Berks County “Ride to Prosperity” Update — Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Through an initiative titled “Ride to Prosperity” (RTP), eight leading Berks County organizations began collaborating in 2009 to develop an economic development plan for Greater Reading and Berks County. Their efforts culminated with a coordinated five-plus-year effort to facilitate job growth and economic expansion in Berks County by directing their efforts toward five key areas: Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Workforce and Talent Development; Sites and Infrastructure; Quality of Place; and Business Friendly Berks — an effort to bring top quality business expertise to help local governments redesign how they interact with local businesses in areas like zoning and licensing.

The August 2016 issue of Route 422 Business Advisor featured an interview with Dan Fogarty, Director of Workforce Development and COO of Berks County Workforce Development Board, about GREP’s “Careers in Two Years” program and other workforce development efforts in Berks County. For this article, we interviewed Karen Marsdale, the newly appointed President & CEO of Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry (GRCCI), on the topic of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The ultimate success of the original RTP objectives to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in Berks County has yet to be determined — chiefly because the partnership’s various efforts to build a more “entrepreneurial culture” in Berks over the past five years are ongoing and in some cases, just beginning to bear fruit. Certainly the efforts to improve and enhance support services provided to new and growing local companies in Berks County have made Berks County a more inviting place to start a business.

As the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry completes its merger with the Greater Reading Economic Partnership and the Greater Berks Development Fund, all three organizations continue to coordinate their ongoing efforts to promote entrepreneurship with partners like the Kutztown University Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Ben Franklin Technology Partnership, Community First Fund, SCORE, and the Kutztown University Latino Business Resource Center.

Reading Area Community College, as well as several local four-year institutions, have begun to expand entrepreneurial course offerings and programs in Berks County. Several Berks County technical schools have seen increased enrollment over the past couple of years. Kutztown University SBDC’s JumpStart Incubator Space, housed at the Berks Community Foundation at 237 Court Street in Reading is near full capacity. The Chamber’s Business Resource Center in Reading’s Gateway Building has evolved to become a critical nucleus for the County’s business service providers.

In 2013, RTP added a new strategy to support entrepreneurs called “Reignited in PA.” The program was designed to provide intensified and targeted outreach, coaching, mentoring, training and consulting to high growth-potential companies in Berks County. Supported by a two-year PA Ignite Grant, the program was directed at high-growth manufacturing and manufacturing support companies in Berks County.

Initially the program was administered by Diane Reed, GRCCI Director of Businesses Services, with assistance from Karen Marsdale. Reed has since moved on from her position with the chamber. Her replacement, Mark Dolinski, along with Karen Marsdale, continues to work and follow up with clients in the Reignited in PA program.

Initially nearly 50 companies identified as potential candidates for the program were interviewed. “We were looking for small to small-medium size companies (25-50 employees) in Berks County poised for growth,” explains Karen Marsdale. “Sometimes, you call these businesses the gazelles in their industry. The pure definition is a company that’s had double-digit growth for at least a three-year period. They are poised for growth, and we were looking for companies that wanted to grow with the help that we could give them, if we started to engage them in thinking about how would they grow their business to the next level.”

Of the original 50 potential candidates, 22 companies participated in the program. One of the requirements for inclusion was that they put some “skin in the game.”

“It was our way of utilizing the grant to its greatest and fullest degree,” explains Marsdale. “The companies had to put 25 percent into the project, and the grant covered the remaining 75 percent. It was still a phenomenal opportunity for them. I firmly believe that when companies are invested, not only of their time but also their resources financially, the outcomes are usually much better.”

Each company underwent a CORE Values assessment and analysis, to determine individual strengths and weaknesses and assist in devising a strategy for growth. “We were trying to provide them a road map to be able to do that,” Marsdale explains. “We call it the Work of Leaders.”

CORE Values is a proprietary tool of the Manufacturers Resource Center, who partnered with GRCC&I on the project. “We used (the CORE Values assessment) as the starting point,” Marsdale said, “and we were successful in engaging each company’s key leadership team, ranging from four to eight people. We wanted everybody at the table, to get everybody’s input, and when the MRC representative went back in to talk to them about their results, he had the data that he could show them as to why they got the scoring that they did. Everybody was on the same page,” she said.

Once the results of the analysis, administered by a credentialed MRC representative, were complete, a case manager would pull together the key leadership team from each company to review the results and participate in workshops, coaching sessions, and individual mentoring over a period of roughly 8-10 weeks, working toward achieving growth strategy objectives resulting from the analysis.

“This was not an exercise of just going through classes, without feedback or expectation at the end,” Marsdale said. “There were interviews done throughout the course of this. Sometimes there would have to be some pep talks about finishing certain things and completing certain coursework.”

Two years into the program, there is more work to be done, and it will take a few years to fully measure the effect of the program on the growth of individual participants. But anecdotally, it seems to be producing then intended outcome.

“The program gave them a roadmap to plan,” Marsdale said. “What were the metrics of success? For us it was the companies who stayed the course and said essentially, ‘I’m better off now than I was when I started this this endeavor.’ Because of the confidentiality I can’t release the names of the companies,” she said, “but some just received awards or are on the list of top growth companies we recognize annually at our annual dinner. So many of these are on that list because there has been growth in the last year. For many of them we continue to do work. It may not be one-on-one consultative work with the executive team, but the executive team is now comfortable enough where they are sending their key people to our leadership classes and other trainings that we offer. I think they have a much better understanding of staying the course and having a strategic plan,” she said.

In follow-up phone calls and surveys, participants were asked: “What was the most valuable part of this program to you and you’re your team?” Typical answers included: “Gave our team a better understanding of each other,” and “Exposed us to the new concepts and ideas with tools to use as needed.” Invariably, they all said: “We developed a strategic plan.”

“Sometimes that’s valuable and sometimes that sits on a shelf,” Karen Marsdale concluded. “But they all said they were able to develop a strategic plan, and that was a huge asset for them, to be poised for growth.”

For additional information about entrepreneurship and innovation initiatives in Berks County, please contact Karen Marsdale at 610.898.7772, email: