Example of well-executed infill development in a downtown area

Attendees at Small Business Academy 2017

The path of starting a small business is riddled with trial and error—but what if fledgling entrepreneurs could skip over some of the “error” part by connecting with other business owners a few steps ahead on the path and learning from their experiences?

This was the idea behind the Small Business Academy, an event first proposed by former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and held for the first time in 2014 in conjunction with MARKETPLACE, the Governor’s Conference on Diverse Business Development, held annually in Milwaukee.

The Small Business Academy was a success from the start, with tickets selling out all four years consecutively. From its original format as a single event at MARKETPLACE, the workshop has now been expanded into multiple events across the state. In the interest of reaching a broad swath of Wisconsin business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, Small Business Academy events will be held in Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse and Green Bay in 2020.

“Successfully starting a business is difficult, if not impossible, without drawing from the wisdom of business owners who have faced similar challenges,” says Anne Hlavacka, director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, the host of the Small Business Academy event in La Crosse. “Small Business Academy successfully connects new and aspiring business owners to resources and to each other.”

Over the years, the Small Business Academy has featured workshops on topics of importance to small businesses, including financing options, legal concerns, regulatory issues, information technology, small business certifications, and identifying markets and sales opportunities, as well as practical advice from business owners who have successfully made it through the initial stages of starting and growing their companies.

The event began to branch out beyond Milwaukee in 2016 with its first La Crosse workshop, cohosted by WEDC, the SBDC and the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce. In 2019, a Green Bay version of Small Business Academy was hosted by the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. A Madison workshop will be a new addition for 2020.

The 2019 event in Milwaukee, which was hosted in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Great Lakes Resource Center in Chicago, focused on access to capital and improvement of financial health, providing attendees with expert advice on topics including small business lending; free business assistance resources; and ways to plan, start and grow a profitable business. The event also included roundtable discussions on a wide range of topics, including marketing, bidding and certifications, with a particular focus on public sector contracts. Business owners had the opportunity to meet with representatives from banks, revolving loan funds, regional resources providers and alternative financing sources.

“Small businesses can find significant opportunities with government agencies and large corporations—if they are ready,” says Aina Vilumsons, executive director of the Wisconsin Procurement Institute, a Key Strategic Partner of WEDC that helps to organize the workshops. “These events provide much-needed access to knowledge, relationships and resources that support the solid growth and development of a small business. We look forward to working with WEDC to continue expanding Small Business Academy to multiple locations statewide, to help even more business owners develop the networks and resources they need to succeed in the commercial and government marketplace.”

To connect with a Small Business Academy event in your area, please contact Vanessa Ineza, WEDC minority and small business development manager, at vanessa.ineza@wedc.org.