One of the first tasks Paul Wetenhall tackled as manager of the Lennox Tech Enterprise Center (TEC) was developing a novel way to introduce the newly constructed incubator to the greater Rochester, N.Y., community. Believing a classic ribbon-cutting ceremony would focus more on the politicians who cut the ribbons than on the entrepreneurs the program was designed to serve, he planned a weeklong celebration to educate local residents about the value of entrepreneurship.
The incubator hosted its first Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week (TEW) in 1997 to introduce the program to the community, but it has continued the event in recent years to encourage and celebrate the success of local tech entrepreneurs. TEC, Rochester’s technology incubator, is an initiative of High Technology of Rochester, a not-for-profit organization committed to furthering the area’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Each October, Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week opens with a private reception featuring high-profile guest speakers and closes with a public open house to encourage local residents to tour the facilities. Throughout the week, the incubator offers educational sessions focusing on a range of business topics of interest to both new and experienced entrepreneurs, including capital acquisition, intellectual property, business planning and marketing strategies. All seminars are fee-based and open to the community.
Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week has proven to be an effective way to meet a multitude of incubator goals, including providing opportunities for local entrepreneurs to network with community leaders, showcasing clients to potential investors and the media, and marketing the incubator to prospective entrepreneurs, Wetenhall says. "The success of Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week cannot be measured by any one aspect of the program," he says. "The beauty of TEW is that it fully integrates learning services, stakeholder involvement, client recognition and incubator marketing into one high-impact, high-visibility annual showcase event series."
The local business community initially expressed skepticism of TEC’s potential for success, fearing it was too bureaucratic and lacked the savvy to work effectively with technology entrepreneurs. Through Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week’s focus on the entrepreneur, however, the incubator has dramatically reshaped how the community perceives the program, Wetenhall says.
As entrepreneurs become aware of the educational and networking benefits of the week’s activities, community interest grows. Between 70 and 90 entrepreneurs attended daily informational sessions last year, and more than 100 attended the opening reception and open house. TEC measures attendance, revenue, entrepreneurial interest, sponsorship, volunteer assistance and media interest to evaluate the ongoing success of Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week.
The incubator hosts all Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week activities in its multimedia room, bringing prospective clients and community leaders to the facility. "Our incubator is located in a fairly remote area in suburban Rochester, so we’re a bit off the beaten track," Wetenhall says. "While the programs would be just as effective at another venue, we would not have the added benefit of showing people where we are and what we have to offer."
TEC already is accruing the benefits of its increased visibility and credibility. In 2000, the 4th Annual Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week brought the incubator to 100 percent occupancy, and TEW 2001 attracted five new client companies and two affiliates. In fact, TEC’s newest client, Oz Saferooms, joined the incubator after an inventor and a local businessperson met during the open house last fall and decided to start the company.
As the program grows, event planners are receiving increasing support from community and business leaders committed to helping local entrepreneurs succeed, Wetenhall says. Volunteers from local universities, business schools, law firms and venture capital firms have been instrumental in helping raise awareness of Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week events among the entrepreneurial community, and sponsors now come to the incubator offering their support for the week’s activities.
Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week also attracts the interest of local media outlets, providing exposure for both TEC and its clients. The Rochester Business Journal annually publishes an 8-page TEW insert highlighting client companies and graduates, and the event regularly receives coverage in daily newspapers.
The comprehensive nature of the week’s activities and the superb execution of its programs helped Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week capture the attention of the judges in the Innovation Award category. The first Tech Entrepreneurs’ Week was organized and executed by Cindy Gary, former program manager, and primary responsibility for the event now rests with Alana C. McDaniel, TEC client relations manager.
Wetenhall says he is happy to share his experiences with other NBIA members who wish to develop similar entrepreneurial education programs in their communities. "The most important thing is to proactively seek out what’s on the minds of entrepreneurs in your community," he says. "If you discover what’s important to them and what you can do to make a difference, you’ll be successful."
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