National Business Incubation Association; Your source for knowledge and networks in business incubation

Farewell to a visionary leader

by Meredith Erlewine

November/December 2009

When NBIA’s longtime chief executive Dinah Adkins retired from the association in August, she took with her tremendous institutional memory, a contact list that spans the globe, and fond memories of the people and places she has known through her work here. But she left behind far more in the form of a legacy of contributions that have shaped the business incubation industry.

Adkins’ name has been synonymous with business incubation since 1988, when she assumed management of the association. Even before that time, she was an industry pioneer, working in the field since 1982 and becoming a founding member of NBIA in 1985.

Under her leadership, the association has grown to nearly 2,000 members representing more than 60 nations. This growth is due in large part to innovative programs Adkins introduced, novel concepts she championed and strategic decisions she made.

Set an entrepreneurial example

NBIA was in need of a new headquarters and a new leader in 1988. Mark Weinberg, an NBIA board member who was a professor of political science and director of Ohio University’s Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development, saw an opportunity for Adkins, who was managing OU’s Innovation Center in Athens, to step up to the plate.

Weinberg brokered an arrangement by which Ohio University would host NBIA. “NBIA’s board of directors asked Dinah to lead the association,” Weinberg recalls. “The university and I would only agree to host NBIA if Dinah agreed to head the association. We knew we needed her. Very rarely do you come across someone as talented and hard working as Dinah.”

When Adkins assumed management of NBIA, the association had fewer than 200 members, only $275 in the bank, no assets or office equipment, and no physical offices. “Plus, our 990 filings were in arrears and being contested by the IRS, and the 501(c)(3) filing wasn’t completed,” she says. “I had a conference to put on in five months without even a hotel contract or a conference program.”

Anyone who has worked with Adkins knows she relishes a challenge, meeting adversity and deadlines head-on with a pace that her colleagues find both overwhelming and invigorating. It was with this level of energy that she went about getting NBIA on track.

Like many incubator managers have done over the years, Adkins rolled up her sleeves and managed every aspect of the organization — preparing bulk mailings, answering phones, producing and disseminating newsletters, recruiting members and marketing the conference.

In April 1989, 385 industry professionals gathered in Pittsburgh for the 3rd International Conference on Business Incubation. By the end of the year, NBIA’s 990s were up to date, the 501(c)(3) filing was complete, and the association had moved into new offices. NBIA finished out its fiscal year with revenues slightly ahead of expenses. The association was ready to grow.

Created a body of knowledge

In the late 1980s, the recession that had hit the United States took its toll on business incubators —particularly those that were poorly planned. Programs without feasibility studies or business plans, many located in inappropriate buildings, were failing.

Adkins knew the managers of these programs needed a library of information on how to make business incubation work. “Creation of strong programs couldn’t be based on a once-a-year conference,” she says. Thus NBIA began its long history of publishing in-depth information about industry practice. Adkins also initiated the first industry study, the State of the Business Incubation Industry, 1989.

“It was absolutely amazing how quickly and effectively Dinah seized the opportunity to professionalize the industry,” says Mark Rice, who was a member of NBIA’s board of directors from 1989 to 1995 and served as chairman from 1990 to 1992. “It started with dramatically improving the annual conference and recruiting incubation leaders to identify and share best practices. Then she began a sustained effort to research and codify best practices — and stimulating a much broader and stronger conceptualization of business incubation.”

Adkins frequently traveled to Washington, D.C., to stump for funding for books, training and research.

“I pleaded with the Economic Development Administration, noting that they were investing in incubator bricks and mortar but it was information that our programs needed to maximize EDA’s return on investment,” she says. As a result of her efforts, EDA and the Small Business Administration both began to contribute to these technical assistance projects.

In 1990, SBA funded creation of curricula for courses presented in NBIA’s first Fall Training Institute (then called Regional Training Institutes), which debuted in 1991. Also in the early 1990s, EDA funded a book on incubator evaluation and the first Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation. These projects were the beginning of what has become a long history of high-quality education and publications available from NBIA.

Professionalized the image of business incubation

When Adkins took the helm of NBIA, most people used the term “small business incubators” when talking about incubators. Additionally, most people described an incubator as a place where businesses rented affordable space. Adkins set about to change the very definition of business incubation.

