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The Next Chapter

Valley Venture Mentors has long had a singular but multi-faceted mission — to promote entrepreneurship in the region and provide various forms of assistance to help business owners take their venture to the next stage. Through a new and broader affiliation with the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, the agency has an opportunity to become, in the words of its director, even more of an advocate, a champion, and a “convener” within the region’s broad, and growing, entrepreneurship ecosystem.

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

As she talked about the new, broader, stronger relationship between Valley Venture Mentors and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), Hope Ross Gibaldi, VVM’s executive director, used the word ‘opportunity’ early and quite often.

She said the affiliation between the two agencies, or the deeper affiliation, as the case may be, gives VVM access to a larger pool of funding sources, some of them stemming from COVID-relief efforts, and, in general, a stronger platform from which to conduct its many programs — from its weekly ‘community nights’ to its student business accelerator to its entrepreneurial roundtables — and become an even more vital component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“VVM has gone through a lot of evolution and many iterations, and with the course of the pandemic, that has really provided us with a chance to do some reflection,” Ross Gibaldi explained. “I think this new alignment with the EDC really positions VVM to be a convener regionally for the entrepreneurial ecosystem and be an advocate and a champion for entrepreneurship in the Western Mass. region. It’s a tremendous opportunity — for VVM and the region.”

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC, agreed. He told BusinessWest that VVM, which will continue to be its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit and rely on many of its traditional funding sources, ranging from area foundations to long-time supporter Berkshire Bank, is now a “program” of the EDC, one that must ultimately pay for itself through fundraising, grants, program fees, and more, while taking full advantage of networking and funding opportunities presented by the EDC.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts. And that’s what the future is going to be.”

Sullivan noted that entrepreneurship has always been one of planks, if you will, of the EDC’s platform when it comes to economic development. Elaborating, he said regions like Western Mass. can certainly hope to add all-important jobs by attracting major corporations. But a far more realistic strategy is to grow organically, by encouraging entrepreneurship and providing mentorship and several forms of assistance to companies at various stages of development and maturity.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “And that’s what the future is going to be. A Fortune 50 company is not likely to build its headquarters here — our strength is the small-to medium-sized company that stays local, invests local, hires local, uses a supply chain that is also local. Do we all sit and hope that one of these companies that goes through VVM gets really big and stays here? Sure, but that is not the model.”

This explains why the EDC has always maintained a healthy relationship with VVM and why it has now made the agency one of its programs, or affiliates.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan says that promoting entrepreneurship and supporting the startup community is vital to the Western Mass. economy, which explains the affiliation between VVM and the EDC.

“The founders of VVM did a masterful job of getting it here and recognizing the importance of the startup community and small-business growth and the importance of that to the Western Mass. economy,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “We’re building off that leadership and vision and bringing in here. And I think it does align perfectly with the EDC, because it [VVM] is really looking to bring all the resources together for a common goal and put everyone under one umbrella. So I’m optimistic about the future of VVM.”

VVM now joins several other affiliates of the EDC, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Westmass Area Development Corp., the Springfield Business Improvement District, the Amherst Business Improvement District, Westover Airport, and the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce.

The new affiliation agreement provides a good opportunity (there’s that word again) to revisit the mission of VVM, which has entered another intriguing chapter in its history, and how it will carry that mission out.

Indeed, the stronger relationship with the EDC comes as the agency continues what Ross Gibaldi, who joined the agency two years ago and has grown into her current role, described as an evolutionary process, one impacted in many ways by the pandemic, and sometimes in a positive way.

Indeed, programs that were once limited to those who could attend in person are now accessible to anyone who can join via Zoom, which has greatly increased attendance in some cases and brought some new and different voices to the discussions.

“I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, as she noted, the new affiliation provides VVM with an opportunity to create more and stronger partnerships with other agencies in the ecosystem and enable that larger entity to better serve the region and its business community.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Ross Gibaldi and Sullivan about not only the new/old affiliation between the EDC and VVM, but also about the business plan moving forward for an agency that has been at the forefront of efforts to promote entrepreneurship and assist businesses as they work to get to that next level — whatever it might be.

