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B3K looks to tap Kern's entrepreneurial potential

New research shows the entrepreneurial fire burns particularly bright in Kern County but it flames out exceptionally fast — and that with more support, it might grow to fuel more local jobs.

A market assessment by the B3K economic development collaboration found county residents' enthusiasm for starting a business recently ranked first among 10 comparable U.S. regions. But Kern placed last by share of startups surviving past nine months.

The group's conclusion — that entrepreneurs often cannot find the guidance or the capital they need — has sparked new strategies, even pledges of investment, for helping local businesses get off the ground.

People working in Kern's startup community agree with B3K's findings. They say the problem isn't necessarily that assistance doesn't exist locally but it can be difficult to locate. Plus, once budding entrepreneurs figure out where to go, their need for mentoring services generally outpaces supply.

"A lot of times entrepreneurs are left to fend for themselves," said Tabari Brannon, co-founder and general manager of Mesh Cowork, a membership-based, shared-space environment upstairs from Dagny's Coffee Co. in downtown Bakersfield.

Mesh hosts hackathon competitions that sharpen startup and tech skills, and it connects entrepreneurs with helpful resources, be they fellow business owners or free counseling and classes available through Cal State Bakersfield's Small Business Development Center and the Kern County Women's Business Center.

HELP WANTED

Kernville Cowork, located in the southern Sierra Nevada, plays a similar role helping aspiring business owners find the help they need. But owner Justin Powers said other regions offer considerably more in the way of entrepreneurial resources and options for financing business startups.

He was encouraged by B3K's focus on creating a central hub for referrals of assistance and investment money.

"More hands-on, mentorship-style programs I think would go a long way," he said.

Jeremy Woods thinks so, too. An associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at CSUB, he runs the university's modest business incubator, helping future business owners find their way. He also coordinates the school's annual business-pitch competition.

Whether financial resources are the biggest missing piece is debatable, he said, but there's no doubt more coaching and cheerleading would be a big help.

"The really expensive part is actually the dedicated time of coaches," he said.

NEW IDEAS

One of the key individuals working on finding solutions is John-Paul "J.P." Lake, a supporter of local startup and business innovation activity together with his wife, Ingrid. He also heads the B3K workgroup devoted to entrepreneurship and business dynamism.

He outlined ideas the group has for establishing of a hub-and-spokes model of business incubators or accelerators. There would be a central clearinghouse of information directing potential entrepreneurs from across the county to the resources they need. He said the group has talked about the project with Fresno-based Bitwise Industries, Bakersfield College and CSUB.

A new tech park has also been discussed that would provide lab and office space, and maybe advanced manufacturing facilities if the right kind of anchor tenants can be found, he said. One such center could focus on aerospace innovations, he said.

Lake said giving entrepreneurs better access to capital is an overriding priority. But he said there may be less need among innovation-based startups than among what he termed main-street business.

B3K, a broad-based initiative trying to create good local jobs by building shared focus on strategic goals, has determined the county's economy is limited by the absence of a locally based community development financial institution. These organizations make affordable business loans available to poor, underserved communities.

INNOVATION LAB

Lake also referred to a partnership in which the top graduates of an innovation lab Bitwise is putting together would receive an investment by Kern Venture Group, the county's only angel investor organization, of which Lake is one of two managing partners.

Microgrant programs and revolving loan funds may also be brought forward as part of B3K's effort to support aspiring business owners, Lake said.

Despite all the work invested already, he said more investigation and collaboration are ahead as members build out a blueprint for moving forward.

"I don't think it's going to be a problem of funding," Lake said, so much as a need to come up with the right plan.

The help may arrive too late for Victor Melgar. He grew up in Bakersfield and started a pharmaceutical company selling products including CBD. He opened a store but had to close after failing to get traction locally.

Melgar said it's hard for local business owners to find the help they need, even as he credited the startup network at Mesh Cowork. So many local entrepreneurs would benefit if a stronger investor and support services system existed, he added.

"I would argue that there's a lot of entrepreneurs with really great ideas, some very innovative," he said. "However, a lot of the people who potentially would be investors here locally are really, they're more tradition, more into agriculture, more into a certain sector of business."

TRUE GRIT

A local startup founder who through hard work has raised close to $800,000 in investment, Bill Myers, CEO of Bakersfield-based plant-based foods maker Mill It, said he found the assistance he needed but that too many others don't.

Industrious friends of his create top-quality products and sell them online and at swap meets. Greater support might help them take their efforts to the next level, he said.

"There's always people looking to make things or work hard," he said. "I think that's a real defining characteristic of Bakersfield."

Sabrina Ziegler's a good example. She and two business partners met during CSUB's most recent startup weekend, in late February 2020. Their team placed third out of 10 entries and they decided to keep things going.

Under the guidance of Woods at CSUB, the company now has a part-time employee and is working on ramping up services intended to engage college students and connect them with the wider community.

"It's going to be a driving force in retaining top talent and improving the community," said Ziegler, age 30. "Because when you have a more engaged student body you have more graduates. And when you have more graduates you have more upward mobility."

Organized under the name Universe Holdings, the company had to pivot during the pandemic and launched food delivery. A dating app may be next, she said, adding the company hasn't gotten to the point it needs to raise money.

Her determination speaks to the kind of pluck B3K's research identified. She works seven days a week and still finds time to coordinate with the two other founders now living outside Kern.

"It's really tough," she said, "but in about a year from today I anticipate that I'll be able to dedicate a lot more time to this."