A Seamless Path from Education to Entrepreneurship
Vermont Tech’s Professor Greg Hughes reflects on VtSBDC’s 30th anniversary with a glimpse at the past and an eye to the future
Then & Now
A flourishing organization typically begins with a flicker of an idea. For Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC), a series of three blazing fires in Randolph in 1992 was a significant catalyst that amplified the need for small business recovery and renewal. In the aftermath, the organization’s growing resources and business advising services evolved to serve Vermont’s small business community from start up through transition.
G. Gregory Hughes, business technology and management professor at Vermont Tech, shares more about the early beginnings of VtSBDC from his perspective:
“Established by the nationally based SBDC, VtSBDC came to its host institution Vermont Tech soon after its founding at UVM. Bringing the organization to Vermont Tech brought entrepreneur education, small business assistance, and workforce development statewide and to the entire college system rather than just focusing on Chittenden County. At the time, there were four business advisors and the State Director. With the devastation caused by three huge fires in Randolph in the span of one year, Senator Leahy provided financial assistance for downtown rehabilitation. But to apply for the funds, business owners had to have a business plan. That’s where VtSBDC comes in. The advisors provided technical assistance for disaster recovery, and the college president allocated 25 percent of my time to help. We made a significant difference, and it was very rewarding to be part of this huge recovery effort. We all felt the spirit of revival. It was an important warm-up for later when we dealt with Tropical Storm Irene, another event that called upon VtSBDC to help businesses and local economies navigate through disaster.”
With years of experience in a rail-oriented grocery distribution business, Hughes is uniquely qualified for his work with VtSBDC. Although he is no longer a VtSBDC advisor, Hughes continues to play an active role in VtSBDC’s hiring process and special projects at the request of the State Director. His own education, including an MBA from the University of Vermont and a JD from Vermont Law School, has helped him create and facilitate a curriculum that blends academics with entrepreneurship, preparing his students for the workforce and beyond. The process comes full circle as VtSBDC’s collegiate entrepreneur specialist and business advisor Sarah Kearns frequently teaches at the college’s Business Planning Capstone seminars, paving the way for aspiring young entrepreneurs to turn to VtSBDC when starting their own businesses.
From Education to Entrepreneurship
Hughes applauds the mutually beneficial college relationships which exist at all SBDCs nationwide. “From the start, host colleges have been an integral part of SBDC by design and because of the integral connection between education and entrepreneurship. It’s a brilliant idea, and these relationships have been stable regardless of who is in power because of the strength of the mission.”
Hughes offers a tangible example of how entrepreneur education has impacted the state’s agricultural industry, the heart of the Vermont’s economy.
“Corporate changes in the dairy industry were putting a woman-owned, multi-generational family business in jeopardy. Entrepreneur students studied options for the business to transition to keep the farm going. After all, Vermont’s economy depends on allowing our region’s bucolic working landscape to survive and thrive. Driven by the owner’s personal beliefs, the effort became about converting to organic milk to meet market demand. The farm survived and is thriving, just one example of a business owner who could not afford, but still received, critical technical assistance when she desperately needed it.”
Changes on the Horizon
Beginning in the summer of 2023, Vermont State will consolidate three of the four schools in the Vermont State Colleges System: Vermont Technical College, Castleton University and Northern Vermont University, renamed Vermont State University. Hughes has a positive view of the merger from the entrepreneurial standpoint.
“As the colleges join together, entrepreneur education programs have great potential to grow. Right now, Vermont Tech is the only school with an Entrepreneurship major; soon it will be available to all. Combined with the fact that Gen Z students have already experienced a lot in life to drive them to create their own brands and to rely on their own resources, there is a growing trend to entrepreneurship. VtSBDC and the college system are poised to meet their needs for training and education, preparing them for the workforce and potentially as business owners themselves.”
In closing, The Starting Point asked Professor Hughes his thoughts on how VtSBDC has adapted to meet the ever-changing needs of small business, the education system, and the economy.
“The only constant is change. VtSBDC has consistently contributed to the business community by anticipating change and dealing with it accordingly. With capable management, they have embraced continuous improvement and the strategic planning process. And while the organization has enjoyed statewide, regional, and national recognition, that has never been the point. VtSBDC is genuinely engaged in the process, engaged with their clients and community partners, and in tune with the needs of the small business community. I am optimistic about what the future holds.”
More about the Special Relationship between SBDC and their Academic Hosts
VtSBDC has operated in partnership with the Vermont State Colleges System since the center’s inception in 1992. With its lead center housed at Vermont Tech, VtSBDC partners with all the state’s colleges. Several of VtSBDC’s advisors serve as part-time faculty members for courses focused on entrepreneurship, technology, and business, helping prepare college students to be future members of the workforce. Funded by federal and state sources, VtSBDC operates at no cost to the state college system.
Nearly all of the nation’s SBDCs are housed on the campus of a post- secondary institution. Like VSCS, many academic hosts have at least part of their mission related to community or regional development, motivating them to show authentic engagement and movement toward achieving that mission. The current economic environment makes it critical for academic hosts to find ways to better leverage resources to support teaching, research, and outreach. Like other SBDCs, VtSBDC is helping maximize resources and program outcomes in each of these areas.
Beyond supporting the mission-related efforts, there is even more direct value to the economic development efforts of the universities and community colleges SBDCs are connected with. In Vermont, colleges have an opportunity to promote VtSBDC’s depth and expertise as a value-added program for admissions recruitment and retention, at no cost to the academic institution.