In September 2020, 47 cities made commitments to new initiatives to support inclusive economic development and innovation at the Kauffman Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program collects and tracks these commitments to showcase successes, identify best practices, and connect peer cities that can learn together. Here we share the story of one city’s work:
Many communities around the U.S. have a wealth of resources available to business owners—from incubators and co-working spaces, to lending, mentorship, and supplier diversity programs. However, residents are frequently unaware these assets exist, or are challenged in accessing them by structural barriers. To better connect ideas to opportunities, Henderson, Nevada has decided to build a comprehensive tool to match stakeholders to available resources like mentor networks, access to capital, marketing plans, and business services.
The city’s Director of Economic Development and Tourism, Derek Armstrong, knows Henderson has the assets. For one, its position in the Las Vegas Valley of southern Nevada offers a competitive advantage to major southwest markets and is a destination known world-wide. Second, the city, and surrounding valley, is home to over 2.5 million people and is growing, providing an abundant, ready workforce. Third, the talent pipeline is supported by the region’s aligned educational institutions. Fourth, the city boasts a multitude of business-friendly incentives, with a strategic plan to diversify the region’s economy and produce a steady supply of quality job, school, living and recreational options.
The issue, Derek recognized, was in articulating Henderson’s value in a way that resonated with all audiences, especially disconnected entrepreneurs. That is when he decided to join the City Innovation Ecosystem program’s ecosystem mapping commitment. With the support of Henderson’s Mayor and City Council, plus funding from the Kauffman Foundation, Derek chose to partner with David Petr, President of Marketing Alliance and Matt Felton, President and Founder of Datastory to spotlight Henderson’s entrepreneurial ecosystem through HendersonNow.com, a new website launched in early February. With a fundamental focus on data, this site takes a three-pronged approach to (1) entice existing businesses to relocate to Henderson, (2) help current businesses expand and (3) assist entrepreneurs in starting a new business. With HendersonNow, the city will help marry the data, resources, and networks that have been there, but have remained undetected by the enterprises who need them.
While Matt and Datastory value innate, place-based knowledge, or what they call ‘location intelligence,’ Matt is mindful that historic biases and blind spots may skew the data. To help mitigate this, the team has incorporated a crowdsource-based feedback component, where residents and business leaders in Henderson can make sure they are correctly represented in the system. ‘We work toward a vision of democratizing data science and putting it into the hands of people who are making decisions,’ Matt states. Further, Datastory relies on a variety of information to strengthen data integrity. Instead of worrying about elemental information, such as business type or location, more meaningful insights begin to manifest, and people may realize innovative paths forward. This enlightenment is what the team strives for. In Matt’s words, ‘this tool allows people to make difficult decisions with confidence.’
For example, prior to this initiative Derek was not aware that the local labor board, Workforce Connections, offers to reimburse businesses with fewer than fifty employees up to 90% of a new hire’s salary during their on-the-job training period. He and his team are now working to set up one of their hubs in Henderson, which will help offset some new business costs. ‘That’s one of the things that has revealed itself during this process and this will be a starting point to something that’s more comprehensive’ says Derek.
Through this tool, other partners such as the mayor’s office, the community college, the chamber, or other professional groups can connect and work together to create a more robust, more equitable support system. David adds that full stakeholder involvement is critical not only for representation, but for buy-in: ‘I make sure we’re hearing from different populations in development, to make sure we’ve got full representation at the beginning. When you make the entrepreneur part of the story early on, they become more invested to see it succeed.’ Derek agrees, noting that highlighting stories of successful business ventures, especially from those nearby, helps foster that community of support and is one way to encourage others to take the next step in their own enterprise journey.
One such homegrown example is Brian Reyburn at Firetrucks Unlimited, a family-owned business that refurbishes broken down firetrucks and ambulances. David had the opportunity to sit down with Brian, learning that his company is not merely in the business of refurbishing emergency vehicles, they’re looking to save both money and lives. ‘Instead of a community spending $800,000 to purchase a new fire truck, he can take their old one, and refurbish it for a fraction of the cost.’ While Firetrucks Unlimited has grown from a startup to a thriving small business, stories like Brian’s allow other business owners to see what is possible, acting as inspiration for younger entrepreneurs. Further, Matt and David help Derek and his team connect with businesses like Brian’s so they can provide their mentorship and experience as part of Henderson’s growing ecosystem.
Six months into this effort, there is more to discover—especially when it comes to collecting information on and connecting with micro- or solopreneurs—but the team remains focused on two objectives. First, the tool must be useful and easy to navigate. Second, the entire community must embrace it. With such exponential growth in Henderson, Derek believes the latter goal will not present much of a challenge. ‘There were probably 500,000 people here when I was growing up, and now there are over 2.5 million. I think being such a growth population and having so many people from various backgrounds here really gives us a different perspective,’ adding that the city’s habit of accepting newness and change is part of Henderson’s unique paradigm.
With the stories and testimonials on HendersonNow.com, along with the interactive tool and the crowdsourced information, Derek, Matt, and David aim to provide guidance, resources and confidence for entrepreneurs looking to start or scale their business in Henderson. ‘The beauty of this solution is that it’s fact,’ says David. ‘Highlighting the physical assets, the mentorship networks…it’s not spin or hype or exaggeration. That is what I love about partnering with cities like Henderson and with Datastory. It is defensible, true information brought to life in a compelling way.’
Lessons from Henderson:
Let the data speak. There is a perception that job opportunities in the Las Vegas valley are restricted to tourism and gaming, but that is not what the data shows. According to Matt, it’s important for a community to stay true to its strengths, which for Henderson lies in four sectors: advanced manufacturing, business services, life sciences/health care, and IT. A city can aspire to evolve but will only hurt itself if it ignores the data. When that’s done, ‘you’re watering ground that’s already growing and not trying to plant something that doesn’t belong.’
Success begets success. When companies are looking to start, they want to know they too can be successful. It is important to see other stories and examples of success.
Be in it for the long-haul. Derek realizes this is just the starting point for Henderson. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know, and this will be a continuing learning process for us to make this as best of a tool as we can for entrepreneurs.’ Choosing the right partners that will help you continuously evolve is critical.