A tree grows there, so why not a startup? The Brooklyn Public Library has been running its 'PowerUp!' program since 2003, and more than 2,400 entrepreneurs have participated. That's a lot of saplings that have started their growth using library resources.
Maud Andrew of BPL's Business Library Programs and Outreach told me their 'Success Council' came up with the idea and started a competition. Members of the council gave prize money for the first round, and The Citi Foundation was the largest initial donor. In subsequent years, Citi has been the primary sponsor.
How is supporting startups part of a local public library's mission? 'The mission of BPL's Business Library is to promote economic development for all Brooklyn residents. PowerUp! is a real life example of the important role access to information plays in the success of a business venture. The participants are required to take classes at the library on writing a business plan, doing market research, making financial projections and giving a presentation,' said Andrew. 'They are required to meet with a pro bono business counselor, get a library card and use the Library's resources.'
The winners certainly benefited from the competition. Stacey Toussaint, President and CEO of Inside Out Tours, Inc. won $15,000 for having a first place plan to launch a 'cultural tourism company, offering bus and walking tours of NYC, specializing in Brooklyn.' Toussaint said 'The goal of entering and winning the business plan competition gave us an incentive to take classes at BPL's Business Library and utilize Brooklyn's small business centers rather than just rely on our own resources. We received training in marketing, creating financial statements, and writing a business plan. We also made valuable connections with other competition participants that have resulted in strategic relationships.'
Runner up Elissa Olin, Founder & Owner of Green in BKLYN , an eco-friendly home goods & gift shop in Clinton Hill said 'The prize money was the most visible and recognized resource. I couldn't have stopped working my "day job" in the months before the shop opened if I hadn't received the award. But an even longer lasting influence on the success of the business has been the media support and coverage. It gave us a leg up and created not only a buzz, but momentum, which has been instrumental in the success of the business in its first and, typically, most difficult year.'
Olin described the experience as 'more work than I could've imagined. If you can start, write and finish a business plan, you end up feeling like you can do just about anything.' Both report their businesses are running well, with sales up. They're specifically more than 60% higher year-to-year in Olin's case.
The future looks bright for library support of entrepreneurs in New York. The NY Public Library and Queens Economic Development Corp. are following the example Brooklyn Public Library has set, and Citi has funded these programs as well. There are business plan competitions in each borough of New York that promote the use of public libraries. Some simple Internet searching turned up libraries all over the US that have resources for start-ups and small businesses as well as plan competitions and connections to college Business Schools.
E-books and the Internet may be slowly eroding the original nature of libraries, but it is good to see the smart ones keeping themselves relevant to their community as places of resource, education and economic development.
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Last updated: Jun 3, 2010
HOWARD GREENSTEIN is a social media strategist and evangelist, and president of the Harbrooke Group, which specializes in helping companies communicate with their customers using the latest Web technologies. @HowardGr