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The art of operations

by Colleen Killen-Roberts

Divisional Vice President of Entrepreneurship

From lemons to lemonade: a quick 2020 recap

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, 2020 is the Year of the Rat (the same lunar year in which I was born). Due to the general negative reputation of rodents, this might seem like an appropriate time for a pandemic to occur. Yet in Chinese culture the Year of the Rat is considered a time of new beginnings; the rat is also regarded as a hard-working, quick-witted and flexible creature. As those attributes have been critical to getting through these challenging times, the Year of the Rat takes on even more significance.

For the foundation, 2020 started normally enough. Then just as we were gearing up for our busy retreat season, everything came to a screeching halt on March 24 as the governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

This was a blow on a couple of fronts. For starters, leader retreats are a cornerstone of our educational programs and traditionally have been an entry point to our suite of services. In addition, it’s part of our founders’ intent that Big Rock Valley, our headquarters property in Southwest Michigan, be used to convene entrepreneurs, provide them with new information and facilitate connections that can accelerate their success. With 2,000 acres of woodlands, prairies and streams, Big Rock Valley is an amazing place to recharge and find inspiration.

One of the first things we did in March was to call our key partners and ask what challenges they were facing and how we could help. At the top of their list was addressing isolation for business owners. In response, we quickly created a series of virtual CEO roundtables. The format was very compact (two-hour monthly sessions over a three-month period). The tables were also narrowly focused on COVID-19 to help business owners address problems related to the pandemic, share best practices and identify any market opportunities.

These tables were a huge hit, and participants wanted to know what was next. Fingers crossed, we developed new curriculum about crisis management and adapted it for online delivery to a group of Louisiana business owners. This marked our first-ever virtual retreat. It was so well received that we began offering it to other partners and converting already-scheduled retreats from in-person to online. In August through an online retreat, we also launched the American Academy of Entrepreneurs, a new mentoring program.

As a result, we have touched 1,143 entrepreneurs this year — a 52% increase from the number of second-stagers served last year.

Looking back on all this, what’s interesting is that we’ve offered virtual roundtables for two or three years, but they’ve always been more of a back-burner program. Yet with the pandemic, this low-profile program suddenly moved to the forefront and became the new entry point into our ecosystem.

And though we look forward to resuming retreats at Big Rock Valley as soon as it’s safe to do so, 2020 has still been a year of progress and innovation for the foundation. These challenging times have given us an opportunity to serve entrepreneurs in an entirely new way, and our entrepreneurship team has grown closer to our partners — and to each other.

(Published Dec. 11, 2020)