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Rural Strong outreach program assists entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs were able to network and gain access to information and resources that will help them start their business during “Rural Strong – Alabama: A Rural Outreach Program” at the Theo Ratliff Activity Center on Friday.

Tom Todt, district director of the Alabama office of the U.S. Small Business Association, opened the event by explaining the purpose for the outreach program. It is a combined initiative with SBA and the USDA Rural Development office in order to provide resources and information to prospective small business owners.

Ashley Bell

“We have not given the attention that the rural areas need, so that’s what trying to do,” he said.

Donald Mills, director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of West Alabama, gave an overview of the SBDC and its offerings, including the Disenfranchised Business Enterprise Support Services program. Through the DBE program from ALDOT, the center provides technical assistance and one-on-one counseling for enterprises who are DBE certified through ALDOT.

Nivory Gordon, USDA Rural Development, said that starting and running a successful small business takes several people. “It takes a community working together in order to put it together.”

The USDA Rural Development has several programs and grants for entrepreneurs to take advantage of, such as Rural Business Development Grants and the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.

He encouraged attendees to apply for any grants or programs and to reapply the following year if they don’t receive anything the first time as they will be reconsidered. Gordon also said that even if a business proposal is not accepted by the USDA Rural Development office, the applicant may still receive information that will help them move forward.

Ashley Bell, regional administrator for the Small Business Administration, shared the story of his first business, which was a retail store in his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia.

Though Bell admitted to making several mistakes without the guidance from organizations like the SBA, he said his business succeeded because he was surrounded by people who supported him. “My community made sure I succeeded, because it wasn’t about me. My business was about a reflection of our best selves.”

The entrepreneurs in attendance learned of many resources that can help them start and grow their business, such as microlenders, government contracting and various grants and programs offered by the SBA and other organizations represented.

Rural Strong – Alabama was presented by the USDA Rural Development, the University of West Alabama’s SCDC and the SBA.

(This article originally appeared in the Wednesday, October 2 issue of the Demopolis Times.)