Rural Wisconsin Entrepreneurship Initiative Organizes First Rural Entrepreneurial Cohort

A new program within the Community Development Institute, the Rural Wisconsin Entrepreneurship Initiative (RWEI) seeks to make business development services available to rural parts of the state not easily reached by pre-existing infrastructure. RWEI has committed to organizing 12-24 entrepreneurial cohorts in rural Wisconsin between 2024-2026. This past winter, RWEI organized its first cohort for Vernon County entrepreneurs in partnership with the Viroqua Chamber, Small Business Development Center at UW-La Crosse and Couleecap, Inc.

Wisconsin experienced a major uptick in business applications during the pandemic, indicating that interest in entrepreneurship is increasing (WIndicators Vol. 5, No.1). The Viroqua Chamber approached Extension for business development assistance after receiving numerous inquiries from locals seeking guidance on how to start a business. Over half of Vernon County’s workforce is employed by a small business (U.S. Small Business Administration 2022), and its leadership has been seeking to strengthen connections with business support services.

Extension collaborated with SBDC and Couleecap to deliver a four-part business development curriculum to a cohort of emerging entrepreneurs at the Western Technical College in Viroqua. Each session covered an essential area of business development – value proposition, legal requirements, financial planning, and marketing – and then featured a presentation by a local entrepreneur. SBDC volunteers led the classroom trainings, and between sessions, participants met with Couleecap consultants for individualized business development support. Entrepreneurs also expanded their network by meeting peers who are also navigating business formation, as well as points of contact from SBDC, WWBIC, WISCAP, and SCORE.

The entrepreneurs in RWEI’s first cohort are building businesses in a wide array of sectors. One sought to diversify her family’s farm business with a catering service. Another wanted to start an outdoor adventure program in Vernon County’s picturesque landscapes. Two others pursued businesses in health and wellness, which is a growing sector in the Viroqua area. Guest speakers at the cohort trainings included owners of PrairieWind Park, Hotel Fortney, and Driftless Provisions.

If you would like support strengthening your own community’s connections to business support services with a similar cohort model, contact RWEI Outreach Specialist, Maggie Cornelius, at
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