BRATTLEBORO — The closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in December 2014 has meant the loss of some 600 jobs locally.
Jim Verzino, Director and Co-founder of Windham Grows, is working on a seven-year-plan to fill that gap by helping to expand local businesses that derive their products or services from agriculture.
“The goal is to create more jobs while supporting farms,” said Verzino. “But this doesn't mean farm jobs.”
With $300,000 in funding from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Boards, and the U.S. Economic Development Agency, Strolling of the Heifers formally launched Windham Grows earlier this year to connect early-stage and scale-up businesses with educational tools, resources, and financing to help expand their businesses.
The promise to their funders? Each year, at least two jobs per company will be created within the community.
Verzino says that the inspiration for Windham Grows came from Orly Munzing, executive director at Strolling of the Heifers. Verzino notes that even before Vermont Yankee shut down, Windham County struggled with the same unemployment issues as many rural populations.
“We were losing young people because there were not enough jobs here, and [Munzing] wanted to create something that would keep the farms viable … But there's only so many tomatoes and garlic scapes this population can buy.”
For a business to qualify for Windham Grows, it must be selling a value-added food or agricultural product or service. “If you just grow tomatoes, you're not going to be in Windham Grows,” said Verzino. “If you buy tomatoes from a local farmer and turn it into salsa, you're in.”
In general, Verzino said that qualifying businesses “need to have products or services they can sell outside the community, because that's what brings money back into the community. Anything in the food and agriculture ecosystems is eligible, he said, “as long as you can get money from outside our area to create employment in our area, by doing the work here.”
He also said that a business can't qualify if they are only in the “idea phase.” They must already be selling their value-added product or service before they apply, with at least one founding partner working full-time in the company.
Windham Grows is currently accepting applications for their second cohort of entrepreneurs. The deadline for applications is July 25. Their first cohort of seven businesses includes Good Body Products, Sweet Basil, Tavernier Chocolates, Frabjous Fibers & Wonderland Yarns, The Restless Rooster, True North Granola, and the Whetstone Brewery.
The businesses are finishing up the nine-month program with Windham Grows. Verzino describes the program as being built on the “three legs of a stool.”
He says the first leg is a series of meetings led by himself and the other entrepreneur-in-residence, Cairn Cross, where all seven companies meet as a group each month to discuss one important aspect of growing their business.
“Helping people with financial management is one of the biggest things,” says Verzino, whose background is in business consulting. “Most entrepreneurs are really good at their craft. They are really good at making chocolate, making lotions, dying yarn, whatever it is. But most are not really taught about how to run a business. And most have to do it by trial and error.”
In addition to business finance, these meetings also teach concepts like design thinking, the business model canvas, and pitching to potential investors and customers.
Verzino calls the second leg of Windham Grows the group dynamic itself.
“A true accelerator brings businesses together and takes them through a program as a group. The reason it works is because most of them are going through a lot of similar struggles and most of them don't have a lot of people they can share it with in an open environment. That's one of the things that really brings it together.”
The third leg consists of one-on-one consulting sessions in which Cross and Verzino help to create what they call a “custom-tailored package of support services” to meet the specific needs of each business.
These packages may connect businesses with technology information, marketing experts, and legal consultation. Part of the organization's funding is used to hire specialists such as CFOs or branding experts to work temporarily for the businesses in the areas they currently struggle with.
Cairn Cross, who is also co-founder of the venture capital company FreshTracks Capital, based in Shelburne, Vt., has been working with the Strolling of the Heifers in other projects, including the annual FreshTracks Road Pitch, where he and more than 40 other motorcycle riders hit the highway, making 10 stops throughout Vermont in search of scale-up businesses to invest in.
The FreshTracks Road Pitch will run Aug. 1 through 5, and includes stops in Brattleboro, Essex Junction, Rutland, Bennington, Barre, Randolph, St. Johnsbury, Lowell, Morrisville, and Grand Isle.
Riders will listen to more than 50 entrepreneurial pitches and will award a $500 Riders' Choice Prize to the best pitch at each stop. The Brattleboro stop is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 1, at 3:30 p.m., at the River Garden on Main Street. The public is invited to sit in and listen to the pitch sessions free of charge.
The event is not only advertised as an opportunity for businesses to develop network connections and receive coaching on their business plans - local winners will qualify for a statewide event in October with cash prizes of more than $4,000.
Windham Grows is midway through its 18-month funding period. “The program has been going for nine months, and in the Windham Grows companies as of two months ago, eight new jobs have actually been created, so we are actually on schedule as of right now,” Verzino says.
Verzino adds that in the next round of Windham Grows, he hopes to have a second set of incentives from funders which includes funding for smaller start-ups who may still be in the idea phase of their business plan, or who may employ only one or two people indefinitely. Similarly, he has plans to broaden the scope of Windham Grows to a regional level, which will open the door for a wider variety of businesses to qualify.