July 26, 2006 | By: Carol Lea Spence

A group of citizen-leaders are making significant progress in building entrepreneurial communities in northeastern Kentucky that “may well prove to be a model for the nation.”

That was the opinion expressed in a recent report by external evaluators of the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute, a unique leadership program that was established in 2004 by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

Ron Hustedde, professor of community and leadership development in the UK College of Agriculture, is the director of KECI. He has overseen the development of the program that is designed to encourage entrepreneurship in 19 tobacco-dependent counties. 

“If we believe in the people, if we try to bring out their very best, they will shine,” he said. “We can create new wealth in the region -- new hope. I believe our fellows are honoring people’s dreams for starting new business. They are successful because they focus on local assets rather than on problems.”

KECI’s objective is to encourage diversification of the economies in these counties by developing skills among community leaders to become effective coaches for entrepreneurs. These trained volunteers work to build a strong entrepreneurial support infrastructure and culture that will stimulate new business startups and small business expansion, especially among the region’s tobacco farmers.

The institute’s first class of 28 volunteer participants, called fellows, graduated in fall 2005 after completing a 14-month curriculum filled with workshops, networking, travel abroad and projects funded through minigrants. An external evaluation team made up of Deborah Markley from the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, John Gruidl from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, Ted Bradshaw of University of California – Davis, and James Calvin from the Johns Hopkins University School of Business developed an evaluation process that allowed them to examine the program’s process as well as the outcomes. The evaluation team participated in seminars, examined daily seminar session evaluations and journals from the fellows, conducted interviews with the participants, and maintained records of coaching and community activities. 

Their final report concluded that “the program is creating both a cohort of exceptionally trained and dedicated civic leaders who have new skills and capacity to transform the culture of their region, and that these leaders are effectively transforming community resources and institutions into a powerful network of professional service providers that can provide assistance well beyond what volunteers can do.”

The results, though not a complete surprise to Hustedde, were pleasing. 
“Our hypothesis was that if we invested in people in the region, we thought there would be a payoff. And the payoff has been quite significant. It has exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Our hypothesis was right; it was even more right than I anticipated.”

The payoff came in the form of the many accomplishments listed in the 44-page evaluation report. They include the creation of a seven-county agritourism initiative, youth entrepreneurship programs and an entrepreneurial contest. Within the first 14 months of the program, the fellows made more than 1,000 contacts with entrepreneurs and coached 115 entrepreneurs.

Hustedde is currently working with the second class of fellows, who will graduate in November 2006. After graduation each fellow commits to donating volunteer hours back to their local community or region. Plans are under way to expand the program into the tobacco-dependent counties in the Cumberland Parkway area for the third and fourth classes, with later classes to be offered in eastern Kentucky. The initiative has been funded by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board.

Hustedde believes the institute will contribute a great deal to the state’s economic growth.

“The bulk of new jobs and wealth in the state will be created through small business,” Hustedde said. “We can no longer rely exclusively on traditional industrial recruitment as our sole economic development strategy.”

Hustedde referred to anthropologist Margaret Mead who said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“I believe the fellows have created a new momentum, a new mentality in the region,” he said. “I think they’re going to have a potent impact on the state.”

The institute targets the northeastern Kentucky counties of Bath, Bracken, Carter, Elliott, Fleming, Grant, Greenup, Harrison, Lawrence, Lewis, Mason, Menifee, Morgan, Nicholas, Owen, Pendleton, Robertson, Rowan, and Wolfe. For more information about KECI, contact Ron Hustedde at  or 859-257-3186. Or visit theinstitute’s Web site.


Ron Hustedde, 859-257-3186