 

Getting Down to Business ‘Dolphin tank pitches.’

That’s the very unofficial name given to one of the more intriguing elements of a summer student business-accelerator program VVM operates in conjunction with the Berthiaume Center at UMass Amherst.

And, yes, it’s a derivative of sorts of the popular television show Shark Tank.

Actually, “it’s a softer version of what you see on TV — it’s, well, not as sharky,” Ross Gibaldi told BusinesWest. “We’re lovingly critical … we’re not vicious. It’s not that we don’t want these entrepreneurs to get real feedback, because that’s an important part of building a venture — getting real, honest, transparent feedback from judges and mentors. But you also don’t want to break their spirit, so we’re trying to find a loving way to do it.”

The dolphin tank, even if it’s not really called that, is part of a broad network of programs that VVM conducts or is part of, all aimed at helping those in business or looking to start one clear hurdles and get to the next level. And it is just one example of how the agency is working to refine and strengthen all those roles Ross Gibaldi described earlier — from convener to advocate to champion of entrepreneurs.

Elaborating on these thoughts, Ross Gibaldi said that, as the entrepreneurship ecosystem continues to grow and evolve, VVM looks to play a broader role in forging partnerships with various players, create more awareness of specific initiatives (and the system itself), and bring a more unified, cohesive approach to the mission shared by these agencies.

“We’re all building a unified front for innovation and entrepreneurship across the region, and I think that fits very nicely with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, and this new alignment puts VVM in a position to support some these ecosystem initiatives that are so drastically needed,” she explained. “But, as organizations and nonprofits that are so strapped, everyone is working with blinders on, which creates silos that people are working in and duplication of efforts. So when we’re able to clearly map out our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem, we can highlight where the gaps are and where we are not serving our entrepreneurs.

“What VVM’s programs will do from there is pull together the stakeholders, be the advocate to figure out how we get funding to support indepth initiatives that can really address the challenges and barriers for our entrepreneurs,” she went on. “I’ve been working very hard over the past few years to strengthen the relationship with other organizations in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, other technical-assistance providers, and all of the others operating in the space supporting entrepreneurs. I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

As just one example, she cited the Blueprint Easthampton entrepreneurship program, an regional resource-mapping initiative launched by the city’s mayor, Nicole LaChapelle, to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and STEM education.

And there are countless others, she noted, adding that they often target specific communities or regions, sectors of the economy, or stages of starting and scaling a business.

Another example would be an initiative called the Western Mass Founders Network, funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and launched by the EDC in partnership with other agencies, including Greentown Labs.

The network was designed for companies that are more advanced, are looking for funding, or might already have received funding, said Sullivan, adding that the group meets monthly and hears from speakers on topics chosen by the business owners with the goal of helping them move to the next level.

“There’s also monthly meetings that are happening with resource partners such as SCORE, the Mass. Small Business Development Center, and other organizations that are supporting entrepreneurs,” said Ross Gibaldi, adding that one of her broad goals is to create more awareness of all that is happening within the ecosystem and create more partnerships to better serve the region.

“Supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

“I found that, often, we as organizations are operating in silos and often are unaware of what’s happening with the other agencies,” she explained. “When that happens, we do a disservice to our entrepreneurs because we’re not fully aware of the opportunities in the Valley. And how are we supposed to take advantage of them and encourage our entrepreneurs to take advantage of them if we don’t know about them? So supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

Meanwhile, VVM continues to offer its own broad slate of programs while partnering with other agencies on different initiatives. In that first category are VVM’s community nights, on the second Wednesday of each month. Now back in person after being virtual for two years because of the pandemic, they offer networking, mentoring opportunities, and elevator-pitch presentations. There’s also a weekly roundtable discussion with startup businesses on Tuesday nights, conducted via Zoom.

In that latter category are programs such as RiseUp Springfield, in which VVM partners with the city to provide a six-month program to help small business owners create scale and expand their ventures. There is also the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, which involves all 14 area colleges and culminates with an annual spring Celebration of Entrepreneurship Spirit banquet.

