June 22, 2018
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Want more Maine jobs? It’s not just about creating businesses

By Amy Stursberg and John Voltz, Special to the BDN

It is a long-held economic tenet that small businesses drive economic growth and job creation. While small businesses do employ most Americans, their effect on job growth is much more nuanced. Meaningfully growing jobs is far more dependent on encouraging businesses of all sizes to grow than it is on the sheer number of new small businesses we are able to create.

This is a particularly important distinction in Maine. Thanks to decades of deliberate effort, Maine has many great companies and is becoming one of the best places in the country to start a business. But now those businesses need to grow. Today, Maine businesses stay too small to create significant numbers of new jobs or boost wages. Maine beats the national average for firms with just one to four employees by 5 percent, but it has 25 percent fewer businesses of 50 to 99 employees, and 53 percent fewer firms with more than 1,000 employees.

Maine has both the talent and resources to support high-growth companies, yet even firms with significant potential stay too small to become significant job engines for their community. This compelling dichotomy motivated the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to launch a $3 million initiative to spark Maine’s high-potential businesses. We saw Maine’s challenge as one that could benefit from both our capital and expertise in helping businesses succeed and grow.

Local leaders deserve tremendous credit for the sophisticated support for entrepreneurs and innovators already in place. What is missing, particularly in such a rural state, is the linkage and coordination that would naturally aide entrepreneurs in places such as Silicon Valley, the Boston Corridor or the Research Triangle. We do not have to turn Portland into Palo Alto to reach that goal. Like all states, Maine can learn from robust growth regions about how to nurture its own young business, attract a steady flow of talented young people and brand itself as a “destination” for the deal-making community.

To help accomplish all this, we chose to partner with a few of the organizations already making a difference in Maine’s innovation and entrepreneurship community: the University of Maine, Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and Maine Technology Institute.

In our first year of operation, the initiative Blackstone Accelerates Growth has begun connecting leaders of high-growth potential companies with sources of intellectual and financial capital. We are offering training opportunities tailored to individual business needs and access to a supportive virtual community of innovators and entrepreneurs. We also are focusing on developing a talent pool of next generation entrepreneurs.

In this short amount of time, Blackstone Accelerates Growth has already made connections that have sparked growth opportunities. We helped a company connect to an angel investor. We doubled the number of businesses benefiting from mentorship services and supported the expansion of online entrepreneurship training into rural Maine. We placed student interns at some of Maine’s most innovative companies, two of whom received job offers as a result of their experience.

Our reach expanded further this fall with the official opening of Blackstone Accelerates Growth “innovation hubs” in Bangor and Portland — both focused on identifying and supporting businesses with the greatest potential for growth. These hubs allow for coordinated and direct referrals to a wide range of experts and resources including “office hours” for entrepreneurs to hone business plans, networking events, training programs, as well as access to a talented pool of interns.

In its first three years, Blackstone Accelerates Growth intends to assist 250 companies — offering each a tailored suite of support services to help them take their businesses to the next level. In addition, more than 400 college students will receive training in innovation and entrepreneurship. Those are ambitious goals, but we cannot create thousands of new jobs in Maine unless hundreds of companies begin to grow.

Amy Stursberg is executive director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. John Voltz is executive directive director of Blackstone Accelerates Growth.

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