University Economic Development Association

Stephanie Pierce—economic development and entrepreneur relations manager at Kansas State University, and UEDA Membership and Marketing Committee member—recently talked with Sarah Mote, director of marketing for KCSourceLink at the University of Missouri Kansas City, category leader in the 2021 UEDA Awards of Excellence in the Place + Innovation category for their Building Bridges for Just-in-Time Small Business Support entry.

Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length:

Stephanie Pierce: Hello Sarah. Please tell us about the Community-Based Network Navigators program.

Sarah Mote: Let me start with KCSourceLink, which is a program of the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC) Innovation Center. We connect a network of 240 business-building organizations across our 18 county bi-state region. We operate a hotline, a kind of triage center that helps entrepreneurs get the resources that they need to start, grow, accelerate, and thrive. We have an extensive content library of tips, resources, inspiration guides on how to start a business in Kansas City specifically. Even with all that, we noticed that there were people from economically distressed communities that just weren’t reaching out. We talked to partners and we learned this was consistent across organizations.

That’s why we started this Community-Based Network Navigator program, to reach people where they are. We trained individuals from the community about the resources available in Kansas City and how to provide business support. They worked directly in the communities to meet with people and build trust at the grassroots.

Stephanie: Thanks, Sarah. That sounds great. What have been some of the key outcomes of this program?

Sarah: The most impactful outcome of the program is that look of reassurance on the faces of the people who we’ve worked with, and to hear in their voices, their renewed hope in their business and where they can take it. That, in and of itself, is pretty powerful stuff.

When we set up the community based network navigator program, we wanted to help our entrepreneurs and small business owners—especially those from economically distressed communities, and especially in light of the pandemic—build resiliency for their businesses. Whether it’s resiliency to start, to survive, or to thrive. Throughout the course of the initiative, we assisted more than 2000 entrepreneurs from majority minority zip codes in the Kansas City region. Since we started, 67 business owners reported that they increased their sales, 25 reported increasing their number of employees, and 269 people reported starting a business.

Stephanie: That’s great, and leads into my next question. Who have you partnered with to achieve these outcomes?

Sarah: We have that network of 240 resource partners as part of KCSourceLink, but we’ve really strategically leveraged and activated some partnerships to help get these businesses the assistance that they needed for accounting, banking, Paycheck Protection Program loans, whatever they needed.

For example, one of the first partnerships that we set up was with the Mid-Continent Public Library. It’s called Square One Small Business Services, and we partnered with them to deliver a program called Pair Up with a Pro. The program matched entrepreneurs with small business owners in the preferred professional service verticals and areas of expertise that they needed to access federal stimulus funds, or to set up their business—whatever was needed. We had so many businesses, especially in economically distressed communities, that were not online and they had to get online quickly to better connect them with customers.

The program was really great, but what was fantastic about it was that it really helped Square One and KCSourceLink leverage each other’s strengths. Square One worked with local service providers to offer educational opportunities and training to business owners. At KCSourceLink, we had the intake systems and the marketing in place and could reach thousands of people.

We partnered with service providers in both Missouri and Kansas, since we’re in a bi-state city, including the Toolbox Small Business Resource Center, in Kansas City, Kansas, serving a traditionally underserved and economically disadvantaged community; KC BizCare, Kansas City, Missouri’s business concierge; AltCap, a community development financial institution—or CDFI—fund committed to reducing economic disparities through alternative capital and other kinds of creative capital products; the Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce; and the Kansas City Prospect Business Association. These were all key partners in trying to make sure that people had the tools they needed to get online, and to get more customers.

Stephanie: That’s great to be able to bring all those resources together, and to have those partnerships and relationships that can help small businesses and entrepreneurs establish and grow. That’s wonderful. What do you feel has been the most important factor in the program’s success?

Sarah: I would say the most important factors would be the partners, and also the process of having something that was replicable and scalable so that we could get to the entrepreneurs quickly, leverage partnerships, and scale things on the turn of a dime. Especially in 2020 and 2021, the key was immediacy. Before the pandemic, the point was to get people out into the community and listen. When the pandemic hit, we had to flip and start offering these opportunities and counseling virtually. The partnerships helped us to pivot and scale.

Stephanie: That’s great. You mentioned earlier that you wanted something that was replicable, that you have these processes in place. So if another university is looking at this program that you’ve developed, what would be those first steps to take and adopt your strategy?

Sarah: I think the first step is really understanding what resources are currently in your ecosystem. What’s available? What’s accessible? What’s visible? Then it’s important to be honest about what’s missing. Develop those relationships and map them to your ecosystem to such an extent where you can see it, and then activate trust and relationships pretty quickly.

You also need to know what your entrepreneurs need. Listen, show up, partner—listen to an entrepreneur over and over and over again, and make sure that you’re available to feel those needs and serve those needs. Then take intentional and proactive steps to meet entrepreneurs where they are.

That’s what was really different about this program. We have great marketing and a great following. But it’s recognizing the communities that you’re not serving and taking intentional steps to put yourself in a place where you can start building that trust.

When we contracted with our navigators, we worked with people who were willing to work part-time and on weekends to be able to hit those hours. That kept us super flexible. And although some of our community network navigators who have phased out for whatever reason, they’re still doing the work! I still see them on social media sharing our posts, or I hear them when I meet them on the street saying things about KCSourceLink, like “you should reach out to them.” So you’re building that advocacy and a little army of navigators out in the community who are always sharing, because they know more in-depth about KC’s entrepreneurship resources and how to help entrepreneurs get connected into the ecosystem.

Stephanie: Good to have that continued ambassadorship out in the community and continue to be engaged in different ways. How have you engaged as a UEDA member and how has membership played into the success?

Sarah: I know that UEDA has allowed us to really see best practices across the country in university economic development and entrepreneurship led economic development. We as an organization have really benefited from being connected to those people that we otherwise would never have been. We’ve been able to see and learn from the struggles and successes other universities are having. We bring back those lessons and say, “Hey, here’s what someone tried and really worked. Can we adapt this?” It just gives you such a headstart and a leg-up, to have access to that kind of network.

Stephanie: Great. That’s wonderful! Thank you!