Conference connects business startups with funding

MIDDLEBURY — Harry Zieve-Cohen has a problem. The nonprofit he works with, Middlebury Foods, aims to serve food insecure Vermonters, but its growth is stifled by how difficult it is to connect with potential customers in this rural state.
At the Middlebury American Legion Post Thursday morning, Zieve-Cohen has asked for some help. He was one of four entrepreneurs to present to a panel of area businesspeople as part of the the Financing the Working Landscape Conference, an event sponsored by the Addicon County Relocalization Network (ACORN) and the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC).
ACEDC Executive Director Robin Scheu said the purpose of the conference was educate new as well as established businesses learn about the sources of financing, and to network with other business owners.
“It’s a real chance for entrepreneurs and business owners to meet people who can help their business grow, which includes service providers as well as capital providers,” Scheu said. “Businesses often don’t know about that, so this is an opportunity for them to find out about a variety of resources available to them.”
Jonathan Corcoran, executive director of ACORN, said the organization wanted to connect local business owners with local funding.
“We wanted to organize a conference where we could mobilize local capital for expansion of the local food economy,” he said. “There are a lot of barriers to that, and one of those is simply getting people together to talk to each other.”
During one of the sessions of the all-day conference, entrepreneurs presented struggles their business face to a panel of Addison County businesspeople: David Bradbury of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, Francie Caccavo of Olivia’s Croutons, Charlene Lewey of Lodestar Sales and Revenue Management and Ken Perine of the National Bank of Middlebury.
The conference also included a keynote address about new ways for businesses to raise money. Read that story here.
Zieve-Cohen said one of the biggest problems Middlebury Foods, which is run by Middlebury College students, faces is connecting with potential customers. Right now, the company serves 100 families each month, but would like to serve more. He said the organization tried to model its operation off of inner-city food delivery services, but that does not always foster success in a rural state.
The panelists, and members in the audience, offered plenty of suggestions: use the Internet to expand the company’s reach, team up with libraries and social service agencies, target certain demographic areas.
Zieve-Cohen said he walked away from the panel with plenty of ideas to pitch to the other staffers at Middlebury Foods. He’s a senior at Middlebury and said he heard of the conference through the Office of Social Entrepreneurship at the college.
“They said this was a great opportunity to get out and meet people and share your ideas, and also to find out about financing,” Zieve-Cohen said.
He added that Middlebury Foods faces other challenges, like financing and keeping the business staffed as students graduate. He hoped to garner some advice for those obstacles as well. Zieve-Cohen said he was impressed by how much there was for an entrepreneur to learn at a single conference.
“There’s a lot of people with a lot of knowledge out there, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for our idea,” he said. “We think our idea is cool, but I’m always struck that whenever we tell anyone about it, they light up, and they want to help.”
Susan Shashok, who owns Caroline’s Dream, a line of skincare products, also presented to the panel. She said she attended previous conferences, and used what she learned there to fine tune her business model. Shashok queried the panel about how to price her product and effectively market it to retailers.
“I wasn’t quite ready to ask for money, but I wanted to ask for advice,” Shashok said. “It’s a really great way for me to do that without having to search down the right person; they have a whole panel ready.”
She added that in the future, she may be in a position where she needs funding to expand her business.
“This conference gives me the contacts to work on and start cultivating before I get to that point,” Shashok said.

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