Layoffs offer Small business opportunities

November 7, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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ZEELAND — Among the bad news of recent layoffs at West Michigan companies, Lakeshore Advantage saw an opportunity for new small businesses, in tandem with a need to keep talented workers in West Michigan.

As a result, the regional Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center is providing training to almost two dozen ex-employees who want to take the plunge into a small business rather than leave West Michigan to seek work elsewhere.

Last week a new eight-week course began at Lakeshore Advantage in Zeeland for 23 individuals who recently lost their jobs. The training, called Venture Forward, is based on the nationally recognized FastTrac New Venture program and would normally cost about $700 per person for the eight-week course. Through financial assistance from Ottawa County Michigan Works, however, a number of newly unemployed workers received full scholarships to attend the program. 

Lakeshore Advantage, an economic development organization serving Holland, Zeeland and Saugatuck, is sponsoring the entrepreneurial training to help dislocated workers remain in the area.

Amanda Chocko, director of entrepreneurial development at Lakeshore Advantage, said the goal is "to keep these skilled and talented workers in our area and help them foster new opportunities. It’s a new beginning for many."

Region 7 of the MI-SBTDC, which is based at Grand Valley State University, has provided Venture Forward training in the past but "this one we didn't plan on," said Dante Villarreal, regional director of the MI-SBTDC.

He said Lakeshore Advantage decided to sponsor the training "in reaction to the layoffs happening in the lakeshore area. We are seeing a lot of people being laid off from JCI and other companies, and we want to make sure we try to retain some of that talent that is being downsized here in West Michigan.

Villarreal described those workers as "a lot of engineers, designers, trades people … a lot of people with a lot of talent."

He said employees of that caliber often have their own part-time business on the side, or have been thinking about starting a small business.

"Now that they're being downsized, this is the time to do it," he said.

The Venture Forward training helps these individuals evaluate business opportunities and develop action plans for owning their own businesses. The program features three-hour training sessions each Monday afternoon from Nov. 3 through Dec. 22. Classes focus on industry and market research assistance, small group activities, hands-on coaching, entrepreneur guest speakers and training materials provided by FastTrac.

Instructing the class is MI-SBTDC’s Nancy Boese. She said she has taught the class several times in the past to students at the GVSU School of Business and also to small business owners, but this will be something different.

"This is the first time we have specifically focused a training program for dislocated workers," she said.

Boese added that the "Kaufman Foundation — the FastTrac organization — is also co-sponsoring (the Lakeshore Advantage course) by helping to reduce the cost of the books."

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City is a private nonpartisan foundation promoting and supporting the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to grow economies and improve human welfare. Described by Business Week as the world’s largest foundation for entrepreneurship, the foundation wants to help would-be entrepreneurs around the nation, not just West Michigan.

On Oct. 1, Carl Schramm, executive director of the Kauffman Foundation, announced the results of a survey it had recently commissioned, which indicate that most American voters view entrepreneurship as a key element in solving the current economic crisis in the U.S.

"History has repeatedly demonstrated that new companies and entrepreneurship are the way to bolster a flagging economy. The American people understand this," said Schramm.

Unfortunately, however, the majority of the Americans surveyed by the Kauffman Foundation also said they are personally reluctant to start a business in today’s uncertain economy. The Venture Forward training is designed to inform and motivate those "downsized" individuals who want to start a business but aren't sure where to start.

Boese said one of the most valuable aspects of the course is "networking with other people who are starting a business." Just getting to know the other people in the class can provide business opportunities, she said.

"It can lead to collaborations and working together. And follow-up (contacts) later," said Boese.

The students in Venture Forward also get practical advice and information from one another and from people who speak to the class.

"When they hear other entrepreneurs' stories and learn from them, they find that is very useful," she said. "We really try to connect them, and have them talk to and learn from people who have been there and done that."

It's not just a lot of talk, however.

"There is a lot of work that needs to be done (in the course), because we want them to complete a business plan" at the conclusion of the training. "So when they do launch their business, it will have a higher likelihood of success."

Villarreal noted that the MI-SBTDC also offers a wide variety of free one-time workshops for small business entrepreneurs, including those who have already gotten their business off the ground but need help. The workshops cover subjects such as financing, marketing, legal issues and other key topics that any small business owner will have to deal with.

For more information, see www.misbtdc.org or call (616) 331-7370.

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