New business owners need friends-and not just the Facebook kind. They need friends who can work collaboratively with them to market their product, solve problems, and provide support. Since 2007, start-up business owners in the Clarksville area have had that kind of friend in Martha Pile and "The Gathering of Homestead Entrepreneurs." In just a few years, this small business incubator has helped over 650 people to create or build a new business.
Gary Collier, owner of Papa C Pies and a beneficiary of the work that is being done by the Gathering, describes the encouragement he has received for his business: "Martha says if you get a no, you just forget about it and keep on working for that yes because eventually you're going to get it. She's a real worker."
In 2007, UT Family Consumer Science agent Martha Pile and Karla Kean, the TSU Agriculture Extension agent in Montgomery County, launched the beginnings of this local business incubator through a series of serendipitous events. Karla prefaces that with, "I've always been interested in horticulture and growing things, so growing a business just seemed to go along with that."
The 2010 floods forced the University Extension office to move into an empty school building that included a kitchen. A few years earlier, the USDA had passed the Domestic Kitchen rule, which fundamentally changed one's ability to produce a food-based product out of a home kitchen. These two events compelled Martha and Karla to begin working with local, home-based businesses-mostly to help people learn the new regulations about home kitchens. They also led to the development of a licensed community kitchen at their office. This kitchen was developed as a teaching facility, but it also became a safe haven where local businesses could legally produce their baked goods, jams, jellies, and other food-based products.
Through their work with home-based entrepreneurs, Karla and Martha began to see some common themes regarding the needs that surfaced for these business owners. Martha reveals her emerging thoughts by explaining, "I realized that our farm families and the families that have moved out to the farm towns, they're not communicating." She reflected on the need to recreate the role the old general store used to play for a community-a gathering place for every sort of information exchange. Martha describes her growing awareness: "We don't know each other. Farmers know farmers maybe if you grow the same crops. But that rural community is your safety net. Without a place like a community store, we have no common knowledge bank anymore." It was this understanding that led Martha to start the Gathering of Entrepreneurs. As she puts it, "I was going for the small-community concept."
Since 2007, Martha and Karla have secured several critical grants to buy equipment for their community kitchen, to take Gathering members on field trips, and to sponsor events. The Gathering officially works to help businesses in a variety of ways. For instance, it helps people network through the distribution of a newsletter-"Sustainability Makes Cents." It not only provides assistance with the creation of brochures and banners, but it also hosts a monthly training and tour, offering program partners an opportunity to share their expertise. Of course, the Gathering continues to help people with the use of the commercial kitchen, and it also sponsors special sales and event opportunities. One of its most successful events is the Downtown Market held weekly in Clarksville.
Since its inception, Martha has seen the value of including a much broader network of business owners in the Gathering. As she tells it, "When I started out, we were just looking at food, and I thought, my gosh! You have to include everyone to make it a successful gathering of the community." The Gathering now includes everyone from small vegetable farmers and herb growers to canners, bakers, and many different artists.
The Gathering also has moved beyond its original base in Montgomery County to serve six counties in Tennessee and two in Kentucky. It has expanded by recruiting a coalition of key community leaders and having them contact one or more leaders in under-represented counties.
One of the success stories of the Gathering model is Papa C Pies. Gary Collier and his son, Chad, have been in business for three years and currently travel to Clarksville to use the commercial kitchen there. Gary credits Martha with being a great encouragement to his business. As he puts it, "They're not trying to make money off the kitchen they've built. But as Martha says, 'We don't want you to stay here forever. We want to get you to the point where you can go out and get your own kitchen'-and that's very positive."
Karla and Martha also have worked to connect local growers with business owners who can add value to their produce. "Martha brings people into the kitchen all the time to introduce us," Collier says. "We've met some of the folks that are into strawberries and apple orchards. Karla also has been instrumental in helping us out and finding growers for us." Connecting local growers with people who can use their products is still a work in progress, however. As Gary points out, "It's a seasonal affair and we just can't use local all the time."
Martha Pile certainly is happy to see progress in her community through the work the Gathering is doing. As she says about the Gathering events, "We bring people together and all of a sudden they're trading off and really learning from each other. We've been amazed at the partnerships that have been made."
To learn more about the Gathering, visit their website: The Gathering.