Stimulating entrepreneurship in rural Tennessee

Jeff Brown and Tiffany Anton of The Biz Foundry unpack the unique opportunities and challenges faced by the entrepreneurs they work within the mostly rural Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee.

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When Jeff Brown set out to create The Biz Foundry — an entrepreneur center in Cookeville, Tennessee — he discovered that most people in the area didn’t view entrepreneurship as an accessible career option, even though the area is ideally situated for startup growth.

“When I asked people to name three entrepreneurs, they named Steve Jobs and people like that, and they never mentioned any local entrepreneur,” recalled Brown, who now serves as The Biz Foundry’s cofounder, president and CEO. “And so that was a real learning experience for me on the speaking circuit, that rural areas didn’t really think about entrepreneurship. And that’s been part of our job to really push it to the forefront of economic development and community building.”

In this episode of Disrupt the Continuum, Brown and The Biz Foundry Director of Outreach and Engagement Tiffany Anton share about the work they’re doing to support entrepreneurs in the Upper Cumberland region, and they explain why rural communities have something new and valuable to offer the startup world.

A Different Kind of Startup

When an entrepreneur builds a business in a small town, it typically looks a little different than building one in a larger urban area. Most of the time, the motivation begins with an idea.

“The stories I hear are not people who set out to think, ‘I’m going to run my own company,’ or ‘I’m going to [achieve] global domination,’ it’s ‘I have this idea,” Anton explained. “I think people are just really inspired by the resources that are available in these areas to start their own businesses.”

For the entrepreneurs The Biz Foundry works with, the region offers the convenience of the nearby Nashville airport and fast internet connections, along with the appeal of living in an area that’s great for raising kids and has kayaking, hiking, and other recreational opportunities, Brown explained.

“In today’s world, you can do the cool tech job and still live wherever you want,” he said. “You can start a business here and still have that utopian lifestyle.”

The Power of the Ecosystem

Even as The Biz Foundry expands, opening new locations in Sparta and McMinnville, the organization operates out of a strong network of connections that are unique to its small-town environment. Because residents already have such long-term relationships and connections with other people in the area, it’s easier to connect them with the right resources and partnerships, Anton explained.

“That relational aspect is what makes this area so different and so unique from other ecosystems.”

On a broader scale, Brown and Anton credit Tennessee’s whole network of entrepreneurial resources as a source of their success, pointing out that it stands out as a leader of the pack compared to other states.

“Most other states when we go there are astounded that Tennessee has done this. And the question is, ‘How did you guys pull that off?’” Brown explained. “That’s something I don’t think people have put a lot of thought into, is how far Tennessee has come in their goal to be the number one place to start a business.”

Subscribe, rate, and review Disrupt the Continuum wherever you listen to podcasts. This season we’re sharing Tennessee’s entrepreneurial ecosystem story. It’s about how, as a statewide community, we collaborate and provide resources founders need to build, scale, and execute their businesses. It’s the power of our statewide network and the boots-on-the-ground startups that #BuildTN.

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