“As a former incubator manager, I knew that the building wasn’t the critical component of business incubation,” she says. “It was the comprehensive program of services that helped entrepreneurs succeed.”

With a master’s degree in English and a background in news reporting and public relations, Adkins also understood the power of syntax. She instructed her staff to stop using the term “incubator tenant,” instead suggesting they use the word “incubator client” — connoting the use of professional services rather than leasing of office space.

NBIA also stopped talking about the facility as if it were the incubator. Adkins helped incubation professionals redefine business incubation as a process that includes graduation policies, on-site management and a program of services specifically targeted to the needs of start-up companies.

“The transformation of the concept of business incubation from facility to process was the major breakthrough of the last 20 years,” Rice says.

Additionally, Adkins worked to change the erroneous assumption that incubators helped only small businesses. “Instead we began to talk about start-up companies. These were companies that were starting small but the intention was for them to grow,” she says.

These subtle yet fundamental changes in syntax and definition helped the industry gain greater respect and clout. “Dinah’s desire for perfection in words, and the assertiveness she learned from being a reporter, showed up in the excellence she expected in NBIA’s work,” says Ellen Gerl, assistant professor of magazine journalism at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and a former NBIA staff member.

Proved the efficacy of incubation

Adkins recalls that in 1991, a George H.W. Bush administration official visited the Birmingham Business Assistance Network incubator (now evolved into the Innovation Depot) in Birmingham, Ala., and told Manager Susan Matlock it was good to see an incubator that worked. Adkins knew that most politicians thought of incubators as places for sick businesses, and NBIA needed to prove incubator impacts via research. Again she argued for funding from EDA.

In 1996 EDA awarded NBIA, the University of Michigan, Southern Technology Council and Ohio University $350,000 to study the effects of business incubation. The project resulted in Business Incubation Works, published in 1997.

Among other things, the Business Incubation Works study found that NBIA member incubation programs produced graduates with high survival rates that remained in their local communities.

“This was the first study of incubator impacts and had a profound result,” Adkins says. “Previously, NBIA and its members had only anecdotal evidence of the value of incubators. Business Incubation Works quieted a lot of unjust criticism of business incubation.”

Adkins’ dedication to proving the impact of business incubation helped shape the national debate regarding the importance of entrepreneurship, according to Hugh Sherman, an author of Business Incubation Works and dean of the Ohio University College of Business. “Dinah greatly contributed to the debate as to what is the most important approach to economic development at the local level —whether it is business attraction or the creation of new businesses (entrepreneurship).”

Larry Molnar, also an author of Business Incubation Works and director of the University of Michigan’s EDA University Center for Economic Diversification, believes Adkins’ advocacy has played a large role in the funding of many incubation programs. “As a tireless advocate, she has been instrumental in millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in incubation in the U.S.,” he says. “Dinah’s legacy is writ large in the hundreds of incubation programs, the thousands of successful incubated firms and the countless number of individuals who have realized dreams as a result of business incubation.”

Ran NBIA like a business

NBIA was bootstrapped like many start-up companies. But unlike many economic development organizations, NBIA has not relied on major grants or subsidies to sustain its operations. Instead, Adkins developed a nonprofit business model in which NBIA creates products and services that its members need and are willing to buy.

“I was committed to diversifying revenue streams as much as possible by expanding book and training programs and initiating a development department to undertake fundraising,” Adkins says. “I also went after grants and contracts for project work.”

Creating a variety of products and services to generate revenue provided sound financial footing for NBIA and allowed the association to do more for its members.

Adkins and her staff worked to reduce dues income to one-fifth of association revenues. “For every dollar in dues the organization brought in, it was raising other dollars to fund member and customer services,” Adkins explains. Beginning in 1996, membership revenues have amounted, on average, to about 21 percent of revenues.

“I am very proud that NBIA is self-financed and believe very strongly that this has resulted in our ‘customer-facing’ attitude,” Adkins says.

It was Adkins’ vision for what NBIA could be, paired with her no-holds-barred approach to gathering the people and resources necessary to achieve it, that helped her grow the association.

“It’s really hard to tell Dinah ‘no,’” says Joel Wiggins, who was on NBIA’s board of directors from 2002 to 2008 and served as chairman from 2006 to 2007. “That’s because she’s usually clearer about what she wants than I am about what I want. And what she wants is for NBIA to be nothing less than the leading incubation organization in the world. It’s rather hard to say ‘no’ to that.”

