Rural communities in Illinois are confronted with a growing problem – or, rather, a shrinking one. Rural towns are shrinking and aging as college graduates move in pursuit of career opportunities they believe do not exist in the corn and coal fields of their hometowns. This is a symptom of a larger, statewide problem: 6,000 college graduates a year leave Illinois for other states due to a perceived absence of jobs and opportunity. Out-migration is felt acutely in our smaller towns, which lose many of their best and brightest to the pull of large urban cities. My family has called Effingham County home for five generations, and I watched with growing concern as my sons and their friends made plans to leave upon graduation, with little intention of returning.
In order to stop the loss of human capital, we must encourage entrepreneurship, especially in our rural communities. We need to show bright, ambitious young men and women that they don’t have to leave their communities to succeed, but can create opportunities in their own backyards.
We live in a world increasingly driven by data and analysis, crossing the borders of industry and geography in search of space and talent. Rural communities have the chance to be at the forefront of Illinois’ growing industries, such as agribusiness and food processing, and transportation and logistics. Growing need for sustainable food and fuel will require innovative problem solving from agricultural producers. An increasingly global economy places stress on traditional distribution methods, demanding creative solutions and ingenuity in developing new distribution and logistics systems.
We are at a unique point in history, when anyone, anywhere can be an entrepreneur – all you need is an internet connection and an idea. The 21st century is full of possibility for individuals prepared to explore new ways of thinking and embrace risks. We must develop an entrepreneurial workforce through a new approach to education, focusing on mentoring and experiential education.
Students have a difficult time imagining career paths without a model. To educate students about entrepreneurship and showcase local opportunities, I was part of a group of local leaders who launched the CEO Program, or Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities. The CEO program plants the seeds of entrepreneurship and exposes students to role models and mentors with experience starting and growing a business. It also immerses them in community life, creating a “stickiness” that binds people to their community and inspires them to build a life among friends and family.
We’ve found students who participate in the CEO program are more likely to plan on returning to their community after college. In our inaugural year of the program seven years ago, we polled the students and asked if they planned to move back to their hometowns after college. Only three students out of a class of 25 expressed a desire to return. At the end of the year, after completing the CEO program, the number of students
interested in returning to the community had jumped to 21 out of 25. Of the program’s inaugural class, 12 students have already returned to the community.
Once students are exposed to the possibilities of entrepreneurship and are embedded in their community, we have to ensure the community is able
to sustain these new entrepreneurs. As the Director of the Illinois Department of Commerce, I want to connect entrepreneurs and new business owners to potential investors and prospective credit. Communities must grow their network of “angel” investors to support new business ventures. If we are going to ask young entrepreneurs to invest themselves in their community, the community must be ready to invest in them.
Many of these entrepreneurs will go on to become job creators, growing the local economy, reinvesting and compounding opportunities for generations to come. Encouraging people to reimagine the possibilities of rural life is key to stopping Illinois’ brain drain and keeping our rural communities strong.