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{Rural} America Needs Small Business

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

{originally published April 18, 2020} by Kelly Bay

I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My ancestors were potato farmers in Ireland before immigrating to the United States and becoming corn and soybean and livestock farmers in Iowa through the 80’s farm crisis. Surviving that hardship led my grandparents and parents to change our family business rally cry. With great love and their children’s best interests at heart, they urged us to go to college and become teachers so that we would always have jobs, and security, and retirement funds. To date, I’m the only one in my family with a college degree who isn’t an educator.

In March of 2020 I closed my small business after a decade. As a retail store and massage therapy practice, the uncertainty of rebuilding after extended closure due to COVID-19 made it a relatively easy decision for my growing and busy family of five. What made it hard, and nearly heartbreaking, was knowing that the decision that was best for my family would put eight employees out of work and leave a huge hole on main street in our rural community of 3,800 people.

About a month before COVID hit our area, I had the opportunity to talk to the independent living class at our local high school about entrepreneurship and community development. A portion of a local agricurlture processing plant had recently shut down, putting twenty people out of work. I chatted with the class about the difference between a community our size losing a portion of a plant and losing an entire small business in our downtown.

On the surface losing twenty jobs in a vital industry seems much more impactful than losing two to ten employees in a non essential service or market. The difference, I explained, is that when a small business closes in a rural community, we don’t just lose jobs, we lose the services that business provides, a heartbeat on our mainstreet, a piece of our community’s identity.

My oldest brother called about a week after we shut our doors. With great love and my best interests at heart he asked, “Would you consider teaching? It’s stable and recession proof.” With great love and my best interests at heart I told him I would rather close four more business ventures over the course of my life than give up entrepreneurship.

It will be far too easy in the upcoming months and years to look at the businesses who closed during COVID-19 and use them as harrowing examples of the risk and loss associated with small business ownership. A sector of our economy that has always been riddled with fear and uncertainty will become even more so. With great love and our children’s best interests at heart, we’ll likely suggest career paths that are far more stable, more recession proof, less risky.

It’s imperative that we recognize this tendency now, before it becomes even more ingrained in our behavior and language.

The past three weeks have given us chilling insight into what our communities look like without entrepreneurs. Small businesses are the heart of who we are, part of our very culture, particularly in rural America. Public and private entities at the state and federal level alike have rallied to the call to sustain these businesses throughout mandated closures, but rural communities are among the sectors that many leaders believe aren’t being served well by these measures.

Furthermore it’s simply not enough to pour all of our efforts into “saving” small business if we aren’t also committed at a local level to encouraging entrepreneurship after the dust of this global pandemic has settled. And as we look toward the future, towards building communities that are healthy and resilient at every level, it’s imperative that we focus on providing the structure, funding, support, networking opportunities that small businesses need to succeed.

As rural community leaders, we must consider the following questions:

  • Are we partnering with our schools to introduce entrepreneurship at every level? This past fall my six year old and his class ran a small business growing produce to sell at the local farmer’s market. Last year my third grader’s class produced and sold a newspaper. By junior high and high school, I’d love to see our students running a main street business or recreational equipment rental stand seasonally.

  • Do we have revolving loan funds or grant opportunities for small businesses? This may seem like a mute point, but funding sources in many rural communities focus solely on large industry, and small businesses without affordable funding either never make it into existence or run the risk of cash flow problems or failure due to high interest debt.

  • What condition are our downtown buildings in? Are outdated zoning codes impeding growth? The high cost of renovating dilapidated buildings and the lack of finished affordable space kills both small business development and expansion. It's a problem that can't be ignored.

  • Are we hosting regular community events? Regional event tourism both drives sales for local businesses and creates a stronger sense of community. Coming together post virus may look different, but it is going to be a vital aspect of recovery, both economically and emotionally.

At this point, it’s presumptuous to assume anything about what life will look like in rural America or anywhere after COVID-19, but I would place a bet that the rural communities who recover most quickly will be the ones who invested in small business long before the threat of a global pandemic became a reality. And at a time when fear and failure might tell us to choose a “safer” path, there will be no more important time to lean into entrepreneurship.

Kelly Bay is a strategic planning and mindset coach for entrepreneurs. She lives in northwest Iowa with her husband and three kids. Kelly is a serial entrepreneur, speaker, and writer, and is the author of Beer and Junk, Adventures in Parenting. In her spare time, Kelly enjoys not cleaning her house and showing unwilling participants photos of her two dogs.

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