Rural area constitutes 97 percent of America’s land mass, but the 46 million U.S. residents living in rural areas in 2020 make up only about 20 percent of the American population. With so much of the nation considered rural, the concentration of people who might pursue entrepreneurship in a rural area is small. But, that doesn’t mean that rural entrepreneurship doesn’t exist. Quite the opposite! Rural communities have a higher percentage of self-employed individuals relative to urban areas.
We see this on the ground in Marquette, Michigan. An entrepreneur at heart, I’m currently CEO of Innovate Marquette SmartZone and executive director of Invent@NMU in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our work is to continuously push for more attainable entrepreneurial resources for small business owners, entrepreneurs and innovators. We’re a part of the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) where we foster solutions through cross-country collaboration with other rural communities. In Marquette, we partner with other economic development organizations to offer a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem, and we have visibility into the many problems, and solutions, rural entrepreneurs face.
What is rural entrepreneurship and what economic role does it play?
Rural entrepreneurship is defined by both entrepreneurship that is launched in rural areas or that is brought to a rural area for incubation and acceleration. With many talented visionaries, recent significant investment toward broadband access, online learning opportunities, and space, the equation for rural entrepreneurship is well stocked.
Rural entrepreneurship plays a major role in economic growth. In previous years, a large employer contributing to economic development in a rural town has been seen as a boon; these days that sort of recruitment is less desirable. Meaningful growth driven by rural entrepreneurship and innovation has become the focus for many communities across the U.S.
New rural small businesses contribute disproportionately to job and productivity growth in many rural communities, providing numerous benefits.
Opportunities & benefits of rural entrepreneurship
Why choose rural entrepreneurship to start your business? Perhaps you’re one of the 46 million U.S. residents already located in a rural area. Perhaps you’re looking for lower startup costs, access to talent or expertise in a specific area (rural industries such as agriculture or outdoor recreation). Entrepreneurs can succeed anywhere — it’s a part of the tenacity that’s needed, among other things, to make it.
Rural entrepreneurship has its own set of benefits. Eighty percent of rural small business owners believe the quality of life and cost of living are much better in rural areas. Rural businesses tend to operate at a higher profitability margin than businesses in an urban area (56 percent to 53 percent on average), and they are typically comparable in revenue to urban companies. This means rural entrepreneurs keep more of their business revenue and are subsequently able to provide a higher quality of life for themselves and their families, all while enriching rural communities.
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The challenges faced by rural entrepreneurs
Unfortunately, many well-documented challenges to rural entrepreneurship exist. Capital, talent and connectivity can all be hard to come by. Dedicated economic development groups are chipping away at these challenges, but by all measures there is a long road ahead.
Access to funding
A well-documented challenge for rural entrepreneurs is access to funding. Forty percent of rural small business owners have trouble accessing capital so most use personal savings. Resources do exist, but can be tricky to navigate. Local banking establishments may issue loans, the U.S. and state governments have grants available, and a growing number of funds specific to rural innovation like this one from CORI are now available to spur rural development.
Access to talent
Who are the people who make the move from urban or suburban to rural? One collection of stories is found in Make It Marquette’s People of Marquette series. From IT executives to international architects to folks homegrown in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, talent does flow in. Unfortunately, all over rural areas nationwide, it does also flow out.
Rural communities across the nation have campaigns to attract talent for relocation to their corner of the U.S. It’s a solid solution, but let us not forget that the development of innovative communities can happen with all sorts of people.
We know that common characteristics of innovative communities — those prone to entrepreneurship, vibrancy and growth – can be cultivated and even used to attract the sort of people needed to work on an entrepreneurial idea.
Access to workforce is another challenge in some rural communities. Even if there are people looking for work, finding specialized workers with the right educational background is challenging with fewer people living in the area.
Access to connectivity
Connectivity can relate to digital connectivity, like broadband, or physical connectivity, like how easy (or hard) it is to get a flight to your rural area. Luckily, resources exist to help rural small businesses optimize connectivity that exists, and advocate to fill the gap of what’s missing.
One such resource to explore is your local SmartZone. A SmartZone pinpoints a distinct geographical location where tech-based companies, entrepreneurs, and other small businesses are located in close proximity to the community assets they need to help maintain and grow their businesses.
While challenges exist for rural entrepreneurs, many solutions to counteract them do, too. Resources are growing all the time, and with dedication and ingenuity rural small businesses can grow right alongside.