Our last speaker in the Midwest Entrepreneurs class this semester was Jolene Willis, Sustainable Development Specialist, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and Associate Manager, Illinois Cooperative Development Center. Following are links to webpages related to these organizations.
Having Ms. Willis as our guest speaker helped attain two goals for the class this semester. One goal was to have more farming/agriculture-related guest speakers; Ms. Willis was the fourth such speaker in the class. The second goal reached was to have a greater diversity of speakers; in terms of industry, function, and stage of life product or firm cycle. In this regard, Jolene was the only speaker this semester that might best be referred to as a “facilitator of entrepreneurial start-up and success.” More specifically, in her positions—housed within Western Illinois University in Macomb—Ms. Willis provides a diverse wealth of information, assistance, and services to persons interested in starting or more efficiently running cooperatives and other businesses in rural Illinois; all with a view toward achieving the broader goal of stimulating and enhancing economic development statewide.
With regard to the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA), Jolene told the class that the Institute was created in the 1980s in response to the farm crisis that hit Illinois and the entire Midwest particularly hard at the time; a massive event with still-lingering impact that we had heard about from two other ag-related speakers earlier in the semester. She also informed the class that much of the IIRA’s operations involve staff members travelling statewide providing varied assistance in rural areas where information and other resources are particularly lacking.
The Illinois Cooperative Development Center (ICDC) exists within the IIRA and is operated through a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Grant. According to the ICDC’s webpage, the organization “helps cooperatives and other businesses in rural Illinois start up and succeed, through technical assistance, training, and publications.” While most everyone has likely heard of “cooperatives,” one of the key things we learned in class is exactly what a cooperative is. Quoting from the Preface to “Co-ops 101,” a publication of the USDA Rural Development Program that Ms. Willis distributed to the class: “Cooperatives are business entities that people use to provide themselves with good and services.” She added to this basic definition the notion that co-ops are formed on the basis of need in the sense that if the co-op is NOT formed, the goods and services in question will likely not be available to local residents at all. She provided rural electric cooperatives as a prime example here. Further, Jolene noted that co-ops are a “key tool for community economic development” in rural areas.
Finally, the class was informed about ICDC’s ongoing efforts to assist in the formation of rural retail food co-ops. Here, Jolene reinforced something that I have told the class several times before this semester: What seems like a crisis to some people is likely seen by others as an opportunity. Specifically in this regard, Jolene explained that while ongoing retail concentration in the food sector—exemplified, for instance, by the growth of Wal-Mart and major grocery store chains—has caused many firms to close stores in rural areas, it also creates opportunities for entrepreneurs to start-up locally-sourced organic and other food stores in the communities in which they live. The ICDC stands ready to assist in this regard (as well as to help existing locally owned grocery stores adapt to changing market circumstances and stay in business). Jolene provided as a “success story” for the ICDC here the Macomb Food Co-Op (http://macombfoodcoop.net/).
All in all, our last guest speaker of the semester was one of the most informative. I myself came into class thinking I knew a lot about both cooperatives and assistance programs available to ag-related entrepreneurs. I left knowing far more than I ever thought possible (and also that I had grossly overestimated my level of knowledge on both matters).
The quantity and quality of the work done by Jolene Willis and her colleagues at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and the Illinois Cooperative Development Center is truly amazing. Thank you so much for being our guest in class!