Recession, automation and globalization have created a divide between the economies of urban and rural places. Together these forces have led to population loss and “brain drain” as college graduates strapped with student loan debt moved to bigger towns with more job opportunities. That too becomes a catch-22 — less local talent means less opportunity for entrepreneurship and future growth. It means that over a decade after the Great Recession, many rural communities are still in a state of recovery.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. While the pandemic leaves huge loss in its wake, it also shook loose deeply ingrained ideas about work and home. Big tech can now see the advantages of decentralized teams and remote work in action, presenting a major opportunity for rural revitalization. But first, communities need to believe it’s possible, according to Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI).
“It just got into people’s heads if you were not from a big city, you couldn’t possibly have an idea that could transform a market, or could contribute to a really innovative enterprise, or reinvent a sector of the economy. And that’s just simply not true,” Dunne told Rural Business host Ben Rowley.
Dunne founded CORI in 2017 to help change this narrative and revitalize rural America with digital economic development, entrepreneurial investment and broadband expansion. In Episode 36 of the Rural Business Show, he discussed what it means to do this work in 2021 — and actionable steps communities can take to build opportunities close to home.
Closing the Rural Opportunity Gap
Dunne grew up in a rural community in Vermont, powered by the dairy and machine tool industries. Even in the late 1970s and 80s, industry-level changes began to put stress on the local economy. Still, he was drawn back to his community after college because of the support he received there growing up. At age 13, Dunne lost his father, and the community rallied around his family — providing meals, driving Dunne and his brother to practices and school programs, and helping his mom in any way they could.
“I think people understand the real value of a small community when something like that happens,” Dunne said.
After college, Dunne’s community elected him to state legislator. He spent 11 years in the Vermont House and Senate, before exploring a wide-ranging career driven by his self-described mission of “trying to empower communities through progressive capitalism.” Dunne launched and built a software company to 100 employees; he worked as director of AmeriCorps VISTA under the Clinton and Bush administrations; and he headed Google’s community affairs division, where he put a special emphasis on rural initiatives. Today, he still lives on the family farm in Vermont.
That’s why Dunne founded CORI — to create opportunities close to home, wherever that may be. “There’s no reason why someone needs to give up the place that they love in order to have an aspirational job and succeed economically,” he said.
Changing the Narrative
The biggest initial challenge CORI faced was understanding the magnitude of the narrative shift needed to build an economy inclusive of rural areas, according to Dunne. Some big foundations and corporations don’t recognize the potential within rural communities, and decades of hearing this narrative requires serious reprogramming. And it’s not just people from big cities who believe this narrative — it’s also people living in the rural communities themselves, according to Dunne. They have become convinced that “rural” is a derogatory word and prepare their most talented students to leave after graduation.
“We’re doing a lot more work on the narrative side to show that yes, this is possible. That you can create incredible digital economy jobs and downtowns that are vibrant and happening for someone that is 23, 33 or 43 [years old],” he said.
The other narrative shift required is relearning what rural America looks like demographically. “Rural America is not white America, and if we are serious about actually addressing those issues, we need to make sure we are engaging the entire country, in both that conversation and empowerment strategies,” Dunne said. He believes smaller communities have the unique opportunity to build inclusive digital ecosystems from scratch.
The Future of Work Starts Now
Despite these challenges, Dunne believes now is the time to sow the seeds of change in rural communities, due in no small part to the pandemic.
“I think there is a moment right now when people’s aperture has been opened to that possibility in a way that it hasn’t for a long time. Our work right now is to make sure we are rising to that occasion and seizing that moment,” Dunne said. Many major tech companies are shifting to fully or partially remote models permanently, allowing workers to rethink where they want to live, work and play.
That’s where CORI comes in. The center focuses on helping rural communities build out a digital digital economy — creating jobs for computer programmers, data scientists, cybersecurity experts. As an accelerator, CORI helps communities stand up training programs to build talent pools, while also creating an entrepreneurial environment to develop job opportunities and a sense of community around it all. It requires high-speed internet, some funding and a willingness to engage, but these hurdles have all been surmountable for communities around the country, according to Dunne. CORI has helped this model take off in 20 diverse communities, in terms of demographics, geographic location and local circumstances, and five of them recently launched accelerator programs averaging 5-10 startups each.
“Our fundamental belief is that in the age of the internet there should be no limit to where digital economy jobs or startups can take place,” Dunne said.
How to Get Started
There’s a lot communities can do on their own to get started. Dunne’s advice is to first think through the local culture and community you want to build, and then quite simply, just start. He advises communities to host pitch competitions and hackathons, even if they’re small and attendance is low in the beginning. “Exposing people to that is incredibly powerful as you start to create an army of the willing that wants to participate in that kind of community and culture,” Dunne said.
He also advises communities to look for federal funding. The Veterans Administration, the Department of Labor and the U.S. Economic Development Administration all have funding earmarked for rural economic development.
Communities interested in working with CORI to accelerate development can now do so on a fee-for-service basis. The collaborative process involves an assessment, strategy and planning, a community buy-in phase, and assistance with application for federal and local matching funds. The idea is to provide communities three years of runway to kickstart revitalization. Interested communities must have access to broadband internet and an institution of higher education within a 40-minute drive time. Eventually, the plan is to create a model that will work anywhere, according to Dunne.
To learn more about CORI or how to implement best practices from other successful communities, visit ruralinnovation.us. The website includes free tools and self-assessments, along with a space to sign up for a monthly newsletter with actionable information.
“We want to hear from folks who are interested in building out the digital economy in their community,” Dunne said.