Strategically kept NBIA a ‘big tent’

NBIA started as an association representing all segments of the business incubation industry: technology, mixed-use, manufacturing and other specialized incubators. As the industry has grown, at various times other organizations serving small niches of the incubator market have attempted to lure away NBIA members. Each time, Adkins fought to keep NBIA as a big tent organization.

NBIA countered each of these challenges by ensuring all members could see the value in NBIA’s services and strength in numbers. “We worked very hard to create superior events, publications and other member services,” Adkins says. “Instead of losing members, NBIA continued to grow.

Adkins was committed to serving as broad a base as possible, as opposed to becoming an elite club. An elite club couldn’t influence the betterment of incubators. She knew everyone had to remain in the tent in order to truly have a rich exchange of ideas, practices and knowledge that would raise the overall level of industry quality. And a larger group would have more influence with stakeholders.

“A side benefit of this was that members came to recognize that programs of all types could add community value,” Adkins says. “Fostering a big tent mentality also contributed to the natural collegiality incubator managers have.”

Many would say that the collegiality among NBIA members is the association’s defining characteristic. June Lavelle, who was on NBIA’s board of directors from 1986 to 1994 and served as chairwoman from 1988 to 1990, believes it is at the core of NBIA’s success. “Many organizations get stale because the same people do the same stuff year after year,” she says. “This is not the case with NBIA. New leadership is always being developed. That’s what makes it a world-class organization, and it’s what makes people want to be a part of it. They know they have an opportunity to make a contribution.”

While remaining a big tent, NBIA has worked hard to recognize and meet the needs of individual industry segments via offerings at its conferences, special interest groups and publications.

To this day, NBIA continually receives positive comments from new members who are floored by their colleagues’ openness. And NBIA is proud to remain a big tent organization whose members manage incubators focused on everything from value-added agriculture to nanotechnology to fashion.

Built a world-class organization

Working in Athens, Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians, Adkins built a team that created a world-class organization. She expected hard work and superior quality from her staff, and she led by example.

Adkins built a flat organizational structure in which department directors shared in decision-making. “I believed that in many cases the team could make better decisions than I could on my own, so I encouraged teamwork rather than turf protection,” she says.

She applied the same principles when working with the association’s board of directors, which over the years has comprised some of the most gifted incubation leaders in the world.

“She always had such respect for their knowledge and talent. She soaked it up,” says Sally Linder, a former NBIA staff member. “In turn, they gave her tremendous support, coupled with wide berth to do what she did best — build understanding and awareness of business incubation worldwide.”

In recent years, Adkins has helped to expand NBIA internationally, making multiple trips overseas to meet incubation professionals around the world, and bringing the international participation at the NBIA annual conference to over 30 percent.

Today NBIA is an international organization with nearly 2,000 members representing 67 nations. “I simply expected the organization to be the best in the world. That was the plan,” Adkins says.

Without such a visionary leader, NBIA could easily have remained small-minded or faded away. “Instead, Dinah helped the organization provide strategic leadership as the incubation community matured and grew,” says Jim Robbins, who was on NBIA’s board of directors from 2000 to 2006 and served as chairman from 2005 to 2006. Indeed, the vibrant industry we enjoy today has Adkins to thank for the careful nurturing she provided.

In March 2009, Dinah Adkins traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to share her knowledge of business incubation with government officials there. This trip was one of many Adkins took during her years at NBIA to share her experience with others looking to develop and run successful business incubation programs.

Dinah Adkins’ travels have taken her to Japan on several occasions including in 2002, when she visited Tokyo and Kitakyushu to train business incubator managers. Here she and NBIA member Terutaka Tansho, then assistant director of the Kitakyushu Telework Center, prepare to feast on Fugu, a Japanese blowfish that is considered a delicacy. It is poisonous if not prepared properly. Tansho now is collaboration manager and lecturer at Shimane University Collaboration Center in Matsue, Japan.

In her 20-plus years as NBIA’s chief executive, Dinah Adkins has helped expand the association’s reach worldwide. Under her leadership, both international attendance at NBIA’s conference and international membership have grown significantly.

Dinah Adkins’ name has been synonymous with business incubation since she took over the reins of NBIA in 1988. Thank you, Dinah, for your years as a champion to NBIA and the business incubation industry.

Keywords: history of business incubation, people

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