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Walworth County offers business resources through new program

Entrepreneurs have a plethora of resources at their fingertips they can access for guidance, support, information, capital prospects and long-term mentorship opportunities. These resources are especially plentiful in Walworth County now that Derek D’Auria, executive director at Walworth County Economic Development Alliance, has put wind beneath the wings of a new business mentor program.

“There’s a tremendous amount of good resources out there that are available and we’re trying to make mentorship convenient on a regular basis,” D’Auria said.

The purpose of the program, called the Business Mentor Network Program, is to provide area entrepreneurs, both existing and hopeful, with mentors to guide them through the process of starting a new business of any size, researching their business, working on strategic planning opportunities, improving their current business, gaining more investors to increase capital and provide support, he said.

According to the 2012 Wisconsin Business Needs Analysis report from the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center, businesses with strategic plans that follow through on carrying out the strategic plans experience more than twice as much profit as businesses without plans. D’Auria hopes entrepreneurs will seek the available advice of local professionals. The business network D’Auria is promoting has free resources to help businesses with strategic planning, so he wants to help them tap into the resources in order to become more profitable.

“We’d like to get to a point in the not-too-distant future to be able to send out weekly emails to the group about when mentors would be available so they can schedule a time to work together,” he said. “I think that’s how we’re going to encourage and facilitate some expansion and new growth.”

D’Auria’s new program has already made quite an impact on local businesses. The Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, a nonprofit, statewide, economic development organization that works with men and women to explore, start or expand businesses, wanted to expand its reach in Walworth County in 2015 and was able to use the new program to achieve that goal.

“We have participated in many events organized by Derek and his staff at WCEDA regarding entrepreneurship, small business and resources available in Walworth County,” said Heather Lux, regional project director in the southeast office.

Lux participated in a business resource forum at the Abbey Resort in Fontana. She was on the panel and made several connections to other partners and potential clients. The Elkhorn Business Network event at Gateway Technical College helped Lux learn more about the business community and its needs within Walworth County and how WWBIC can best use its resources to increase its impact for entrepreneurs and small businesses. The Walworth County Business and Career Expo held at the Grand Geneva Resort helped WWBIC make even more connections to the community and its entrepreneurs through its exhibit and presentation.

“As a result of these new partnerships, our impact in Walworth County is growing,” she said. “In 2014, WWBIC worked with four clients in Walworth County. In 2015, we worked with 50.  We have also grown our lending in Walworth County, adding four new loan clients in 2015.”

Bud Gayhart, director of the Center for Business Development at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has had great success using the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center for clients who created their own inventions. Consultants also work with clients to assess the feasibility of new technology.

“WISC has been very successful in doing a number of studies for area businesses to grow them, to work with second-stage businesses, to find market opportunities for them,” Gayhart said.

Wisconsin’s Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater works closely with business start-ups and existing businesses in their early stages as well as specializes in financing for limited liability companies. This network of support is backed by a statewide network that works with entrepreneurs and business owners through no cost, professional, confidential consulting and specialized educational programs.

“In addition to in-person appointments at our office or at a location nearer to you, consulting is available via email, telephone and web or video conference,” Gayhart said. “We have lots of resources available at the university.”

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Technology Park and Innovation Center also provides specialized services and support for start-up businesses as well as access to university professors and student interns. The center strives to effectively mentor businesses and host presentations with speakers who provide relevant information for training and business networking.

“Being an entrepreneur can be kind of a lonely business when you’re out there trying to struggle on your own,” said Mark Johnson, director of the UW-Whitewater Technology Park and Innovation Center. “When you get plugged into the community, you realize there’s a lot of other like-minded people that are trying to do the same thing, and creating that support network can be very helpful and encouraging to somebody trying to start their own business and going off on their own adventure.”

Clients can experience the benefits of the center even if they are unable to meet with mentors in person, Johnson said. They can still receive the same assistance in-person clients have access to including making business pitches to investors and developing resource networking.

Chad Hoffman, export development manager with the Milwaukee 7 Regional Economic Development Partnership, works to increase exports through a grant program that provides up to $5,000 to companies with the goal of increasing their exports. The program was presented by JP Morgan Chase last year with an initial grant of $200,000 to provide financial assistance to small and medium-sized companies, which is also one of D’Auria’s primary goals.

The M7 program is part of the Global Cities Initiative which is a joint project between the Brookings Institution and JP Morgan Chase. The program is intended to increase exports in the region to increase economic benefit.

Recently, JP Morgan Chase announced it will provide an additional $200,000 to M7 to continue the upward momentum of the program. Hoffman said these funds can be used for business development by traveling overseas, attending tradeshows, translating marketing materials and websites and obtaining foreign approvals.

“In just six months, the program has awarded funds to 34 companies totaling approximately $120,000,” he said.

Gateway Technical College in Elkhorn is working to increase its entrepreneurial footprint in Walworth County so the college plans to start drop-in hours for entrepreneurs in order to provide one-on-one technical assistance monthly. There is also a co-working space at the Racine campus designed to provide a professional setting that includes conference rooms, video conference capabilities, free Wi-Fi and access to networking and educational events.

“I am a certified GrowthWheel adviser and, as such, I am prepared to meet with any entrepreneur at any stage of their business to start the conversation, make decisions and create action steps,” said Thalia Mendez, business resource specialist with Business and Workforce Solutions at Gateway Technical College. “I sit in the student commons area in the south building on the Elkhorn campus the third Thursday of the month from 9 a.m. to noon.”

The Racine campus is also home to the Launch Box Business Resource Center, which has numerous resources for current and prospective business owners such as 3D design software and a fabrication laboratory for prototyping. The Student Biz Squad, also in Racine, is a semester class for students from various disciplines who work on real-life projects for existing local business owners, providing students with hands-on experience.

“We are really trying to get people to think that if they have an issue, these resources are available,” D’Auria said. “Somebody can help them.”