Rural College Leaders Embrace Entrepreneurial Practices

Leaders at rural colleges adopt entrepreneurial practices to spur innovation.

People may think of entrepreneurship primarily as a means of job creation. While this is a valuable outcome, Donna De Carolis, Dean of Drexel University’s Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, offers a more expansive definition: “Being entrepreneurial is essentially about thinking and doing something that we have not done before, in order to achieve a desirable goal or outcome. It is about assessing a situation, designing alternatives, and choosing a new way — or perhaps a combination of ways — that we hope will lead us to something better.” In other words, when the framework of entrepreneurial thought is applied to community colleges, students and institutional leaders alike tackle challenges in innovative ways that can lead to lasting change in their institutions and communities.

For example, rural community college presidents face challenges of flat or declining enrollments, uncertain levels of government support, students with multiple remedial needs, and meeting the completion agenda in sparsely populated, economically challenged geographic areas. To successfully meet these challenges and optimize regional opportunities, several community college presidents in Appalachia are realizing success by adopting entrepreneurial mindsets and implementing new practices.

Ecosystem mapping has served as the underpinning of NACCE’s work with rural community college leaders. NACCE’s role in providing professional development and technical assistance in this area was rooted in the strategic practice that a coordinated multi-stakeholder approach to catalyzing entrepreneurial efforts offers the greatest opportunity for success. Daniel Isenberg, professor of Entrepreneurship at Babson College, offers five key principles for entrepreneurial ecosystem mapping: “focusing on specific regions; aligning the local leaders around a clear vision and clear objectives; achieving tangible results in just a few months; working with ventures with existing revenues and organizations, rather than startups; and not preferentially incentivizing certain sectors.”

In January 2015, NACCE launched a focused effort on ecosystem development. This program, funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), supported technical assistance training in innovation in entrepreneurship for a community of practice comprised of 11 Appalachian community colleges in poverty-distressed areas. The community colleges participating in this project embraced ecosystem mapping as a strategic approach.Ecosystem maps visually identify how entrepreneurship was supported by local entrepreneurial ecosystems to identify what community colleges needed to become the hub of thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems, and how to deliver the resources and trainings to make this happen.  Participants also committed to NACCE’s Presidents for Entrepreneurship Pledge (PFEP). The pledge calls on college leaders to increase entrepreneurs’ engagement in community colleges and leverage both college and community assets to spur innovation and job creation.

The project engaged schools in several ways to improve each college's participation in its local entrepreneurial ecosystem and provided a pathway to lead change from within the college’s organizational structure. The colleges were divided into mentor colleges that were further along in their entrepreneurship journey, and partner colleges, that were not as experienced in entrepreneurship practices. NACCE organized professional development trainings at the colleges where mentor college leaders shared strategies for success. The suggestions focused on increasing local entrepreneurs' engagement with community colleges in many ways: inviting them to speak on entrepreneurial initiatives; creating internal teams within colleges devoted to increasing the colleges' entrepreneurial behavior; sharing best-practices in entrepreneurship; and leveraging both college and community assets to spur innovation and job creation.

As the project continued forward, participants shared qualitative success stories within the cohort and with the NACCE membership of nearly 300 community colleges. Two examples of the impact of ecosystem mapping and entrepreneurial engagement stand out. Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College (EWVCTC), turned a $15,000 seed-funding award received at a NACCE conference into over $200,000 in additional resources. This was accomplished through entrepreneurially inspired successes that led to an increase in grant funding, including an Agriculture Innovation Summit, the creation of a Biz Launch Pad (the new entrepreneurial initiative at the college), and the establishment of a student store. Big Sandy Community and Technical College (BSCTC) in Eastern Kentucky successfully leveraged other funding sources and stakeholders to create an American Metal Works Incubator, host a regional symposium on entrepreneurship, and expand its course offerings. 

Every college – rural, urban, or suburban - can begin taking entrepreneurial steps. Identifying local entrepreneurs to speak at a college event or participate as judges in a pitch competition can be the start of growing entrepreneurial event. This was the case with Garrett College in Maryland with its annual Power of Possibilities Summit. Other rural colleges, including Roane State Community College in Tennessee, focused on creating internal teams dedicated to entrepreneurship and surveyed faculty and staff to gather information. The result was the incorporation of the business model Lean Canvas into its existing business classes.

As rural college presidents and their trustees grapple with strategic approaches to meet challenges and seize opportunities, entrepreneurial practices offer pathways worthy of consideration. Here are a few suggestions for community college trustees in rural areas – and others – to consider:

·        Plug into a network with other entrepreneurial-minded leaders to share best practices and co-create new solutions.

·        Think about ways to include entrepreneurial strategies and content into existing college curriculum and faculty/staff development.

·        Partner with local nonprofits, businesses, and policymakers to map out your local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

To learn more, visit us at or contact Rebecca Corbin at

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