County News

COVID-19: Entrepreneur center helps local businesses

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, individuals meet at Hillsborough County’s Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Hillsborough County, Fla. to learn about the center’s resources for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Photo by David Garza-Manahan

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The goal of the Hillsborough County Entrepreneur Collaborative Center (ECC), when it opened in Florida, was simple: Help the entrepreneur and small business communities. Now, as times have changed, the ECC is providing the same services — just during an economic recession caused by a global health pandemic.

“We still are the hub of entrepreneurship and now we’ve become almost the hub to serve during disaster time,” ECC Manager Lynn Kroesen said.

The ECC has been offering county support to the local startup community by providing access to business service providers, resources, mentorship and specialty training since 2014. The center, which is funded through county tax dollars, is an 8,000-square-foot facility centrally located in the county.

“We identified that it was super challenging and difficult for entrepreneurs to navigate the system,” Kroesen said. “They had no idea who to go to or which organization would best fit their needs depending on whatever stage of business they were in.”

The center serves as the hub for non-profits, government agencies and educational institutions and offers free resources to entrepreneurs including state-of-the-art technology, executive office space, conference rooms, collaborative areas, dry erase walls, free Wi-Fi and a resource area for business research.

One of the programs, 1 Million Cups, developed by the Kauffman Foundation, assists entrepreneurs by allowing them to pitch their ideas and receive feedback. This program has offered over 550 entrepreneurs the opportunity to share business ideas to crowds of up to 70 people in Hillsborough County.

“People want to participate in the programs like 1 Million Cups because they love watching Shark Tank on TV,” Krosen said. “They get addicted to the entrepreneurs in the center and they become an entrepreneur groupie and become one themselves.”

When the coronavirus began to spread, the center made a transition in just two weeks from in-person events and consulting to providing virtual services.

“We’ve been able to tap into an entirely new audience whether it’s new entrepreneurs that are coming out of the woodwork because of COVID-19 or whether it’s our businesses that have pivoted,” Kroesen said.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the center held 100 events with 1,100 participants each month. This past April and May, when services transitioned to being held virtually, the center is averaging 120 events with over 1,600 attendees. Kroesen said the center has been helping business owners discuss ways to diversify and establish continuity plans to be successful during the COVID-19 outbreak, with help from the center. Businesses in Hillsborough County, like many others across the country, have transitioned to producing hand sanitizer, plexiglass and masks.

“I think the businesses are desperate for resources,” Kroesen said. “They’re looking for new ways to market themselves because they are not able to do it the old ways.”

She explained how the county is utilizing funding from the CARES Act to launch the Economic Recovery Program to help businesses that have been impacted by the outbreak.

“COVID-19 is not going to stop us,” she said. “If anything, it’s given us more fuel to the fire that we need to grow and we need to be there if and when the next disaster happens so that we can continue to serve more entrepreneurs.”

The Jim Moran Institute (JMI) for Global Entrepreneurship at Florida State University partners with the ECC. Shane Smith, director of JMI’s Central Florida Operations, said the ECC serves as an added asset to the community and a “one-stop location” for small businesses.

“It’s really just a symbiotic relationship where when they have people come in and ask questions that fit our mold, they pass them on to us,” he said.

During COVID-19, Smith said the center went into “battle station mode” and has stepped up to offer more resources to the community. He described how the ECC is still connected to its partners by sending weekly emails about opportunities and classes that are available online.

“As a business owner, I know I can call the ECC and if they can’t answer, I know they will point me in the right direction,” he said.

Kroesen said without county commissioners approving the creation of the ECC, she thinks there would be less job growth throughout the county, adding that the entrepreneurship hub keeps families, students and youth in the community.

“We are a job creator,” she said. “We are helping entrepreneurs not just hash out their idea but hire employees that are in our community.”

For now, the center will continue to offer virtual events before transitioning to in-person meetings when permitted while following social distancing and other health guidelines.

“Knowing there’s one central location where they can access all of their resources in one place helps ease the business owner’s mind and gives them peace of mind that the resources are there and that we’re working very hard to serve them and have their best interests in hand,” Kroesen said.

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