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Guest Column: VT--Greenhouse for Entrepreneurs

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I’d love to move to Vermont and start a company here,” the snowboarder from Saratoga, N.Y. sighed as we shared a chairlift in Stowe.

That was nine years ago. Chris Kaiser, who went on to found Vermont Peanut Butter, moved to Stowe in 2005, started making peanut butter in his kitchen, and by the summer of 2011 had expanded into a plant in Waterbury. After the facility was wiped out by tropical storm Irene, he rebuilt and is now selling his all-natural nut butters internationally. Kaiser has become a Vermontrepreneur.

What makes a Vermontrepreneur? It’s hard work, creativity, resiliency, and a dedication to quality. It’s also an ethic about life and work and giving back. Vermontrepreneurs measure profits in ways accountants could never calculate. Yet according to the Census Bureau, they are less likely to fail than those in neighboring states.

“Vermont is very good at growing companies. We’re like a greenhouse,” said Joe Fusco, vice-president at Casella Waste Systems and an advisor at the University of Vermont’s new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program (SEMBA).

What is Vermont doing to help grow its entrepreneurs?

* Prizes for plans: You can win as much as $25,000 (as well as more than $45,000 in pro bono services) in LaunchVT’s 2014 business plan competition. And Strolling of the Heifers offers nearly $90,000 for plans in the farm/food sector.

• Skill building: Take game design at Champlain College or earn a new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA from the University of Vermont. State colleges such as Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont also offer practical programs ranging from cheesemaking to sustainable design, search engine optimization to manufacturing.

• Seed money: Fresh Tracks Capital (proud venture parent to Vermont Teddy Bear, Mophie, EatingWell and others) is interviewing its next potential entrepreneurs. Its annual Peak Pitch event, to be held at Sugarbush on March 6, involves “chairlift” pitches. And consider Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), named one of the top 11 university-based incubators in the world. Last, the Vermont Economic Development Authority provides loans to new and emerging companies.

• Big capital: For those with a big idea, Vermont’s EB-5 program has provided access to more than $300 million in capital and generated thousands of jobs.

• Growth incentives: The Vermont Employment Growth Incentive (VEGI) rewards companies for growing businesses and jobs here. By 2016, VEGI will have generated more than 6,145 jobs with an average compensation of $57,641.

• Workforce training: The Vermont Training Program helps pay up to 50 percent of training costs for employees in qualified businesses. In 2013, VTP helped train more than 3,850 Vermonters, who went on to improve their wages by 13 percent.

• Government contracting: Vermont’s Procurement Technical Center (PTAC) has helped Simon Pearce sell $5 million worth of fine stemware to U.S. embassies worldwide, and Darn Tough put its socks on U.S. soldiers’ feet. In 2013, Vermont companies received 519 contracts worth $73,822,954—nearly double last year’s figure.

Thanks to these programs and others, we’ve seen seedling companies grow into Ben & Jerry’s, Dealer.com, Commonwealth Dairy, Biotek, Logic Supply and others. Is your company next? To learn more about how to start or grow a business, visit the Department of Economic Development’s website, ThinkVermont.com.•

Lisa Gosselin is Commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Economic Development.

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