Jeanette Libal, founder of Madam Pickles, at her home in Longmont on Friday. Libal, a recent transplant to Longmont from Buena Vista, attended a University of Colorado entrepreneurial workshop in Chaffee County to grow her business.
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Erick Mueller, executive director of the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Boulder, said he thinks it’s the university’s responsibility to “help not only our Boulder bubble here, but also our state.”

With that in mind, Mueller has been touring the state to teach rural communities about entrepreneurship, hoping to help invigorate areas that have seen a decline in major industries.

The workshop program started in 2014 in Chaffee County after a discussion with Wendell Pryor, director of the county’s economic development corporation.

Pryor had attended a workshop that Mueller held in Boulder, and realized it would be a good experience to bring back home with him. The five-year series of workshops has been a success, he said.

“I think for us, as a rural area, it’s positioned us as a county to become an entrepreneurship hub,” Pryor said. “I think it contributed to the position we’re at now. Not only have we been successful at retaining and growing jobs, but also at attracting entrepreneurs.”

In those five years, the area has seen annual job and GDP growth, as well as the eminent opening of a regional small business development services center in July. Over the past eight months, the county has also attracted 125 entrepreneurs and businesses to various classes and meetups held with the help of state grants, Pryor said. While he doesn’t attribute all of it to CU Boulder’s workshops, he said they definitely helped.

Rural communities are a critical part of the nation’s culture, Pryor said. Nationally, the population in more than a third of the country’s rural counties is declining, in large part due to young people leaving, according to a University of New Hampshire study. Pryor said it’s important to try to revitalize these areas.

“We started as a rural country,” he said. “I think rural areas are a vital part of the economy.”

Now, the workshop series has expanded to each region in the state — northwest, southwest, southeast and northeast, Mueller said. CU Boulder commits to returning to the areas for five years, as a way to build trust and momentum with the community.

That’s been a solution to the “old guard” in communities who are hesitant to embrace change, he said. Mueller looked at other workshops that come once and are never heard from again, which he said actually hurts communities by giving them “undue hope.”

After returning for years, the “old stalwarts” eventually started to attend the workshops themselves and saw the value in learning to innovate.

The workshops, held annually over about a day and a half with two faculty speakers, include two years on “demystifying entrepreneurship,” two years on scaling up startups and a final year on shoring up businesses. They are targeted toward aspiring entrepreneurs, current entrepreneurs and local leaders, Mueller said.

Once it’s done, the hope is that the communities in region will be able to “leave the nest and fly,” he said.

Jeanette Libal, a recent transplant to Longmont from Buena Vista, attended one of the workshops in Chaffee County last year. She started her business, Madam Pickles, about 15 years ago with an original family recipe for sweet and hot pickles.

“Since then, I’ve grown into about 12 different products as well as having a crepe business and doing some breakfast business at farmers markets,” she said.

Libal was working at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex and running her business on the side when she attended the workshop. She was interested to see what the workshop had to offer and what new ideas it could provide for her business, she said.

“It was a great workshop. I loved it,” Libal said. “It really opened me up to trying to think out of the box.”

At the workshop, she got an idea to franchise her business to people leaving prison and reentering society. They’d be able to take any of the recipes and start working right away, she said. Now that she’s no longer working for the system, she plans to explore the idea, as well as work on the business full time.

Libal said she would encourage people to attend the workshops if they have the chance.

“You gain a lot of insight into your business and things you could change or ways to think outside of the box in order to increase your business or expand it,” she said.

Mueller emphasized they are visiting regions of the state, and don’t want to focus on just the cities in which they hold the events. They’re open to holding the workshops in several cities in a region over the five years, and only need willing partners.

The communities that host the events provides a venue, food and beverage, and hotel rooms for the visiting faculty. Mueller said they also ask them to help with grassroots marketing, to ensure they can get enough attendees. An average of 40 people attend each workshop.

CU Boulder has provided the entrepreneurship program grants to scale the workshops and invest in scholarships for those who can’t afford ticket prices, which are set by the communities to recover costs. About 75% of the grant money goes toward scholarships, Mueller said.

The faculty who lead the workshops aren’t compensated for their time, but rather do it as volunteers to give back. While Mueller has attended each of the opening workshops, other faculty split the responsibility as well. They follow a set plan but customize it to each region and the specific issues it is dealing with. For example, in Southeast Colorado they talked about the legacy of coal mining and opportunities for marijuana tourism, Mueller said.

Mueller said he thinks that, eventually, the program could scale out to the rest of the country, and possibly beyond.

“The model is very collaborative,” he said. CU Boulder would probably train faculty at other universities, who would act as hosts for the program.

Mueller said they’re still working on a plan for what to do next, after the five-year collaborations with each region are done.

“The hope is, if we did our job right, they won’t need us anymore,” he said. “… It’s so fun to see the culture shift from one of, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t revitalize,’ to one of, ‘We can do this.’”

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