Local Capital Summit

Small businesses create most of the jobs in this country. But they face great difficulty in attracting the capital they need to survive and prosper. (When I think of a small business, what comes to mind certainly isn’t the SBA’s definition of one with 500 or fewer employees. But more like the businesses I tend to work with, having 10 or fewer employees.)

The Local Capital Summit which I attended on Monday, August 31 was convened in Denver to explore how “local capital” can nurture small, local businesses. (Were I really cool, I would have been tweeting or blogging using a smart phone, directly from the conference.  So, you’ll have to settle for an old fashioned blog post. My first of any substance.)

The summit was hosted by the Mile High Business Alliance, an organization similar to the Summit Independent Business Alliance (SIBA) of which I am a board member. A co-host was The Center for Innovation at Metro State College in Denver.

Local capital, as defined by the conference, includes financial capital, human resources and shared capital – all of which adds up to “business capacity.” The conference presented an opportunity “share and co-create innovative strategies” to manage these issues.

There were two keynotes: Will Raap, the founder of Gardener’s Supply of Burlington Vermont and Woody Tasch, former head of Investor’s Circle and current leader of the Slow Money movement.  Raap is dedicated to rebuilding the economy at the local level and has implemented a number of local strategies in connection with Gardener’s Supply, including an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), encouraging “intra-preneurship” among his employees and establishing the Intervale Center farm incubator program to foster the production of locally grown food in northern Vermont.

Woody’s recent book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered (Chelsea Green 2008) is serving as a catalyst to bring critical mass to the idea of relying far less on corporate agriculture and supporting local farms on a national basis, instead. He is also attempting bring this notion of disintermediation — getting investors closer to their investments — to other sectors of the economy as well. The first annual gathering of the Slow Money Alliance is taking place next week in Santa Fe.

One of the more interesting aspects was the open space process for determining and scheduling the presenters. Conference leaders had solicited ideas for presentations in advance and allowed participants to vote, but the actual sessions were determined by the particpants at the start of the conference. I attended as session on “Creative Capitalization” exploring ways for cash starved businesses to survive, including ideas like: barter, “venture labor” and the infamous “deli dollars.”

These conversations among small business owners, with contributions from accomplished, provocative experts are certainly inspirational. I hope next year’s conference is bigger and better.

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