MARQUETTE - A local organization is taking an uncommon approach in attempting to facilitate the creation of new businesses in Marquette and Baraga counties - an approach brought to the area, developed and funded by Rio Tinto.
"It's really kind of dependent on (an entrepreneur's) motivation," said Eric Johnson, a spokesman for Accelerate U.P., which is aiming to promote entrepreneurial success in the two-county area. "Unlike other economic development models, we're not trying to motivate them at all. We basically just help them when they come to us."
Accelerate U.P. - the group recently filed for 501(c)(3) status - uses an international model for economic development created years ago by Ernesto Sirolli, who supports a "grassroots approach to local economic and community development."
Sirolli, who founded the Sirolli Institute, grew tired of traditional economic development while working with international aid agencies in Africa during the 1970s, according to a biography on the institute's website. The method Sirolli developed - called Enterprise Facilitation - spread globally and is focused on helping prospective entrepreneurs as they learn to help themselves.
"It's really broad," Johnson said of the model. "It's about helping as far as telling their story, giving their experience, pointing them in the direction of someone or something that will be able to help them with their idea."
That assistance is provided by Accelerate U.P.'s Resource Board, a group of dozens of local volunteers working behind the scenes to support budding entrepreneurs. The members of the board have all signed confidentiality agreements and never meet face-to-face with potential clients.
In fact, the only contact a client ever has with the organization is through the Accelerate U.P. Enterprise Facilitator, the group's only paid employee. That role is filled by Marquette City Commission member Jason Schneider, who once served as a development advisor in the Peace Corps and began working for Accelerate U.P. last month.
Schneider travels through Baraga and Marquette counties, meeting with residents who are hoping to turn their ideas into viable businesses. Schneider, who met Sirolli at a state municipal conference years ago, said the economic development model fits into his larger concept of community and self-reliance. It is best to allow entrepreneurs to find their own way whenever possible, he said.
"The idea that somebody sitting at a desk, or even myself, would know what there's a market for is ridiculous. I can't give advice on that," Schneider said. "When someone comes to you with an idea, you really have no idea you really have absolutely no idea if a business is going to work or not. That's part of where traditional planning and Accelerate U.P. differ."
Schneider doesn't aim to critique business plans. Instead, by leveraging the experience and connections of the resource board, he works to connect interested entrepreneurs with the resources they deem necessary, from funding mechanisms to consulting services. The entire process is provided free of charge to the client.
The development model, as well as the locally controlled Accelerate U.P., was brought to the central Upper Peninsula by Rio Tinto, the international mining company constructing the Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains and the Humboldt Mill in Humboldt Township.
The Sirolli Mining website, which lists Rio Tinto as a client and includes an endorsement from a Rio Tinto spokesman, states that the Sirolli Institute began working to establish an enterprise facilitation model in Marquette last spring.
The creation of Accelerate U.P. was intended to address some community concerns related to the mine, according to Johnson. The company wanted to leave the economy in a better state than when it arrived, he said.
"One of the concerns Rio Tinto heard from the community was that Eagle has a short mine life," he said. "It was Rio Tinto's hope that Accelerate U.P. would create more jobs outside of the mining industry therefore softening the boom and bust cycle that is associated with mining."
After approaching community members to decide whether locals would support the Sirolli model, Rio Tinto invited Ernesto Sirolli to visit the area. He accepted the invite and spoke at a November 2011 meeting of the Economic Club of Marquette County.
Though Johnson identified that speech as the beginnings of Accelerate U.P., the group has just recently gotten off the ground, beginning operations in November.
"Really since then, we've just been recruiting, organizing and training members - team members," he said.
The 10-member Accelerate U.P. management team makes organizational decisions for the group.
Rio Tinto has agreed to fully fund the project through late 2015, and Johnson said the management team hopes to secure funding through other community sources by then.
The funds from the mining company cover Schneider's salary, as well as basic administrative costs. Johnson would not say how much Rio Tinto contributes annually and funding questions posed to Rio Tinto officials were redirected to Johnson.
Two Rio Tinto employees - Simon Nish, director of community, communications and external relations, and Chantae Lessard, Eagle Mine's principal advisor for communities and social performance - serve on the management team, but Johnson said the pair may soon leave.
"Really, they have expressed that they would like to see other people in their roles in the future and that transition would occur possibly even before 2015," he said.
Schneider and Johnson said Accelerate U.P. will begin looking for other funding sources, and Schneider said that many Sirolli-focused organizations receive funds through municipal governments or through public-private partnerships.
Schneider, who views Accelerate U.P.'s services as a way to "lower the barriers for people to access advice," said he has been far busier in his first month on the job than he expected to be.
The Sirolli Institute provided Accelerate U.P. with a list of two-year goals. Through 24 months, the organization should have conducted between 250 and 350 initial consultations, and have more than 100 clients enrolled. At least 25 new businesses should have been established and between 60 and 80 jobs should have been created.
Schneider said he doesn't think those goals are beyond reach and views it as his job to prove to the community and potential future donors that the Sirolli model works. That grassroots process may take some time.
"We wait for clients to come to us. We don't go out and drum them up," he said. "Clients come to us, totally free, totally confidentially, and they're not judged in any way, shape or form."
Prospective clients looking to contact Schneider can call him at 906-280-6777 or email Jason@accelerateup.com.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org