Mike Brooks is President of REDI (Regional Economic Development, Inc.) in Columbia, Mo. REDI promotes positive economic expansion and provides increased economic opportunities in the Columbia area, assisting entrepreneurs, developing businesses, and companies relocating. As president, Mike led REDI in creating a supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurship and business growth in Columbia. Mike welcomes anyone to reach out to him on LinkedIn or REDI at columbiaredi.com.
MO: Tell us about REDI and what you do for the city of Columbia, Missouri.
Mike: REDI is a not-for-profit, membership-based economic development organization. The primary purpose of REDI is to facilitate the creation and retention of good jobs for Columbia and Boone County. The significant objectives are to attract new business, retain/expand existing business, and support growing entrepreneurial companies. To achieve these objectives, REDI also focuses on business climate issues, which impact the communities’ success in achieving job growth.
I serve as the Director of Development for the city of Columbia; my job is to manage and lead the efforts of REDI.
MO: What is the state of Columbia’s entrepreneurial scene? Is it growing?
Mike: Columbia has a long history of growing companies that, at one point in their growth cycle, would have been viewed as entrepreneurial by today’s definition. As companies grow and mature, they no longer are viewed as an entrepreneurial company. Take CARFAX, for example: The company has roots as an entrepreneurial startup in Columbia, and though it’s still an important employer in the community, it’s now headquartered out of state.
Entrepreneurship occurs when someone has an idea that he or she is willing to risk trying to grow into a viable business. There are different kinds of entrepreneurial companies; some have the potential for regional or even national market reach. Others can be defined as “lifestyle” entrepreneurial companies, which tend to be focused on the local economy. Based upon this definition, Columbia has a long history of entrepreneurship and, without question, the number of individuals who are willing to take that risk is growing!
I believe that what has changed over the past few years is the community’s recognition of what entrepreneurship is doing for our economic development and, in turn, the importance of this growth strategy for job creation. I am proud that REDI understands this importance and has helped lead the effort to promote entrepreneurship as a job-growth strategy.
MO: Why is Columbia a great place to start a business?
Mike: Any place that has individuals who are willing to take a risk to follow their dreams can be a good place to start a business. There are a number of factors that give Columbia its strength, all of them important. We have, first and foremost, thousands of young people who come to Columbia every year to gain an education. More and more of those young people are considering entrepreneurship as a potential path, or they’re going to work for an entrepreneurial company, as opposed to going to the “big” city for a job with a large corporation. The importance of this is that the workforce is developing to support our growing entrepreneurial community.
We are blessed with community leadership that has allowed us to promote our entrepreneurial companies. This list is long, but I would point to two who have been key to REDI’s ability to engage in this effort: Brant Bukowsky of Veterans United and Brent Beshore of AdVentures. In addition to their personal contributions and their roles as community advocates for entrepreneurship, both of these individuals have served on the REDI board and have been very effective in helping REDI promote entrepreneurship.
We have a solid and growing system to support individuals who are ready or interested in taking the plunge.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) provides funding for a program called the Small Business Technology Center (SBTDC). While these programs exist across the country, I am happy to report that we have a strong program administered by the University of Missouri, with excellent support personnel to help growing companies.
The Life Science Business Incubator at Monsanto Place, which is administered by the Missouri Innovation Center, is an important part of incubation support for emerging technology companies. Joined recently by the REDI and League of Innovators Downtown Incubator, Museao, and Innovatd, these support systems are important in overcoming startup issues.
A number of years ago, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce started Centennial Investors, a certified investor club that provides an opportunity for entrepreneurial companies to pitch their ideas and — for those who are successful — provides angel funding to help them grow.
Our university and colleges are strong supporters of entrepreneurship. The University of Missouri has even introduced an entrepreneurship minor. A number of entrepreneurial student clubs exist on our campuses, and coursework that focuses on all aspects of entrepreneurship is being offered.
Mentors are a key part of a support system, and Columbia is blessed with a growing number of successful people who are ready and willing to help these up-and-coming businesses.
MO: How do REDI and the city of Columbia support business growth?
Mike: REDI staff spends every day working on ways to support business growth. Those efforts run a large gamut. We are the starting point for attraction-project companies to begin their review of the Columbia/Boone County area. REDI staff works to respond to the questions these companies have, which will influence their site location decision. REDI coordinates city/county services with private sector representatives of property under consideration and facilitates necessary meetings to build a strong case for locating in Columbia/Boone County. The city or county provides the incentives necessary to support job attraction. In the case of IBM, the city purchased the building that IBM now occupies and leased it to the company for a dollar a year for the 10-year lease. That incentive, coupled with the incentives offered by the State of Missouri, resulted in the successful attraction of IBM and, ultimately, 600 or more technology jobs in the community.
REDI works closely with existing companies that need support in solving problems, which can lead to adding new employees. A recent example where REDI provided support was the development of a two-year degree to be offered by Moberly Area Community College for a mechatronics technician. This project was an outgrowth of a discussion with 3M regarding the needs of local industry for this type of training.
There are many ways that REDI and the city have supported entrepreneurial business, but the most recent area to focus on is the relocation of REDI to the downtown area. In addition to the REDI offices, there is dedicated office space for two Small Business Technology Center counselors and a 30-person training room. This provides both easy-to-access support for individual counseling and a room for group sessions.
MO: Why should an entrepreneur start a business in the city of Columbia, Mo., instead of a big city? What makes Columbia unique?
Mike: Entrepreneurs typically start their companies where they live. Columbia is not necessarily unique, but it does have some very important attributes that make it part of a unique group of university-based cities that are big enough to have the support necessary to grow an entrepreneurial community. As a college town, we have thousands of energetic, creative young people who come to our community every year. How we address this opportunity to transform students into successful entrepreneurs is where we can be unique and impactful.
MO: What REDI accomplishment are you most proud of?
Mike: It is hard not to recognize the attraction of IBM as a very important accomplishment! Projects of that magnitude do not come often to communities.
Our ability to support Beyond Meat in their quest to commercialize the technology that was licensed from the University of Missouri, by establishing their first production facility, has to be on the list. We were able to provide daily support to the startup team by providing office space and addressing questions as they arose.
Converting space in the downtown Fifth and Walnut parking garage into REDI’s new office, a business support center with the SBTDC, and the Brent and Erica Beshore League of Innovators Downtown Incubator are clearly other accomplishments.
MO: What are you most excited for in the next six months for the entrepreneurship community in Columbia?
Mike: On January 25th, we will hold the third REDI Entrepreneurial Summit. Each summit has provided a strong base for raising the level of interest and support for entrepreneurship in Columbia. This year’s committee, under the leadership of Sean Seibert, will be taking a different, exciting direction. Based on experiences Brent Beshore shared with the committee, this year will be the inaugural #BOOM conference. It will be an exciting format with great speakers and great opportunities for networking! We will follow this conference up with our third Idea Bounce competition on April 12th at the Trulaske College of Business.
MO: As President of REDI, in what direction do you see Columbia heading?
Mike: I am excited by the direction that I see Columbia heading. As President of REDI, I believe our economy will continue to grow in a positive way that will provide opportunities for a better quality of life for our citizens.