,” Knox said.
Rep. Heather Sanborn, who represents parts of Falmouth and Portland in the Maine House, told Maine Startups Insider that those types of conversations are sorely lacking in Augusta. Sanborn, who is a small business owner (she owns Rising Tide Brewing in Portland with her husband Nathan), will help Venture Hall in its efforts as a member of its advisory board.
“Maine faces a mismatch between the workforce it has and the jobs it has and where we need to be. I think we’re aware of the impending demographic doom that we face and coming up with creative solutions is absolutely critical,” Sanborn said. “I think sometimes we get caught thinking about our economy in old ways instead of new and creative ways.”
Besides policies that could promote greater in-migration, which the state will need to help fuel the future economy, Sanborn also said the state’s broadband and energy policies should be on the table, as well as policies that promote greater commercialization of research and development at the University of Maine. While some policies may have immediate impacts on entrepreneurs, Sanborn said the policy conversations shouldn’t be limited to quick wins.
“Even if it doesn’t directly impact a particular business, it sets the tone for what type of environment we have and what kind of investment we’re making as a community,” she said. “We want to be forward looking instead of stuck in the past.”
Knox echoed the sentiment.
“We’re playing the long game here,” he said.
Besides the Maine Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day at the State House, Venture Hall plans to host a mayors summit this summer, and a statewide bus tour for lawmakers and an economic-growth-focused forum with the gubernatorial candidates in the fall.
“All of these will be ways we are catalyzing conversations between innovators, entrepreneurs, and policymakers,” he said.
Important to note is that Venture Hall will not lobby for particular pieces of legislation (as a 501c3 nonprofit it’s barred from lobbying activities), nor does it want to become known as the “voice” of the entrepreneurial community. It just wants to help start the conversation and facilitate the interactions that could lead to learning and long-term benefits.
Most lawmakers, Knox said, don’t appreciate the nuanced differences between innovation-driven entrepreneurship and small businesses, which already receive attention in Augusta.
“They need to really understand that they have a different impact on the economy and community; different growth; different talent needs; different resource needs; and that they need different policy solutions,” Knox said.
If, at the end of three years, there’s greater understanding and acceptance in Augusta of the different needs of small businesses and high-growth entrepreneurs and technology innovators, then Venture Hall will consider the project a success, Knox said.
Besides Venture Hall, the other organizations receiving the grant from the Kauffman Foundation are Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit with chapters in 17 cities that support veteran entrepreneurs; the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, dba 1871; the Enterprise Center of Johnson County, which supports entrepreneurship in the Kansas City area; LaunchTN in Nashville; and the Metropolitan Economic Development Association in Minneapolis.