Creating a culture of entrepreneurialism

Creating a culture of entrepreneurialism
Conference promoters say Wisconsin has the elements in place for a more vibrant economy

By David Niles, of SBT

Wisconsin’s risk-averse culture is changing, but more needs to be done if the state is to have an economically viable future, say members of a group organizing an upcoming entrepreneurs conference in Milwaukee.
"The culture is changing," says John Byrnes, executive managing partner of Mason Wells, a Milwaukee-based venture capital firm.
But much needs to be done to foster more change and capitalize on the results, they say. Thus the development of this year’s Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference, set for June 3-4 at the Hyatt Regency in Milwaukee.
Efforts to change the culture are coming from both the private and the public sectors, noted Byrnes and Cory Nettles, the new secretary of the state Department of Commerce.
Nettles said the state would create an Office of Entrepreneurship to support development of cutting edge businesses, and would marshal its forces to support the financing of new businesses.
"We need to rethink the way we allocate resources," Nettles said at a recent press conference outlining the upcoming Entrepreneurs Conference. "There are things we can do to make lenders and investors more comfortable with risk."
Wisconsin ranks poorly when it comes to new business; it’s 47th in new-business formation and 36th in venture capital investment, according to Wisconsin Technology Council reports.
Those numbers are indicative of a risk-averse business climate in Wisconsin that must be changed, Nettles said. "We want to do everything we can to change that culture," he said.
The elements of change are in place, Byrnes said, noting that Wisconsin produces as many patents per capita as other parts of the country which are more identified with entrepreneurialism. "But we don’t turn those patents and ideas into businesses," he added. Thus, the state loses out on wealth-creation that such transfers foster, he said.
Byrnes, who has been in the venture capital arena for more than 25 years, also said Wisconsin needs to develop a deeper admiration for entrepreneurship and business in general. "We have a service industry mentality; here in Wisconsin we say, ‘Mothers don’t let your babies grow up to be businessmen,’" he said.
The Entrepreneurs Conference will take a new approach.
In the past, entrepreneurs made lengthy presentations on their ideas at entrepreneurial conferences. This year, it will be the venture capitalists who will make the presentations, telling the would-be entrepreneurs what it would take to get financing from them.
"We thought we’d turn the tables and put the focus where it ought to be," Byrnes said. "The key resource isn’t capital – it’s people."
Nettles said the conference "will help entrepreneurs find the strategies, tactics and tools to turn their ideas and innovations into thriving new businesses."
The conference will kick off a year-long focus on entrepreneurship, including the first Governor’s Wisconsin Business Plan Contest and the first Wisconsin Visionary Awards. It will also mark the first public appearance in Wisconsin of representatives of Frazier Technology Ventures, the Seattle-based firm that will manage about $60 million in venture capital for the State of Wisconsin Investment Board.
Entry of Frazier into Wisconsin is one of the signs Byrnes cited in noting the changing entreprenuerial culture in the state. By the end of this summer, Wisconsin will have four venture capital groups operating here.
Byrnes said he is also witnessing a return of creativity in Wisconsin.
And he says many of the components of the economy of the future are in place in Wisconsin, including high-technology and biomedical infrastructures.
"We already have a leadership position; let’s take advantage of it," he implored.
For the business plan contest, the group hopes to raise "a couple hundred thousand dollars," Byrnes said. Prizes would be awarded in phases as businesses progress in their plans.
The Wisconsin Technology Council and its subsidiary, the Wisconsin Innovation Network-Milwaukee, are organizing the June 3-4 conference.

More information on the conference can be found at www.winfoundation.org.

May 16, 2003 small Business Times, Milwaukee

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