AU is putting the IDEA-U initiative into action through the Anderson Now project. The project, funded by a Lilly Endowment grant, is aimed at stimulating the local economy with small businesses in Anderson.
Through the Anderson Now project, graduates from Indiana universities can apply with a business idea of their own and receive $25,000 in loan forgiveness, guidance from local business owners and AU faculty and staff and shared working space. The opportunity also applies to Indiana graduates who are willing to move their existing businesses to Anderson.
AU grad and local business owner Ben Orcutt was invited to the directive meetings for the IDEA-U committee. His participation on the committee helped spark the idea for how best to use the grant. The purpose of the Lilly grant is to keep Indiana graduates in Indiana, and to encourage entrepreneurship. Reflecting on his own experience, he observed that a factor helping him start and run his business, Buckskin Bikes, was his lack of student debt.
Orcutt observed that, for many of his friends who had ideas for businesses, student debt was “invasive,” forcing the new graduates to get a steady job and paycheck in order to pay back debt. Orcutt himself was able to take on a mortgage and business debt, because he didn’t have student debt overwhelming him.
“If that truly is a barrier preventing people from starting their own business, we might as well try to remove that barrier,” Orcutt said. “We’re going to help people with it, but we’re still looking for the person who was going to start their business anyway. We’re improving their chances of success a little bit. Or a lot of bit.”
Entrepreneurship takes risk, and with student debt, graduates may be less likely to take on the financial risk that starting a business entails. Orcutt opened Buckskin Bikes in 2012, and, in 2016, took home his first paycheck. “I didn’t know it was going be that way. The naiveté that I had, turns out, was a good thing.”
Orcutt is from Ohio but decided to stay in Anderson after graduation as part of what he calls a “bloom where you’re planted” mentality. “This place is as good and bad as any other place,” Orcutt said. “And this city has some beautiful things to offer. We’ve got awesome parks, a couple of really good restaurants and our downtown architecture is beautiful. We have a symphony. We have two theatres. The bones here are really good. You want for nothing here. To fully engage in that community is only a good thing.”
“I couldn’t have bought property in Indianapolis, or Chicago, or Cincinnati,” Orcutt said. “And there are so many businesses that are under-represented here. Maybe your business will succeed, maybe it won’t, but this is a fabulous place to start.”
For many business graduates, entrepreneurship may be a goal for later in life, or a dream that takes a backseat to a corporate career. Orcutt started his business soon after graduating, and the Anderson Now project aims to equip graduates with the tools they need for a startup.
“I believe overall, people are capable of way more than they’re aware of,” Orcutt said. “So much more. In a social sense, in a physical sense, in a mental sense, people are stronger than they know. When you don’t find out where that edge is, you have no way to know what you’re actually capable of. I’m on my way to success. This is going to be our fifth summer. We’re making significant progress. But I am in no way qualified for this, and I just want that to be a lesson. Anybody can do it.”
Orcutt believes Anderson, like the rest of the country, is shifting to value entrepreneurship more than it has in the past. “I think this is going to be a powerful jump for the city,” Orcutt said. “The future of redevelopment for the city is absolutely in small business. Small businesses employ about 58 percent of the population in the United States. They also keep most of the money local, so it tends to cycle and develop more.”
As for the social impact of small business in Anderson, Orcutt believes that they “contribute culturally in a way that a large corporation can’t and won’t. And small businesses offer more stability.”
Orcutt hopes that the Anderson Now project, and the small businesses that result from it, will help Anderson develop economically within the next several years.
“Anything we can do to encourage that growth, like Anderson Now, I think is important,” Orcutt said. “My goal is sustainability, and stability. I think there are a ton of Midwest post-industrial towns that grew dependent on a single industry. I would like to see more diversity and therefore more stability.”
The Anderson Now application is open to graduates of Indiana universities on the IDEA-U page of www.anderson.edu.