New entrepreneurs get their power from Avista

Lisa Wolfe, an Integrated Business & Entrepreneurship Instructor. – DAN KOLBET/Avista

Before too long, North Idaho College will be forming its first full class of job creators.
The initial energy for its entrepreneurial enthusiasm comes from Avista Utilities.
The Avista Business Entrepreneurship Network is expanding from five-year anchor Spokane Community College to include NIC, Rogue Community College in Medford, Ore., and Walla Walla Community College-Clarkston. While SCC has been hatching big and not so big business ideas with Avista’s help since 2007, the other three colleges likely will launch their programs in the fall of 2013. But there’s every indication the wait will be worthwhile.
“One of the best strategies for pulling out of the longest, deepest recession of our time is to enable broad-based innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Roger Woodworth, vice president and chief strategy officer for Avista. “That’s why we’re partnering with SCC to extend their unique entrepreneurship program to other colleges throughout the region we serve.”
Each of the participating colleges receives $100,000 from Avista — the money coming from Avista funds not linked to customers’ rates — over three years. At North Idaho College, the disbursements will likely be $35,000 each of the first two years and $30,000 the third year, said Steve Trabun, Avista regional business manager and project manager for the entrepreneur program.
“However they can best use those dollars to get that program up and running,” Trabun said of NIC’s start-up funds. He added that “$100,000 by no means will sustain the program. What we’ve asked for from them is a commitment for the long term at their school.”
In NIC’s case, the commitment will involve the NIC Foundation matching Avista’s $100,000 — perhaps at $20,000 a year over five years, Trabun said. That money will help support scholarships and grants for students.
While some details and a lot of work remain before NIC can launch its program, the successes at SCC bode well for North Idaho. And the fact that SCC’s outgoing president, Joe Dunlap, is NIC’s incoming president should help ease any growing pains here.
“Avista and Spokane Community College have really done all the legwork,” said NIC spokesman Mark Browning. “They’ll speed up our timeline and make us more efficient. Ideally, we’d like to have it going in January ‘13 because we really see the need for it.”
Browning said the only significant obstacle now is finding physical space for the NIC program, but he’s confident that will be done. He said instructors are already lined up and the college is thrilled to have this opportunity.
“The program is different and allows us to approach things differently,” he said. “We can be more responsive to what business and industry need, and that’s what community colleges are all about.”
NIC’s program is likely to mirror SCC’s, where Trabun explained that 25 to 30 students are accepted into each “cohort,” or class. Students must bring a business idea with them, and the nine-month, 30-credit program involves a rigorous academic blend of business and entrepreneurial-centric classes, as well as ongoing mentoring and advisement through the program and beyond.
While SCC has created and refined a very workable model that the other colleges can adopt, Woodworth said the program’s framework contains some flexibility.
“It’s not prescriptive — they’ll have some license to innovate themselves,” he said. He added that each program’s effectiveness is expected to grow over time.
At SCC, 28 business have been created from the first four cohorts. While these have produced just 38 jobs directly, Woodworth said there’s a greater goal in mind.
“You always want to see that number bigger,” he said of the jobs tally. “What you feel good about is a different approach. You don’t know where those businesses will go in the long term. Where they are today is not where they’ll be in the long term.”
Jeffrey Waybright, the enterprenuerial program coordinator at SCC, predicted bright days ahead for NIC.
“President Dunlap was a great supporter of the program here and I know he’ll be a great supporter over there,” he said.
Waybright said that five years of operating the Avista program at SCC has attracted “all kinds” of students from “all over the board.” For instance, a 23-year-old was frustrated that there wasn’t a go-to place to book small local bands for, say, graduation ceremonies or wedding receptions. He’s now launching his own booking agency, thanks to the SCC program.
A retired husband-and-wife team have created their own company, focusing on unmet needs of retirees. And the program has also attracted knowledgeable, skilled people who had found themselves unemployed.
“They say, ‘I’m having trouble finding work, so I’m going to make my own work,” Waybright said.
Waybright praised Avista in general and Trabun specifically for their support.
“It was a huge infusion of capital to get the program up and running and I doubt we could have gotten started without them,” he said. He added that Trabun frequently works with Waybright to continue to build the Spokane-area network of graduating entrepreneurs with regional resources.
At all of the schools participating in the Avista program, networking is an essential element. Waybright and Trabun both lauded Avista’s Coeur d’Alene-area business manager, Patty Shea, as someone who knows how to connect people and resources.
“I can hardly wait to get started,” Shea said.
Shea is ideal for helping NIC get its program off the ground. Her head is with Avista and the board of directors for North Idaho’s economic development agency, Jobs Plus, but her heart is with the community college. Shea started her post-high school education at a community college before going on to earn her bachelor’s degree and an MBA from Eastern Washington University.
With Shea helping lead the way locally on networking, mentors and advisers will be in demand.
“That’s the last link of support they need,” Trabun said. “They need to have ongoing mentoring and advice — someone who can be kind of their business coach.”
At SCC, for instance, each cohort requires three faculty members and 40 to 50 business professionals from the community, Trabun said.
“All of that becomes an education base for a toolkit to get these students ready to actually go off and start their business,” he said.
Trabun and Woodworth said Avista is adding a sweetener for the “cream of the crop”: possible access to some start-up funds. All program graduates can apply for Avista microenterprise loans, likely $10,000 to $15,000, with the top one or two graduates being awarded them. They’re loans, not grants, but they’ll provide critical early-stage funds for more than the immediate recipients, Woodworth said.
“For those who rise to the top, they’re taking on an obligation so they can help others,” he said.  “When they pay it back, the revolving fund will be used to help others. It becomes a magnet for the spirit of entrepereneurship that can lead to greater things.”

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