For the second year in a row, Nicolet Area Technical College has received a grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) aimed at developing entrepreneurship programs in the Northwoods.
On hand for the announcement Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch said the second grant is due in large part to the success Nicolet demonstrated after receiving one of the inaugural grants last year.
Nicolet will receive a $25,000 grant, one of 11 totaling $500,000 intended to help local and regional start-ups, Kleefisch announced. The announcement came almost a year to the day from when Kleefisch was at Nicolet announcing the college had been awarded one of the initial 11 grants out of a similar pool of $500,000.
Kleefisch said Nicolet’s entrepreneurship program is successful because it reaches so many people in northern Wisconsin who have “a lightbulb above their heads. People who have yet to take their terrific business idea and turn it into an actual company. But with the right training and the right mentors and the right financial advice, not only could they do it but (they) will do it with the help of Nicolet College.”
This year’s WEDC entrepreneurship grant process was very competitive, with 36 different applicants seeking a share of the $500,000, Kleefisch noted. One of the factors that set Nicolet’s application apart from the rest was that its program reaches into neighboring Vilas and Forest counties, she noted.
As a former entrepreneur herself, and the daughter of a woman who started her own dance studio, Kleefisch said she has a special affinity for the state’s entrepreneurship development programs.
“My mom gave me my first job, which is akin to glorified babysitting except with tap shoes,” she said. “However, I learned a lot from watching her, and it was her work as an entrepreneur that inspired me.”
WEDC Secretary and CEO Mark Hogan spoke about the grant program and what is expected of the organizations who receive the awards. While the competition among the 36 applicants was intense, Nicolet’s success over the last year gave it an edge, he noted.
“What really stuck out was the success that you had even after one year and how the dollars were used in the past 12 months,” Hogan said. “We look forward to continuing that relationship with this current grant.”
Since its founding in 2011, the WEDC has worked to support budding entrepreneurs in the state through a variety of programs, Hogan noted.
“All of these programs are oversubscribed on an annual basis, which means that there is great activity within the state,” he said.
While the 2017 results aren’t in yet, in 2016 there were over 300 companies that took advantage of the programs, he reported.
“There was about $300 million in funding that was provided in 2016 for those companies and there was about $85 million in revenue attributed to those companies,” he said. “But, more importantly, there were over 2,100 full-time employees that worked in those companies during 2016. So those programs continue to grow and now we are proud to have the entrepreneurial support program as part of our main programs in that area.”
Hogan said he believes economic development is most successful when it is done at the local level.
“And there are things that the state can do, the WEDC can do, to provide support for that,” he said. “This is an example of that. But in the end, you’re developing a program that meets the needs of your community, your region.”
To that end, he said he was impressed by how Nicolet reaches out to the neighboring counties to form partnerships to expand its programs.
“It’s important, from our perspective, that you maximize these dollars to reach as many people in this area as possible,” he said.
Sandy Bishop, Nicolet’s dean of workforce and economic development, said the school was excited to be recognized for its work helping entrepreneurs and fostering small business development throughout the region.
“Nicolet does a lot to support economic development in the Northwoods. I think the college has had a long history of being a leader and collaborator on all kinds of workforce development, both short-term and long-term programs with business and industry,” Bishop said. “Several years ago, I think it was 2009, Nicolet began offering the business plan courses. We have been heavily focused on small business and working with entrepreneurs who may have a business idea but don’t know the next step. Nicolet plays that role of being a first stop for so many people who don’t know how else to access the resources. They come to us and say ‘help, help me, I’d like to take this idea further, what should I do, what can I do?'”
She noted the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation has been an important partner over the years in Nicolet’s entrepreneur program, not just as the sponsor for the two grants but also by serving as a location where the support services can be offered.
Bishop said the $25,000 grant is a matching grant, with $10,000 of the match funds to come from the Juday family which sponsors scholarships to Vilas County residents. The remainder comes from the tuition and fees paid by the others who attend the 10-week Nicolet Entrepreneurial Training (NET) business blueprint course.
