Entrepreneurial ecosystem building is a complex endeavor in the best of scenarios. But rural ecosystem building has its own set of issues that can make it particularly challenging. The lack of population density and lower concentration of entrepreneurs and talent means that there are fewer opportunities for connections and interactions. Basic infrastructure like access to broadband internet and cellular service present enormous barriers for both entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders.

Recognizing these challenges and more and that ecosystem builders in rural communities could benefit from a summit focused on rural ecosystem building, a group of organizations came up with an idea to organize a conference focused specifically on rural ecosystem building.

On May 14-16, 2018, 170 community leaders and rural ecosystem builders convened in Davis, West Virginia for the inaugural RuralRISE Summit. Over three days, attendees collectively sought to answer the question “How do we empower the leaders, doers, and innovators in rural communities?” The results, documented in the 2018 RuralRISE Insights Report, identified 90 resources, almost 1,400 ideas, and 12 insights from the summit.

With the success of the first RuralRISE Summit in 2018, organizers are now organizing the second RuralRISE Summit scheduled for September 17-19, 2019 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.


What is the RuralRise Summit?

One of the core organizations involved with the RuralRISE Summit is Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). Executive Director Nathan Ohle summarized the three day summit. “RuralRISE is about driving connections, ideas and actions for rural communities. In order for rural communities to meet the future challenges of a new and emerging economy, they will have to work to drive small business and entrepreneurship growth, but they cannot do it alone. RuralRISE creates an opportunity to learn from and meet with other rural based leaders focused on providing opportunity for entrepreneurship to grow in their communities, and to help chart the path forward for rural prosperity.”


The Origins of RuralRISE

“RuralRISE was really born out of the recognition that rural ecosystems have their own set of challenges that are unique and distinct from many of the challenges that urban communities face.” ~ Joe Kapp

Joe Kapp is the President & CEO of National Center for Resource Development, another of the lead organizers of the summit. In his work in rural communities over the years, Joe has come to realize that conversations about rural ecosystem building were not part of the broader narrative and conversation about entrepreneurship. His organization, along with a host of others including; National Center for Resource Development, Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), the Kauffman Foundation, AARP Foundation, Appalachian Regional Coalition, CoStarters, and more set about to create a unique conference targeted at rural ecosystem builders and the unique challenges they face.

“The idea for RuralRISE was really born out of a partnership of a number of different organizations, that all came together last year and said, ‘let’s go ahead and put something together,’” said Kapp. “So last year in West Virginia we held the inaugural RuralRISE Summit that brought together all of these ecosystem builders and folks from various communities around the United States to really bring to the forefront, what are the various models that are successful in rural communities, and also to understand and highlight what are the unique challenges that rural communities face when dealing with entrepreneurship.”

A broad spectrum of rural America attended the first conference last year. 170 people from across the United States, representing a host of organizations including state, local, and federal public policy makers, people representing Etsy, community colleges, libraries and more traveled to West Virginia to take part in the inaugural summit.

While last year’s Summit was a great success, Kapp recognizes that this year’s summit needs to not only continue the conversation but to expand and dive deeper. Asked about the goals for this year’s Summit, Kapp said, “You have to continue to show value, so our goal is to really dive into some of the more nuanced challenges that rural communities face. Both from a public policy perspective and a funding perspective, finding and identifying the models that really work in rural communities and drilling down into some of those models in more detail.”

In addition to the educational components of the Summit programming, there are other key benefits of attending a conference focused on the needs of rural communities. It creates a sense of community among those who live in sparsely populated communities and who are often very isolated in the work they do.

“People feel like they’re doing this in a vacuum,” said Kapp. “Creating a sense of community across, what can often be fairly sparsely populated areas. So a lot of the folks that are coming together are representing sparsely populated areas and have to understand how a variety of different things can come together to build ecosystems in rural communities and across rural communities.”


What to Expect at RuralRISE

Asked what attendees can expect to experience at the Summit, Kapp replied, “Last year we did this thing called speed pitches and fire chats. We designed this differently than a lot of conferences that have breakout sessions in order to give people the maximum amount of exposure. We increased the number of people but limited the amount of time that they have to speak. The benefit of that is that it gives people the opportunity to focus their thoughts. We found that by doing these quick pitches, it allows the ability to gain access to a lot of information and a lot of different models and then we allowed space in between for the attendees to network and go up to presenters and have conversations with them and dive into a lot more detail. And the number of attendees that found that valuable was significant. That’s the most significant thing in terms of the structure. It gave a lot of different people an opportunity to hear a lot of different speakers and see a lot of different ideas in a diversity of topics.”

Kapp is confident that ecosystem builders will find unique value in attending this year’s Summit. “It is uniquely focused on rural entrepreneurship. So, whether you are in a big city or in a rural community, or even a suburban community, the reality is that, there’s a number of different things that, from self-sufficiency perspectives, from the ability to develop smaller ecosystems and to learn from peers – it’s great because every rural community is different. We have people come from an array of communities. They’re all experts in the stuff that they’re doing and the way that they’ve built entrepreneurial activities within their communities, and so what I would say is that they’re going to be learning from some of the best rural ecosystem builders across the United States. That means how do you fund it, what are some of the capacity-building pieces that you need to be aware of, and so forth. And so, in many respects it short-circuits and accelerates both the learnings of what’s been successful, but also helps you to understand how to avoid costly challenges and failures that other people have already experienced. So there’s a lot of money to be saved as a result of that, and opportunities to go after additional funding for models that have been successful,” said Kapp.


A New Year, a New Rural Location

Consistent with the rural focus of the summit, it’s held in rural communities. This year’s Summit will be held in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In addition to the national organizers, local ecosystem builders in Pine Bluff are eager to host RuralRISE and extend a warm welcome to those who attend.

Pine Bluff court house

Mildred Franco, Executive Director at The Generator, an innovation hub powered by Go Forward Pine Bluff, Arkansas is one of the local ecosystem builders helping to organize RuralRise 2019. She’s helping to provide local logistical support for the conference. She’s looking forward to Pine Bluff hosting the summit this year and is excited to welcome people to the small community of 43,000 — hoping that people come, see, and appreciate what Pine Bluff has to offer. Asked about her hope for RuralRise coming to Pine Bluff, Franco replied, “Showing the light on Pine Bluff and the work that we’re doing here. Not only nationwide because that’s so broad, but more specifically for Arkansas. Even the people in Arkansas aren’t really focused on how they can help. If we can let Arkansas see what we’re doing through the lens of a national summit, I think that could be a little bit of a game-changer for us.”

Saracen Landing in Pine Bluff

Franco extended a warm welcome to people coming to Pine Bluff for this year’s summit. “If they’re interested in, or are already doing work in rural communities trying to do economic development through entrepreneurship, or are trying to support entrepreneurs in rural communities, they definitely should join this conversation.”

If that sounds like you, make plans now and register for the 2019 RuralRise Summit.

Dates: September 17-19, 2019

Location: Pine Bluff Convention Center in Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Find out more and register!

Related: Check out more stories and articles about entrepreneurial ecosystem building in rural communities.