The Public Library Association recently found that 56 percent of librarians said their ability to build effective community partnerships was a competency they wished to improve. In the fifth session of our Libraries and Entrepreneurship Webinar Series, “Community Partnerships: Collecting Local Expertise,” host Duncan Smith and three guests discussed how libraries can help cultivate entrepreneurial ecosystems in their communities by nurturing strong partnerships with local organizations, such as small business centers, chambers of commerce, workforce development agencies, colleges and banks.
The guest speakers were Janet Wurtzel, Development Business Consultant for the Delaware Division of Libraries; Willie Hill, Executive Director of the Greater Cincinnati Microenterprise Initiative, Inc. (GMCI); and Diane Luccy, Business and Careers Manager at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina.
In her role, Wurtzel focuses on connecting entrepreneurs to library resources and networking with business development organizations on behalf of libraries. She also trains librarians and entrepreneurship program participants in the use of library resources. Librarians, she said, are perfectly poised to help aspiring small business owners navigate their entrepreneurial journey.
“One of the biggest things that librarians can bring to the table is the reference interview,” Wurtzel said. “A lot of times people don’t know what they don’t know but going through the reference interview and asking them questions can help them realize what they need to do and what is next.” That could mean referring the patron to an outside organization that specializes in business planning, finance, accounting, or some other aspect of entrepreneurship. These partnerships, Wurtzel said, “enhance the library’s capacity to serve.”
Organizations such as GCMI, where Hill works, are ideal partners for libraries wanting to expand services to entrepreneurs. GCMI works with low- to moderate-income individuals and communities providing business coaching, technical assistance and microloans.
“Our focus is really about trying to empower individuals to understand the power of entrepreneurship and how they can utilize that, not just to start businesses, but to really take control of their lives and be problem solvers,” Hill said, adding that his organization welcomes partnerships with other service providers, such as libraries. “[We want] to be able to really support business owners where they're at, where they are, and where they want be, and where they want to go.”
To do this, organizations ― including libraries ― must understand their local entrepreneurial ecosystems, which vary from community to community. Asset mapping through outreach is one way to achieve this.
Both Hill and Wurtzel emphasized the importance of creating advocates. Much like entrepreneurs can form partnerships with other entrepreneurs and cross-promote each other’s services, libraries can form partnerships with other service providers. The relationship is mutually beneficial.
“The best way to capture a market is to understand people and what their needs are,” said Hill, adding that libraries already do this. “Libraries are in the people business.”
To support economic development in Columbia, SC, Richland Library offers an Entrepreneur-in-Residence program. In this program, a successful entrepreneur or business expert mentors budding entrepreneurs and presents entrepreneur-focused programs with diverse subject matter experts to cultivate learning and networking. In addition, Richland Library maintains a Library of Things which contains 175 tools and resources, many of which can support entrepreneurs starting new businesses. These include a green screen backdrop, vlogging kit, live streaming camera, ring light, portable PA system, binding machine and more.
Luccy said librarians can learn what entrepreneurs need just by asking. “Sometimes it's a book. Sometimes it's a database. Sometimes it's the Entrepreneur-in-Residence,” she said. “And sometimes it's just a combination of all those resources because, remember, we're all the connectors.”
For librarians looking for guidance, Luccy said downloading the ALA’s Libraries Build Business Playbook is a good place to start. She also offered these key areas for librarians to consider in building their local business ecosystems:
- Relationship building. Public libraries are trusted organizations. Look for opportunities to partner with local organizations and reach out.
- Funding. Many non-profit organizations love what libraries do and might be enthusiastic about funding library efforts to support entrepreneurship. “Look to your Friends Board,” advised Luccy, “because they might be willing to also fund some of these projects.”
- Staffing. Luccy reminded participants that they don’t have to have a business background. She encouraged them to invite community partners to provide staff training to help those who may feel a bit reticent about answering business startup questions.
- Scaling. “Please don't try to do everything at once and do it perfectly,” Luccy said. “Select one service that you want to start with. Establish that connection, do it well, and then build on that success.”
- Storytelling. This effective communication tool allows businesses to connect with their customers. By capturing small business success stories, librarians will have valuable data to present stakeholders during budget time.
Looking for a passive programming tool to stimulate entrepreneurial thinking in your community? EBSCO’s Entrepreneurial Mindset Training Course is a self-paced, online course that enables prospective entrepreneurs to learn the underlying beliefs and behaviors that can help them start a new business, pursue a new career, accomplish personal goals, and achieve richer lives.