We spoke with Emily Gojkovich, Deputy Director at Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments, about how CO.STARTERS has played a part in their rural ecosystem building efforts.
What’s the story behind your community and your organization?
Our organization, Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments, is a regional planning district that contracts with state and federal governments, but we also act as a nonprofit organization.
Local governments, school districts, and special districts use their memberships with us to take advantage of our nonprofit role and access grant funding that they would otherwise be ineligible for.
The region of New Mexico that we serve is composed of four counties: Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, and Catron. These counties are both large and sparsely populated, making it difficult for their individual governments to individually provide sufficient services to their constituents.
That’s where we come in—we can draw from multiple funding sources in order to provide support like economic development, transportation planning, housing outreach, and water and wastewater management across the whole region.
What problem were you hoping CO.STARTERS would solve for your organization?
A lot of communities with smaller populations will look to large corporations to provide jobs and encourage people to move to their areas. But smokestack chasing can be really unstable and unrealistic. Who knows how long a large business will stay instate? Most of the time, large businesses will disappear when the incentives run dry.
Our communities here in New Mexico have been mining and seasonal farming communities, so we really feel the roller coaster of the economy. We crave stability, and we need to grow our own businesses to create that foundation.
"A lot of communities with smaller populations will look to large corporations to provide jobs and encourage people to move to their areas. But smokestack chasing can be really unstable and unrealistic. Who knows how long a large business will stay instate? Most of the time, large businesses will disappear when the incentives run dry. Our communities here in New Mexico crave stability, and we need to grow our own businesses to create that foundation."
The problem, however, is that entrepreneurs who don’t start businesses in an incubator environment have an 80 percent failure rate. This is evident on our communities’ main streets—someone will finally rent out a vacant building for their business, but they’ll be gone in two months. It happens all the time.
Because our communities are so rural, almost none of them can afford a business incubator. We’d have enough staff to run one, but the cost of a physical building would be a near impossibility in most of our communities.
When I heard Enoch speak about CO.STARTERS, and the way it could be delivered, I heard an answer to my prayers! We could finally provide an incubator-style learning environment, with a solid lineup of resources, but without the physical space. And because we didn’t need a physical space, this was something we could do for the entire 17,000 square mile region.
How has CO.STARTERS resolved these issues for you?
We run CO.STARTERS under the economic development arm of our organization. It was piloted in our largest county—Grant—using a grant from the USDA. But right as the first cohort was about to launch, COVID hit and we had to pivot.
When we saw the economic devastation that the pandemic caused, we decided to take CO.STARTERS’ programs regional with CO.STARTERS Rebuild, and assist the affected existing businesses. Now we’re running CO.STARTERS Core across the region, focusing on new businesses.
In the last 18 months, we’ve seen 95 people go through CO.STARTERS. Even in the heart of the pandemic, 46 of those participants successfully launched their business ideas. Our member governments have been so impressed with our numbers that they’re willing to sponsor all of our CO.STARTERS programming.
Not only are people launching their businesses, but our network has become so strong that entrepreneurs are able to connect with others in the program, forming supply chains local to the region. Just recently, I was able to connect a coffee roaster in our current cohort with a coffeehouse that graduated several cohorts ago. We just connected a knifemaker to a makerspace in their county.
Ecosystem building at the regional level can be challenging, especially when your population is so spread out like ours is. But because no individual county can build a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem on their own, we have to collaborate across county lines and connect the dots for each other. It’s a kind of teamwork and partnership we wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.
How has CO.STARTERS changed your community?
CO.STARTERS has created a bridge between government entities and the business community here. When we host Celebration Night at the end of each cohort, we always invite elected officials to come meet our entrepreneurs so that they know what kind of businesses are starting in their communities.
Our entrepreneurs are also starting to occupy our vacant buildings, which is a huge deal on our main streets. Empty downtowns are depressing and scary, so to see our CO.STARTERS participants filling those spaces is amazing! We’ve also had alumni of the program receive offers from major corporations, which is really important for putting our communities on the map.
"Have we created 1,000 jobs? Not yet. But we’re creating a tax base that our communities will benefit from. We’re showing people that it’s possible for your dreams to come true. And we’re connecting entrepreneurs to other people who are going to have their back. We’re really taking care of our people."
Running CO.STARTERS has truly been an amazing experience. When you work in economic development, you wonder if anything tangible is ever going to happen as a result of your efforts. This is an area where I can really say I’ve seen an impact in the community.
Have we created 1,000 jobs? Not yet. But we’re creating a tax base that our communities will benefit from. We’re showing people that it’s possible for your dreams to come true. And we’re connecting entrepreneurs to other people who are going to have their back. We’re really taking care of our people.