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AACC toolkit helps colleges create virtual incubators


A shared-space business incubator at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

Community colleges interested in helping budding entrepreneurs launch a business can learn how to set up virtual incubator from a new toolkit created by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

The Virtual Incubation Network (VIN) Toolkit is based on the experiences of the 11 community colleges in the network that offer various types of services, such as mentoring, training or capital to people starting a business or business owners who want to expand. 

Unlike a traditional bricks-and-mortar incubator, a virtual program can provide services at the business site, at satellite locations, completely online or through a combination of platforms. 

Outreach to colleges

The VIN was developed by AACC’s Center for Workforce and Economic Development with grant funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and technical support from the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), the  Small Business Administration and the National Business Incubation Association.

In recent weeks, AACC’s workforce development staff has been introducing the VIN Toolkit to community colleges nationwide through a series of webinars. There will also be sessions on the toolkit at the NACCE Annual Conference in Chicago Oct. 7-10 and at AACC’s Workforce Development Institute in San Diego Jan. 30-Feb. 2, 2013.

“Colleges have been extremely receptive to the initiative,” said James McKenney, AACC vice president for workforce, economic development and international programs. “They want to help small businesses and entrepreneurs in their communities. However, because of the magnitude of support needed, and because of the wide variation of populations they need to serve, it’s been overwhelming for many of them to get started.”

Different approaches

“The toolkit synthesizes the best thinking from a number of different kinds of colleges, offering insight to AACC members about the best ways to address program structure, staffing, funding and partnerships to successfully serve their students,”  McKenney said.

The 11 college partners in the VIN were selected because they vary in size and structure, and because they offer different kinds of incubator models that can be adopted by colleges with similar characteristics.

For example, Rio Salado College in Arizona, one of the largest community colleges in the country, offers online courses leading to a certificate in small business management and 24/7 access to personalized learning.

Long Beach City College in California provides a variety of services to business owners and entrepreneurs, including one-on-one consulting, low-cost training, business workshops and advising in foreign languages, and a 10-week intensive program to help youths start and run a business. White Mountains Community College in rural New Hampshire has developed a “Small Business Launchbox” that provides modularized training for micro-entrepreneurs and small, home-based businesses.

The other partners in the network are Indian River State College (Florida), North Iowa Area Community College, Mott Community College (Michigan), Southeast Community College (Nebraska), Burlington County College (New Jersey), Santa Fe Community College (New Mexico), Lorain County Community College (Ohio) and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

College entrepreneurship programs generally serve three types of students: traditional students following an academic track, start-up business owners and owners of existing businesses who want to accelerate growth, McKenney said. Each group has different needs, and the toolkit offers guidelines for each of those models based on the best practices of the 11 colleges in the network.

The toolkit offers a series of devices to help community college chancellors, presidents, board members and deans on develop a commitment to entrepreneurship, find funding sources and estabish a staffing structure. 

Another set of tools mainly for deans and staff covers the essentials of day-to-day operations, the types of services to offer, forming partnerships, marketing the incubator, securing community buy-in, selecting curricula, using the incubator to make money for the college and evaluating its success. There is also a series of best practices for providing financing to entrepreneurs.