About 30 people sat around three tables at a "Launching Green Business" conference this week with ideas and questions. The ideas, all of them, were seeds for successful businesses in Racine and Kenosha that would create jobs. The questions, nearly all of them, were how to get from idea to reality.
I was there to write about the three-hour conference, but also to learn more about how RacinePost can grow into a successful business. So I was both journalist and participant, which creates the opportunity of writing about the conference as an "insider." (And, in case you're wondering, we consider RacinePost a "green" business in that we're entirely paperless.)
Fortunately, there were many better business ideas than an online newspaper. The man sitting next to me was an electrical engineer who used equipment to evaluate manufacturing plants and pinpoint where energy was being wasted. He can actually calculate how much money a company can save by making changes to their processes.
Two other people at our table saw homeowners searching for ways to cut their energy bills, but not sure where best to spend money on improvements. Their business would guide homeowners through the "greening" process and help them make smart decisions.
A woman at our table had a contact with the bamboo industry in the U.S. and was exploring ways to produce items made from bamboo, which grows from seed to a usable size in five years. Another woman wanted to convert an industrial building in Racine into environmentally friendly artistic space.
Other tables had an equally wide range of ideas spanning the industrial, commercial and residential sectors. But like anyone new to entrepreneurship, many were unsure how to get money to start a business, how to run a business once they get startup capital, and then how to market their products to customers.
Three participants at the Jan. 12 "Launching Green Businesses" conference at UW-Parkside
The conference offered resources to participants. First, along with the entrepreneurs, the room was filled with local small business experts who help new businesses get off the ground. Second, participants received an extensive list of grants, training opportunities and tax breaks for new businesses. Third, entrepreneurs were eligible to receive one of 20 free scholarships to a 13-week business planning class that typically costs $1,000 to participate.
The entire program was organized by UW-Parkside and its Small Business Development Center, the Racine County Workforce Development Center, RAMAC, RCEDC, green Racine, Gateway Technical College and the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation.
Along with networking, conference organizers brought in two keynote speakers. Tera Johnson, CEO of Wisconsin Specialty Protein, discussed how she raised $14 million to build an organic whey protein plant in Reedsburg, Wis. The key for her company, Johnson said, was finding a niche in the dairy industry that was untapped by anyone else in the world. Johnson's company is the only company to produce organic cow and goat whey powders that can be used in baby formulas and nutritional products.
Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle Inc., impressed the audience with his story of building one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. - all while being just 27 years old. Szaky's company helps consumers collect waste and then "upcycle" into thousands of products that are sold in Walmart, Whole Foods and other companies in five countries.
I left the conference impressed with the entrepreneurs and their ideas, and with the number of support organizations and experts interested in helping small businesses grow in Racine and Kenosha. With high unemployment rates and more businesses leaving than coming, entrepreneurship seems like a critically important way to build (rebuild?) the local economy.
One conference organizer said most entrepreneur's conferences are happy to get a handful of people with ideas for businesses. This conference had about 30 people with ideas, and those were just the ones who could attend.
But there's a big difference between an idea and a business. The challenge for all new businesses is to convert thoughts into reality. The "Launching Green Business" conference was an effort to do just that. For the sake of our local economy, let's hope it works.