Entrepreneur center in Tampa sees growing participation with virtual meetups

COVID-19 has sent us all zooming to a new destination in a virtual world.

From home, book club discussions and chats with loved ones take place screen to screen, not actually face to face, within touching distance. From work, often at home also, employees and employers are following new business models, loaded with Zoom meetings, Webinars, and an expanding list of virtual platforms.

The mid-March pandemic shutdown speeded up an already digital reordering of the world.
 
So it's no surprise that the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center (ECC) in Tampa, like so many organizations, pivoted immediately to at-home workstations. The center, which is an arm of the Hillsborough County Economic Development Department, closed its offices in Ybor City in March.

In a normal year, the ECC hosts hundreds of workshops, training sessions, and special events as a one-stop-shop that fosters economic growth. Entrepreneurs launching startup companies find mentors and connect with business resources. Local nonprofits host forums and educational programs at the ECC. Nearly everyone who visits finds a new valuable connection.

Since its opening in 2014, the center has hosted 2,300 programs on-site with 34,000 participants. It serves as a satellite home for more than 85 nonprofits, government agencies, and educational institutions.

“We were a full house,” says Lynn Kroesen, the center’s manager, and a certified economic developer. “We are event-driven.”

The pivot from actual to virtual events happened quickly and mostly without a hitch.

The numbers tell the story.

In July 2019, the center hosted 78 in-person events at its Ybor City location, with more than 960 participants. In July 2020, 114 virtual events attracted more than 1,900 participants.
 
It has been a steady climb upward.

“March was a struggle for us as it was for everyone,” Kroesen says. “But in April we saw attendance and events increase.”

The center’s Business Workshop and Training Calendar is chock full of virtual programs including weekly 1 Million Cups networking meetings where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas.

Also available are Operation Startup workshops and Prospera classes that aid bilingual Hispanic entrepreneurs who want to establish a business or grow an existing one.

The programs are as basic as an intermediate class on Excel or as timely as a session on Small Business Legal Challenges in the Age of COVID-19. The calendar also shares events of its partners, including a recent forum on diversity and inclusion, hosted by the Tampa Bay Women’s Business Centre.

As everyone charts a way through this unprecedented pandemic, there are benefits emerging from this virtual experiment, even amid the techno learning curve of frozen screens and scrambled speech.

The virtual landscape that is emerging will have lasting impacts, says Kroesen.

The impact is noticeable in the 1 Million Cups Tampa program that has met in person, and on-site, every Wednesday for five years. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation started the volunteer-based, free program in 2012 to nurture and bring local entrepreneurs together to present business ideas and gather positive feedback.

There are now about 200 chapters nationwide including in Tampa.

Networking through 1 Million Cups creates opportunities to market products and services but pre-COVID it had a largely local reach with an on-site venue at the ECC.

Virtual access opens a portal for people to join the conversation regionally and nationally.

“We’ve tapped into a much wider audience now,” Kroesen says. “It’s fueling a whole new round of entrepreneurs.”

Even post-COVID, Kroesen sees a greater reliance on virtual networking.
The future likely will be a mix of additional virtual events and in-person events, she says.

Still, as people get used to virtual, there is a noticeable weariness settling in over the lack of personal contacts, Kroesen adds. “People are starting to crave the in person again.”
 
In the past two weeks, Kroesen has seen an increase in people asking when the center will reopen. Already, two staff members are working from the Ybor City offices, fielding phone calls.

“It’s gone well for three months, but they are tired of this and ready to start meetings with people again.”

For more information, visit the ECC Online Calendar of Events.
 

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.  
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