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Entrefest Celebrates Home-Grown Businesses

Owning a business in rural Iowa can be a bit lonely. Are other entrepreneurs facing the same things you are? Where do you go when you need some encouragement?

Sandy Ehrig, economic dev­elopment administrator for Iowa Farm Bureau, heard these comments. As part of the Renew Rural Iowa program, her office began hosting an Entrepreneurial Roundtable Forum several years ago.

“We learned very quickly that the people who had resources to help these businesses grow didn’t always have a chance to collaborate with each other or with the businesses,” she says.

Out of this roundtable, and in cooperation with the University of Iowa Regional Business Center, the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa Farm Bureau, EntreFest was born in 2007 and will be held May 14-16 this year in Iowa City.

While many different types of entrepreneurs attend, Amanda Styron West, co-founder and CEO of Seed Here Studio in Cedar Rapids — whose company has been contracted to handle the conference’s planning and logistics — says five main types of entrepreneurs gravitate to the conference: small business owners, high-growth start up founders, corporate innovators, economic development professionals and women business owners.  “It’s a great way to learn new skills and best practices for how to make your business better and stronger,” Styron West says. “You’re able to get connected to other entrepreneurs and find resources for the problems you have.”

The energy that surrounds the conference is the best part of it, Ehrig says. “From the first day, this conference had an energy and surprise about it that is different from other conferences I’d attended,” she says. “Business owners can set up appointments with experts who want to help them; it’s very one-on-one.”

This year’s conference in­­cludes intensive workshops where participants can dive into the “nitty-gritty” of a business, a keynote speech by Lydia Brown, founder of Skywalk Group in Cedar Rapids, about Iowa being the last in the nation for women entrepreneurs, and a highlight of the conference — a street festival that features home-grown Iowa businesses. In addition, the winner of the Dream Big, Grow Here contest will be announced at the conference.  

After pulling out of the recent recession, the health of small businesses around the state is good, Ehrig says, especially for those businesses that continue to move forward.

“Those businesses that have a niche and do their homework are doing well,” Ehrig says. “There are new venture funds and resources coming into play, and we’re realizing that we need to embrace innovation in our state.”