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Grand Island, Nebraska, is betting on an entrepreneur-focused ecosystem

Grand Island’s “Grow GI” program includes big ideas like local angel investment, a business incubator and maker spaces. Founder and President Gloria Thesenvitz started Nova-Tech 25 years ago and ran it as a single mom. In a recent article that appeared in Open for Business Magazine, Thesenvitz described the challenges and successes of what is now one of the…

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Gloria Thesenvitz, Founder and President of Nova-Tech, Inc. in Grand Island, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Open For Business Magazine.

Grand Island’s “Grow GI” program includes big ideas like local angel investment, a business incubator and maker spaces.

Founder and President Gloria Thesenvitz started Nova-Tech 25 years ago and ran it as a single mom. In a recent article that appeared in Open for Business Magazine, Thesenvitz described the challenges and successes of what is now one of the nation’s largest FDA-registered animal health manufacturing companies.

“It’s common for startup companies not to succeed,” Thesenvitz said. “I think you guard against that by developing depth within your organization.”

Finding people with skills that complement your own is also critical. Thesenvitz brought her daughter, Vice President Teresa Grabowski on board for just that reason.

“It was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made,” Thesenvitz said. “She’s very skilled and talented and has a whole set of skills that I don’t have.”

Entrepreneurship as a key to the future

Nova-Tech is one example of Grand Island-based companies that have started and grown into major concerns. Others include Bosselman Companies, Grand Island Express, and Chief Industries.

But what about the environment for today’s entrepreneurs and startups in the central Nebraska community of more than 50,000?

Some of the more visible entrepreneurial activity is with food and beverage businesses like Carnivores Meat Supply and The Chocolate Bar. But creating a culture to foster more startups is definitely on the mind of city leadership.

“There’s a lot of interest (in promoting a startup culture), moreso now than ever,” said Grand Island City Administrator Marlan Ferguson. He and other city leaders point to an emphasis on entrepreneurship in the recently-launched Grow Grand Island Initiative.

“Entrepreneurship is one of the five pillars of the Grow GI Initiative,” said Assistant City Administrator Nicki Stoltenberg. Creating a local angel investment organization and business incubator are ideas in the early development stages. Other ideas include developing an “Entrepreneurial Academy,” mentorship programs and supporting maker spaces.

“Grow GI is the product of visioning efforts in 2014, and now has over 500 volunteers working on 32 initiatives,” Stoltenberg said.

Growing talent without a college

The lack of a four-year college or university in Grand Island can have some impact on the community when it comes to the startup ecosystem. Although Central Community College has a significant presence (as well as in Hastings and Kearney), there is no four-year institution like Hastings College or the University of Nebraska-Kearney. That makes a difference in the startup culture.

“The culture is different in a college town,” said Cindy Johnson, President of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce. “There are different ideas percolating.”

She also pointed to the challenge of overcoming risk aversion.

“We don’t reward trial and error,” she said. “Rewarding success also means recognizing failure. If you get smacked down, you have to get back up.”

She pointed to Nova-Tech as an example of a now-successful company that had to go through ups and downs along the way.

Expanding the definition of “entrepreneur”

Johnson sees potential entrepreneurs coming from what some may consider unlikely sources.

“Farmers are some of the greatest entrepreneurs,” she said. “We don’t often think about taking that resource and applying it more broadly.”

There are a number of programs designed to help startups gain traction. For example, the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) of the Center for Rural Affairs places a particular emphasis on assisting small and minority-owned businesses. The project was recently recognized as the #7 organization nationally in Small Business Administration micro loans placed.

Johnson also sees minority businesses as a significant growth area.

“Minority businesses are the future,” she said. “They’re often more willing to take risks and are hungry for success.”

This story is the second in a 4-part series on the state of startups and entrepreneurship in central Nebraska, beyond the region’s major urban centers.

Rod Armstrong is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for AIM in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is a regular contributor to Silicon Prairie News.

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