There’s also the summer student business-accelerator program, which, because it has been run virtually the past few years, has been able to attract participants from across the country and around the world.

“We’ve found that making the program virtual makes it more accessible to people,” she explained. “Over the past few years, we’ve had people log in from outside the United States, which is really exciting; we’ve had people from Pakistan, France, India, and South Africa, and that’s been an amazing element, to broaden that accessibility for these entrepreneurs.”

And these lessons learned will carry over into the future, she said, adding that many programs will continue to have at least a virtual component to enable that improved accessibility to continue.

 

Venturing Forth

Overall, the new relationship between VVM and the EDC is difficult to put into words or describe with a single word.

In simple terms, it means that VVM now has a better, stronger platform for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

Time will tell, but it appears that the new relationship will enable it to take its mission to a different plane while perhaps bringing more continuity and cohesion to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

As Ross Gibaldi said, it’s a big opportunity for both VVM and the region.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) announced it has welcomed Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) into the EDC ranks as a regional leader in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. With a shared vision in stimulating and facilitating a vigorous regional economy, the EDC is committed to supporting local entrepreneurship, which ultimately leads to the acceleration of economic development and community vitalization.

“VVM has played an integral role in the entrepreneur ecosystem as a leader in scaling businesses to the next level of operation, promoting innovation in every aspect of business and generating regional wealth for our local economy,” said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC. “We are eager in taking an inclusive approach in supporting our local entrepreneurial network as they grow into economic engines in Western Mass.”

EDC and VVM leadership have been in discussion on the future of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and have decided to join forces. The board of directors of VVM issued the following statement:

“VVM started with a simple mission: to help entrepreneurs succeed. That mission has guided the organization for over a decade, through economic boom and bust times, as VVM grew from an all-volunteer, ragtag organization into a professional, fully staffed operation with an inspiring space in downtown Springfield. Along the way, VVM has witnessed the explosion of entrepreneurship across the Pioneer Valley, with new programs like EforAll Holyoke, the Berthiaume Center at UMass and its summer student accelerator, LEVER in Berkshire County, and WNEU’s expanding entrepreneurship program, to name a few. VVM has also seen the addition of several new options for startup funding, including the Alchemy Fund, the Maroon Fund, Launch413, and the Springfield Venture Fund.

“We are thankful for the support that VVM has received over the years from its lead funders, MassMutual and the MassMutual Foundation, the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, MassDevelopment, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, Berkshire Bank, and countless other supporting businesses and individuals. We are also thankful for the thousands of hours that individual mentors gave to young (and some old) entrepreneurs. Many business relationships were started at VVM, and hopefully these will continue into the future. Many friendships were also started at VVM, and these have enriched all of our lives.

“The leadership at the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts recognizes the unique value of VVM, its impactful programming, and diverse pool of mentors. We are excited to hand over the reins to the EDC and watch VVM and the EDC work more closely together to fulfill the mission of helping all entrepreneurs in Western Mass. not just succeed, but thrive.”

With this new transition, the EDC has appointed Hope Ross Gibaldi as executive director of VVM.

“Hope’s leadership has been instrumental in navigating VVM through the pandemic while simultaneously developing meaningful and effective relationships and enriching the organization’s programming,” said Xiomara Albán DeLobato, chief of staff of the EDC. “VVM will continue to support entrepreneurs through curated mentoring and networking opportunities — and we are very excited to share more information [in the near future] on the innovative opportunities coming to Western Mass. for the betterment of our entrepreneurs, residents, and overall economy.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Mayor Domenic Sarno is pleased to learn that, according to a recent article from the Business Journals, the city of Springfield ranks number one for the biggest growth in the nation for tech jobs, the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council reported.

According to the article, Springfield saw a 506.3% increase in tech job postings from 2020 to 2021. In the third quarter of 2020, there were only 602 tech job postings, but in the third quarter of 2021, that number jumped to 3,650.

