Public libraries have long offered resources for small businesses: software and equipment to build a website, social media, or other promotional materials; meeting space and workspace; databases and print resources; and computers, printers, and copiers to create materials, access the internet, and check e-mail. Entrepreneurs, whose sustainable growth hinges on insight into changing markets, can look to libraries for assistance with market research as well as reference materials related to accounting, technology, and product development.
Successful entrepreneurs also know that they need a thriving local community of partners, customers, and other stakeholders to grow their business and be successful. The library is an accessible, inclusive way for aspiring and established entrepreneurs to build their businesses, connect with others, and dig into the local community. Increasingly, public libraries across the United States are offering networking and mentorship opportunities specifically geared toward small business owners and entrepreneurs.
Libraries Build Business an initiative of the American Library Association with support from Google.org, worked with thirteen public libraries from around the country to pilot- small business and entrepreneur programs tailored to local needs, especially focusing on underrepresented entrepreneurs such as women, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and returning citizens. Based on learnings from the initiative, library professionals from Libraries Build Business developed a Playbook of best practices, resources, and inspiration for libraries to adapt for their communities—including programs to develop mentorship programs.
Build Your Network at the Library
The experience and knowledge of existing entrepreneurs are incredibly valuable to aspiring entrepreneurs as they start building connections and putting their plans into place. As a central hub to meet and share with others in their communities’ entrepreneurial ecosystem, local libraries may have opportunities to network, mentor, and provide support to entrepreneurs just testing the waters. Several Libraries Build Business projects drew on the local expertise of experienced entrepreneurs, both volunteer and paid, to offer mentorship as part of their program:
Entrepreneurs-in-Residence: Richland Library
One of the first mentorship programs in the United States, the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, offers an Entrepreneurial Launch Pad. One of the key ingredients to this successful program is hiring a local entrepreneur-in-residence (EiR) to meet one-on-one with aspiring entrepreneurs, offer programs and workshops to the larger community, and generally offer support and guidance to the library staff as they grow their business programs, collection, and resources. The EiRs are selected quarterly, paid for 10 hours per week during their residency, and receive a small office and space to hold meetings at the library. “We see hiring entrepreneurs as a part of our mission. We’re investing in our own small business community, by hiring them to work with us. But we’ve also made lasting relationships,” said Diane Luccy, the Business and Careers Manager at the Richland Library.
Whether paid or on a volunteer basis, check with your local library for opportunities to offer programs and one-to-one meetings with entrepreneurs through the library. This is a great way to build your network and get your name and business out into the community, as well.
Business Mentors: Gwinnett County Public Library
The Gwinnett County Public Library in Georgia offers the New Start Entrepreneurship Incubator to serve entrepreneurs returning from jail or prison. As part of the program, participants are matched with a local business mentor from the community to assist them with their assignments and coursework as well as help them make connections, review materials, and think through challenges and barriers. These business mentors meet with their mentees in person or by phone and are available to answer questions and offer general support as participants move through the six-month program and beyond.
Entrepreneur Storytelling: Appleton Public Library
The Appleton Public Library in Wisconsin offered a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) Entrepreneur Storytelling series. Small business owners and entrepreneurs could sign up to share their stories with other existing and aspiring business owners. These sessions provided the opportunity to make connections, inspire others, share perspectives and common challenges, and generally navigate the business landscape together–simply by sharing past experiences and expertise. Similarly, many libraries offer networking events for entrepreneurs.
Paying It Forward
If you’re looking to pay it forward to aspiring entrepreneurs and become more involved in the small business community, look no further than your local public library. See what connections you can make, what resources and programs already exist, and offer to volunteer. Libraries are continuously looking for feedback on their programs and resources, so connect with a library worker to offer your thoughts on the databases and collections, share tips about potential partners and programs you know of around town. The programs, resources, and community can bolster your business, too, and partnering with the library can help to elevate your work going forward.
The 13 programs in the Libraries Build Business initiative are just a small sampling of what’s out there. We hope it will inspire you to see how you can get plugged in at the local library – to mentor, share, collaborate, and grow.
Byline: Libraries Build Business Project Manager Megan Janicke