There are two beliefs entrepreneurship expert Jim Correll will cite immediately if asked. The first is that there should be a maker space in every rural community in the U.S. The second, he says, is that “Entrepreneurship is the best hope we’ve got, not only for small community economic survival and prosperity but I think worldwide.”
In the rural city of Independence, Kansas, population of around 9,000, Correll is the director of the Fab Lab at Independence Community College (ICC). One of about 500 such programs chartered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Fab Lab ICC was the first of its kind in Kansas back in 2014.
The Fab Lab initiative is a global program that isn’t limited to but can be particularly impactful in rural regions. It combines access to tools and knowledge around technology and digital fabrication, with training in developing an entrepreneurial mindset.
ICC initially launched their Fab Lab in about 2,000 square feet of space, and, after some fine-tuning, found middle schoolers to be an ideal group to serve. Unlike their high school and collegiate counterparts, often hyper-focused on a career track, middle schoolers seem to just love doing cool stuff.
“It’s partly a back door marketing strategy for the college, too,” Correll explained. “If you get the kids on fire, then they catch their parents on fire.”
Pre-pandemic, Fab Lab ICC had logged approximately 30,000 visits from teens to seniors, and after securing a significant grant with a match from a local entrepreneur, the organization expanded in a big way. “Now we’ve got nearly 60,000 square feet, so we bill ourselves as the world’s largest maker space in a town of 10,000 or less,” Correll said.
The entrepreneurial environment Fab Lab work extends far beyond its facility. It seeps into existing and startup endeavors across the region in more ways than one. “In our little county of 30 or 35,000, we’ve done a little over $1 million in gap financing for small businesses in the last five years,” he said. That’s been made possible through a partnership with Network Kansas, a statewide system to support entrepreneurs and startups.
Fab Lab ICC also hosts a Maker Space Boot Camp several times a year. “We fill people’s heads with all these ideas, and then they go back to their communities and try to start one,” Correll said. Having a community college to partner with is a big boon, but he suggested revitalizing empty buildings or even collaborating with a local library that already has staffing.
Correll isn’t too worried about how many machines fit in the space. “My main interest in all this is the self-efficacy I see in people when they come in and use it,” he said. It’s something he didn’t anticipate but a powerful effect he witnesses continuously. “The same phenomenon became evident almost immediately for Base Camp Coding Academy, a rural initiative launched in Water Valley, Mississippi. It’s a fun, hands-on program that runs for 12 months, training recent high school grads to be software developers. Executive Director Corey Mize said it “Provides this community, region, and state with opportunity – opportunity to better yourself, opportunity to enter a career field that is extremely lucrative but not very prevalent in our state, and an opportunity to take control of your circumstances.”
Base Camp, which is free for selected students thanks to the support of Mississippi’s business and philanthropic leaders, currently serves 17 young people. Each will benefit from the faculty’s assistance and connections, including those with program alumni, to find quality job matches. “Around 90% of each graduating class has graduated with a job offer,” Mize said.
With such successful and empowering results, Base Camp has become a model for programming in similar rural communities. “Others like this already exist here in (Mississippi) and in other parts of the country. It can definitely be replicated,” Mize said.
It’s out-of-the-box programs like these that have communities considering fresh approaches to their economic development. Correll hopes most small towns are now realizing that big industry is not going to ride in on a white horse. Instead, he said, “It’s really entrepreneurs and small business support from within that’s going to get these towns growing again.”
Radically Rural explores ways rural leaders are building stronger communities through innovative strategies. The column is produced by the organizers of Radically Rural, an annual summit of rural leaders. For more information about Radically Rural, visit the organization’s website or contact them via email at email@example.com.