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The art of operations

by Colleen Killen-Roberts

Divisional Vice President of Entrepreneurship

AAE conference: Celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit

I am so excited about our mentor program, the American Academy of Entrepreneurs (AAE)!  To date, three groups have completed the program and are being inducted into the Academy. It seems like each group had almost magical connections, with many folks asking about our process in pairing people. The net result: entrepreneurs who felt incredibly supported by their partners during extremely challenging times. Now, with these graduates, we’re setting our sights to the AAE conference to be held Sept. 16 and 17 at Big Rock Valley.

Although AAE is one of our newer offerings, it has deep roots and is part of our founders’ intent. Ed Lowe loved his country and believed that entrepreneurs are the backbone of the American economy. Wanting to provide greater resources for them, he and his wife, Darlene, established the foundation in 1985. Because Mr. Lowe learned best from talking with other entrepreneurs, peer learning has become an integral part of our programs — and mentoring was also on his wish list. “Many were the times I wished for a mentor,” he wrote. “A mentor to help me through those scary and challenging times. Someone who’d been there. Someone whose experience I could tap, to reassure me that I wasn’t alone in my obsession.”

We originally planned to kick off each AAE cohort with a retreat at Big Rock Valley, but due to the pandemic all introductions and communications have been virtual. Thus, the fall conference will be the first opportunity for AAE mentors and mentees to meet in person, which I believe to be incredibly important. When you’re sitting across from someone and looking directly into their eyes (instead of over Zoom), a different type of connection happens.

The conference will also feature inspirational speakers (stay tuned for more details) and breakout sessions so AAE graduates can spend time with their respective cohorts. This event will bring together business owners from Louisiana, Michigan and Florida (along with our partners GrowFL, LED and MEDC) — and I’m excited to see what kind of cross-pollination may result. When you get entrepreneurs in the same room, amazing things happen. For example, a Midwest manufacturer may find a potential supplier or partner from another state who­ could scale their business in a way they never imagined before.

Another important aspect of the conference is its location. Big Rock Valley, which has 2,000 acres of woodlands, prairies, ponds and streams, is home to two of the Lowes’ former residences and many of Mr. Lowe’s favorite “pondering” places. In addition to his entrepreneurial pursuits, Mr. Lowe loved being outdoors and having a good time. To honor his great respect for the land and appreciation for fun, we’re planning to have nature walks, hayrides and pickle-barrel golf — a game he invented.

Bottom line, the goal is to connect, to be inspired and to celebrate. We want to recognize these 45 business owners not just for completing the AAE program, but for all the things they’ve accomplished. The past 12 months have been extremely difficult, and we want to raise our glasses and toast their hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. In the words of Mr. Lowe, “Hail, entrepreneur!”

(Published March 1, 2021)