Local entrepreneurs discuss business success at North Country Symposium

For those who have been there and survived, starting a successful north country business is a difficult, but not impossible thing to do, provided the idea is a winner and the entrepreneur a person who is willing to work hard, and seek expert help to get it going.

Four regional entrepreneurs shared that and other insights during a panel discussion Monday in St. Lawrence University’s Eben Holden Conference Center, as part of the 14th annual North Country Symposium.

Hosted each year by the college through its Ellen C. Burt Endowment for North Country Education, the symposium’s theme this year was “The Many Faces of Entrepreneurship: Creating a Supportive Environment,” and was focused on exploring how the region can diversify and strengthen its economy by creating an environment that identifies, develops and supports entrepreneurs.

Participating in Monday’s panel were Carmen J. Gendebien, co-owner of Glow Skincare and Spa, Canton; Kevin L. Richardson, president of North Country Farms, LLC, Pamelia; Devi C. Momot, president and CEO of Twinstate Technologies, Morrisonville; and Stephen M. Wisniew, owner of Stephen Matthew Designs, Potsdam. The panel and the symposium were led by Deborah M. Markley, Ph.D., co-founder and managing director of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, a national research and community engagement organization based in Nebraska.

During the panel discussion, Mrs. Gendebien said to get her spa business off the ground, she first had to explain to people what it was, commute regularly to Syracuse to be trained as an aesthetician, and promote her services for free.

“I refused to leave the country for a facial,” she joked. “I was driving five to seven hours a day for six months until I got my three licenses, and then we opened and I was a one-man show. I had to do a lot of free facials because you’re trying to sell the product, and I knew it would sell once I had one.”

When her idea caught on, along with her emphasis on service, she said she received “phenomenal” backing from organizations like the local chamber of commerce and small business bureau, as well as customers.

“Everyone really does rally around you if you have a good product and you put your customer first,” she said. “Just providing quality service, people will stand behind you. We look at all these numbers and we think, ‘this is never going to change, we can never do something,’ but we really can because we have a thriving spot on Main Street in the north country. Anything really is possible as long as we all put our heads together, and really work together for a goal.”

Mr. Richardson said it’s important to just run with an idea and persist, even if you’re a novice, admitting that it took him a more than a year to create a plan, and develop commitment and work ethic.

“I jumped into the business world with absolutely no experience; I founded my first company, North Country Farms, with a strong group of serial entrepreneurs,” he said, explaining that his plan was simply to bring economic development to the region, which he realized he could do if he committed to work hard and seek community support. “Really diving into it head first, and building it on your own, you learn real quick. Staying true to your roots, and working hard, (I) overcame the challenge.”

Mrs. Markley said prior to the discussion that building a support network for people like Mrs. Gendebien and Mr. Richardson is what the north country needs to move forward, namely an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that nurtures entrepreneurial talent.

“We believe that the best opportunity that rural places have to grow their economies is in supporting the businesses that are already there, and to support the residents in that place that have an idea for starting a business,” she said. “Our concept of an ecosystem begins in the community, the place where the entrepreneur is, and usually involves a leadership team that’s actively going out into the community and talking to entrepreneurs and figuring out what they’re doing, what their challenges are, what their opportunities are, what kind of support they need to grow.”

That team, she said, should be a “broad set” composed of retired business owners, chamber of commerce directors and other business leaders who can connect entrepreneurs to resources like SUNY Canton’s Small Business Development Center, and Clarkson University’s Shipley Center for Innovation, getting them the assistance they need to get ahead.

“The community really is the conduit between the entrepreneurs who are busy on the ground working and trying to create a business, and all the support partners that are out there across the region, that are doing great work, but need more entrepreneurs coming to them,” she said, indicating that business, academic and St. Lawrence County leaders who attended the symposium were to choose that group Monday afternoon.

Along with the panel discussion, Monday’s symposium included working group sessions in which participants discussed a framework for an entrepreneurial ecosystem, development opportunities in the region, stakeholders, entrepreneurial talent and resources and making connections between communities and entrepreneurs.

By Alan Rizzo, Watertown Daily Times