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Column: Movement for new entrepreneurial start-ups is key to an Oklahoma Top Ten future
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Column: Movement for new entrepreneurial start-ups is key to an Oklahoma Top Ten future

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When my wife, Lisa, had an idea for a business years ago, we weren’t sure where it would lead or where to go for startup advice.

Fast forward 10 years, and it’s so refreshing to see Oklahoma investing and growing its entrepreneur ecosystem.

I was honored to help cut the ribbon at 36 Degrees North’s third expansion of collaborative co-working incubator space a few weeks ago. At 50,000 square feet located in One Technology Center, it’s the largest tech incubator space in the state of Oklahoma specifically designed to support entrepreneurs and startup businesses.

Business incubators are organizations that help startup companies and individual entrepreneurs develop their businesses by providing a full-scale range of services starting with management training and office space and ending with venture capital financing.

While the first incubator was formed in the late 1950s, we have (thankfully) seen a renaissance in the incubator business over the past few years.

This is precisely the kind of investment that Oklahoma must make to become a Top 10 state, and it’s precisely the kind of investment that our state must make in minority-owned businesses.

36 Degrees North has applied a true boots-on-the-ground strategy of reaching entrepreneurs in our minority communities.

According to the most recent census data available, African Americans make up approximately 14.2% of the U.S. population, but Black businesses account for only 2.2% of the nation’s 5.7 million employer businesses.

So, if we want to expand the economy, it only makes sense to invest in Black businesses.

This same boots-on-the-ground strategy must be made in rural Oklahoma.

Nearly two-thirds of Oklahoma counties saw their populations decrease over the past decade, losing a combined 69,000 residents. The remaining counties — predominantly urban and suburban — saw their populations grow by about 277,000 people.

We have 77 counties, not just two. This kind of disproportionate growth isn’t a recipe for a healthy state.

But there’s reason to be optimistic.

I travel our state more than most, and I’ve seen first-hand rural communities committed to investing in their entrepreneurs and startup companies.

Many communities have a tremendous partnership with their CareerTech. With centers across our state and firmly planted in rural areas, CareerTech can be a game-changer when it comes to helping startup businesses grow in rural Oklahoma.

The system offers programs and services in 29 technology center districts operating on 59 campuses, in 399 school districts and at 13 Skills Center campuses that include three juvenile facilities and 32 Adult Basic Education service providers.

Annually, enrollment in CareerTech classes tops more than 455,000. Rural Oklahoma and CareerTech are a perfect partnership to help reverse the rural migration trend.

Rural, urban, minority or not, if entrepreneurs don’t know where to go for help — or worse, they live in a city that doesn’t have resources for entrepreneurs — then they will move. Period.

Over the past few decades we’ve lost far too many entrepreneurs to thriving tech hubs. Thankfully, that’s changing.

COVID-19 has fast-tracked a remote worker movement, and companies are turning their backs on anti-business states.

Oklahoma, therefore, is now on the rise, and with the help of incubators like 36 Degrees North, we can now deliver.

AOL’s billionaire co-founder Steve Case is convinced that the future of American startups lies outside of Silicon Valley, New York City and Boston, which currently receive 75% of all venture capital in the U.S.

Since 2014, Case has gone on a “Rise of the Rest” bus tour to encourage entrepreneurship across the country, for a total of 38 cities outside of the three main venture capital centers. He’s slated to visit Oklahoma once the pandemic is behind us.

This national movement, coupled with our state’s efforts to invest in our entrepreneurs, bodes well for Oklahoma’s future.

The best way to predict that future, though, is to create it, and thankfully we’ll now have more entrepreneurs in our state to do just that.

Featured video:

Downtown business districts across the country are starting to look more like they used to before the pandemic struck.

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