ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times
Liberal is one of two communities selected by the Kansas Leadership Center in the Heartland region to participate in a pilot program that will generate leadership and civic engagement to support entrepreneurship.
In 2021, KLC and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City collaborated to launch Heartland Together, a project focused on ecosystems.
KLC thoroughly considered population size, diversity and engagement potential when determining community selection for the pilot program.
Funding from the foundation helped KLC with entrepreneurship support in the states of Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, and Seward County Development Corporation Director Eli Svaty said the process of selecting communities began more than a year ago with listening tours in these states.
“They went to 22 communities in Kansas and communities throughout the other three states,” he said. “They went back to the Kauffman Foundation, talked about the KLC and realized there was opportunity there for leadership growth within the entrepreneurship network across the region. They picked one community in each state.”
Liberal was selected as the community for Kansas, and Svaty said the community is now part of a six-month pilot program.
“We’re the first of the four states to go through this process,” he said. “We had our first event a few weeks ago, what they call the Diagnosis Event. We’re in that transition phase now for their Flagship Experience.”
KLC developed the pilot program to engage key local stakeholders who support entrepreneurs and make it easier for them to diagnose their challenges and work together differently to make their community more welcoming to entrepreneurs.
The design will leverage KLC’s approach to collective leadership on adaptive challenges – which has shown progress on other civic issues – to help these communities adopt economic development practices that focus on local entrepreneurs and community support for entrepreneurship.
The six-month program will promote local entrepreneurship by equipping a broad range of community members to lead in their communities and design action experiments that make progress on the adaptive barriers to thriving entrepreneurship.
Local champions have been recruited to tailor the programming to the specific needs of the community and recruit program participants that reflect the community.
The Diagnosis Event took place in late April and featured about 30 representatives from Liberal and Seward County the team from KLC.
“We spent almost four hours together one evening in the basement of Equity Bank,” Svaty said. “They were able to provide us a space, and what we did through that time was talk about the existing entrepreneurship network, challenges entrepreneurs face in rural Kansas and what voices were represented in the room, what voices weren’t represented we need to make sure we bring into the room at the Flagship Experience. It was trying to get the groundwork laid of who needs to be part of this conversation and how do we bring it to the table.”
A much larger event, the Flagship Experience is scheduled to take place for three days from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Svaty said KLC is bringing its leadership program to Liberal for the event.
“Typically, people who want to go through that have to travel to Wichita,” he said. “The participants through that will get access to that Kansas Leadership Experience leadership program.”
As part of the pilot program, Svaty said KLC is challenging local leaders to do an extended leadership experience.
“Kansas Leadership Center will work with these individuals over the next six months, and those individuals will be launching their own community action projects where they see opportunities in Liberal and Seward County to support entrepreneurs, local small businesses to make the community better,” he said. “They will then go out, create their own working teams of other like-minded individuals who believe in whatever their cause is.”
In turn, KLC will provide financial resources, as well as some additional leadership resources.
“We’ll have upwards of 15 to 20 action projects for the community and the county going on throughout the summer and into the fall,” Svaty said.
Svaty said he knows what turned the pilot program in Liberal’s favor.
“We have a lot going for us as a community,” he said. “One we have a rich history of entrepreneurship. This county and this community has a long tradition of business that have started here or launched here. Two, as an immigrant community, we have entrepreneurs. We have people who are willing to go and live in Southwest Kansas and do great things, and that makes us appealing to people who want to study that entrepreneurship style or community.”
Liberal likewise has many entrepreneurships through Network Kansas, SCDC and Seward County Community College.
“We have those components that make us an ideal candidate for the next step in joining that ecosystem,” Svaty said.
KLC and Kauffman Foundation leaders spent more than a year and a half evaluating communities before reaching their decision.
“We had to do multiple interviews throughout the process just to see if we were going to be the right fit,” Svaty said. “We are the first community through it. What they’re doing along with this is they have a scribe who’s recording everything, all those conversations, all those experiences.”
Svaty said goals for the work being done in Liberal and Seward County is to find successes and things that work better than others and replicate them in other communities in the Midwest.
“They’re trying to capture all of this so they can turn around and use this case study as an example of this how it worked in Liberal and Seward County,” he said. “This is how we can use this other places.”
With the Flagship Event just days away, Svaty said it is unknown what action projects will be developed locally.
“That will be developed by those participants after the leadership component, but it really is all about that entrepreneurship experience,” he said. “How can we streamline the process so that people who want to start a business or bring their business here? It’s easier. It’s more convenient, and they can go from an idea to the launch in a quicker time and with more resources available to them.”
Svaty said he is thrilled for Liberal and Seward County to have this opportunity.
“It’s always fun to be the first one to go through this,” he said. “All too often, we look at other communities and think, ‘Wow, I wish we had something like that, or I wish we could get to see or do what they’re doing?’ This is one of those opportunities where we’re setting that benchmark again. We are the first community. We’ll set the stage for all of Kansas and all of the Heartland region. It’s always fun to be the ones to set that tone.”
Overall, Svaty said he wants to identify and empower more people with leadership skills.
“The school district, the city and a lot of other organizations have sent a lot of people through the Kansas Leadership Center in the program, and the more people we can get engaged in that and empowered by that, the more people we have involved in community projects and the more people we have engaged in the work we’re doing,” he said. “It is a big lift. It takes everyone to make sure the streets look good and to make sure we have a welcoming community. The more people we have trained in leadership capacity and empowered to do more for their community, the better.”