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Zulkoski: Farmers Almanac says, change is coming

2019-12-22

By Robert Zulkoski & team, Social Entrepreneur, as seen in Vermont Business Magazine: https://vermontbiz.com/news/2019/december/22/zulkoski-farmers-almanac-sa...

“It’s been a long time coming. But I know a change is gonna come.” - Sam Cooke 

This article was written as a collaborative effort between Vermont Works Management Company and Vermont Innovation Commons. 

As we wrap another decade, the feeling of pending change is tangible. We’re living through a unique moment in time where our loudest voices for disruption are not sitting in the White House but rather in high school math classes and on soccer fields; where the men of Wall Street are being challenged by a diverse group of women creating space to make their voices heard; where today’s business means people AND planet AND profit. While these moments are playing out internationally, we can feel the wave of change washing over us (maybe even more so) here, in Vermont. In this month’s installment, we celebrate the amazing things initiated in 2019 and propose a challenge as we enter 2020.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that the Burlington High School (BHS) women’s soccer team has gone viral with their #EqualPay jerseys. With the help of Change the Story, BHS parents and local businesses, the team has put gender equity on the front page - most recently the front page of Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. This next generation of local leaders is pushing for systemic change in an industry dominated by men and inviting those men to be part of the conversation. The BHS soccer team is not alone in this fight; earlier this year, Vermont Women’s Fund hosted a Breakfast of Champions with Ted Bunch, an internationally recognized activist promoting healthy manhood and gender equity as an issue of social and economic importance to our state. On a macro level, gender equity is about transforming leadership and including a diverse set of voices that truly represent everyone in our communities. 

Though it sometimes feels elusive, public and private leadership in Vermont stepped up to the plate in 2019. With a handful of small colleges closing their doors, we saw organizations like Vermont Council on Rural Development and Vermont Innovation Commons deeply engaged the communities in Poultney and Rutland to better understand what their future could look like with reimagined utilization of idle campuses. Education, like many other industries, experienced a resounding shift in 2019 that can only be addressed by catalytic, creative and collaborative solutions. 

In addition to education, we saw overwhelming support from local leadership for innovative economic development strategies in rural communities creating coworking and maker spaces, business accelerators and incubators, remote working hubs, business collaboratives and above all else, entrepreneurs. 

As of today, there are almost 40 coworking and maker spaces throughout Vermont. Each has a unique audience, business model and catchment area but a similar unifying vision: be THE local hub for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and remote workers. With places like Space on Main (Bradford), Do North Coworking (Lyndon) and Black River Innovation Campus (Springfield), our most rural residents now have access to high-speed internet and a rich community of peers. Thanks to the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies’ #ScaleHere program, a network of these spaces has unprecedented access to business services. Early next year, HULA Lakeside will open its doors in Burlington and welcome tech-focused businesses from Vermont, Canada and beyond. Similarly, Delta Clime VT (formerly Accel-VT) graduated two cohorts with businesses from across the country focused on climate economy innovation. Not only is Vermont recognizing the benefits of national trends and “right-sizing” them for our state, but stakeholders beyond our borders want to be a part of the changes happening here.  

Still, there is work to be done when it comes to changing the Vermont narrative. It’s no secret that much of the world still thinks we’re only good for maple syrup and cheese. The reality is our homegrown entrepreneurs are leading the charge towards sustainability as the status quo. They are scaling transformative enterprises such as Packetized Energy, OVR Technology, SeedSheet, BETA Technologies, Benchmark Space Systems, Dedalus Wine, Fluency, Social Sentinel, Faraday, Burlington Code Academy, InfiSense, Reconciled and Trace. Through the Female Founders series and Womenpreneurs, we’ve gotten to know entrepreneurial women leading across industries with Pictal Health, Atmosphoria, Interactive.Training, Skida, Mamava, GameTheory, Common Deer, Vermont Woodworking School, Cora Ball, Vermont Comedy Club and so many more. We could fill the entire magazine with a list of Vermont’s entrepreneurs - the ones embracing the inevitable change and showing us new ways of thinking, the benefits of collaboration, and just how much this small state can accomplish.

Alas, the idea of putting entrepreneurs at the heart of the community is not novel. Andy Stoll, Senior Program Officer of Entrepreneurship at Kauffman and guest speaker at the 2019 Vermont Investors Summit said, “Entrepreneurship empowers individuals, improves standards of living throughout a community, and creates jobs, wealth and innovation in the economy. And we must celebrate local entrepreneurs every day.” Our very own Vermont Community Foundation took this to heart, investing in LaunchVT to bring entrepreneurial support services to the farthest corners of the state. The biggest, most positive change we’ve noticed in 2019 is the recognition and appreciation for the risk-takers in our community who are turning ideas into reality, without sacrificing the values Vermonters hold so dear.  

At a recent State of Our State, hosted by Cabot Creamery, we discussed the systemic change necessary to realize a thriving Vermont. We believe entrepreneurship is a vital component to achieve this goal; however, entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the result of complex interactions in a community and requires a deliberate commitment to collaboration. We’ll close our final article for 2019 with a challenge: let’s embrace the change happening around us and exchange competition for collaboration, resistance for resilience, apprehension for action. 

Robert Zulkoski is one of the founders of Vermont Works Management Company (vermontworks.co), whose mission is to deliver capital, mentorship, and connectivity to Vermont’s business ecosystem. Vermont Innovation Commons (vtinnovationcommons.com), a complementary project, is committed to supporting local entrepreneurs as a means of economic development and strategy towards a thriving Vermont. Co-authors of this series include Vermont Innovation Commons staff: Madeline Brumberg, Aditi Datta and Mark Naud.