There is a growing awareness that entrepreneurialism can be “caught” and “taught.” The National Entrepreneur Center, under Jerry Ross’ leadership, has become internationally recognized for its work in bringing skills and support to those who have caught the entrepreneurial spirit. Of equal importance, it has also formed one of the most unique co-working spaces that serves over 12 organizations that otherwise may have been strapped for space and would have little interface or synergistic benefit with other like-minded organizations. These include the fast-growing Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, the Central Florida Disability Chamber of Commerce, the UCF Business Incubation Program, the U.S. Department of Commerce and others.
EW: What is the biggest ongoing impact of this location at Fashion Square Mall?
JR: When we were downtown, we averaged about 50 walk-ins a month, now we average about 200. The organizations across the hall (the ones mentioned earlier) coached and trained over 12,000 business people face to face last year, which means they had an actual meeting or attended one of our seminars. In the last year, we have been visited twice by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the Assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, the administrator of the Small Business Administration, and the Governor. All of them came to ask, ‘How do you do what you do in Central Florida?’
EW: When they come, what is it that peaks their curiosity?
JR: They’re wondering ‘How do you do this?’ Meaning, how do we get 12 organizations to work together, to share one space, because the efficiency goes up and costs go down. None of those organizations could afford a space like this. They get technology they couldn’t afford, so while other non-profits that are dedicated to helping small businesses are going out of business, these are growing and others want to know how.
These types of organizations exist everywhere. We went to Miami and there were 16 organizations sitting around the table. They wanted the same thing, but they didn’t really know each other and they didn’t really work together in a substantive way. That was us 15 years ago. Now we’re around the same copy machine.
EW: Why did Homeland Security visit you?
JR: They handle the TSA and are involved in immigration and jobs. For instance, I was working with Representative John Mica who came to me about a businessman from Turkey who had a green card, but every time he brought investors into the U.S. to conduct foreign direct investment, he was being delayed at customs. That produces a very quizzical response with those investors: ‘Why is he being pulled aside for additional questioning, and who am I with?’
These governmental leaders want to hear from leaders outside the beltway; they want to talk to regional CEOs. We provide a very safe place for them to come and speak their mind and for Washington folks to get an honest mix around the table. John Dearie wrote Where the Jobs Are back in 2010. He went to 10 different cities to try and find out what happened to all the jobs and how to create them. He came here and interviewed a number of leaders and quoted people from Orlando throughout his book, and I think I’m quoted four times. What he discovered was what we’re doing. The key is small business – this is the solution. He just testified before the House Small Business Subcommittee. People at a national level are coming to the same conclusion the leadership in Orlando came to over a decade ago.
EW: You have a very strategic perspective on entrepreneurialism in Central Florida, while most entrepreneurs are focused on their business or their industry. What are you seeing in terms of the entrepreneurial culture here?
JR: This community embraced entrepreneurialism long before it was ‘cool.’ Most people are here from somewhere else, plus we have an economy built around hospitality, so we tend to welcome people from the outside. In addition, we’re a relatively young community. Disney World isn’t even 50 years old yet. We aren’t doing bad and in some ways we’re way ahead, when you consider that we’re just a kid. Entrepreneurs virtually always say, ‘Come on, I’ll help you.’
When I started as an entrepreneur here, people said, ‘I’ll give you a shot.’ In Chicago or other places they say, ‘We’ve been using the same ad agency for 50 years, who are you?’ Here they’ll give you a chance, then it’s up to you.
Also, technology makes starting a business a lot easier. I think currently we have 30,000 followers on Facebook, and many are outside Florida. Even funding is moving into the realm of the entrepreneur. At one time, you went to a bank and filled out all the papers and waited. Entrepreneurs today don’t want to wait, so you have Kickstarter and Shark Tank, and that is only the beginning.
EW: What are the regions you look to as examples in one area or another?
JR: Austin has great creativity. The “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, that was grassroots. What other municipality has a slogan like that? Their community creativity is everywhere. When the city went looking for a downtown hotel, they made it worth the investors’ consideration, but they stipulated that the hotel had to adopt a charity.Which they did, in the Austin City Limits PBS station, making Austin famous worldwide.
Of course Silicon Valley is another since they have venture capital, as does Boston, which is driven around innovation. There is no reason we can’t have that kind of venture capital. It’s here; we just haven’t earned it yet. We’re working on that reputation. We have great innovation at our research universities; I think UCF is third in patent strength, but we’re young compared to MIT or Stanford.
EW: Do you think we’ll be the fourth major technology hub?
JR: Without a doubt, there are a lot of factors that go into that equation, but we’re well on our way. We’re creating clusters in medicine, technology and aerospace. What we have to do is move beyond research to commercialization.
EW: If you were asked by the mayors or the Governor, ‘Jerry what do we need to do to stimulate small business?’ what would you tell them?
JR: We have to make capital accessible. The biggest impact of the banking crisis and the biggest hindrance to recovery is that banks can’t or aren’t loaning money.
EW: Among those who come and study your model, who is showing the most interest in following your example?
JR: Many come, and as is often the case, they get very excited but they think they can go back and do this themselves. I tell them, “You can do it on your own, but it will take you 10 years and about $8 million,” but we can accelerate that development pace and help them avoid the mistakes we made. We’ve received funding to actually share what we’re doing throughout the state. We are still moving through implementation, but the appropriation is there.