Main Spotlight: How a Local Library Can Jumpstart Cultural, Educational and Entrepreneurial Growth

August 7, 2019 | Main Spotlight: How a Local Library Can Jumpstart Cultural, Educational and Entrepreneurial Growth | By Curtis Rogers, Director of Communications at the Urban Libraries Council |
Startup_425_Photo_Credit_King_County_Library_System.jpgPhoto credit: King County Library System

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, renowned economist and Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz explained the root cause behind our country’s wide income inequality and stagnating income levels: “[W]e forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people.” Stiglitz’s words echo reporting from the Brookings Institution, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and other leading development researchers – all pointing to a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem as foundational for community growth, especially in smaller cities and rural areas.

Entrepreneurs introduce innovative ideas that create business opportunities and strengthen the cultural ties of communities. They create jobs and inspire community members to pursue their career goals. They help communities attract and retain talent and they connect diverse sectors in productive new partnerships.

U.S. entrepreneurship had been in steady decline since the 70s, but now there is momentum to reverse that trend. Local government, business and economic leaders across the country are increasingly recognizing this vital role of entrepreneurship, and are orchestrating intentional programs to lift up and support current and aspiring entrepreneurs. In the words of former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, "Entrepreneurs grow the cities they live in. The money stays in their community. They hire local. This leads to an upward spiral of success."

However, local government and other development leaders too frequently overlook one of their most powerful – and widely available – potential partners for boosting local entrepreneurs: the public library. Public libraries are highly trusted, resource-rich institutions that live in the communities they serve and are adept and empowering self-starters. These qualities perfectly position libraries to act as onramps into the world of entrepreneurship, particularly for individuals who lack the financial and social capital to otherwise gain the skills and knowledge needed to launch a business.

Women, people of color, immigrants, veterans and justice-involved individuals have traditionally faced disproportionate hurdles to engaging fully in entrepreneurial ecosystems. When those barriers are removed, and all community members have equitable opportunities to engage in entrepreneurship, the entire ecosystem becomes more vibrant, robust and – research shows – profitable.

In collaboration with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Urban Libraries Council is currently working to elevate the visibility and impact of libraries as vital hubs for entrepreneurship, particularly for underserved individuals. This initiative includes extensive research, resource development and reporting to highlight effective ways that libraries can partner with local government and businesses to invigorate the local entrepreneurial ecosystem and contribute to a stronger economy. Research for this initiative includes the work of a 12-system learning cohort of North American libraries that are piloting innovative programs to help reimagine the potential for libraries to support innovation and small business growth.

For example, Baltimore County Public Library and Enoch Pratt Free Library (which serves the City of Baltimore) have teamed up through this initiative to launch an Entrepreneur Academy, offering educational workshops, networking opportunities and legal and financial advice for area small business founders and “solopreneurs.” In addition to ULC and the Kauffman Foundation, the library has partnered with a number of local organizations to enrich this program, including Northern and Corridor Region Small Business Development Centers, the CASH Campaign of Maryland, the Small Business Administration and the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulations. The Academy celebrated its first class of graduates this past May.
Entrepreneur_Academy__May_Graduating_Class_Photo_Credit_Enoch_Pratt_Free_Library_and_Baltimore_County_Public_Library1.jpgThe May 2019 Graduating Class of the Entrepreneur Academy. Photo credit: Enoch Pratt Free Library and Baltimore County Public Library

King County Library System (Wash.) – another participant in ULC’s learning cohort – partners with five regional cities and the business mentorship nonprofit SCORE to support non-traditional and first-time entrepreneurs in launching innovative and sustainable startups. All located on Seattle’s eastside, the partner cities identify relevant educational programming to support the needs of their resident entrepreneurs, and the library hosts and provides related programming and information, offering many free library tools for small businesses. Program participants report that they have employed between 370-650 individuals, and plan to create hundreds more full-time jobs over the next year.

In addition to (and bolstered by) ULC’s entrepreneurship learning cohort, numerous other libraries across the U.S. and Canada who are stepping up to creatively reach and engage local entrepreneurs with partnerships and programs that offer powerful, scalable models for other communities. Queens Public Library’s Jamaica Food Entrepreneurship and Services Training Space (FEASTS) program offers opportunities for city residents to learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship in the food industry through classes and hands-on training. Jamaica FEASTS is part of a community-wide action plan to revitalize and grow Jamaica as a thriving neighborhood. One hundred participants – primarily women and people of color – have graduated from the program, and graduates have launched 90 successful businesses. At the end of this summer, Jamaica FEASTS will become Queens FEASTS as the program expands to locations in Long Island City, Flushing and Far Rockaway. Queens FEASTS will offer training in languages other than English at the Flushing site.
Jamaica-FEASTS3_Photo_Credit_Queens_Public_Library.jpgJamaica FEASTS. Photo credit: Queens Public Library

These examples represent just a small sample of the diverse and wide-reaching ways that public libraries can, and do, support stronger local economies and workforce development by empowering entrepreneurs. Every downtown has a library – there are more library branches in the U.S. than Starbucks locations. Yet, too many state, city and county agencies and community development organizations are still overlooking the vital partnership role that libraries can play in advancing community outcomes.

How can you engage your local public library in accelerating your community’s development priorities, and helping jumpstart cultural, economic and educational growth? Answering that question is a foundational step for strengthening the business ecosystem of any community – from major cities to rural towns. Visit the Urban Libraries Council website to learn more about the incredible ways that libraries across North America are fostering brighter futures for entrepreneurs and their local business ecosystems.

About the author:

Curtis Rogers leads the development and management of ULC's communications strategies, messaging and branding. Prior to joining ULC, he was the senior marketing manager at the National Club Association. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from New York University.