Like other growing Valley cities, Peoria wants to attract and create new opportunities in fast-developing industries like FinTech and autonomous vehicles, according to city economic development director Rick Buss. But doing so, Buss said, requires more than just a vision.
“One of the critical infrastructure components is having a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and educational resources to be ready to bring those companies,” he said.
That’s why the City of Peoria partnered with Arizona State University Entrepreneurship and Innovation in April 2018 to launch Peoria Forward, a partnership designed to build out the city’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” That sort of language might conjure images of “how to start your business” seminars, but according to Senior Program Manager Kristin Slice, Peoria Forward is about much more than that.
“One program or one workshop is not going to move the needle,” Slice said. “But giving diverse entrepreneurs diverse resources and access to whatever human capital they need allows them to navigate and move their business forward effectively.”
That’s not to say that community events aren’t a major cornerstone of Peoria Forward – they are – but instead of trying to teach entrepreneurs skills through slideshows and lectures, Slice says Peoria Forward events aim to bring entrepreneurs together, encourage them to learn from each other, and enable them to lead programs to help build Peoria’s entrepreneurship community as a whole.
“You can get everybody into a room, have a lovely little mixer, everybody walks out, nothing really happens,” Slice said. “But if you can get entrepreneurs to volunteer together, to take action, to give back, that’s really where you start to see that community and that deeper connectivity that results in business-building.”
One example of this community-building philosophy in action, Slice said, occurred when a community member identified how Peoria’s artisan community often struggles with leveraging social media to market their products.
“Instead of putting together another social-media workshop, which has been proven to have limited success, we said, what about a pilot where all of you build a social media program together?” she said. “By having them build a campaign hands-on together, they have not only built their own community, but they’ve also strengthened their individual skillsets for their businesses.”
These “mini pilot” programs are a key focus of Peoria Forward, Slice said, and are only one component of the growing program, which is entering its second year. Just as important, she said, is identifying new entrepreneurs and connecting them with existing resources they may not be aware of.
“A lot of times when you’re in a small business, you don’t necessarily know what resources are available to you,” Buss said. “To give those resources in a one-stop shop and to expand those resources… that’s one of the principal offerings that we’re bringing together.”
That could include connecting entrepreneurs with individuals or services to help with tasks like permitting or patent protection, but also includes dedicated training programs specifically designed to help educate early-stage entrepreneurs, Slice said.
Peoria Forward has also resulted in the creation of a local chapter of One Million Cups, a national network of entrepreneurship communities that host regular meetings centered around supporting new entrepreneurs through feedback and conversation with other business owners.
Buss said that these sorts of programs align closely with Peoria’s economic development strategy. Entrepreneurs, he said, are key to developing vertical growth in developing industries.
“You have to have programs like this to support those verticals, support that entrepreneur,” he said.
So far, Slice said that ASU is happy with the levels of participation the Peoria Forward program has generated. Last year, over 490 attendees attended 27 Peoria Forward events, and over 25 businesses received one-on-one support from the partnership. That doesn’t include participation from the One Million Cups community, which itself hosted sixteen different programs, she said.
For the second year of the program, Slice said Peoria Forward is implementing feedback from a survey they conducted to ensure the needs of the entrepreneurship community are being met. She said one goal is to help participating individuals launch at least five new programs that will benefit the entrepreneurship community as a whole.
“The feedback we got from last year was, lots of people are excited to be a part of something to help grow,” she said.
Buss said he’s excited about the future potential of the Peoria Forward partnership as it continues to develop in the coming years.
“This is something that’s real, it’s tangible, it’s substantive,” he said.
Peoria Forward events are free and open to anyone, including non-Peoria residents. More information can be found on the program’s website.