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Tacoma needs to dream big

Can you teach people to be entrepreneurial?

Actually, you don’t have to teach them so much as uncover their inner entrepreneurs.

Most people have one, even if it never manifests itself beyond a lemonade stand or selling baseball cards.

Can you teach a whole community to be entrepreneurial?

That’s a tougher one. Some regions of the country seem to have something in the water that causes a disproportionate segment of the population to take risks and establish new businesses.

But there must be some way to teach the concept. After all, the reverse is true. Many communities have unlearned how to be entrepreneurial.

Whether you can actually inculcate an environment of entrepreneurialism has long-term implications for Tacoma’s economy, especially since someone is going to try.

The Tacoma College Entrepreneur Network was launched in November with a competition in which students were challenged to come up with a business plan to address a specific problem. That’s to be followed by formation of entrepreneurship clubs at participating schools (Puget Sound and UW Tacoma are in, Pacific Lutheran and Evergreen have been invited to join).

The network’s goal, according to a release, is “to enable Tacoma’s college students to explore an entrepreneurial career path. The collaboration also will benefit Tacoma and Pierce County by encouraging a local culture of entrepreneurship and creating a community of diverse, young innovators who can help drive long-term economic health.”

The term entrepreneur doesn’t apply just to flashy, tech-driven start-ups.

But there are different levels, types and goals of entrepreneurial ventures. Independent businesses that not only sustain an individual or a family but create a few other jobs as well are vitally important to a community, even if those businesses never grow beyond a single storefront.

Another level of entrepreneurship consists of the companies that grow to be major players in their industries (sometimes creating or dramatically reshaping their own categories). Almost every major private-sector enterprise in this region that is a national or global player in business and that is significant to the region’s economy – Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Nordstrom – started as someone’s small entrepreneurial venture.

Those success stories are vitally important to a region’s long-term vitality too, because regions can lose what were once their economic mainstays, and when that happens they need to have replacements.

Your columnist grew up in the Midwest, which 100 years ago was what Silicon Valley is today – a regional hotbed of startups. Every tinkerer, mechanic and inventor wanted to get in on newfangled industries such as automobiles. A couple of bicycle-shop mechanics from Dayton Ohio, dabbled in aviation. The Midwest thrived economically because of those ventures. But somewhere, somehow, the region lost much of its entrepreneurial drive. It was content to live off the bounty of its successes, which became a problem when those businesses and industries faltered and the region had no next chapter.

The Puget Sound region has added to its portfolio of industries to create companies, jobs and wealth. Blame it on the water, the weather, some intangible quality, but the region hasn’t lost the ability to be entrepreneurial.

Tacoma needs a slice of that for its long-term economic well-being. Whether efforts like the Tacoma College Entrepreneur Network can foster a thriving entrepreneurial climate here won’t be evident for a decade or two. It’ll take time to know whether not just the specific lessons of business formation but the spirit of enterprise can be taught and sustained. But the efforts themselves are laudable. Entrepreneurialism is a slow-growing crop – so we might as well get planting now.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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