Oregon RAIN (Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network) has begun its process of percolating throughout Cottage Grove.
RAIN’s Lane County Venture Catalyst Ariel Ruben has been in the community establishing stakeholder connections this past month.
“We’ve officially signed a memorandum of understanding between the City of Cottage Grove and RAIN,” said Ruben. “So as of July 1, we began our work in Cottage Grove.”
The city invited RAIN into the community when it approved the partnership in the city budget on June 28 this year, joining the organization for a two-year entrepreneurial development program in the amount of $21,000 for initial-year funding.
During the council meeting, City Manager Richard Meyers said there was a $25,000 grant which the Community Development Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce had received as a commitment from the Woodard Family Foundation to support the program.
The annual cost of the program is $33,000.
RAIN is a nonprofit which partners with communities to encourage job growth and entrepreneurialism by providing guidance for local businesses.
“We work directly with communities across Oregon — and soon to be beyond Oregon — and we work in those communities to support the entrepreneurs,” Ruben summed up.
Supporting entrepreneurs can manifest itself in many ways and the organization avoids a one-size-fits-all approach, instead building upon “entrepreneurial ecosystems” to accomplish its goal.
“And what we mean by ‘ecosystems’ is that it’s not just about helping the small businesses and the entrepreneurs,” said Ruben. “It’s also about making sure that there’s news and media and government support and mentors and activated capital.”
Making use of a community’s retired population with a desire to give back, initiating education programs and getting connected with local business-minded groups are all pieces of the puzzle.
“So, we’re a bridge builder. We’re a connector,” explained Ruben. “And we want to make sure that companies in small towns have access to all the resources that a metro area might have.”
RAIN staff is also made up of individuals with boots-on-the-ground experience when it comes to business.
“All of us that work at RAIN are entrepreneurs ourselves,” said Ruben. “We need to have skin in the game. We need to know what it’s like to grow and start a company.”
Ruben herself was part of a startup which ran out of local co-working kitchen Bohemia Food Hub for years. The business, Hazel People, produced hazelnut milk but was eventually forced to close when a fitting manufacturer could not be found.
“But then I got recruited to this job at RAIN two and a half years ago and have been working with small businesses ever since,” said Ruben.
With a broad range of experience to draw on, she said the resources available within the organization are boundless.
“Collectively, we have a large network across Oregon and beyond,” she said. “I mean, you want to export to China? Sure, I’ll connect you with someone. You want to get manufactured in the USA? Sure. You’re starting a restaurant? Sure, I’ll connect you there. You want to build an app? Okay, great. You want to build an agriculture business? Perfect. So, we have experience across all fields, collectively, and our Rolodex is broad enough to encompass all ideas and all needs and all businesses.”
RAIN has several years of experience stimulating the business communities in numerous other cities in the state.
In Florence, for instance, RAIN held an entrepreneurial activation event in November 2019 with a turnout of more than 200 people. Local businesses tabled their goods and services and shared their stories on stage.
“I’ve also been helping two high schoolers start a delivery service in Florence — a food delivery service like an Uber Eats,” said Ruben.
In the last six years, RAIN has worked with at least 70 entrepreneurs from the Florence area. Entrepreneurs have begun more than 30 startups, created more than 30 jobs and generated nearly $500,000.
RAIN has also helped jumpstart shops in Veneta, where the city set up shipping containers in conjunction with its farmers market, providing new businesses the experience of holding retail space.
In Oakridge, the nonprofit worked with a high school teacher to bring business education to students.
“She was actually the business class teacher and she had never taught business class or entrepreneurship before,” recalled Ruben. “And she reached out to us and she was like, ‘What am I doing? Please help.’ And so we actually helped her develop the entrepreneurship curriculum for the entire year.”
Because each city is characterized by its own particular challenges and opportunities, the RAIN approach in a new community is to listen and observe before implementing plans.
“It’s really about connecting at first and getting to know folks. Shaking hands. And then we start by doing some activation events and meet-ups,” Ruben said. “We’re investigative, not prescriptive. So that means that we’re ears-to-the-ground listening, like what does the community need?”
Through the investigative process, Ruben hopes to identify potential within the community and build programs around what she learns.
In the beginning of September, Ruben will be launching meet-ups to begin networking and eventually hold a larger activation event where participating companies can show off their products or services and take the stage to share their stories.
And beginning Aug. 12, Ruben and Lane Small Business Development Center Director Robert Killen jointly launched a Startup Bootcamp, an eight-week online program which will occur every Thursday night from 6 – 8 p.m. until Sept. 30.
The program aims to teach new skills and enhance business strategies for participants in a 16-hour startup training course which is free to rural participants in Lane County.
Even as these first steps are being taken, Ruben said she has already noticed a potential avenue in Cottage Grove.
“One of my passions is getting youth involved with entrepreneurship and businesses,” she said, “and I know that the schools are excited about potentially working together and having some type of entrepreneurship club or like a young person’s entrepreneurial gathering.”
As the project moves forward, Ruben added she is sensitive to the idea that growth and preserving the spirit of community can seem contradictory to some.
“This really is a long game,” she said. “And it’s also community-led, so we’re here to just start those conversations and say, ‘Hey, what does the community want?’”
Part of the notion of a community-led project is growing sustainably in a way which promotes local collaboration, she noted, pointing to the education, business and farming communities as possible intersections.
Locals will have a chance to participate in the process in a direct way as well. One way RAIN promotes this is the hiring of a local to the part-time position of “entrepreneur in community” — a role which makes use of an on-the-ground networker who can funnel others into the program.
In the meantime, Ruben invited those interested to take part in future events to help begin establishing connections.
“I would say that any type of early-stage business who’s interested, we would love to see you come and we would love to hear about your idea,” she said. “And then if you’re an existing business, we would love to know who you are and understand what your needs are around growth, maybe progress within your community, and if there’s any connections that we can help make.”
More information about RAIN can be found on its website at www.oregonrain.org.
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