Looking Forward, a nonprofit group with a mission to make Central Oregon a better place to live, has turned its focus toward improving the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. BendTECH recently sat down with Jim Schell and S.J. Camarata, Looking Forward board members, to learn more about those efforts and their take on startup culture here.
Looking Forward wants to help improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Do you see gaps here that aren’t being addressed?
Jim: Not a gap, but more like an opportunity we want to take advantage of. Bend attracts a lot of young, energetic, smart people. We want to leverage that. I think entrepreneurs drive our country and they certainly drive jobs. We want to make this an entrepreneur-friendly community that in turn creates jobs.
S.J.: Bend is like an athlete that has all the talent. But you need somebody who recognizes that that’s the next MLB star and then works to get him to the next level. We want to know what we need, and where we need to do more.
Looking Forward recently convened a small group government leaders, startup founders and entrepreneurs to talk about entrepreneurship here. What came out of that meeting?
Jim: We were very pleased with the conference. All but two of the 25 entrepreneurs we invited showed up. We got a lot feedback. Among the many lessons we learned was that yes, Bend’s entrepreneurs need, and would appreciate, an ecosystem designed to help them succeed.
We’re working on four initiatives as result. We want to develop a story for Bend, something to help market this place. We want to have an event where we introduce Bend’s new economy to the traditional business economy. We also want to unify all the organizations in Central Oregon that work to make Bend a better place, so EDCO, the Chamber, Bend2030. And finally we want to create some leadership training for the leaders in each of our four economic clusters: microbreweries, tech, bioscience and outdoor products.
Looking Forward isn’t necessarily only concerned with business. Why the focus on entrepreneurship right now?
Jim: Back in 2002, the state hired me to take Opportunity Knocks (a nonprofit that connects business owners with each other) and implement it into other communities including Coos Bay, Grants Pass, Klamath Falls, Portland. Whenever I’d go into a community, I’d work with banks, community leaders, entrepreneurs, etc.
There’s a palatable different energy in this community and there’s more energy in Bend today than there ever has been. It’s infectious and it’s exploding in town. I can feel it talking to bankers and other professionals and I can see it in the startups.
S.J.: Also the timing is right here. We went through the recession and we are on the upswing right now. This wouldn’t have happened in 2008. You look at what’s going on even in terms of events. For example, we have TedxBend, BVC and the BendFilm Festival. Three events of that caliber are shocking for a town of 80,000.
Before I heard about Looking Forward I heard about “the guys that went to Boulder” from at least a half dozen people in the tech community here. You are indeed those guys. What was that trip about?
S.J.: I was Bend Venture Conference last fall, and I had a number of conversations with people about how Bend is poised to explode (from an entrepreneurial perspective). So Jim and I started to talk about it, and we thought of other places that are like us, but with a more mature entrepreneurial scene.
We ended up going to Boulder, where we had a number of conversations there with people about how to better help entrepreneurs. What’s cool about Boulder is that it encompasses the lifestyle and it’s a great place to start a business and be an entrepreneur. We want that. That’s part of what we’re trying to do.
And how does Bend compare?
Jim: In Boulder, we heard a lot about the initial lack of infrastructure for new business. There was a rift between government and business, and there they succeeded in spite of that infrastructure problem. For instance, they didn’t have an EDCO. We have a lot of wonderful infrastructure to get us started.
So what’s next?
Jim: We have committees working on those four initiatives that came out of our conference. We hope to reconvene the same entrepreneurs group this fall and present our solutions. We also want to provide ways for people to participate.
S.J.: I was very, very excited after our conference. Everyone is excited about the possibilities. And everyone is really ready and willing to help. I look at Looking Forward as being a catalyst. We find something that is of interest, we shake things up and try to get things going in ways that are useful. I think we want to foster that creativity, and see what comes from it.
You can reach Kelly by email at [email protected].