What are the challenges to running a successful business in rural America? There’s a thousand different ways you can answer this question, and the answer really depends on the community you live in. But when it comes to who you should ask, I don’t think there is any one better than Chris Merrett, the Director of the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs.
Of course, if you are not aware of the Institute (or IIRA as it’s often called) and what it is they do , then you’re likely to miss out on the experience and wisdom that Chris has to offer. Thus, here are three takeaways I’d like to share from my interview with Chris Merrett and the IIRA. (*NOTE: You can listen to our podcast interview through the link below or search Forgottonia Project wherever you find podcasts).
Takeaway #1 – Focus on the SOLUTIONS
Beginning in 1989 (in the wake of the farming crisis which some readers may recall), the “IIRA was created as a companion agency to the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council and works….to find innovative solutions to rural issues” (Merrett, 2019). At the top of these issues is of course economic development, which was at the heart of our question for Chris (What are the challenges to running a successful business in rural America). What’s unique about asking Chris and the IIRA this question, however, is that he doesn’t limit his response to a discussion of problems alone. The IIRA isn’t built to just understand problems, they are built to develop solutions and to really see them through; something Chris has been doing from the very beginning!
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.” ~Pema Chodron
One point he really stressed in our interview, and something I deeply appreciated, was the importance of including local leaders in the formation of these solutions. As Chris discussed in our interview, the IIRA wants to help small towns reimagine what their community could be; but they are only interested in facilitating a plan that a community ultimately develops on their own. The IIRA isn’t a handyman that fixes problems without anyone understanding what they did. They more or less help you see what the best tools are, and where they should be applied. The IIRA’s relationship with communities is therefore built on trust, empowering communities to take control of their own economic development. This leads me to my second takeaway:
Takeaway #2 – The “Kind Capitalist”
Chris shares a wonderful story about an experience he had as a delivery boy for his father’s pharmacy, making a surprising delivery to a another pharmacy across town. Why would his dad deliver his own product to a competitor? Shouldn’t his father take this opportunity to gain an advantage and steal away some of their customers? His father’s motivation was in fact more simple than this; the other pharmacy was out of stock and needed product in order to serve people in the community. For Chris’s father, the value of serving the community held supremacy over the value of competition.
Perhaps we should dismiss this story as something that emerged from the very polite, Canadian side of Chris, but we’ve witnessed this pattern of thinking in other business owners of Forgottonia that we’ve talked to. The Forgottonia Brewing, for instance, shared their mantra that if one business succeeds the entire community succeeds. Although some might say there is no such thing as a kind capitalist, successful business owners in rural America seem to believe collaboration is more important than competition. Or at least that is what they are telling us.
According to thinkers like Klaus Schwab, the founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, a new type of capitalism is emerging in the 21st century that he calls stakeholder capitalism. This type of capitalism is supplanting the traditional shareholder capitalism that maintains a business owner’s primary goal is to maximize profit. According to Schwab, “millennials and Generation Z no longer want to work for, invest in, or buy from companies that lack values beyond maximizing shareholder value” (2019). Whether or not stakeholder capitalism will take hold in the more corporate, urban American landscape is perhaps yet to be seen, nevertheless this value seems to have been persisting in rural America for quite some time. The idea that the community comes first ought to make rural businesses thrive; an idea that Chris and the IIRA are committed to as well. This leads me to my third and final takeaway:
Takeaway #3 – Our perceived problems, are really opportunities in disguise
The highlight of the interview for me was when Chris mentioned that although we face many challenges, we don’t really recognize all the assets we have in rural America. One of the best assets I see in rural communities (and many others agree) is our young people. The youth of rural America are willing to face the challenges within their community head on. As a high school teacher, I see each day the talent they have for creatively solving problems. Young people desire to play a role in putting these creative thinking skills to the test and help build a thriving rural, economy. These problems therefore, should really be thought of as opportunities in disguise.
Chris mentions that one of the challenges in small towns is developing business succession plans. I am confident small town business leaders looking to retire will find young people willing and capable to maintain and adapt these business going forward. Our communities are well-equipped to educate our youth and help implant the skills they need, whether it’s through connecting with organizations like the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs or the Illinois Small Business Development Center. Perhaps local business leaders can develop meaningful relationships with rural high schools and provide opportunities for students to develop business skills through internship or leadership training programs (the Youth Leadership Academy sponsored by our area’s Chamber of Commerce is already engaged in this work). The bottom line is that developing these skills should not be left to educators alone; it will take the entire village.
CONCLUSION: Our school in Cuba, IL recently played an Illinois 8-man football game in rural, northwestern Illinois. Although our communities have roughly the same population, we do not have a lot of the same economic problems. Northwestern Illinois, for instance, is home to a ski resort called Chestnut Mountain. While here in Forgottonia you can find some great pumpkin patches and corn mazes that might bring in tourists, you aren’t likely to find many resorts (our area also has a giant Fall festival called the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive that draws an enormous amount people). Nonetheless, this only reinforces the idea that different communities have different problems.
As rural communities are complex places, the solutions to the problems we face should not be one dimensional. This is the message that Chris leaves us. What then are the challenges your community faces?