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Regional venture team aids new businesses with no-cost mentoring, training

When Jeff Amerine takes a stroll around Fayetteville, Arkansas’ downtown square, he is surrounded by history. Stately brick buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century line streets once lit ablaze during the Civil War.

But what Amerine sees is not just a storied past, but a city writing a future based on creativity and opportunity.

A robotics training center occupies space on one corner of the square. The city’s old post office, built in 1911, is now home to a venture capital firm focused on growing digital and e-commerce firms.

Nearby, a ‘fabrication lab’ run by the local chamber of commerce houses 3-D printers and laser engravers, to help designers, artists and engineers turn the next great product idea into reality. Soon, the University of Arkansas’ Entrepreneurship and Innovation program will open across the street.

The buzz of creative activity in Fayetteville’s new ‘Innovation District’ is a source of pride for Amerine, who, as president of Startup Junkie Consulting, has worked several years to help establish Northwest Arkansas as a regional hub for emerging businesses.

A program by Startup Junkie encourages young girls to pursue careers in STEM.

In partnership with the Little Rock-based nonprofit Winrock International, Startup Junkie leads the NWA Venture Team, which provides free consulting services to aspiring entrepreneurs and existing companies.

The Walton Family Foundation supports the initiative through its Home Region Program, which aims to improve quality of life in Northwest Arkansas by supporting an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Since its creation in 2014, the venture team has provided more than 6,000 hours of mentoring at no cost to its clients, who have created more than 600 new jobs and launched more than 600 new products. More than 180 clients have launched, sustained or expanded their businesses – an eclectic mix that includes an online tuxedo rental company, a southern lifestyles apparel brand and a firm specializing in analyzing corporate water quality.

Building a thriving ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’

In addition to providing one-on-one business advice and connecting entrepreneurs with investors, the venture team hosts dozens of networking events each year.

These range from informal social gatherings over coffee or beer to competitive ‘pitch’ sessions, such as one in Bentonville, Arkansas last August, where 32 presenters were given 60 seconds each to sell their startup ideas to judges and a crowd of entrepreneurs and investors.

Startup Junkie also promotes entrepreneurship among youth: It has helped grade school students develop plans for enterprises as modest as a lemonade stand, and runs a program to encourage young girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or math.

“Entrepreneurial ecosystems are driven by a cadence and a drumbeat and a regularity of events that draw people out,” Amerine says. “It’s people of all ages and all backgrounds who are at some point in that process of thinking about building something, or actually building something. You want to get them out to events and training all the time.”

As an added support, entrepreneurs can access conference room and co-working space – at no cost – in Startup Junkie’s offices, also located on Fayetteville’s square.

Aiming for brain gain, not brain drain

These efforts are all aimed at attracting new innovators to the region and retaining the best and brightest talent graduating from local high schools, colleges and universities. The goal: brain gain, not brain drain.

“Northwest Arkansas has been recognized as one of the best places in the country to launch a startup,” says Amerine. It also ranks high for new minority-owned business opportunities.

Startups are well-positioned to thrive in the region, Amerine says, because it’s home to several Fortune 500 companies, a tech-focused university and a highly-educated, entrepreneurial-minded workforce.

“We have this super high concentration of well-educated people who have been brought here by the major flagship companies. So we’ve got this really interesting concentration of talent,” Amerine says.

At the same time, the region is competing for the same entrepreneurial demographic with centers such as Boston, Austin and Silicon Valley. Over the longer term, Amerine sees innovation districts such as the one in Fayetteville sprouting in communities across Northwest Arkansas.

“As each of the cities that comprise this metropolitan service area grow, there is going to be a need to have a concentration of technical and creative talent. We are working to foster that, not just here, but everywhere else throughout the region,” he says.