“This is terrific news from the Business Journals’ recent article,” Sarno said. “My administration has worked tirelessly with all of our public and private partners to strengthen and enhance our tech job industries and to expand that sector of work. I want to thank the Baker-Polito administration, Congressman Richard Neal, my Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, and all of our local and regional partners for having a solid vision to grow this sector. As we can see from this report, our yearly change and growth is truly astonishing — over 500% growth in a one-year period. Simply put, that it truly wonderful and exciting.

“My administration will continue to invest in enhancing and reinvigorating our local Springfield economy to create more of that good four-letter word: jobs,” Sarno went on. “The Springfield renaissance that began when I first took office back in 2008 will continue as we now look forward to another transformative opportunity as we look to recover and thrive as we defeat this COVID-19 pandemic and move our future forward for the betterment of our residents and business community.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), and MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board have partnered to produce a regional in-person job fair called the Western Mass Job Trail. On consecutive Wednesdays, Sept. 8 and 15, dozens of participating businesses will host hiring events at their locations in an effort to help fill the hundreds of jobs available in the region.

Job seekers will be directed to participating businesses where they can walk in, fill out an application, get an interview, and maybe even a job on the spot. Available positions are posted at explorewesternmass.com and www.westernmassedc.com. Participating businesses will place balloons and signage at their hiring locations until their jobs are filled.

“So many of our tourism partners have asked us to help spread the word about individual hiring events that we decided to implement a more regional approach to our industry’s critical employee shortage,” GSCVB President Mary Kay Wydra said. “As a popular New England visitor destination, our members need to be fully staffed to accommodate and properly serve locals and visitors alike.”

Rick Sullivan, CEO and president of the EDC, added that “the Western Mass Job Trail is an innovative way to engage our residents who are looking for employment, while simultaneously supporting our corporate businesses in the region. We look forward to the positive outcome this initiative will have on workforce development.”

Businesses can still get involved in the Western Mass Job Trail by contacting the GSCVB ([email protected]) or the EDC ([email protected]).

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) invites the community to join its annual developers conference, presented by MassMutual. The 2020 Western Mass Developers Conference will feature a keynote address from Gov. Charlie Baker and a welcome address from Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and will connect business leaders, developers, real-estate professionals, site selectors, economic-development professionals, and public officials from Western Mass. and across the Northeast.

The conference will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 21 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Attendees can register for free and see the full agenda and list of speakers at developwesternmass.vfairs.com.

The event will be hosted on a 3D virtual event platform and produced by Rise Event Production. With more than 30 regional speakers, the conference is aimed at connecting those who want to learn about the exciting development opportunities available, as well as highlight the region’s assets as an ideal place to invest in and launch and grow businesses. The presenting sponsor is MassMutual, and other sponsors include Westfield Bank, Westmass Area Development Corp., Lisa Oleksak-Sullivan, Westover Airport, Baystate Health, Winn Development, Eversource, Holyoke Community College, Comcast, Colebrook Realty Services Inc., MassDevelopment, the O’Connell Companies, and the CCRC.

“The Developers Conference will showcase an abundance of benefits to working and living in Western Massachusetts,” said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC. “Western Mass. offers a competitive cost of doing business and an excellent quality of life. Our region is rich in higher education, local food sources, cultural attractions, and outdoor recreation opportunities. Western Mass. is the place to live, work, and play; this conference shines a spotlight on that.”

Baker added that, “as Massachusetts continues to face a housing shortage, our administration remains focused on making the zoning reforms and targeted investments necessary to support growth across the state. We are proud to partner with organizations like the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. to drive housing production in every region of the Commonwealth.”

The 2020 Western Mass Developers Conference has six sessions on the agenda, in addition to the keynote address from Baker and a welcome address from Sarno.

“The 2020 Western Mass. Developers Conference is the opportunity for businesses, developers, economic-development officials, and other leaders to connect, learn, and invest in Western Mass.,” said Ann Burke, vice president of the EDC. “The 3D virtual platform will provide conference attendees the opportunity to visit vendor booths and meet with officials, collect materials, view opportunity-zone and preferred developments, learn from industry experts, and hear about exciting projects happening here in Western Mass.”

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