Bob Stevens at P2P

One of Bob Stevens’ favorite things about owning a business is helping high school students through their first job interviews.

“They are scared, but rapt with attention,” said Stevens, who owns and founded Northwest Applied Marine in Chewelah, Wash. “You can see that they really want to learn something.”

In 10-years as a resident of Chewelah – population 2600 – Stevens has seen manufacturing companies come and go partially due to a lack of talented local workforce, a trend which is also happening nationwide. When Stevens launched Northwest Applied Marine in 2010, he experienced his own need for a talented workforce, and turned it into an opportunity to offer more vocational training to Chewelah students. Currently, he has five high school interns.

“Pretty much the only job opportunity in town is Subway or Zips fast food,” Stevens said. “The students I work with are intelligent and very capable; they need opportunities outside of home and school to learn.”

A Conference Designed for Rural Business Owners

To continue offering these kinds of opportunities for young people, and expand his business, Stevens began looking for some entrepreneurial resources last year. Coming into business ownership as a novice, he had a profitable first five years, but wanted to learn more from experts on how to continue growing into new markets. In his search, he came across an opportunity called Rural Pathways to Prosperity (P2P), a digitally distributed conference that had a site location just 30 miles from his house.

Organized by Washington State University Extension, the P2P conference was launched in 2013 to fill a need for entrepreneurial support within rural towns. The Chewelah site was one of 18 communities that participated in the second conference held in April 2015. The conference recently won a national award for developing leadership and collaboration that results in economic development.

Even though small businesses comprise more of Washington’s rural economies than their urban counterparts, conferences and other learning opportunities are almost always located in urban centers, creating time and money barriers for rural community leaders and business owners. To overcome those barriers, WSU Extension’s Debra Hansen and Monica Babine (@MonicaBabine) built P2P in a Distributed Conference Model. Instead of a single site that people have to travel to, this model broadcasts a webinar-style keynote presentation from a nationally recognized entrepreneurial expert to local sites where community and business leaders meet and participate in action-oriented work sessions. Each site has trained facilitators who lead the groups in these activities that help them apply what they learn to their community.

“It’s like running a 10k with 100 other people, rather than by yourself,” Stevens said. “When you’re together there is so much more enthusiasm, energy, and things to get excited about.”

Connecting Public Officials and Agencies to Communities

Planned in collaboration with federal, state and local agency partners, several sites have representatives from the agencies on-hand to both hear about needs in the community, and offer resources.

Paul Johnson from the USDA Rural Development office in Washington State has been involved with conference planning since day one. This year, his office sent 10 staff members to participate in onsite discussions, giving them the opportunity to have face-to-face interactions with people who may need loans or other support the USDA offers.

“A program like P2P kicks off a more connected, supported network,” Johnson said, “This results in successful business endeavors, and thus a healthier economy and community.”

For Stevens, those connections happened quickly.

“I hadn’t even gotten donuts yet, and Debra was introducing me to someone she thought could help my business,” Stevens said.

That person turned out to be Ryan Layton, business consultant for Innovate Washington Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on growing the innovation-based economic sectors of the state. Layton offered assistance in evaluating Stevens’ business. From there, the webinar began and gave Stevens’ an idea about turning an empty manufacturing building into a center for new businesses and vocational training, which he was able to discuss with the mayor of Chewelah over lunch.

Revitalizing Manufacturing and Job Opportunities

Since the conference, Stevens has worked with Layton, gaining invaluable insight and next steps to grow his business. He is also exploring the manufacturing space; hoping to expand his own offices there, offer offices to new companies, and potential vocational training for high school students who go to school right across the street.

“Bringing business resources to rural communities is about so much more than the bottom line,” Stevens said. “If my business is successful and can grow, I can offer more real-world, skills-based positions to young students who may not want to go the college route, but are still intelligent and desiring to work on something they care about.”

Stevens is just one of many success stories coming from this recently launched conference model. This year’s conference alone had 301 participants, which included more than 65 entrepreneurs and over 30 elected officials. One community has started work on a Maker’s Space, and another started work on a food hub to increase production and profitability for small farmers.

Hansen and Babine are also working with WSU’s Office of Commercialization to copyright the conference program, making it available to help rural communities across the country.