Bentonville, Ark., home to Walmart, has become somewhat of a mountain Mecca for startups, thanks in large part to the retailer itself. Nearly 300 startups have launched in northwest Arkansas in the last five years, raising more than $190 million in funding to do so. Here, too, reality belies image, as a bucolic Ozark setting has become an entrepreneurial hotbed. Although not an unlikely one.
Walmart’s world headquarters itself attracted branch offices of 1,300 of its major suppliers over the years. Companies from Procter & Gamble to Coca Cola decided that to play in the Walmart pool, they had to live in the neighborhood. With the offices came executives and employees, and quite naturally all that business know-how concentrated in Bentonville spawned bustling economic activity. But only recently did that pent up capitalist talent spawn something other than a climb up the corporate ladder.
“These flagship companies sucked up the talent,” Jeff Amerine, director at the University of Arkansas’ Technology Ventures, told Kavilanz. “Ten years ago, there was no startup pulse here because college graduates and others who moved here found jobs with these companies.”
Now they go to Arkansas to become the employers themselves, and have a lot of coaching and funding waiting for them. Top executives left their corporate jobs to start their own businesses. Others are mentoring start-up owners, and still others assist with funding for young startups. The State of Arkansas has jumped into the fray as well, recruiting entrepreneurs from other states with offers of training and tax credit. The state has also funded a few incubators. The ARK Challenge, for instance, offers a three-month business boot camp for tech startups. It was launched in March 2012, and by September will have lured 24 startups and provided $2 million in private investment and other types of support. Other state incubator programs include The Genesis Technology Incubator at the University of Arkansas and Vic Technology Venture Development.
Most of the startups focus on ideas that support existing retail, logistics and food processing business in the area. But tech ventures of the variety usually seen in Silicon Valley and other established technology corridors around the country are also finding their way to the Ozarks, lured by a low cost of living and modest business costs. Berkley graduates Nikka Umil and Natasia Malaihollo moved to Fayetteville and developed their city information app Sooligan with help from the ARK Challenge. The same incubator is currently helping 24-year-olds Ashleigh Dean and Camille Malkiewicz get their online crafts membership site, Craftistas, off the ground.
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