Seven Core Strategies to Grow an Inclusive Tech Culture in the Berkshires
After conducting the above regional digital economy assessment through the Tech Impact Collaborative (1Berkshire, Berkshire Innovation Center, The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College) with facilitation from the Center on Rural Innovation, we moved through a process of workshops and focus groups to map out core strategic areas that, through meaningful action over the next five years, will contribute to the scale and impact of digital and tech-enabled economic growth that we know we have the potential to build. These seven primary strategic areas of focus are:
1. Develop and Launch a Missing Middle Accelerator
While the Berkshires has several existing programs/providers, (including but not limited to EforAll, Lever, The Schumacher Center, The Small Business Development Center, and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation) there remains a notable “missing middle” gap for tech entrepreneurs who are not yet ready for large-scale angel investment and who may not be ready to scale. By creating a program focused on digital and tech startups specifically in the Berkshires, leveraging mentorship, offering many on-ramps with low barriers to access like EforAll, making intentional next-step referrals to others such as Lever or the Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC), and allowing for and facilitating pre-investor stage capital stack development, this new accelerator effort will fill a critical gap in the landscape, bolstering existing programs, and creating new contiguous pipelines for existing and new residents in the region.
2. Establishment of a Regional Tech Mentor Network
The development and facilitation of a tech mentorship network will provide a critical resource to emergent tech entrepreneurs in the region and broader access to guidance and opportunities beyond the borders of the region. This could include partnering with neighboring regions’ organizations (such as FORGE and Valley Venture Mentors in the Pioneer Valley, for instance). Through intentional curation and cultivation of a network of this type, more individuals will be able to access experience and advisement to help them overcome hurdles that have historically blocked entry into the tech industry space for many underserved and underrepresented populations.
3. Building a Local Investment Network
Recruiting and bringing together a network of investors at a variety of scales, as well as the development of a targeted collective equity investment fund, housed in the Berkshires and specifically for tech startups in the region is needed in order to support the earlier stage tech businesses. By creating earlier access to iterative capital investments, founders and startups that are not ready for high-level investment can continue to move through the process of development and business growth without being stymied by risk-averse capital and more conservative traditional finance options that may be less prone to support pre-investment stage businesses.
4. Launching of Non-Credit Training Systems and Programs
Working with educational partners like Berkshire Community College (BCC) and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), and pairing their offerings with those of larger national training programs such as TechStars, Upright, and Can Code, a slate of career-targeted trainings and certifications will be developed to specifically address the needs of underserved communities. These programs will offer boot camps and certification courses of various types to help bolster the development of a highly-skilled workforce ready for the high-growth career opportunities the impending tech economy growth will provide. Critical attention will be focused on ensuring affordability, peripheral supports for participants, and targeted topics and skills that specifically feed into existing and emergent employers located here in the Berkshires.
5. Catalyzing Our Rural Tech Hub Identity
The Berkshires’ regional identity needs to be additionally branded as a place where people and industries can start, grow, thrive, and innovate. To ensure that our youth see the opportunities before them, that our underrepresented and underserved community partners are provided pathways to navigate into programs and opportunities, and so that individuals outside the region recognize the Berkshires as a place that they, themselves, could make a quality life in the tech industry, a series of events and branding identity work will be implemented over time. This work will be phased and will continue to evolve as the emergent industry partners take root and grow in the ecosystem.
6. Hosting Cornerstone Events and Partner Event Collaboration
Several events will be co-branded and/or facilitated as programs of the Tech Impact Collaborative. Initial strategy planning recommends the inclusion and the creation of an annual Rural Tech Innovation Summit to likely be held at the Berkshire Innovation Center. These types of events will aim to bring together individuals and entities that may not readily cross paths, and provide a depth of engagement that allows them to identify opportunities to connect, align, and collaborate to do great things either here in the Berkshires and in the rural communities in which they call home.
7. Improving Infrastructure and Growing Regional Network of Physical Locations for Programming and Startup Incubation
The region benefits greatly from the Berkshire Innovation Center, but there is a recognized need to create additional co-working and incubation space with top-notch high-speed internet, flexible space for training, offices, and incubation, and structured programming that supports the missing middle and underserved populations through a variety of wraparound services to bolster their ventures. Additionally, while broadband exists throughout the region, increased focus needs to be placed on developing creative strategies and taking action to pursue 5-gigabyte and 10-gigabyte cities and towns with “to the door” broadband as an essential utility.
This work will be designed, facilitated, and benchmarked through an expanded version of the Tech Impact Collaborative and the various advisory boards and subcommittees yet to take shape. If you are interested in supporting this long-term endeavor through participation in varying degrees, please reach out to us at EconomicDev@1Berkshire.com.