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Celebrating stories of entrepreneurship

Ben Ferguson and Lisa Garner, cofounder and executive director of theCO, share some exciting updates on the work they’re doing to foster entrepreneurship and economic development in West Tennessee.

With theCO, what started as a Taco Thursday gathering for Ben Ferguson and his friends turned into a crucial resource for entrepreneurs and business owners in Jackson and the surrounding communities.

“At theCO, a lot of what we’re doing is asking, ‘What do you need and how can we help?’” Ferguson explained. “It all started over tacos on Thursdays.”

In this episode of Disrupt the Continuum, Ferguson, along with Garner, explain how theCO is supporting entrepreneurship and economic development in West Tennessee. They also share some exciting success stories of businesses in the area.

Driving Innovation throughout the Region

When Ferguson and his cofounders decided to start theCO, they hoped to provide a space for other business owners to build community and collaboration. Since its founding in 2014, theCO has grown to include a coworking space, maker space, event space, and conference rooms.

Additionally, theCO provides three ongoing projects to help encourage rural entrepreneurship throughout the region, develop talent, and celebrate the success of business owners.

With Dev Catalyst, theCO partners with Treehouse and the public school system to provide students with coding education, capitalizing on the fiber to home that’s available in Jackson.

“We’ve got this huge community asset that we were never able to take advantage of because we didn’t have those skill sets developed here,” Garner explained. “We’ve now had thousands of students go through that program.”

Another program, Driving Innovation, is working to bring resources to entrepreneurs in the rural communities around Jackson. They’ve equipped three RVs with a coding lab, 3D printing, and other resources that they can take to schools and business owners.

“It wasn’t reasonable to ask them to drive an hour, hour and a half, to Jackson every time they wanted some help or mentoring or resources,” Ferguson explained. “So our thought was, ‘Can we bring those things to them?’”

Highlighting Stories in the Local Community

TheCO’s third project, Our Jackson Home, started out of a desire to highlight what makes Jackson special. It began as a podcast, but the team later added a journal, blog, and events like a music festival and mural project.

“It’s really just to celebrate the people and the stories in our community. Those hidden gems, whether it’s a post office worker or, you know, all those people that are not celebrated or the stories that are not told regularly in your paper,” Garner explained. ”I think it’s grown community pride in a way that we wouldn’t have even expected when we started.”

Through Our Jackson Home, theCO has helped the community better understand something Ferguson and Garner recognized from the start: Jackson is a great place to start and grow a business.

Though Jackson is a regional hub and therefore has resources that you wouldn’t find in most small towns, it’s also affordable and lacks many of the barriers to entry business owners might encounter in a larger city, Ferguson explained.

“If you’ve got a good idea, you can make it flourish pretty quickly here,” he said.

And with theCO, business owners also have access to resources and community that can help them tackle any problems they may face. Garner shared the example of Jackson Escape Rooms, a business run by two couples who joined the CO.STARTERS program.

“There were so many things that they ran up against as they were getting started, everything from fire codes to not realizing they needed to collect sales tax on the front end,” she explained. “Even more than the program, I think it was the community they found through all of us at theCO.”

Please subscribe, rate, and review Disrupt the Continuum wherever you listen to podcasts. This season we’re sharing Tennessee’s entrepreneurial ecosystem story. It’s about how, as a statewide community, we collaborate and provide resources founders need to build, scale, and execute their businesses. It’s the power of our statewide network and the boots-on-the-ground startups that #BuildTN.

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