While traditionally, many think that rural businesses are primarily farms and companies that serve them, the truth is that rural businesses encompass a broad array of industries, especially since the growth of remote and virtual work.
SCORE mentors who advise rural entrepreneurs have seen this industry expansion first-hand. And it may surprise you to know that businesses with less than 50 employees provide 42% of all jobs in rural America.
Rural areas have also become popular places for American tourists to visit, along with rural local businesses such as antique stores, bed and breakfasts, campsites, cabins and restaurants. In addition, people living in rural communities need the same services that all Americans need, including real estate services, notaries, home repair services, car washes, gas stations, yoga studios, gyms, daycare facilities and more.
There’s also been a surge of tech jobs and businesses in rural areas in the past few years, including website and graphic design, blogging, podcasting and more. Essentially you can run almost any type of business in rural communities.
So exactly where is rural America? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looks at counties when defining rural America and considers nonmetro counties that include some combination of:
- Open countryside
- Rural towns with populations of fewer than 2,500 people
- Urban areas with populations ranging from 2,500 to 49,999 people that aren’t included in the larger labor market areas
Wherever a business is located, there are many organizations and resources that can help rural entrepreneurs face challenges and grow their businesses.
1. Center for Rural Affairs
The Center for Rural Affairs is dedicated to building a better rural future. Its mission—to “establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, and genuine opportunity for all while engaging people in decisions that affect the quality of their lives and the future of their communities” infuses everything it does.
In addition to assisting rural communities, the organization helps small family farmers, ranch owners and new small business owners. While their policy work is nationwide, the Center focuses on Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota. It conducts on-the-ground work with communities and farmers in Iowa and Nebraska. It also acts as a lender to small businesses in Nebraska.
The Center has an extensive library of reports, publications and a blog.
2. Center on Rural Innovation
The Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) believes “everyone everywhere” deserves to benefit from the burgeoning tech economy. It works with rural community leaders to launch programs supporting entrepreneurship, innovation and tech job creation throughout rural America.
Part of CORI’s goals is to shift how the nation thinks about rural America and what is possible to accomplish there. It also advocates for bringing broadband to rural communities, believing that installing the “last mile” of fiber internet will help instill the tech economy, including online learning and innovation, in these areas.
CORI offers training programs to help members of the Rural Innovation Network develop local tech workforces, better preparing rural residents to work for the tech startups CORI is encouraging local entrepreneurs to start. Towards that end, CORI invests in early-stage rural tech startups through the CORI Innovation Fund (CIF).
Currently, 12 percent of America’s workforce lives in rural areas, but only 5 percent of tech jobs are in those locations. CORI’s primary goal is to balance that by 2030 and have 12 percent of tech jobs in rural America.
3. e2 Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
Guided by its mission “to help communities and regions connect, learn, and share best practices for building sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems,” e2 Entrepreneurial Ecosystems helps communities prosper.
Much of their decades of fieldwork has been in rural America, where they focus on showing communities how entrepreneurship can transform them. Through its National e2 Practitioners Network, the organization mentors and coaches people looking to build entrepreneurial ecosystems in their rural communities.
Those who want to help transform their rural areas can take advantage of e2’s library, policy and research reports, market opportunity profiles and custom analytics. The e2 University (e2U) offers guides, tools, papers and the Energizing Entrepreneurs (e2) Development Framework, which guides communities to design and implement a road map for entrepreneurial development.
4. Rural Business-Cooperative Service
The Rural Business-Cooperative Service is part of the USDA. It offers programs that provide money, training, education and entrepreneurial skills development to help rural residents find jobs or start and grow their businesses.
The Rural Business-Cooperative Service wants to “connect rural residents to the global economy” by supporting business growth and development, assisting with creating wealth, bringing fast internet to more homes and businesses, and more.
It offers numerous business programs that provide loans, loan guarantees and grants to individuals, businesses, cooperatives, farmers and ranchers, public bodies, nonprofits, Native American Tribes and private companies in rural communities.
It also offers a BioPreferred Program to increase the purchase and use of biobased products.
5. Rural Ideas Network
The Rural Ideas Network is a community of business innovators, entrepreneurs and rural champions.
The basic membership is free and provides valuable content, tools and more, including the opportunity to network with other rural entrepreneurs and access its peer learning forum, workshop and podcast library.
Publications & Articles
6. Investing in Rural Prosperity
The Federal Reserve of St. Louis created the Investing in Rural Prosperity book, which features contributions from 79 authors representing financial institutions, nonprofits, philanthropies, academia, and government agencies, covering various topics, including support for entrepreneurs.
7. Resources for Rural Entrepreneurs: A Guide to Planning, Adapting, and Growing Your Business
The Resources for Rural Entrepreneurs: A Guide to Planning, Adapting, and Growing Your Business guide from the USDA features information on how rural entrepreneurs can use the federal agency and other federal programs to access financing and other assistance to start and expand their businesses.
8. Promoting Rural Entrepreneurship and Rural Economic Development
Promoting Rural Entrepreneurship and Rural Economic Development, a downable PDF from The Third Way public policy think tank, discusses rural entrepreneurs’ economic challenges and the various approaches to solving them.
9. Rural Entrepreneurship: Lessons Learned from Ecosystem Building in Oregon
The Rural Development Initiatives offers a nine-lesson program as a downloadable PDF, Rural Entrepreneurship: Lessons Learned from Ecosystem Building in Oregon, designed to help rural entrepreneurs thrive.
10. University Extension Programs
University of Minnesota offers various programs, including a five-week online course, Is Your Business Ready for Success? It also features a podcast, the Moos Room, designed to help beef and dairy producers be more successful.
Brighter Future for Rural Small Businesses
Small business owners face many challenges; rural entrepreneurs confront even more. But additional help is now available from organizations, state governments, the federal government and other entities than ever before.
The USDA has numerous programs and grants to help rural entrepreneurs. In addition, rural communities are also included in the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) HUBZone program. Businesses located in HUBZones can get special access to federal contracts.
Technology has redefined the capabilities of rural entrepreneurs, enabling them to network, connect and learn from one another easily. If there’s no alliance in your rural community, help form one. It will benefit you and help other business owners and the community as a whole.
And if you need help, SCORE is always here. Find a SCORE mentor with rural business expertise and let them help you build a thriving, sustainable small business.
Copyright © 2023 SCORE Association, SCORE.org
Funded, in part, through a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, and/or recommendations expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.