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New Growth works to help businesses in rural Missouri — and make them more visible

Jenifer Warden stands beside equipment she uses in her business Captured Moments Photobooth
Jenifer Warden
Jenifer Warden stands beside equipment she uses in her business Captured Moments Photobooth

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series Entrepreneurship in the Rural Ozarks, you'll hear about a nonprofit focused on helping rural businesses and about a Bolivar entrepreneur who reached out to it for help.

Entrepreneurship is strong in rural areas of Missouri. Many people, when they think about the less populated areas of the state, immediately think of farmers and ranchers, and there are plenty of those – you’ll hear from some of them later in this series – but there are many other businesses that are operating in areas far from Missouri’s bigger cities. During our Sense of Community Series this week, we’ll take you to Golden City where a restaurant has been operating continuously since 1942. You’ll hear how the Ozark Square was revitalized, and we’ll tell you about some of the businesses there. Travel to Monett through a story on a food truck that opened during the pandemic. And learn how a dispensary got started in the small town of Cassville.

Patty Cantrell is outreach and development director with New Growth, a relatively new rural community development corporation based in west central Missouri. She said entrepreneurship is alive and well in rural parts of the state.

“We have to employ ourselves, and we have to provide goods and services that are not coming from big chains and things like that. And there’s also the culture and the community of working together, you know, and providing those resources," she said. "So, there’s a lot of creativity in our communities and people who see opportunities to start a retail business or a service business, and they make it happen somehow. So, data shows that the rate of entrepreneurship is high in rural areas.”

New Growth, which was started by the West Central Missouri Community Action Agency, is working in several ways to support those small businesses. Its financing arm, New Growth Capital, is a Small Business Administration microlending intermediary and emerging Community Development Financial Institution. It works to build the pipeline of bankable rural businesses with micro-enterprise financing and credit building. Cantrell said that’s vital.

“It’s a huge need and gap in the small business world, especially in rural areas – access to capital at that stage and in entrepreneurship. They call it the valley of death actually, you know, because you start off with your own money, and maybe people help you out. You have some initial sales and then it takes awhile before a bank – most banks – will consider you,” Cantrell said.

They partner with banks, she said, so they can help rural entrepreneurs succeed.

New Growth also offers the SBA-designated New Growth Women’s Business Center, which offers both men and women in 15 rural Missouri and Kansas counties training, technical assistance, one-on-one business counseling, mentorship and more.

In Bolivar, Jenifer Warden, who calls herself a serial entrepreneur, is working to build her business Captured Moments Photobooth.

“It is a digital photo booth. I set up an event at parties. It takes pictures, it does videos, it does boomerangs," she said. "I also do prints and then just keep the client’s guests entertained during their events.”

She sets up the open-air photo booth, complete with a backdrop, at a variety of events – from holiday parties to wedding receptions -- and the guests can run it themselves.

New Growth has helped from the beginning to where she is now.

"They helped me figure out what I needed, what the best way to go for me to do this, you know, like corporate or weddings, you know, define my niche and to help me, you know, with my branding," she said. "And they pretty much helped me with everything.”

She said New Growth even helped her with funding and had her go to a bank with her business plan, which the nonprofit helped her write. She was provided with a mentor who she continues to meet with.

“It’s been awesome. I would recommend anybody that is looking to start a business or, you know, have some ideas or even if they’re already started, to get a hold of them and have them walk you through the rest,” said Warden.

While there are many small business owners quietly operating in rural parts of Missouri, Cantrell said they can sometimes be invisible. She said rural small businesses need to have a larger presence in the State of Missouri's economic development strategy.

“It’s really about building the pipeline — and so, more support along those lines that Missouri has already started with its catalyzing innovation effort, but it should also include these what they call local serving businesses. You know, there’s a lot of effort on trying to find people that will end up exporting or growing very large," she said. "But these everyday local businesses, we need to have a focus on them as well because they’re key to the dynamics and building the pipeline of businesses that we need for a really strong economy in this state.”

And she and New Growth will continue to push for those businesses to be seen.

The organization has just begun a project called Rural Business Photo Stories supported by Missouri Humanities, which captures a day in the life of a rural entrepreneur. They’ll work with community leaders to educate them about a project called Photo Flood where amateur and professional photographers come together on a certain day to take photos of local businesses. Those photos will be posted on New Growth’s website and elsewhere on the internet.

“And we think that’s going to help not only people who change the perspective or rural Missouri but also, you know, get young people to see that, yeah, there are businesses here, and I can be like that and stay here or come back here,” Cantrell said.