The Mississippi Small Business Development Center at the University of Mississippi is using a federal grant to expand the center’s support of small businesses and entrepreneurs in rural areas of the state.
The $409,112 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be used to develop and deploy virtual centers across Mississippi. The virtual centers will partner with community colleges through the center’s Rural Development Initiative to provide resources for small-business owners and entrepreneurs.
The grant is made possible by several factors, including a $75,000 funding match from the Regions Foundation, an Alabama-based nonprofit primarily funded by Regions Bank that supports community investments. The foundation works to advance economic and community development, education and workforce readiness, making the funding match for the MS-SBDC a natural fit for the foundation’s grant-making program.
“We are excited about receiving this grant and are grateful to the Regions Foundation for providing the matching funds,” said Sharon Nichols, MS-SBDC state director. “These grant funds will provide the opportunity to build infrastructure for our services, including purchasing equipment for 27 Virtual Access Centers in areas of Mississippi that are rural and contain underserved populations.
“The centers will allow video conferencing so small businesses and entrepreneurs can have a secure, confidential space to connect with our services. They also will provide virtual outreach and resources for small-business owners and entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities to help strengthen, grow or start their businesses in rural areas of Mississippi.”
As part of its focus on small-business support, the Regions Foundation has invested in many areas to help entrepreneurs, including grants to help businesses through the impacts of COVID-19.
“We are committed to removing barriers to success, and we are honored to invest in programs that share our goal of creating more inclusive prosperity throughout our communities,” said Marta Self, the foundation’s executive director.
“This initiative from the Mississippi Small Business Development Center will empower more small-business owners with tools they need for success. We are excited to see the results that will be created as part of this initiative.”
Both the foundation and Regions Bank adhere to community engagement strategies that are designed to level the playing field for people, business and community organizations throughout the Southeast, the Midwest and Texas.
“The last 16 months have been particularly challenging for small businesses as they navigated the impacts of COVID-19, as well as the recent trends of supply chain shortages, workforce needs and more,” said Matt Lusco, chief risk officer of Regions Bank and an Ole Miss alumnus.
“At Regions Bank, our local teams are committed to meeting the financial needs of entrepreneurs across Mississippi. And we appreciate the work of our colleagues at the Regions Foundation to support the Mississippi Small Business Development Center. We share in the goal of seeing a stronger, healthier local business community, and this grant is an important step in reaching that goal.”
Regions Bank has a long history of working with the university to support various initiatives.
“Regions Bank is one of UM’s top industry partners, recruiting students, serving as a top employer of Ole Miss alumni, and supporting university and athletics programs,” said Hughes Miller, director of industry giving and engagement with University Development, which worked with the MS-SBDC to pursue the grant.
“We are fortunate to work with the Regions Foundation as we build on UM’s work to support a strong local business community. This is a tremendous opportunity to collaborate and create positive change.”
Miller and Nichols began working together before the pandemic to connect the center with resources to expand its footprint across Mississippi to ensure that small businesses and entrepreneurs had access to the necessary tools to be successful. The pandemic and its impact on small businesses only fueled their urgency in pursuing the grant, a strategy Nichols said could be a “game changer.”
“It is important, as a rural state, to level the playing field and provide access to services, regardless where the clients are located,” Nichols said. “The obstacle of internet access is addressed by locating Virtual Access Centers in community colleges and/or workforce centers, which provide internet access and are located in these hard-to-serve communities.”
Helping small businesses and entrepreneurs succeed strengthens both local economies and the overall state economy, said Jon Maynard, president and CEO of the Oxford-Lafayette Economic Development Foundation.
“Small businesses and entrepreneurship have been the backbone of Oxford’s economy for many years,” Maynard said. “Oxford’s economy has been ranked as the eighth-strongest micropolitan economy in the country. We believe in the ability of small businesses and entrepreneurship to be transformative for the economy of the state of Mississippi.
“The virtual access that these business owners will have to the services of the Mississippi Small Business Development Center is going to make huge improvements in how they will grow their businesses in Mississippi.”
Working with the MS-SBDC and the Regions Foundation to assist Mississippi small businesses and entrepreneurs is just another example of how the university is assisting entrepreneurship and economic development.
“The university understands the vital role we play in entrepreneurship and economic development in the state of Mississippi,” said William Nicholas, UM director of economic development. “We appreciate our collaboration with the Regions Foundation and the Mississippi Small Business Development Center, and we look forward to helping advance our state together.”
The Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant program helps rural communities use telecommunications to connect to one other and to the world, overcoming the effects of remoteness and low population density. Grant funds are awarded through a nationally competitive process and require a 15% match from a different source.
To make a gift supporting business engagement or for more information, contact Hughes Miller, director of industry giving and engagement, at 662-915-2885 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Shea Stewart