“In-kind support is provided by all kinds of organizations, Nicolet included,” she added, noting that this most recent grant application received strong letters of support from Grow North, the regional economic development group, the Forest County economic development partnership and the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation.
Under the first grant, the NET training was provided in both Crandon and Rhinelander. She said the program will expand into Lincoln County with an upcoming class slated to be held in Tomahawk.
Bishop also noted that Nicolet now has an entrepreneurial program for people with disabilities who are interested in micro entrepreneurship.
“This is great idea for people who can’t commit to the traditional scheduling of a job that they go to but they have lots of business ideas,” Bishop said. “This grant just allows us to do more and continue to expand and work with our communities across northern Wisconsin.”
Under the new grant, Nicolet will work to build capacity through faculty development so it can do more offerings along with a series of workshops for businesses, she added.
Bishop then introduced Nancy Brekke-Jones, who attended the first NET session held in Crandon last fall, and explained that she is an example of how the first grant was put to good use.
Brekke-Jones is the owner and inventor of a product called Replace-A-Lace, a hook and loop fastener system that replaces traditional laces in shoes for people who need an alternative to laces due to arthritis, injury or limited dexterity.
“I worked for a local shoe company for the past 26 years and weekly I would get calls for an easier way to tie shoes,” she explained.
As there was no existing product on the market that would directly replace laces in regular shoes, several years ago she started working on what would eventually become Replace-A-Lace, she said.
“At some point in this process, I knew I would need a business plan,” she said. “I had no idea where to turn so I went online to Nicolet and I started researching the classes that were out there. I saw this program for the entrepreneurship classes that were starting literally in less than a week. I panicked and I called up right away and they said they still had openings and the class was in Crandon, and I said sign me up.”
She called the information she received in the classes “amazing,” and said the course provided step-by-step instructions that resulted in her having a finished business plan at the end of the 10 weeks. She said the program also included guest speakers from area businesses who offered advice on accounting, digital marketing, traditional marketing and taxes.
“They gave us information on what we would need to know as business owners and we were able to ask questions,” Brekke-Jones said. “This class really gave me the tools to really take it to the next level.”
After the presentation, Kleefisch said being chosen for a second grant proves that what Nicolet did with the first grant worked.
“Nicolet College put up the numbers,” she said. “They said we would reinvest the $25,000 that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation gives us. Last year, we saw tremendous success. You heard from one of entrepreneurs this morning, we’re hoping for more of those success stories with this additional $25,000 grant for Nicolet College.”
While the WEDC wants to see numbers and data, Kleefisch said hearing Brekke-Jones tell her success story was particularly exciting to her.
“When you become your own boss, you get a lot of flexibility,” Kleefisch said. “And one of the most important pieces of that flexibility is your opportunity to hire friends and neighbors and grow an industry cluster right here in your own community. That is what entrepreneurship is all about.”
She also said people should not be surprised that entrepreneurs come out of rural, suburban or urban areas.
“They come from all socio-economic ranks, all different parts of Wisconsin geography, because entrepreneurs are simply people who have cool ideas and I’d like to think that here in Wisconsin we have more than our fair share of folks with cool ideas,” Kleefisch said. “But to become an entrepreneur, usually you need some kind of missing link. Either that is seed capital, the dollars you need to start up your company, or maybe it’s a mentor to teach you how to write a business plan so when you go to the bank they actually see this business plan as something that could succeed, something worth loaning you the money. Maybe you need a little help with your marketing or your computer skills aren’t awesome.”
The Nicolet program has established a network of economic development groups and cities throughout the Northwoods that will grow even more in the second year of grant funding and foster a nurturing environment for entrepreneurship, she added.
“If you have an idea that will meet the needs of your neighbors or friends, why not take that lightbulb idea and develop it into a business concept? Because we know that here at Nicolet College, there is support and a class that can help you make money off of your lightbulb,” she said.
Nicolet will be holding two one-night NET exploring entrepreneurship workshop in Eagle River at the Vilas County Incubator on Jan. 30 and again on Feb. 28 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
The next 10-week NET Business Blueprint course will start in March 28, also at the Vilas County Incubator in Eagle River.